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The Essence of Critical Thinking

The Essence of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the very essence of scholarship. Broadly speaking, it pertains to analytical and evaluative thought. A critical thinker, then, does not unquestioningly accept the information they are presented with; on the contrary, the critical mind is always asking questions. We all employ critical thinking to some degree. For example, if someone offered to sell you some magic beans it is very likely you would approach this offer critically, which is to say politely decline. This is because you have critically evaluated the information presented; you have deconstructed the logical components therein and found something to be amiss. In effect, you have identified what you trust is a false premise (that the beans are magic) and this has led you to a logical conclusion (the purchase would be unwise). All critical thinking broadly follows this pattern: of accepting or rejecting premisses and inferring logical conclusions as a result. The above may be a colourful example but it serves as a useful mental referent to guide your thinking. As concerns scholarly work, you are always on the lookout for the magic beans, the false premise, the faulty reasoning that leads the critic astray and into false conclusions. Of course, in academic texts, such faulty reasoning can be difficult to locate; can be couched in subtle and apparently well-reasoned arguments. Nevertheless, there are certain methodical techniques you can learn to follow which lend themselves to critical analyses.

As stated above, critical thinking is all about asking questions. In consequence there are key questions that you should get in the habit of asking when engaged in scholarly work. In analysing an academic text, for example, you should always ask yourself what the work in question is trying to prove; how it is trying to prove this; and why it is trying to prove this. In each of these considerations you must seek to identify the premise upon which the author’s logic is founded. A good way of doing this is to try and see the author’s lines of arguments in terms of answers to specific questions. If you can figure out what these questions are, the relevant premisses will become apparent. Say, for instance, a text runs: “Military strength is the surest guarantee of political influence”. We could reverse engineer this assertion back to the question it seeks to answer: “What is the surest guarantee of political influence?” In so doing, we unveil its underlying premise, that there is such a thing as a “sure” guarantee of political influence. The question rests upon the validity of this supposed surety; otherwise the question would be nonsensical. Following on from this, we could critically scrutinise the author’s logic by alluding to the precarious premise on which it depends. For instance, we might write that “the author’s proposed equivalence between military strength and political influence is questionable because [and here is the critical crux] it presupposes that any assured means to such influence is attainable”. Thereafter, one might look to discover what, precisely, the author intends by “surest guarantee”, using the exact same process and, further, applying this process to other debatable components of the argument in question.

Another way of defining critical thinking would be as “logical thinking”. Critical thought depends upon formal logic, which pertains to deductive and inductive reasoning. Deduction denotes the process of drawing valid inferences from necessary premisses; where the general is reduced to the specific. This means that the inferences one derives from the given premise will necessarily afford valid conclusions as long as the premise is sound. So, we could form a deductive argument in this manner: all politically influential states have strong militaries; thus political influence comes from military strength. Now, this is sound logically because the deductive reasoning is sound; but the conclusion is faulty because the premise is false. Not all influential states do have strong militaries (Japan for example). Hence false premisses can lead the critic into error, even where their logic is sound. This is precisely the kind of misstep in reasoning the critical eye is always looking for. Inductive reasoning, by contrast, does not require the premisses necessarily to be sound in order to arrive at a valid conclusion. This is because induction moves from the specific to the general. Hence we could reason that, because a specific number of global superpowers have had significant military capabilities, and seeing as no superpower has been observed that did not possess such capability, the next superpower to emerge will have such capability. Note that this latter point, our conclusion, could still be true even if we were able to identify a superpower in history that was not militarily strong. If you can train your mind to locate such patterns as are outlined above, to detect and unravel false premisses, taking nothing for granted, then you will be a critical thinker.

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