relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

8. Philosophy and Critical Thinking: The Value of Asking the Deep Questions

Although we’ve emphasized in this guide that critical thinking skills cannot be taught in isolation from subject matter, there is a great deal of critical thinking to be learned from a subject that studies thinking itself: namely, philosophy. Philosophy and critical thinking are a natural pair.

American schools, unlike schools in some other parts of the world, have been hesitant to adopt philosophy courses into the curriculum. (One exception is the International Baccalaureate curriculum which includes a course called “Theory of Knowledge.”) One reason for this is that philosophical texts are often thought of as too dense and difficult for primary and secondary school students. 

Philosophy does, of course, involve a corpus of often quite difficult texts from different traditions, but philosophical reasoning itself is not at all outside the reach of even young children. Indeed, children show an interest in philosophical questions at a very young age. 

Philosophical reasoning itself is not at all outside the reach of even young children. Indeed, children show an interest in philosophical questions at a very young age.

relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

And older students, especially those who might be demotivated or struggle in other subjects, can be stimulated by the more open-ended, argumentative, and profound nature of philosophical thinking. Philosophical thinking also has a unique, interdisciplinary character that makes it ideal for helping students see connections across disciplines.

relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

Philosophy for Kids

Philosophical reasoning is not something foreign to kids that needs to be forced on them from the outside. They all naturally ask philosophical questions like : 

  • “How can we be sure that everything is not a dream?”
  • “When Dad tells me to be good, what does he mean?”
  • “Why is time so slow sometimes?”

Philosophy for kids programs and courses can help encourage this inquisitiveness and help kids to learn to channel it into a reflective frame of mind.

Many philosophy for kids programs attempt to initiate this type of thinking through narrative. For example, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children ( IAPC ) at Montclair State University, which goes back to the work of Matthew Lipman in the 1970s, uses stories to stimulate discussion of a philosophical topic. Children then discuss the topic in a “community of inquiry” where the teacher acts as a facilitator, who “both guides the children and models for them — by asking open-ended questions, posing alternative views, seeking clarification, questioning reasons, and by demonstrating self-correcting behavior.”

Other philosophy for kids initiatives use other stimuli, like visuals, thought experiments, or simply probing questions. But they share the goal of building a “community of inquiry,” where students get a chance to discuss and refine their ideas with one another, undertake to understand outside perspectives, and consider big questions outside the scope of more standard learning.

There is evidence that these kinds of philosophical activities can have a positive impact on student achievement . The Education Endowment Foundation in the UK found in an initial study of Philosophy for Children for 8-10 year olds that the program was promising: students made gains in math and reading compared to those who did not participate.

relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

Teaching Philosophy to Middle and High School Students

As they get older, students are ready for more complex philosophical reasoning as well as instruction in formal logic. Philosophy can, moreover, be a driver of interdisciplinarity during middle and high school, since reflecting on the state of knowledge in other disciplines is one of the core tasks of philosophy.

Philosophy can, moreover, be a driver of interdisciplinarity during middle and high school, since reflecting on the state of knowledge in other disciplines is one of the core tasks of philosophy.

This kind of interdisciplinarity may help address one of the thorniest problems with critical thinking instruction: namely, transferability. As we’ve noted, critical thinking skills in one domain do not easily transfer to other domains. Teaching general critical thinking skills without any context is thus generally not effective . But that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t spend time thinking about how the skills and knowledge they’ve gained in one domain relate to those gained in another. Philosophical reasoning is a perfect complement here. 

One way teachers can get middle and high school students to start thinking more philosophically in an interdisciplinary context is through epistemology, or the study of knowledge.

Idea for Discussion : What Is Knowledge?

Philosophy is concerned, more than many other disciplines, with definitions. It takes concepts that we might take for granted, like knowledge, and problematizes them, by asking questions like:

  • How do we know something?
  • Are there general principles for what counts as knowledge or does it depend on the discipline?
  • How do we come to know things in science? In our daily lives? In religion or aesthetic experiences?

It’s easy for these conversations to become too abstract so it’s best to start with something concrete. Break students up and assign them each a particular subject matter: art, science, religion, and morality, for example. Ask them to define knowledge in each of these domains?

  • How do you know a piece of artwork is good?
  • How is a scientific theory known to be true?
  • How do people know a religious belief they have is true?
  • How do we know the difference between right and wrong moral actions?

Ask students to come up with a definition. As they discuss, circulate to make sure students are using examples from their own study and experiences and trying to develop a list of criteria for knowledge in these different domains.

Bring the class back together to evaluate the definitions. Ask students from other groups to scrutinize each others’ definitions. The teacher might raise certain objections to try and deepen discussion:

  • In science, for example, a group might say a theory is known to be true because it is verified in experimental results. But Isaac Newton’s physics were eventually shown to be inaccurate in certain cases. Is it right to say that before Albert Einstein came along, with a new, more experimentally accurate theory, people knew Newton’s theory was true? Or did they only think they knew?

Then, ask students to reflect on whether there is anything shared among these different kinds of “knowledge.” Questions that might come up include:

  • Are there any general shared principles of inquiry common to these different domains: for example, experimentation or learning from one’s predecessors?
  • Is it just happenstance that we happen to apply the words “know” and “knowledge” to these very different activities?
  • Can we draw a clean distinction between practical knowledge (“knowing how”) and theoretical knowledge (“knowing that”)?

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(please click here)

Sources and Resources

Goering, Sara, Nicholas J. Shudak, and Thomas E. Wartenberg, eds (2013). Philosophy in schools: An introduction for philosophers and teachers . Routledge. Collection of essays on different aspects of pre-college philosophy education.

Lone, J. M. & Burroughs, M.D. (2016). Philosophy in education: Questioning and dialogue in schools . Rowman & Littlefield. Argument for introducing philosophy in the K-12 context, with lesson ideas for elementary, middle, and high school. 

Millett, S., & Tapper, A. (2012). Benefits of collaborative philosophical inquiry in schools. Educational Philosophy and Theory , 44(5), 546-567. Overview on research into philosophy for kids and collaborative philosophical inquiry more broadly. 

Pritchard, Michael (2018). Philosophy for children . The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Encyclopedia entry on the history of rationale for philosophy for children. Also offers details on different approaches and more resources.

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1: Introduction to Critical Thinking, Reasoning, and Logic

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What is thinking? It may seem strange to begin a logic textbook with this question. ‘Thinking’ is perhaps the most intimate and personal thing that people do. Yet the more you ‘think’ about thinking, the more mysterious it can appear. It is the sort of thing that one intuitively or naturally understands, and yet cannot describe to others without great difficulty. Many people believe that logic is very abstract, dispassionate, complicated, and even cold. But in fact the study of logic is nothing more intimidating or obscure than this: the study of good thinking.

  • 1.1: Prelude to Chapter
  • 1.2: Introduction and Thought Experiments- The Trolley Problem
  • 1.3: Truth and Its Role in Argumentation - Certainty, Probability, and Monty Hall Only certain sorts of sentences can be used in arguments. We call these sentences propositions, statements or claims.
  • 1.4: Distinction of Proof from Verification; Our Biases and the Forer Effect
  • 1.5: The Scientific Method The procedure that scientists use is also a standard form of argument. Its conclusions only give you the likelihood or the probability that something is true (if your theory or hypothesis is confirmed), and not the certainty that it’s true. But when it is done correctly, the conclusions it reaches are very well-grounded in experimental evidence.
  • 1.6: Diagramming Thoughts and Arguments - Analyzing News Media
  • 1.7: Creating a Philosophical Outline
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Philosophical issues in critical thinking.

