What Is Critical Thinking?

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I frequently refer to critical thinking in this blog and its crucial importance to writing instruction in particular and to education in general.  Of course, I am hardly alone in this commitment to critical thinking, but like everyone else I must use the term itself as if its definition was self-evident. But as important as critical thinking is to us all, it is rarely, if ever, actually defined. We tend to assume that we are all on the same page regarding its meaning, and go from there. But the fact is that the term critical thinking can mean different things to different people. Why? Because whatever critical thinking is, its significance is overdetermined and can be closely tied to the discipline and methodology of whoever is teaching it.  So I will describe here my own unified theory of critical thinking to see if I can locate some common ground between all of us who teach and practice it. First, I offer a concise definition of the term: Critical thinking is essentially a form of judgment, the weighing, assessing, and interpreting of ideas, information, and experience. It has become an especially cogent skill in an information age in which all of us, especially our students, are inundated with a constant stream of information that is increasingly difficult to sort out and assess, even for those of us for whom critical thinking is a more or less instinctive activity.  I use the word instinctive deliberately, because just as our ability to speak a language comes to us in a manner whose precise linguistic, grammatical, and semantic underpinnings may be invisible to us, so too may those of us who practice critical thinking all the time be unable to precisely state just what it is we are doing when we are thinking critically. Thus, the description of critical thinking that I mean to offer here is not intended to break any particularly new ground: I am really only trying to describe just what it is that we are already doing when we think critically. Before embarking on that description, it would be well to consider the existing paradigms that guide current university critical-thinking pedagogies. With critical-thinking pedagogy most commonly assigned to philosophy or composition departments, it is natural that the most common approaches to critical thinking involve logic, rhetoric, or some combination of the two. Since I am going to suggest that both rhetoric and logic are indeed components of critical thinking, it would be worth our while to look at each approach critically. Let’s begin with logic. In essence, logic constitutes a formal system whereby the truth or falsity of a proposition, inference, or statement can be assessed. Since critical thinking involves the assessment of propositions, inferences, and statements, there can be little doubt that the ability to think logically is an essential component of thinking critically. But logic cannot be the sole basis for critical thinking for many reasons. One is that while the rules of formal logic work within the formal system of logic, the real-world problems that we face are not so amenable to abstract logical rules. Now let’s look at rhetoric. Since critical thinking commonly leads to an expression of one’s judgments in the form of an argument (and virtually always does in university writing), it is essential that argumentative rhetoric be a part of an education in critical thinking. But once again, only a part, because argument does not constitute the formation of a judgment; it is the presentation of a judgment or interpretation, not that judgment itself.  A good argument includes the critical-thinking process that led to it, but the argument is secondary to an underlying critical assessment. There are two other candidates for a critical-thinking paradigm. The first is politics. Outside the academy, and at least arguably within it as well, critical thinking is sometimes believed to be equivalent to passing judgment on something on political grounds. While most of us would agree that making politics the sole ground for critical judgments is not a sound idea, it is also important not to dismiss the role that politics holds in the making of such judgments. Indeed, with the preponderance of social and cultural theory emphasizing the roles of politics and ideology in all social practice, it would not be wise to leave the political dimension of critical thinking out of the equation. Next, there is ethics, which more or less holds that critical judgments are essentially moral assessments of good and evil. This is probably the most widespread belief about critical thinking in the general population—understandably because of the moralistic foundations of our culture. But while judging whether something is good or bad may follow a critical judgment, it is not the ground for that judgment. To sum up: we can say that critical thinking involves logic, rhetoric, politics, and (at least potentially) ethics, but cannot be subsumed by any of them alone. Is there any way of pulling all these together? Yes, through the methodology of cultural semiotics, which usefully embraces all of them while prompting us to look at ideas, information, and experiences as signs: phenomena that bear cultural meanings beyond themselves. The usefulness of such an approach lies in its identifiability (cultural semiotics is a widely known field of study) and its versatility. Indeed, since from the semiotic perspective all human activity is composed of signs, there is no academic field that cannot be illuminated by it. A truly interdisciplinary approach, cultural semiotics can provide the kind of unified grounding in critical thinking that I believe we require.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.