Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: thinking, critical from The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

A cognitive strategy consisting largely of continual checking and testing of possible solutions to guide one's work. Critical thinking is often contrasted with creative thinking (see CREATIVITY) in that the latter leads to new insights and solutions while the former functions to test existing ideas and solutions for flaws or errors.

Summary Article: Critical Thinking
From Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy

The invention of critical thinking often is attributed to the early Greeks, especially to Socrates, some 2,500 years ago. Wherever it began, critical thinking properly is called an invention, as noted by the important 20th-century philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper. Its emergence in the human species was not inevitable. It found a catalyst in the Socratic method, an approach to solving problems that relies on posing a series of questions the answers to which result in solutions to the problems. Thus, critical thinking can be thought of as an intellectual technology—an artifact designed to accomplish certain ends.

The critical examination of proposed solutions to problems often is hailed as the method of all rational discussion. The idea of criticism is not meant to be one of finding fault—in the sense intended, a person offering criticism might provide either a positive or a negative assessment. The key is that the criticism is accompanied by reasons, which point, in the case of negative criticism, to possible routes to improvement.

Critical thinking finds a natural home in education, because it has been equated to rationality. As such, critical thinking is central to education for several reasons. One reason related to the growth of knowledge, both in society and in individuals, is that critical thinking is the basis of the academic disciplines on which education places special emphasis. A moral reason for critical thinking is that dealing rationally with others—that is, dealing with them on the basis of reasons—is a key way of showing respect for those others, including students. When thought of in this manner, critical thinking must play a major role in formulating educational goals and in designing educational interventions.

This entry deals first with early and later formulations of the concept of critical thinking; second, with two major controversies that occupy much of the debate within the field, both dealing with different aspects of the generality of critical thinking; third, with the relationship between critical thinking and a cognate area of study, informal logic, that resides primarily within philosophy departments; and, finally, with attempts to reach consensus on the meaning of critical thinking.

Early Formulations

The earliest uses of the term critical thinking in the 20th century were outside of the context of elementary and secondary (K–12) education. Critical thinking was associated closely with logic and with postsecondary education, as one can find in the work of Max Black. With such affiliations to logic, the concept of critical thinking referred to generalized standards and principles of reasoning on which reasons for judgments could be based. According to this view, reasons require generalized standards and principles as their basis, else they cannot serve as reasons. Consider an example. A person wishes to defend the continued exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources and offers as a reason that the economy would suffer otherwise. When asked about why the economy matters, the person might respond that a suffering economy would lead to greater unemployment and more widespread pain and deprivation and that human pain and deprivation are to be avoided. The latter claim, that human pain and deprivation are to be avoided, is an example of a generalized standard to which one can appeal in order to support a very wide variety of other claims, including the one here about hydrocarbons. Lacking an acceptable generalized claim such as this one, the claim about hydrocarbons would appear arbitrary and as serving a narrow interest.

Critical thinking was brought into the K–12 educational context in the late 1950s by B. Othanel Smith and in the early 1960s by a seminal article authored by Robert Ennis. The focus continued to be on correctly assessing statements, which was proposed as the central meaning of critical thinking. The attention to statement assessment kept critical thinking tied very much to truth seeking and to the formation of belief—not in the sense of faith or trust but in the sense of conviction based on reasons and evidence.

Later Formulations

Critical thinking attracted considerable academic attention in the final two decades of the 20th century. During this period of active philosophical debate, three notable advances were made in the conception of critical thinking that have become widely accepted by the most prominent theorists in the field. The ideas marking these advances already were nascent in the earlier formulations, but it took concerted attention to the meaning of critical thinking to render them more clearly and to bring them to widespread attention.

The first advance was the growing recognition that critical thinking must be focused not only on what to believe but also on what to do. This shift in focus meant that critical thinking must be directed to finding both what is true and what is right. Critical thinking would remain thinking based on generalized principles and standards, but these principles and standards would have to be expanded to include ones applicable to the moral and ethical domain, the touchstone disciplines for the study of right action.

