Two Kinds of Critical Thinking


Editor’s introduction: The statements below are a response from the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (AILACT) to a dialogue between one of its members and NAS president Peter Wood. We cross-post it here with the permission of the AILACT board. We have embedded links to the relevant Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) articles that sparked the discussion. 

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In posts under the Innovations section of the on-line Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 21 and Dec. 4, 2011), Peter Wood has decried certain trends in higher education and the teaching of humanities in particular which he believes have been touted as critical thinking by those advocating or participating in those trends. His statements in turn have prompted a protest from Don Lazere, a member of AILACT, that Dr. Wood has unfairly attacked critical thinking as understood and taught currently on college campuses in the United States or as it ideally should be taught. This has prompted an exchange in threads issuing from these blogs on the Chronicle website and in an exchange of e-mails on AILACT-D in which Dr. Wood and other members of AILACT have participated. These exchanges have led to a further blog by Dr. Wood (Jan. 6), dealing explicitly with the meaning of “critical thinking,” and an ensuing discussion thread. Since AILACT has been cited by name in these discussions, the Board feels it incumbent on them to reply.


The Board first notes and underscores that in both the Nov. 21 and Dec. 4 blogs, Dr. Wood has put “critical thinking” (or a cognate) in scare quotes. This should put the reader on notice that Dr. Wood is not attacking critical thinking as such, but what he regards as a distortion of critical thinking and the proper use of the term. The context of Dr. Wood’s use of “critical thinking” in his Nov. 21 blog is a protest against what he perceives as the loss of required study of the core texts of Western civilization in the current undergraduate humanities curriculum. Indeed, his outcry goes further, protesting losing the sense that we have lost anything important from our intellectual heritage. In this context, Dr. Wood remarks, “The stance of generalized antagonism to the whole of Western civilization and the elevation of ‘critical thinking’ in the sense of facile reductionism (everything at bottom is about race-gender-class hierarchy) makes the university function more and more as our society’ [sic] chief source of anti-intellectualism” (italics added). 

Antagonism to Western civilization and an advocacy of race-gender-class power analysis as the proper method of doing critical thinking has nothing to do with critical thinking as understood by AILACT. To the contrary, should those advocating these positions formulate their views as propositional claims, those advocating critical thinking as AILACT understands it might be the first both to challenge them, by pointing out that they have incurred a burden of proof to defend these claims, and to furnish critical–i.e. logical and epistemological–tools for evaluating their arguments, should such arguments be forthcoming.

In his Dec. 4 blog, Dr. Wood is again concerned with the loss of regard for the intellectual tradition as having an integrity and with seeing it merely as “reducible to self-aggrandizing fantasies of the powerful.” He decries an education which would produce a “critical thinker” equipped “to take everything apart but not to put anything together.” Again, making such shallow thinkers is not a goal of critical thinking pedagogy and engaging in such shallow thinking is no part of critical thinking practice as conceived by AILACT. Indeed, proper instruction in critical thinking would aim for just the opposite. Suppose someone puts forward an argument that given certain reasons, some claim is acceptable, other things being equal. To evaluate critically whether this argument renders the claim acceptable, one must ask in particular whether other things really are equal, and this requires bringing one’s knowledge of potential rebuttals to bear on the evaluation, which certainly counts as putting things together. But maybe other things are equal. If a conclusion has been properly defended with argument, i.e. if the premises are justified and constitute relevant and sufficient grounds, the conclusion is acceptable. Critical thinking studies positive criteria of premise acceptability, relevance, and ground adequacy, not just reasons why an argument may be fallacious. 

What then, in contrast to the misuse of “critical thinking” which Dr. Wood protests, is AILACT’s understanding of the term? This question has produced a posting of e-mails by some AILACT members to which Dr. Wood has responded in his Jan. 6 blog, where he contrasts “critical thinking” with genuine critical thinking going back in the Western tradition to Plato. Dr. Wood considers six characterizations of critical thinking which Bob Ennis has supplied, of which Dr. Ennis’ own–“reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do”–is a classic. Such reflective thinking includes not only considering whether a proposed claim or course of action requires explicit reasons for its justification but also, should reasons be forthcoming, whether they are good reasons. To be good, a reason must be acceptable–justified in the light of one’s evidence, relevant to the claim or action being defended, and together with the other acceptable and relevant reasons proffered, constitute grounds adequate to accept the claim or undertake the action. Dr. Ennis’ list includes two quotes from John Dewey, and Dr. Wood rightly perceives Dewey as an intellectual ancestor of the critical thinking movement as understood by AILACT. 