  • Juho Ritola Juho Ritola University of Turku
  • Published online: 26 May 2021

Critical thinking is active, good-quality thinking. This kind of thinking is initiated by an agent’s desire to decide what to believe, it satisfies relevant norms, and the decision on the matter at hand is reached through the use of available reasons under the control of the thinking agent. In the educational context, critical thinking refers to an educational aim that includes certain skills and abilities to think according to relevant standards and corresponding attitudes, habits, and dispositions to apply those skills to problems the agent wants to solve. The basis of this ideal is the conviction that we ought to be rational. This rationality is manifested through the proper use of reasons that a cognizing agent is able to appreciate. From the philosophical perspective, this fascinating ability to appreciate reasons leads into interesting philosophical problems in epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy.

Critical thinking in itself and the educational ideal are closely connected to the idea that we ought to be rational. But why exactly? This profound question seems to contain the elements needed for its solution. To ask why is to ask either for an explanation or for reasons for accepting a claim. Concentrating on the latter, we notice that such a question presupposes that the acceptability of a claim depends on the quality of the reasons that can be given for it: asking this question grants us the claim that we ought to be rational, that is, to make our beliefs fit what we have reason to believe. In the center of this fit are the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. A critical thinker wants to know and strives to achieve the state of knowledge by mentally examining reasons and the relation those reasons bear to candidate beliefs. Both these aspects include fascinating philosophical problems. How does this mental examination bring about knowledge? What is the relation my belief must have to a putative reason for my belief to qualify as knowledge?

The appreciation of reason has been a key theme in the writings of the key figures of philosophy of education, but the ideal of individual justifying reasoning is not the sole value that guides educational theory and practice. It is therefore important to discuss tensions this ideal has with other important concepts and values, such as autonomy, liberty, and political justification. For example, given that we take critical thinking to be essential for the liberty and autonomy of an individual, how far can we try to inculcate a student with this ideal when the student rejects it? These issues underline important practical choices an educator has to make.

  • critical thinking
  • rationality
  • epistemic justification
  • internalism
  • public reason

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Chapter 1. Introducing Critical Thinking and Philosophical Inquiry

§1 Understanding Critical Thinking

1.1 what is “critical thinking”, some definitions.

  • Critical thinking is the careful application of reason in the determination of whether a claim is true.
  • Critical thinking is the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards [1]

Critical thinking is an essential cognitive process that involves the deliberate and meticulous use of reasoning to evaluate the validity and truthfulness of a claim. It is a systematic approach that enables individuals to analyze information, assess arguments, and make informed judgments based on evidence and logical reasoning.

What makes critical thinking…

  • Critical ? The thinker is exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation
  • Systematic ? Involves distinct procedures and methods
  • Evaluative and formulative ? Used to both assess existing beliefs (yours or someone else’s) and devise new ones
  • Rational ? Beliefs are judged by the reasons and reasoning that support them

1.2 The Importance of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking plays a crucial role in various aspects of our lives, including education, decision-making, problem-solving, and communication. It empowers individuals to question assumptions, challenge biases, and develop a rational and well-informed perspective on complex issues.

1.3 Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

Developing critical thinking skills involves cultivating specific characteristics that enhance one’s ability to engage in rigorous and objective analysis. These characteristics include open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, skepticism, logical reasoning, and the ability to evaluate evidence objectively.

1.4 The Relationship between Critical Thinking and Philosophical Inquiry

Critical thinking and philosophical inquiry are closely intertwined. Philosophy, as an academic discipline, encourages individuals to question fundamental assumptions, explore abstract concepts, and engage in rigorous analysis. By employing critical thinking, philosophers examine arguments, evaluate theories, and seek to understand the nature of knowledge, reality, ethics, and other philosophical domains.

  • Vaughn, Lewis. The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning About Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims. 3rd ed. (OUP, 2009). Chapter 1. ↵

How to Think For Yourself Copyright © 2023 by Rebeka Ferreira, Anthony Ferrucci is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Critical Thinking

I. definition.

Critical thinking is the ability to reflect on (and so improve ) your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations. It’s a combination of several skills and habits such as:

Curiosity : the desire for knowledge and understanding

Curious people are never content with their current understanding of the world, but are driven to raise questions and pursue the answers. Curiosity is endless — the better you understand a given topic, the more you realize how much more there is to learn!

Humility : or the recognition that your own understanding is limited

This is closely connected to curiosity — if you’re arrogant and think you know everything already, then you have no reason to be curious. But a humble person always recognizes the limitations and gaps in their knowledge . This makes them more receptive to information, better listeners and learners.

Skepticism : a suspicious attitude toward what other people say

Skepticism means you always demand evidence and don’t simply accept what others tell you. At the same time, skepticism has to be inwardly focused as well! You have to be equally skeptical of your own beliefs and instincts as you are of others’.

Rationality or logic: The formal skills of logic are indispensable for critical thinkers

Skepticism keeps you on the lookout for bad arguments, and rationality helps you figure out exactly why they’re bad. But rationality also allows you to identify good arguments when you see them, and then to move beyond them and understand their further implications.

Creativity: or the ability to come up with new combinations of ideas

It’s not enough to just be skeptical and knock the holes in every argument that you hear. Sooner or later you have to come up with your own ideas, your own solutions, and your own visions. That requires a creative and independent mind, but one that is also capable of listening and learning.

Empathy : the ability to see things from another person’s perspective

Too often, people talk about critical thinkers as though they’re solitary explorers, forging their own path through the jungle of ideas without help from others. But this isn’t true at all. Real critical thinking means you constantly engage with other people, listen to what they have to say, and try to imagine how they see the world. By seeing things from someone else’s perspective, you can generate far more new ideas than you could by relying on your own knowledge alone.

II. Examples

Although video games are sometimes simply a passive way to enjoy yourself, they sometimes rely on critical thinking skills. This is particularly true of puzzle games and role playing games (RPGs) that present your character with puzzles at critical moments. For example, at one stage in the classic RPG Neverwinter Nights , your character has the option to serve as a juror on another character’s trial. In order to save the innocent man, you have to talk to people throughout the town and, using a combination of empathy and skepticism, figure out what really happened.

In one episode of South Park , Cartman becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and sings a song about needing to think for himself and find out the truth. The show is poking fun at conspiracy theorists, who often think that they are exercising critical thinking when in fact they are simply exercising too much skepticism towards common sense and popular beliefs, and not enough skepticism towards new, unnecessarily complicated explanations.

III. Critical Thinking vs. Traditional Thinking

Critical thinking, in the history of modern Western thought, is strongly associated with the Enlightenment, the period when European and American philosophers decided to approach the world with a rational eye, rejecting blind faith and questioning traditional authority. It was this moment in history that gave us modern medicine, democracy , and the early forms of industrial technology.

At the same time, the Enlightenment also came with many downsides, particularly the fact that it was so hostile to tradition. This hostility is understandable given the state of Europe at the time — ripped apart by bloody conflict between different religions, and oppressed by traditional monarchs who rooted their power in that of the Church. Enlightenment thinkers understandably rejected traditional thinking, holding it responsible for all this violence and injustice. But still, the Enlightenment sometimes went too far in the opposite direction. After all, rejecting tradition just for the sake of rejecting it is not really any better than accepting tradition just for the sake of accepting it! Traditions provide valuable resources for critical thinking, and without them it would be impossible. Think about this: the English language is a tradition, and without it you wouldn’t be sitting there reading these (hopefully useful) words about critical thinking!

So critical thinking absolutely depends on traditions. There’s no question that critical thinking means something more than just accepting traditions; but it doesn’t mean you necessarily reject them, either. It just means that you’re not blindly following tradition for its own sake ; rather, your relationship to your tradition is based on humility, creativity, skepticism, and all the other attributes of critical thinking.

IV. Quotes about Critical Thinking

“If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” (Isaac Newton)

Until Einstein, no physicist was ever more influential than Isaac Newton. Through curiosity and probable skepticism, he not only worked out the basic rules for matter and energy in the universe — he also realized that the force causing objects to fall was the same as the force causing celestial objects to orbit around each other (thus discovering the modern theory of gravity). He was also known for having a big ego and being a little arrogant with those he considered beneath his intellect — but even Newton had enough humility to recognize that he wasn’t doing it alone. He was deeply indebted to the whole tradition of scientists that had come before him — Europeans, Greeks, Arabs, Indians, and all the rest.