The second advance was the realization that critical thinking must be directed toward the self as much as it is toward others. That is, it is necessary for critical thinkers to be fair-minded by assessing what they have said and done in addition to what others have said and done. Yet more than this is required. In making assessments of what others have said and done, critical thinkers must turn their critical thinking on their own assessments to guard against biases and unjustified assumptions that may have skewed these. It is incumbent on the critical thinker to be self-aware and to attempt as much as possible to eliminate or compensate for threats to fairness in judgment.

The third advance was to stress that critical thinking arises from a certain sort of character. The implication of this thought is that it is not enough to teach students how to think critically and to expect them to be critical thinkers. In addition to the knowledge of principles and standards, and to the skills of credibility assessment, making inferences, and analyzing arguments, students need to acquire critical thinking dispositions (such as fair-mindedness mentioned above) and the disposition to think critically when it is appropriate to do so. The fostering of dispositions is quite a different matter from the teaching of knowledge and skills. A person might have all the knowledge and skills needed to be a critical thinker, yet he or she may choose not to think critically or choose not to do so as frequently as appropriate.

The upshot of these three advances is that by the turn of the 21st century, critical thinking was not simply another educational goal with academic consequences, such as educating for better-thinking scientists. Teaching critical thinking was seen as an effort to instill character. In the first instance, critical thinkers were to focus on making decisions that lead to right actions—that is, on actions that can be justified by sound moral and ethical reasoning. Second, critical thinkers must focus on their own thoughts and hold themselves to the same standards of critical thinking to which they hold others. Third, critical thinkers must be fair- and open-minded individuals who base their decisions about what to believe and do on reasoned reflection. So, in addition to a manner of thinking, critical thinking had been elevated to a moral stance that educational systems should adopt and to which teachers and students should be encouraged to aspire.

Subject Specificity

One of the most heated debates about critical thinking concerns its generality. The debate has been framed in at least three ways. First, there is the question of whether critical thinking taught in one domain of knowledge or subject area will transfer in use to other areas. The doubters have said that little transfer occurs and can be expected to occur, so there is little reason to attempt to teach critical thinking in general. Critical thinking should be taught in the context of each subject. Some, however, have argued that at least the most general logical principles transfer from one subject to another, and perhaps other principles transfer as well, such as those used to assess the credibility of sources or to discern the structure of an argument. Moreover, some involved in the debates have argued that critical thinking dispositions, such as open- and fair-mindedness and the disposition to think critically when appropriate, are fully transferable from one domain to another. Still another group maintains that considerable conceptual clarification about the distinction between domains and subject areas is needed before empirical research can yield any answers to the question of critical thinking generality understood in this sense. Where, for example, does biology end and chemistry begin? If you think there is a clear line between these subjects, then what is to be made of the subject of biochemistry? Yet, unless a clear line can be drawn, what sense can be made of the claim that critical thinking taught in the context of biology will not transfer to thinking critically in chemistry?

Second, there is the question of whether the principles and standards of critical thinking vary from subject to subject. There is a group of theorists who have argued that critical thinking simply is different in, for example, physics than it is in history. According to this group, there is nothing to transfer from one subject to another—critical thinking must be taught in the context of each subject because it is manifested differently in each one. Critics of this view respond much as they do the first position. They maintain that the same general logical principles apply in history as they do in physics; that judging the credibility of a source of information relies on the same principles and standards in history as it does in physics; and that being open and fair minded are the same dispositions in each field. Finally, there are those who point out the vagueness in the distinction between subjects. If you wish to maintain that the principles and standards of critical thinking are different from subject to subject, what do you say about a subject like biomechanical engineering housed in a medical school? You need to be able to distinguish that subject from biology, from engineering, and from medicine.

Third, there is the claim made most prominent by John McPeck that because critical thinking is always thinking about something, there is no sense in talking of critical thinking in general. Because no sense can be made of critical thinking in general, critical thinking in general cannot be taught. This argument has been rejected widely because it fails to demonstrate a link between the two propositions. Several analogous cases have been proposed where the connection does not hold. For example, although bike riding is always riding some bike in particular, that does not mean there is no bike riding ability in general. The defender of the view needs to show that even though the connection does not hold in the bike-riding example, it still does hold in the critical thinking example because the examples are not analogous. No defender has successfully made this case.