This raises an interesting question. Assuming Dr. Wood is correct about usage, in light of how “critical thinking” is currently used at large in the academy, at least in the humanities outside philosophy, is AILACT’s use of the term, and its use in philosophy departments, idiosyncratic? Dr. Wood in effect makes this charge when he says “the AILACT folks on the whole seem to think that the term ‘critical thinking’ is the special province of philosophy departments and that it is irrelevant that the term is used in ways they don’t approve of in other university contexts.” There may be much truth in what Dr. Woods says here. But our usage may not be totally idiosyncratic. As Dr. Ennis observes, “critical thinking” could not be included in so many mission statements if it meant what Dr. Wood sees it as meaning. Of course, what a mission statement says and how that mission is put into effect may be two totally different things.  But even if our usage is idiosyncratic, it does not follow that members of AILACT wilfully disregard the use of “critical thinking” in other areas of academia. Disciplinarity sets boundaries, and those in one discipline need not be much aware of what goes on in others. But surely each discipline has the right to identify one of multiple meanings a term may have as the meaning of the term within that discipline.  A fortiori, it has this right if the meaning it identifies as its own has had a significant use in the past and alternative meanings are arguably misappropriations of the term.  “Argument” from the point of view of logic has nothing to do with barroom brawls. This is a point to make on the first day of logic class. We may thank Dr. Wood for showing that teachers of philosophy courses dealing with critical thinking should make an analogous point concerning “critical thinking.” 

In this connection, we protest a comment Dr. Wood makes about members of AILACT, which even he feels may be unfair. Members of AILACT, together with other members of philosophy departments, may be an island in a relativist or postmodernist sea. But, given Dr. Ennis’ definition of critical thinking and our explication of reflective thinking, we are at a loss to see how this makes us leftists. Likewise neither are we blithely ignorant of facts–even facts about the corrupt uses of “critical thinking” (witness Dr. Lazere’s reply to Dr. Wood in the comments to his Jan. 6 blog) nor do we carry out our research into the theory and pedagogy of critical thinking in the spirit of “congratulating one another on [our] insights into the theory of critical thinking.” As scholars, we are concerned with facts pertinent to our discipline and subject our research to peer review. 

We must also respond to some comments Dr. Wood makes about critical thinking and general education in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Dr. Wood agrees that the original intent to require instruction in critical thinking understood as logic and argumentation was good. The problem is that whenever a good thing comes along, a bad corruption may not be far behind. In the early 1980s, members of the critical thinking community recognized a serious threat in the proliferation of “quick fix” solutions–Critical thinking in 15 easy steps! Make your students critical thinkers in 10 hour-long lessons!–being marketed especially for the pre-college level. Now, as is generally recognized in academe, departments are under pressure to increase enrollments. If critical thinking is made a requirement, then let’s get a share of the students. Don’t we all teach critical thinking? It is this, together with a zeitgeist of relativism, postmodernism, and reductionism, which should be blamed for the corruption of “critical thinking,” not advocacy for making critical thinking a general education requirement. 

In summary, Dr. Wood has made it clear that there are at least two radically different senses of “critical thinking.” He deplores critical thinking in one sense, which he regards as the current predominantly used sense in college humanities departments; he accepts and endorses the other. We regret that some members of AILACT have failed to see that Dr. Wood’s critique was directed to this stereotypical sense of “critical thinking,” which we regard as atypical of how the term has been used historically but which reflects the postmodernism of certain areas in the academy. But we strongly maintain that it is critical thinking as denoted by the second and historical sense that AILACT advocates. If anything, Dr. Wood has taught us that when the occasion is appropriate, we should highlight these two senses, disassociate ourselves from the first, and make it clear that we are concerned with what the second identifies. We only ask in return that when Dr. Wood criticizes “critical thinking,” he make clear that it is not the activities denoted by the historical–and we claim standard–sense, which we emphatically assert to be our sense, which is under his attack.

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