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses… and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.” (Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism )

In this quote, Carl Sagan offers a sensitive analysis of a tension within the idea of critical thinking. He points out that skepticism is extremely important to critical thinking, but at the same time it can go too far and become an obstacle. Notice, too, that you could replace the word “new” with “old” in this quote and it would still make sense. Critical thinkers need to be both open to new ideas and skeptical of them; similarly, they need to have a balanced attitude toward old and traditional ideas as well.

V. The History and Importance of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has emerged as a cultural value in various times and places, from the Islamic scholars of medieval Central Asia to the secular philosophers of 18th-century America or the scientists and engineers of 21st-century Japan. In each case, critical thinking has taken a slightly different form, sometimes emphasizing skepticism above the other dimensions (as occurred in the European Enlightenment), sometimes emphasizing other dimensions such as creativity or rationality.

Today, many leaders in science, education, and business worry that we are seeing a decline in critical thinking. Education around the world has turned increasingly toward standardized testing and the mechanical memorization of facts, an approach that doesn’t leave time for critical thinking or creative arts. Some politicians view critical and creative education as a waste of time, believing that education should only focus on job skills and nothing else — an attitude which clearly overlooks the fact that critical thinking is an important job skill for everyone from auto mechanics to cognitive scientists.

a. Creativity

b. Skepticism

d. These are all dimensions of critical thinking

a. They are opposites

b. They are synonyms

c. They are in tension, but not incompatible

d. None of the above

a. The Enlightenment

b. The Renaissance

c. The current era

d. All of the above

a. Being constantly skeptical

b. Not being skeptical

c. Having a balance between too much skepticism and too little

d. No relation to skepticism

Christopher Dwyer Ph.D.

The Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory

Comparing approaches..

Updated April 10, 2024 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

  • Critical theory is a way of identifying, critiquing, and challenging social dynamics and power structures.
  • Modern critical theory seems to skip a lot of steps associated with logic and mechanisms of good thinking.
  • Human beings think in hierarchically structured fashion, and they develop social groups in a similar manner.

I recently asked a fellow academic, in conversation, how they try to integrate critical thinking into their classroom, and they replied that they don’t have "much time for that kind of thing." I quickly realised that they didn’t know what I was talking about and likely confused it for something else. This shouldn’t have been entirely surprising to me, given research by Lloyd and Bahr (2010) indicates that, unfortunately, many educators are not au fait with what critical thinking actually is. Following further conversation, I came to understand what this academic was referring to: critical theory. This was neither the first time I’ve encountered such confusion of terms, nor was it the first time I heard criticism of the field.

What Critical Theory Is

I recognise that the phrasing "critical lens" one often hears in educational contexts might be a bit ambiguous and could be perceived in various ways. Critical thinking is many things, but one thing it is not is critical theory. Critical theory is an arts and humanities approach to identifying, critiquing, and challenging social dynamics and power structures within society (e.g., see Tyson 2023, Marcuse, 1968). Simply, it’s a critique of society; hence, the name—though some in the field would argue this and uphold the belief that it’s an association with our beloved critical thinking. I would argue that such people would fit in well with the aforementioned cohort of people who don’t really understand what critical thinking is.

The critical theory approach developed out of post-World War II German social climates as a means of exploring how Germany and, indeed, Europe got to where they were at that point in time. This is reasonable; indeed, psychology was interested in these implications as well (e.g., consider the work of Milgram and Asch). Critical theory grew from there into other socially aware applications. Despite methodological concerns, there is some good work done through critical theory. However, there is also considerably poor research done in this area. I would argue that the core reason for this is that the approach is often founded in bias . That is, unfortunately, a lot of modern critical theory starts with the proposition that some dynamic is "bad." Now, I’m not saying that many of the dynamics often under investigation aren’t bad, but starting research on the basis of a biased perspective doesn’t sound like a particularly promising rationale. Where’s the critical thinking? Where’s the evaluation? If you truly care about the topic, apply critical thinking from an unbiased perspective. Modern critical theory seems to skip a lot of steps associated with logic and the mechanisms of good thinking.

The purpose of this brief discussion on critical theory is two-fold. First, it’s argued that there has been "considerable" growth in the field in recent years (e.g., critical theory student numbers, growing presence in popular society, and growing inclusion in educational curricula), which is concerning given the rationale above, and, second, consistent with my observation in the introduction, its name is unfortunately similar to "critical thinking" and, thus, the two are often confused for one another. Please, don’t make this mistake.

Power Structures

Similar to the aforementioned negative social dynamics, I’m not saying that power structures don’t exist either. Look at families: Parents hold "power" over their children. Look at jobs: Employees are under the power of their managers, who are under the power of other managers, and so on. Indeed, depending on what country you live in, your government has varying levels of power over those it governs (e.g., with respect to law and policy-making). Some will argue that it’s the people who should be governing themselves: voting in law- and policy-makers as representatives, which is reasonable to me, but not all governments are like this— that’s politics for you (e.g., largely belief-led) , so what can you do? "Think critically about it" would be a reasonable response in the context of this page, and that is notably distinct from engaging in critical theory.

The point is that such "structures" are naturally occurring. Human beings think in a hierarchically structured fashion (e.g., through schema construction, classification, categorisation) and they develop social groups in a similar manner. That’s not to say that we should accept such structures in all situations, but no amount of academia is likely to change human nature; believe me, we’ve been trying to get people to think critically for a long time. Another important consideration for recognising this commonality is our expectance of these structures. Unfortunately, because we expect to see them everywhere, we wind up creating many of them, through our interpretations, when they might not even exist.

So, if you are approaching your research from the perspective that because some person or group experiences, for example, a less-than-desirable event or condition, it’s very easy—without the application of critical thinking—that such negative outcomes should be attributed to some other group or structure, in a sort of causal relationship. The problem is, as opposed to this being a conclusion ( a leads to b ), it is often the starting point of research, which then biases the methodology and its outcomes. For example, in an effort not to single out any particular group, let’s say I’m studying some topic from a Zuggist perspective (I made-up the word/group "Zug"). Considering the fact that I side with Zuggists—I might even be a Zug myself—the chances of me reporting something that is biased in favour of Zugs is more likely than not. To me, that’s not good research.

Again, I’m not saying that all research from a critical theory approach is like this, but, unfortunately, a noticeable amount of it is. Sure, every field has its barriers and "crises" from time to time: Psychology has been battling a replicability crisis in recent years. However, at least psychology (for the most part) recognises the importance of replicability and other research mechanisms associated with good methodology. I have concerns about that with respect to critical theory.

All in all, critical theory doesn’t mean much to me, but, for now, like my fellow academic said in the introduction, "I don’t have much time for that kind of thing." So, why bother talking about it here? This page is focused on critical thinking and good decision-making . These are the outcomes in which I and readers of this blog are interested, alongside learning more about how we can enhance them. It’s difficult enough conceptualising and describing critical thinking without having something similarly named adding further confusion. I’m not putting blame on anyone for the manner in which they coined the term "critical theory"; however, I think it important that people from all walks of life know the differences between them, because those differences are many and important.

Lloyd, M., & Bahr, N. (2010). Thinking critically about critical thinking in higher education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4, 2, 1–16.

Marcuse, Herbert. "Philosophy and Critical Theory," in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory , with translations from the German by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 134–158.

Tyson, L. (2023). Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide . Taylor & Francis.

Christopher Dwyer Ph.D.

Christopher Dwyer, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Technological University of the Shannon in Athlone, Ireland.