Critical and Creative Thinking

Another challenge to the generality of critical thinking is that it leaves out an important form of thought—creative thinking. Theorists of creative thinking have tended to reject this characterization. On the one hand, it is a documented fact that inventions, scientific discoveries, and artistic performances—all undeniably creative achievements—require the exercise of critical judgment in their execution. On the other hand, critical thinking typically requires imagining alternatives and likely outcomes and devising approaches to problems—once more, all undeniably creative achievements. Thus, it is broadly recognized that critical thinking plays an essential role in creative thinking and that creativity is at the heart of thinking critically.

Critical Thinking and Informal Logic

There are two other fields of study, informal logic and argumentation, that are aligned closely with the study of critical thinking. The second of these is associated primarily with the field of linguistics and will not be discussed further in this entry. The first, informal logic, finds its home in philosophy departments and has fostered a link with philosophers of education. Informal logic began in part as an alternative to formal logic, which of course is an important part of the philosophy curriculum in colleges and universities. The issue was that formal logic does not help an individual deal with everyday problems, framed in everyday language, that nevertheless require systematic thought—or at least, formal logic does not provide such help clearly or directly. Informal logic grew as an attempt to provide such systematization. The primary focus of informal logic is on arguments (i.e., lines of reasoning offered to support conclusions)—how to analyze their structure, how to identify implicit statements in them, how to assess them, and how to counter them. As such, informal logic is closely related to critical thinking, but it differs in having a narrower focus. Nevertheless, the areas of study are closely allied.

A Consensus Meaning

It is sensible to ask whether consensus exists on the meaning of critical thinking. About two decades ago, the American Philosophical Association sponsored a study that attempted to answer this question. The research employed a Delphi method, which involved a panel of experts participating in several rounds of discussion aimed at achieving consensus on answers to a series of questions. (The consensus was understood as a majority judgment, not a unanimous one.) The characterization of critical thinking as consisting in skills and dispositions was supported by the report. Although not explicit on the question of the generality of critical thinking, the entire tone and mode of expression of the report implied clearly that critical thinking was thought to be generalizable to all or most subjects and problems requiring good thinking. Close affinity with creative thinking was acknowledged but not explored beyond that. Long lists of critical thinking skills and subskills and dispositions were provided, and consensus was claimed about these. However, given the research method employed and the argumentative nature of the field, it is perhaps wise to place less trust in the claimed consensus on the specifics than on generalities such as the two named earlier in this paragraph.

See also Education, Concept of; Epistemology, Multicultural; Knowledge, Analysis of; Popper, Karl; Rationality and Its Cultivation; Socrates and Socratic Dialogue

Further Readings
  • Bailin, S. (1994). Achieving extraordinary ends: An essay on creativity. Ablex Norwood NJ.
  • Black, M. (1946). Critical thinking. Prentice Hall Englewood Cliffs NJ.
  • Ennis, R. H. (1962). A concept of critical thinking. Harvard Educational Review, 32, 81-111.
  • Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction: Research findings and recommendations. American Philosophical Association Newark DE. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED315423).
  • McPeck, J. E. (1990). Teaching critical thinking. Routledge, Chapman & Hall New York NY.
  • Norris, S. P. (Ed.). (1992). The generalizability of critical thinking. Teachers College Press New York NY.
  • Paul, R. (1981). Teaching critical thinking in the “strong” sense: A focus on self-deception, world views, and a dialectical mode of analysis. Informal Logic, 4(2), 2-7.
  • Popper, K. R. (1994). The myth of the framework. Routledge London England.
  • Siegel, H. (1988). Educating reason: Rationality, critical thinking, and education. Routledge New York NY.
  • Smith, B. O. (1953). The improvement of critical thinking. Progressive Education, 30(5), 129-134.
  • Stephen P. Norris
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

    Related Articles

    Full text Article CRITICAL THINKING
    Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

    The processes and products of inquiry deriving from practices of reflexive thinking and critical debate. The idea of a community of critical...

    Full text Article Lateral thinking
    Reader's Guide to the Social Sciences

    Burt Ronald S. , Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition , Cambridge , Massachusetts : Harvard University Press ,...

    Full text Article Critical Thinking
    Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia

    Critical thinking, though variously defined, refers to good thinking and is connected with rationality and the appeal to reason. Many theorists...

    See more from Credo