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relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

Logic, Critical Thinking, and Philosophy

relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

Logic defined

Logic as a science and an art, philosophy and logic, critical thinking defined, logic and critical thinking, for students' comments, click here:  how to start a cool discussion in, ourhappyschool recommends.

relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

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Ideas to ponder

Philosophy is love of wisdom, so it implies that one wants to know and understand something.


Foundations, or the basis of study, started with the beginnings of questioning the world around us. Critical thinking looks at the facts, or most defensible facts. This is important because emotion often creates a filter to hide or ignore uncomfortable factoids.

  • Creative thinking is combining known or imagined ideas in new ways.
  • When people have cherished beliefs/world-views that conflict with new facts, they need to use critical thinking skills to question why they do not want to accept the new “facts”.
  • In science, if multiple experiments find the same range of values in the results, then the results are expected to be a reliable foundation for further study.

Even scientists can be susceptible to the adage: I’ll see it when I believe it.”

The American Philosophical Association

  • Statement on the Role of Philosophy Programs in Higher Education Discusses the value of philosophy to education: (1) a philosophy program’s fundamental contributions to education (2) a philosophy program’s contributions to an institution’s core curriculum. (3) philosophy’s relations to other areas of inquiry (4) the contributions that philosophers can make beyond the curriculum. (5) different levels of philosophy programs (6) how one might go about measuring the success of philosophy programs

Why study philosophy?

  • Why study philosophy? ( "The study of philosophy helps us to enhance our ability to solve problems, our communication skills, our persuasive powers, and our writing skills. Below is a description of how philosophy helps us develop these various important skills."..Including... 1. General Problem Solving Skills 2. Communication Skills 3. Persuasive Powers 4. Writing Skills 5. Understanding Other Disciplines 6. Development of Sound Methods of Research and Analysis
  • philosophy phi·los·o·phy noun • Love of wisdom • The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.
  • wisdom noun • The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment
  • think verb • To have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something. • To direct one's mind toward someone or something; • To use one's mind actively to form connected ideas. noun: think; plural noun: thinks • an act of thinking.
  • belief be·lief noun • an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. • trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.
  • fallacy noun • a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument. • a failure in reasoning which renders an argument invalid. • faulty reasoning; misleading or unsound argument.

College and University Faculty (

  • College and University Faculty ( The following articles on our website are directly relevant to higher education instruction in critical thinking and are offered complimentary.
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Philosophy - Thinking about how to think.

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In addition to the basic  review of the definition and concept of critical thinking , the following pages and articles are recommended reading for the college, university or pre-collegiate student.  


Main Library of Critical Thinking Resources About Critical Thinking Fundamentals of Critical Thinking Richard Paul Anthology Classic Documenting the Problem Higher Education Instruction K-12 Instruction Strategies & Samples For Students Issues in Critical Thinking The Questioning Mind Reading Backwards: Classic Books Online

ISSUES IN CRITICAL THINKING Ethics Without Indoctrination Accelerating Change Applied Disciplines: A Critical Thinking Model for Engineering Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence Critical Thinking, Moral Integrity and Citizenship Diversity: Making Sense of It Through Critical Thinking Global Change: Why C.T. is Essential To the Community College Mission Natural Egocentric Dispositions

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On the Relationship Between “Education” and “Critical Thinking”

  • First Online: 03 January 2020

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relationship between critical thinking and philosophy

  • Klaus Beck 2  

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In view of recent international efforts to identify and measure the ability “critical thinking,” this paper attempts to trace and reconstruct the core meaning of this concept in the light of its conceptual history in the German terminology of educational philosophy and research. In doing so, it becomes evident that it is necessary to clarify the relationship between “critical thinking” and “education,” both understood as terms designating a mental state. In German as well as in English educational research, it seems to be the prevailing view that “critical thinking” is a partial meaning, a facet, of “education” (in the sense of “being well educated”). The German language, however, differentiates between “education” in this latter sense (“Bildung”) and “education” as a label designating the approximate equivalent of the English term (“Erziehung”). Moreover, there is a long tradition and discussion in German-speaking countries around the meaning of “Bildung,” which has shaped “critical thinking” into one of its facets, setting it apart from its understanding in the English terminology with its own special history of this concept. Therefore, trying to make international comparisons with regard to measuring “critical thinking” first requires efforts to reach a common understanding of this concept.

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This goes so far that each individual, in principle, is completely free to attribute a meaning to a sequence of letters or sounds (or to any sign at all), be it already established in written or spoken language or newly invented—a nominalistic position (Essler 1972 , p. 198ff.). Supporters of a humanities viewpoint, on the other hand, represent a (hyper-)platonistic viewpoint in these matters, which assumes that all terms of our languages, including logic operators, are to be understood as names of “real” facts, thus including also immaterial entities, and that it is therefore an empirical matter to correctly describe the meaning of a term (ibid.).

For example, the agreement to meet “at the bar” works out because, during the conversation, you are just crossing the railway tracks and not sitting in front at the counter of a tavern.

Examples include not only “critique” and “thinking” but also “morality”, “motivation” or even “theory”.

See on the “untranslatability thesis ” Quine ( 1960/1980 , Chap. II) and Davidson ( 1984 ) as well as Sukale ( 1988 ); on linguistic relativity the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, presented in Gipper ( 1972 ).

The connection between descriptive and normative meaning , i.e., between definition and requirement, is established by requiring that, with regard to the denotatum of the defined term, it should be brought about, maintained, removed, or similar. In many, if not most, contexts of definitions, such an application is not readily obvious. One thinks, for example, of elementary terms from the natural sciences such as “temperature” or “volume,” but also from social sciences, for example, “socialization,” “interaction,” or even in economics, for example, “balance” or “exchange rate.” It has been criticized on occasion that all terms inherently transport a normative meaning from the very beginning as even the definition itself is nothing more than a normative statement. However, this view mixes different language levels (definitions are of a meta-linguistic nature) on the one hand and confuses the functions of language regulation and language use on the other hand.

This ultimately includes all teaching and learning aims as well as all overarching pedagogical goals.

“ Ought implies capability ” or “ultra posse nemo obligatur ”—a bridging principle between “be and ought”, as was recently tried to justify, with good reason, in Critical Rationalism (Albert 1980 , p. 76f.).

However, it would require an own basis of legitimation, which is not given if what we propose as a language regulation were to be demanded of a certain group of people (e.g., pupils, students, applicants, voters, office holders) as a requirement to strive for or even achieve the defined state.

Corresponds approximately to the suffix “- tion ” in English nouns.

The processes thus distinguished, including those of “throughput ”, can in fact all be reconstructed as temporal sequences. The proposed distinction is only made at a psychological meso-level for reasons of clarity.

Ironically, Niklas Luhmann writes: “The word education [“Bildung”] provides the contingency formula of the educational system with an indisputably beautiful body of words. It flows easily from the tongue” ( 2002 , p. 187; translated from German by DeepL [ ] and author).

The relevant deliberations of Greek and Roman antiquity can be dispensed with here as they are enclosed in the modern discussions on the concept of education.

Translation German-English retrieved from (2018, June 15).

Similarly: “The most important revolution in the interior of man is: «the outcome of his self-incurred tutelage». Instead of others thinking f o r him until then and merely imitating him or letting himself be guided by leading-strings, he now dares to move forward with his own feet on the ground of experience, if still shaking” (Kant 1798/1981 , vol. 10, p. 549; translation from German by DeepL and author).

Thus Bernhard ( 2011 ) speaks of a “concept of liberation education ” for that time: ‘Western’ populations are dependent “on the cultural industries that incapacitate them” (p. 90). “Education (provides) an early warning system regarding the mechanisms of the incorporation of capital that must not be underestimated” (p. 99).—In contrast to the original function of serving as a category for distinguishing social stratification, a normative interpretation of the concept of education as a “battle concept” (Ribolits 2011 ) comes into play here and stands for the exact opposite, the leveling of all social differences.

This—momentous—separation of general and specialized, i.e., vocational training, still takes place today, citing a passage in the Lithuanian school plan: “There is a certain amount of knowledge that must be general, and even more a certain formation of attitudes and character that no one should lack. Everyone is obviously only a good craftsman, merchant, soldier and businessman if he is a good, decent man and citizen, enlightened according to his status, in himself and without regard to his particular profession. If the school education gives him what is necessary for this, he subsequently acquires the special ability of his profession so easily and always retains the freedom, as so often happens in life, to pass from one to the other” (von Humboldt 1809/1960 –1981, p. 218).

Women were far from being mentioned in this context at the time. In 1900, the physician Möbius was still able to publish a paper entitled “On the physiological imbecility of women”, which by no means brought him violent opposition (Steinberg 2005 ). In contrast, the “Memorandum” of the “First German General Assembly of Conductors and Teachers of the Higher Girls’ Schools” of 1872 proclaims: “It is necessary to allow the woman an education equal to the spiritual formation of the man in the generality of species and interests, so that the German man is not bored by the spiritual short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness of his wife in the domestic flock and the warmth of feeling for the same stands by his side” (cited from Lange and Bäumer 1901 , p. 64f.; translation from German by DeepL and author)—a sign that “pedagogy” was a considerable step ahead of “medicine” at the time.

Whether Humboldt himself would have accepted this claim is still controversial and must remain unanswered (Zabeck 1974 ).

Keyword “Encyclopédia”. “La double vocation de cet ouvrage est de répertorier les connaissances et les savoirs de son siècle et aussi d’ouvrir une réflexion critique, de “ changer la façon commune de penser ”” (Wikipédia 2018 ).

The regulations for the study of political science in the “Kingdom of Bavaria” state, for example: “The complete course of general sciences includes the following subjects: (1) philosophy (2) elementary mathematics (3) philology (4) general world history (5) physics (6) natural history” (Döllinger 1823 , p. 204). “(T)o the study of special sciences...”count as “auxiliary sciences”…“encyclopedia and methodology” (ibid. s: 206). However, the students were forbidden, among other things, “all deliberative meetings” (ibid. p. 219), i.e., meetings under a motto that today we would describe as “critical thinking”.

Their “individual position” (“Individuallage”), as Pestalozzi put it (Lichtenstein 1971 , Col. 925).

This term reappears in a polemic by Th. W. Adorno in the first half of the twentieth century, where it is positioned against the “cultural industry” ( 1959/1998 ).

Except for the shortening it experienced during the second half of the nineteenth century, as described above.

Dewey instead still uses the term “reflective thinking”: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1916 , p. 9).

See the “Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA) ” (Watson and Glaser 1964 ), for which a German adaptation exists (Sourisseaux et al. 2007 ) and which is sometimes labeled to be the “gold standard” in measuring CT.

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Beck, K. (2019). On the Relationship Between “Education” and “Critical Thinking”. In: Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O. (eds) Frontiers and Advances in Positive Learning in the Age of InformaTiOn (PLATO). Springer, Cham.

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Critical Thinking: Defining an Argument, Premises, and Conclusions

Defining an Argument Argument: vas is das? For most of us when we hear the word ‘argument’ we think of something we’d rather avoid.  As it is commonly understood, an argument involves some sort of unpleasant confrontation (well, maybe not always unpleasant–it can feel pretty good when you win!).  While this is one notion of ‘argument,’ it’s (generally)  not  what the term refers to in philosophy. In philosophy what we mean by  argument  is “ a set  of reasons offered in support of a claim.”  An argument, in this narrower sense, also generally implies some sort of  structure .  For now we’ll ignore the more particular structural aspects and focus on the two primary elements that make up an argument: premises and conclusions. Lets talk about conclusions first because their definition is pretty simple.   A conclusion  is the final assertion that is supported with evidence and reasons.  What’s important is the relationship between premises and conclusions.   The premises  are independent reasons and evidence that support the conclusion.  In an argument, the conclusion should follow from the premises. Lets consider a simple example: Reason (1):  Everyone thought Miley Cyrus’ performance was a travesty.  Reason (2):   Some people thought her performance was offensive. Conclusion:   Therefore, some people thought her performance was both a travesty and offensive. Notice that so long as we accept reason 1 and reason 2 as true, then we  must  also accept the conclusion.  This is what we mean by “the conclusion ‘follows’ from the premises.” Lets examine premises a little more closely.   A premise  is any  reason  or  evidence  that supports the conclusion of the argument.    In the context of arguments we can use ‘reasons’, ‘evidence’, and ‘premises’ interchangeably.   For example, if my conclusion is that dogs are better pets than cats, I might offer the following reasons: (P1) dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and (P2) dogs are more responsive to their owners’ commands than cats. From my two premises, I infer my conclusion that (C) dogs are better pets than cats.

Lets return to the definition of an argument.  Notice that in the definition, I’ve said that arguments are  a set  of reasons.  While this isn’t  always  true, generally, a good argument will generally have more than one premise.   Heuristics for Identifying Premises and Conclusions Now that we know what each concept is, lets look at how to identify each one as we might encounter them “in nature” (e.g., in an article, in a conversation, in a meme, in a homework exercise, etc…).  First I’ll explain each heuristic, then I’ll apply them to some examples. Identifying conclusions:    The easiest way to go about decomposing arguments is to first try to find the conclusion.  This is a good strategy because there is usually only one conclusion so, if we can identify it, it means the rest of the passage are premises. For this reason, most of the heuristics focus on finding the conclusion.   Heuristic 1:    Look for the most controversial statement in the argument.   The conclusion will generally be the most controversial statement in the argument.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  Typically arguments proceed by moving from assertions (i.e., premises) the audience agrees with then showing how these assertions imply something that the audience might not have previously agreed with. Heuristic 2:    The conclusion is usually a statement that takes a position on an issue .  By implication, the premises will be reasons that support the position on the issue (i.e., the conclusion).  A good way to apply this heuristic is to ask “what is the arguer trying to get me to believe?”.  The answer to this question is generally going to be the conclusion. Heuristic 3:    The conclusion is usually ( but not always ) the first or last statement of the argument.  Heuristic 4:    The “because” test.   Use this method you’re having trouble figuring which of 2 statements is the conclusion.  The “because” test helps you figure out which statement is supporting which.  Recall that the premise(s) always supports the conclusion.  This method is best explained by using an example.  Suppose you encounter an argument that goes something like this: It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit.  It tastes delicious.  Also,  lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer Suppose you’re having trouble deciding what the conclusion it.  You’ve eliminated “it tastes delicious” as a candidate but you still have to choose between “it’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit” and “lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer”.  To use the because test, read one statement after the other but insert the word “because” between the two and see what makes more sense.  Lets try the two possibilities: A:   It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit  because  lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer. B:   Lots of facebook posts say that amazonian jungle fruit cures cancer  because  it’s a good idea to eat lots of it.  Which makes more sense?  Which is providing support for which?   The answer is A.  Lots of facebook posts saying something is a  reason  (i.e. premise) to believe that it’s a good idea to eat amazonian jungle fruit–despite the fact that it’s not a very good reason… Identifying the Premises Heuristic 1:   Identifying the premises once you’ve identified the conclusion is cake.  Whatever isn’t contained in the conclusion is either a premise or “filler” (i.e., not relevant to the argument).  We will explore the distinguishing between filler and relevant premises a bit later, so don’t worry about that distinction for now. Example 1 Gun availability should be regulated. Put simply, if your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re  more likely to kill you  than if they don’t have access. Interestingly, this turned out to be true not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too.

Ok, lets try heuristic #1.  What’s the most controversial statement?  For most Americans, it is probably that “gun availability should be regulated.”  This is probably the conclusion.  Just for fun lets try out the other heuristics. Heuristic #2 says we should find a statement that takes a position on an issue.  Hmmm… the issue seems to be gun control, and the arguer takes a position.  Both heuristics converge on “gun availability should be regulated.” Heuristic #3 says the conclusion will usually be the first or last statement.  Guess what? Same result as the other heuristics. Heuristic #4.   A:  Gun availability should be regulated  because  people with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you.  Or B:  People with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you  because  gun availability should be regulated. A is the winner. The conclusion in this argument is well established.  It follows that what’s left over are premises (support for the conclusion): (P1)   If your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access.  (P2)  Studies show that P1 is true, not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too.  (C)  G un availability should be regulated. Example 2 If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns. This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. Gun control is a bad idea. Heuristic #1:  What’s the most controversial statement? Probably “gun control is a bad idea.” Heuristic #2: Which statement takes a position on an issue? “Gun control is a bad idea.” Heuristic #3:  “Gun control is a bad idea” is last and also passed heuristic 1 and 2.  Probably a good bet as the conclusion.  Heuristic #4:   A: If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns because gun control is a bad idea.

B: Gun control is a bad idea because if you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.

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Examination of the Relationship between Educational Philosophy, Critical Thinking, Classroom Engagement and Academic Achievement

  • Özgür Ulubey Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University
  • Muhammet Mustafa Alpaslan Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University

Educational philosophy addresses systematic ideas and conceptions in the educational manner. The purpose of this study was to examine the contributions of educational philosophy, critical thinking and classroom engagement to academic achievement among pre-service teachers by utilizing structural equation modelling. A total of 444 teacher pre-service teachers who volunteered from a state university in Turkey participated in the study. Data collection tools were Educational Belief Scale, UF/EMİ Critical Thinking Disposition Instrument and Classroom Engagement Inventory. Analysis revealed that the hypothesized model explained 22% variance of academic achievement. Path coefficients indicated that some educational philosophies were significantly related to critical thinking dispositions. Innovativeness in critical thinking disposition significantly predicted all dimensions of classroom engagement. Educational implications were discussed.

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment. Political and business leaders endorse its importance.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o'clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68-69; 1933: 91-92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot's position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Morevoer, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69-70; 1933: 92-93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond line from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on the subsequent emotive response (Siegel 1988).

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in frequency in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the frequency of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Critical thinking dispositions can usefully be divided into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started) (Facione 1990a: 25). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), and Black (2012).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work.

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? Abrami et al. (2015) found that in the experimental and quasi-experimental studies that they analyzed dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), and Bailin et al. (1999b).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • The Nature of Critical Thinking: An Outline of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities , by Robert H. Ennis

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283 Philosophical Questions to Spark Deep Critical Thinking

Philosophy has implications for daily life. Pick a handful of these 255 questions as a starting point for thinking critically.

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It can be easy to get so caught up in daily life that we forget to stop and think about our world. Thinking about philosophical questions can help you think critically.

Building a practice of thinking critically of the world will empower you to make decisions that you feel confident in—whether it’s how you vote, spend your time, or use your resources. 

If you’re looking for where to start, check out this list of philosophical questions! 

What is a Philosophical Question?

A philosophical question often doesn’t have a clear, straightforward answer. They are questions that usually require deep thought and sometimes don’t have answers.

Philosophical questions typically involve human nature, the origins of the universe, morality, ethics, and the afterlife. 

Philosophical Questions About Behavior

Humans are complex beings, and our world is also complicated. This can make it hard to parse the good from the bad and right from wrong. Take a moment to consider some of these philosophical questions about behavior and human nature. 

  • What is the difference between good and bad people? 
  • Is it essential to be a “good person”? 
  • What makes people feel more attached to some people than others? 
  • Is tribalism, or looking out for others like you, innately good, bad, or neutral? 
  • If one existed apart from other humans, would they still value goodness? 
  • Are there moral commonalities amongst diverse people groups and cultures? 
  • Are individuals important, and if so, in what ways? 
  • Are humans more important than other animals? Why or why not? 
  • Are some people more important than others? 
  • Is the death penalty right or wrong? 
  • What should be the repercussions for wronging someone else?  
  • What is wisdom? 
  • Is wisdom a helpful tool? 
  • Why is wisdom often associated with age? 
  • If a person has an accident and is no longer able to contribute to society, has their value as a person decreased, increased, or stayed the same? 
  • Can people change? 
  • How does one become a “good person”? 
  • If someone’s personality changes, does that mean they have also changed?
  • Can you ever honestly know another person? 
  • If someone’s intentions were good but the outcome of an action is terrible, at that moment, is the person good or bad? 
  • If someone does a kind deed but has a selfish motive, does that impact the goodness of the deed? 
  • When babies are born, are they good? 
  • If identical twins grew up never knowing each other, how similar and different would they be? 
  • Is there ever a justifiable reason to kill someone? 
  • Are people born with a specific personality, or is the character the result of their circumstances? 
  • Is lying ever a good thing? 
  • If you steal money but use it to save someone’s life, does that justify the theft? 
  • Should someone being ignorant be a valid excuse for their rudeness? 
  • Can we choose our emotions, or do they happen to us? 

Watch our video below to learn how to start a conversation with anyone using these killer conversation starters:

Philosophy Questions About Love

“Love is a biological necessity. We cannot live without it” —Stephanie Cacioppo, neuroscientist specializing in love and loneliness 

As people, we need to love and be loved. You can express love in many different ways. Use these questions to spark some critical thought on the topic of love, or check out these truth or dare questions while you’re at it.

  • What is love? 
  • How do you know you are loved? 
  • How do you know that you love someone? 
  • Is the desire to be loved an innate human desire? 
  • Why do people desire love? 
  • Does love necessitate action, or can it exist simply as a feeling? 
  • In what ways are love, lust, and sexual desire different from one another? 
  • Is an understanding of pain necessary to appreciate love? 
  • Does the loss of love change one’s outlook on life?
  • Can one show love without first being loved? Is love an intrinsic aspect of human nature or a reciprocated act? 
  • Are there different forms of love such as parental, friendship, or romantic? Or are they all diverse expressions of the same substance? 
  • Can romantic love for one person last forever? 
  • Can love ever be a bad thing? 
  • How does unreciprocated love affect people? 
  • What does falling in love mean? 
  • What causes someone to fall in love?  
  • Does love feel different to different people? 
  • Is love, health, or money more important? 
  • Can you choose to feel love for someone? 
  • Does being loved by more people correlate to a person’s value?
  • Is there a difference in depth of love versus quantity of love? 
  • To love someone well, do you need to show their love how they want to be loved, or can you love them the way you naturally show love? 

Pro Tip: If you’re interested in learning more about different ways to show love, read up on the five love languages . 

  • Is there “The one?”
  • What does it mean to love yourself? 
  • Do you need to love yourself before you can love others? 
  • Is loving yourself selfish? 
  • Is it essential to have a friendship with your partner? 
  • If your partner grew up in an abusive household, are you more understanding of unhealthy behavior? 
  • Would you rather be respected or loved? 

Fun Philosophical Questions

Philosophy can be fun! If you think philosophy is all heavily intellectual, overwhelming, abstract, or existential-crisis-inducing, take a moment to ponder if a hot dog is a taco. 

  • Are you currently dreaming, and how do you know? 
  • Do memories exist even if you forget them? 
  • Does grass feel pain when you step on it? 
  • Can trees feel pain? 
  • Does 1+1 always equal 2? 
  • Would it be ethical, unethical, or neutral if time travel were possible? 
  • If time travel were possible, would it be wrong to change history? 
  • What is the purpose of humor? 
  • Why are jokes funny? 
  • If one person doesn’t find a joke funny, does it mean they have a lousy sense of humor, or is the joke flawed? 
  • Are humans responsible in any way for caring for wild animals? 
  • Can inanimate objects be either bad or good? 
  • Does morality bind animals? 
  • Is water wet? 
  • Are hot dogs tacos? 
  • Is it wrong to visit a zoo, thereby financially supporting an establishment that isn’t ideal for the animals? 
  • Is it wrong to purchase fast fashion , rapidly produced clothing that uses manufacturing methods that negatively impact the environment and exploit workers? 
  • In a fictional world, could you have a five-sided square? 
  • How do we know what words mean? 
  • Why do some people feel scared while watching a horror movie even though they know it is not real? 
  • What would you say if you had five minutes to defend the human race in front of a group of aliens who were going to obliterate humanity? 
  • Are there any physiological changes you would make humans make us a better species? 
  • Should the legal age for alcohol consumption be different than it is? 
  • If your life expectancy suddenly increased to 500 years, would you live differently than you currently are? What about if your life expectancy decreased and you only had five more years to live? 
  • If immortality were possible, would you want to be immortal? 

Questions from Philosophy About Human Rights

What are human rights? Whose job is it to ensure that all humans have rights? These types of questions can be multifaceted and hard. It can be easy to avoid them or think they’re someone else’s job. 

However, your daily choices can have a ripple effect on other people’s lives. Whether with who you vote for or how you spend your money, how you live impacts others. 

Take some time to consider what you believe human rights are if everyone is entitled to them, and whose job it is to ensure everyone has rights. 

  • What are human rights? 
  • Is autonomy a human right? 
  • Is liberty a human right? 
  • Is free speech a human right?
  • What is the difference between a human right and a privilege? 
  • Is it the responsibility of privileged individuals or the government to bridge gaps between privileged and disadvantaged people? 
  • If people are spreading misinformation, should they still be allowed to continue? 
  • Should abortion be legal? 
  • At what point in human development, from a fetus to a baby, does one become a person and gain rights? 
  • Is war ever necessary or even reasonable? 
  • How can societies work to dismantle systemic racism, ableism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination? 
  • If two people’s opinions differ, how should they resolve their differences? 
  • Has technology made it easier or harder to advance human rights? 
  • Is it the responsibility of wealthy countries to support impoverished countries? 
  • Should women’s rights be a priority to men? Why or why not? 
  • What makes a person a person? 
  • If a person has lost consciousness and doctors know they will not regain it, but their organs are still functioning, are they still a person? 
  • Is the internet good, bad, or neutral? 
  • Is being able to financially support a family a human right, or is having a large family a privilege? 
  • Do more humans have fundamental rights in the modern world, or have we lost human rights as time has progressed? 
  • If you could ensure every person on the planet would have access to a single human right, which one would you choose? Would there be any repercussions? 
  • What rights should prisoners of war have? 
  • Do you think those serial killers have an equal value to other people, or do their actions impact their value? 
  • Is privacy a human right? 
  • Is technological advancement minimizing our privacy? 

Philosophical Questions About Society and Government 

When we look at the societies we live in, they often have good and bad elements. These questions can help you think critically about the structures in place in your country. 

  • Are there any innately evil governmental structures? 
  • What would a perfect society look like? 
  • How involved should governments be in caring for the individuals in their country? 
  • If you could create your society, what would look different from the one where you live now? 
  • What role should the government have in the lives of individuals? 
  • What makes a good leader? 
  • Can someone do a bad thing and still be a good person? 
  • Is prison the best way to protect society and correct individuals? 
  • Does the legal system function fairly? 
  • Is technology good? 
  • Can technology advance society in a way that is beneficial? 
  • Are taxes morally right? 
  • Should it be lawful for citizens to hold protests? What if a handful of the protestors make it violent? 
  • What makes people work together despite differences? 
  • Does societal advancement only happen with collaboration? 
  • In what ways can disagreements advance society? 
  • What makes a crime a crime? 
  • How should citizens who believe the laws in their country be unjust behave? Is it okay for them to ignore those laws and are still bound to do what the law asks of them? 
  • Is it morally wrong to abstain from voting? 
  • Is it wrong for governments not to have healthcare available to all citizens? 
  • Should things that are bad for people be banned by the government, or is it the individual’s responsibility to avoid harmful substances? 
  • Is there an age at which people should be answerable for their actions? 
  • Is it discriminatory not to allow certain people to run for government office?
  • Is it okay to limit immigration if a country is worried it will lose its culture? 
  • Should the government regulate what food manufacturers can and can’t put in their food? 
  • Is the government responsible for ensuring people receive a livable wage? 
  • Should those who live an unhealthy lifestyle have decreased access to healthcare? 
  • What would the ideal government look like? 

Philosophical Questions Related to Culture

Culture can be a complicated issue to wrap your head around. When you travel or talk to someone from a different background, you may immediately notice surface-layer cultural differences such as what food people eat and what type of clothing they wear. 

However, as you get to know a culture better, you may realize there are deep-seated differences, perspectives, and traditions. 

These questions will help you think about the differences between cultures and if there are any aspects of culture that are innately good or bad. 

  • What is culture? 
  • How does culture form? 
  • Is it important to be mindful of other cultures, and if so, why? 
  • Are some cultures better than others? 
  • Is morality developed within a culture, or is it intrinsic? 
  • Is there a wrong way to discipline children? 
  • In what way is a family-oriented culture better or worse than an individualistic culture? 
  • Are individualistic cultures intrinsically selfish? 
  • What is success? 
  • Does income play a part in how you define success? 
  • Does the culture you were raised in impact your outlook on life? 
  • If someone has recently relocated to a new country, should there be leniency for breaking minor laws they did not know about, or should they be prosecuted the same as their counterpart raised in that culture? 
  • If a group practices human sacrifice as part of their culture, does that make it okay? Would you be wrong to try to save the person they would sacrifice?  
  • Is attractiveness a cultural construct? 

Philosophical Questions About Space and the Universe

Humans have long been in awe of space. Our recorded fascination with space reaches back to ancient philosophers. 

“Astronomy compels the soul to look upward and leads us from this world to another.” —Plato

However, it has only been in the past 75 years that humanity has started studying space up-close—and there’s still so much we don’t know about the universe we live in. These questions can help you find new ways to think about the world around you and how that informs your day-to-day life.  

  • Where does the Earth come from? 
  • Did a deity or event start the universe? 
  • Does the universe’s origin affect how one lives, and if so, how? 
  • Does the vastness of space impact the way you perceive yourself? 
  • Do things about the universe imply it exists due to chance or design? 
  • Is it the duty of those currently alive to be ecologically responsible? 
  • Is the Earth the only planet inhabited by living beings? 
  • Is anything in the world eternal? 
  • Is time eternal? 
  • Did time, as we now perceive it starts at a specific moment? 
  • Will time continue to run after the human species no longer exists? 
  • If we find another inhabitable planet, would there be any moral implications if humans left the earth and moved there? 
  • Should space travel be accessible to all people? 
  • Is it good, bad, or neutral that humans have invested so many resources into space exploration? 
  • Is there a difference between faith and superstition? 
  • If a deity exists, would it exist within our understanding of morality? 

Philosophical Questions to Ask Kids

Philosophical questions can be challenging for children. Philosophy is often large and abstract. Because they’ve been alive for less time, children typically have fewer life experiences than adults to draw on when answering philosophical questions. 

However, some of these questions are ones that small children are already wondering about. You may have heard them ask what happened to their goldfish after it died or struggle with differentiating emotions like happiness and sadness. 

Introducing a few of these conversations may help the children in your life realize these are conversations you are ready and willing to have any time they have questions. 

  • What does it mean to feel happy? 
  • Why are some things right and some things wrong? 
  • Is it necessary to be nice to people, and why? 
  • What is kindness? 
  • Is being kind and being nice the same thing? 
  • What is the difference between good and evil? 
  • What happens to pets when they die? 
  • What are things that you know to be certain? 
  • What is something that you believe and why? 
  • If superheroes were real, would they be more responsible for protecting people than you are or equally accountable? 
  • Does helping people make you feel good? Why or why not? 
  • What is the difference between adults and children? 
  • What, if anything, makes a person different from an animal? 
  • Is social media good, bad, or neutral? 
  • How do you know that you belong? 

Challenging Ethical Questions to Consider

The philosophical subtopic of ethics involves weighing between challenging scenarios and deciding which option is morally right. The challenges raised within ethics can often be incredibly challenging to sort out, and they are ones you may run into in life. 

Remember, even if someone sees a topic differently than you do, it’s essential to be respectful and have conversations without getting vertigo from the “dizzying heights of your moral ground.” 

  • Is it wrong to kill one person if it might save the lives of hundreds of others? 
  • Is using euthanasia to intentionally end a life to prevent further pain and suffering immoral? 
  • Should people be allowed to commit medically induced suicide? 
  • Was former President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs unethical? Some argue that it saved many lives by ending the war quicker. Does that change the ethics of killing civilians during a time of war? 
  • Is bribery ever acceptable or ethical? 
  • If your friend’s significant other drinks too much alcohol and flirts with you, should you tell your friend about it and probably hurt them with the knowledge, or wait and see if it was a one-time thing that won’t ever happen again?
  • Is eating animals unethical or not? 
  • Is it ethical to test products on animals? 
  • If someone passed away in a car accident and their lungs could save someone’s life who would otherwise die before another donor became available, would it be wrong to use the lungs as a transplant if the person who passed was not a registered organ donor? 
  • Is it okay to harm one person if it means protecting others? 
  • Is being a billionaire in a world where people are starving unethical or do you feel that it is alright if they worked hard and earned their wealth? 
  • Is war ever ethical? 

Questions About Religion and Morality

These are profound questions that have to do with one’s worldview. Many of these topics, such as life after death, cannot know with certainty, but they are worth thinking about anyway. 

  • Is it possible to not believe anything, or does everyone have beliefs? 
  • What happens after death? 
  • Is there a god? 
  • Is there an afterlife? 
  • Do people have free will? 
  • Is your soul reborn after you die? 
  • Does your worldview impact the way you make day-to-day decisions? 
  • Where do people come from? 
  • Is there an age at which people are morally responsible for their decisions? 
  • Is there such a thing as fate? 
  • Is luck a real thing? 
  • Does chance exist? 
  • Does life have meaning? If so, what is the meaning of life? 
  • Does having a religious experience prove the existence of a god? 
  • Is there absolute truth? 
  • Who determines right from wrong? 
  • Is the world progressively becoming worse? 
  • Why does evil exist? 

Abstract Philosophical Questions

Topics like pain, suffering, beauty, and joy are a part of daily life, but how often do you stop to think about them? 

Use these questions to help you do just that! 

  • What is beauty? 
  • Are pain and beauty interconnected? 
  • Is it a shared element between a beautiful person, experience, or memory? 
  • Why do people value happiness, beauty, or joy? 
  • If your life were to end tomorrow, would you be happy with how you had spent your time? 
  • What would you want it to say if someone were to write a book about you? 
  • What gives your life meaning and purpose? 
  • Can pain be a good thing? 
  • Does learning a valuable lesson through suffering make it worth it? 
  • Is it essential to care for yourself, or is it more important to care for others? 
  • What is “failure?” 
  • Does failing at something mean you’re bad at it? 
  • Would getting rid of negative traits like aggression in all humans have any negative consequences? 
  • Would removing loss, sorrow, and pain impact one’s ability to enjoy life and love? 
  • What is the difference between happiness and joy?
  • What makes you happy? 
  • Can you choose to feel joy? 
  • What is friendship? 
  • Why do friendships sometimes end? 

Philosophical Questions About Art, Music, and Literature 

Art, music, and literature are essential ways that people express themselves and preserve culture. 

“Art is the window to man’s soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within.” —Lady Bird Johnson

Here are some questions to help you think critically about what art is and how it impacts you. 

  • What makes something “art?”
  • Is some art better than other art? 
  • Does art need to make a statement or have a deeper meaning? 
  • Is music art? 
  • Should artists be held responsible for the message of their art? 
  • Are artists morally obligated to give trigger warnings if their art could mentally or physically negatively impact someone? 
  • Should there be age restrictions on specific pieces of art? 
  • Should public nudity be acceptable when being presented as performance art? 
  • Should everyone be able to interpret a piece of art as they see it, or is there a “correct” interpretation of an art piece? 
  • Is it morally wrong for museums to display art that depicts slavery? Why or why not?
  • Should art taken as spoils of war be returned to the country it originated in? 
  • Is it wrong for educators to assign reading that demonstrates racism? 
  • Is it necessary to preserve history? 
  • Is it morally acceptable to enjoy art made by someone who did horrible things? 
  • Why do people enjoy looking at art? 
  • Why does music connect people? 
  • Should music be beautiful?
  • Is it essential for art to “make a statement?”
  • Would it be music if you and your friends were to hit pots and pans randomly? 
  • If it comes together when you’re hitting pots and pans and sounds nice, would it be music? 
  • If there is a room full of people talking, could that be categorized as music? 
  • What is the difference between “good” taste in art or music and “bad” taste? 
  • Can cooking be a form of art? 
  • What is the critical difference between a functional and artistically designed room? 
  • Is it possible that what one person sees as “yellow” is what someone else sees as “green,” but they’ve both learned to call it “yellow,” so they will never know? 

Society, Government, and Philosophical Dilemmas

  • Are there any innately evil governmental structures?
  • What would a perfect society look like?
  • How involved should governments be in caring for the individuals in their country?
  • If you could create your society, what would look different from the one where you live now?
  • What role should the government have in the lives of individuals?
  • What makes a good leader?
  • Can someone do a bad thing and still be a good person?
  • Is prison the best way to protect society and correct individuals?
  • Does the legal system function fairly?
  • Is technology good?
  • Can technology advance society in a way that is beneficial?
  • Are taxes morally right?
  • Should it be lawful for citizens to hold protests? What if a handful of the protestors make it violent?
  • What makes people work together despite differences?
  • Does societal advancement only happen with collaboration?
  • In what ways can disagreements advance society?
  • What makes a crime a crime?
  • How should citizens who believe the laws in their country be unjust behave? Is it okay for them to ignore those laws and are still bound to do what the law asks of them?
  • Is it morally wrong to abstain from voting?
  • Is it wrong for governments not to have healthcare available to all citizens?
  • Should things that are bad for people be banned by the government, or is it the individual’s responsibility to avoid harmful substances?
  • Is there an age at which people should be answerable for their actions?
  • Is it okay to limit immigration if a country is worried it will lose its culture?
  • Should the government regulate what food manufacturers can and can’t put in their food?
  • Is the government responsible for ensuring people receive a livable wage?
  • Should those who live an unhealthy lifestyle have decreased access to healthcare?
  • What would the ideal government look like?

Final Thoughts: Talk Philosophy with Other People 

When it comes to challenging topics like those raised by philosophy, it can be helpful to talk through them with others. Others can help raise perspectives that you may not have considered yourself. 

Philosophical questions can also make for interesting conversations with people you already know relatively well. Just remember to be respectful of people who have different viewpoints! 

Here are some ways you can use these questions: 

  • Over dinner with a few friends . How would your friends react if you asked about beauty’s nature or the purpose of life? It might be unexpected, but give it a try the next time you see them! Philosophy might not be the best topic if you’re with a big crowd of friends, but it can make for an exciting conversation with a group of four or five. 
  • With your significant other . How you perceive the world informs how you spend your money, what you believe about raising a family, and how you use your free time. It can be stressful, but deal-breaker conversations are essential if you want a relationship to become serious. 
  • With a son, daughter, niece, nephew, or another child in your life . Children have big questions about the world but may not know how to find the words for those questions. Try asking the children in your life an occasional philosophical question to help them begin to strengthen their critical thinking muscles. 

If you’re hosting a dinner party and want to talk about something a little less serious, consider using one of these 257 questions .

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