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Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker—Are You Willing to Begin?

When a person actively decides to take up the challenge to grow and develop as a thinker, that person enters the stage we call "beginning thinker." This is the stage of thinking in which one begins to take thinking seriously. This is a preparatory stage before one gains explicit command of thinking. It is a stage of dawning realizations. It is a stage of developing willpower. It is not a stage of self-condemnation but, rather, of emerging consciousness. It is analogous to the stage in which an alcoholic person recognizes and fully accepts the fact that he or she is an alcoholic. Imagine an alcoholic saying, "I am an alcoholic, and only I can do something about it." Now imagine yourself saying, "I am a weak, undisciplined thinker, and only I can do something about it."

Once people recognize that they are "addicted" to poor thinking, they must begin to recognize the depth and nature of the problem. As beginning thinkers, we should recognize that our thinking is sometimes egocentric. For example, we may notice how little we consider the needs of others and how much we focus on getting what we personally want. We may notice how little we enter the point of view of others and how much we assume the "correctness" of our own. We may even sometimes catch ourselves trying to dominate others to get what we want, or alternatively, acting out the role of submitting to others (for the gains that submissive behavior brings). We may begin to notice the extent to which we are conformists in our thinking.

As thinkers thinking about thinking, we are merely beginning to:

  • Analyze the logic of situations and problems;

  • Express clear and precise questions;

  • Check information for accuracy and relevance;

  • Distinguish between raw information and someone's interpretation of it;

  • Recognize assumptions guiding inferences;

  • Identify prejudicial and biased beliefs, unjustifiable conclusions, misused words, and missed implications;

  • Notice when our selfish interests bias our viewpoint.

Thus, as beginning thinkers we are becoming aware of how to deal with the structures at work in thinking (purposes, questions, information, interpretations, etc.). We are beginning to appreciate the value of thinking about our thinking in terms of its clarity, accuracy, relevance, precision, logicalness, justifiability, breadth, and depth. But we are still at a low level of proficiency in these activities. They feel awkward to us. We have to force ourselves to think in disciplined ways. We are like a beginner in ballet. We feel foolish adopting the basic positions. We don't feel graceful. We stumble and make mistakes. No one would pay money to watch us perform. We ourselves don't like what we see in the mirror of our minds.

To reach this beginning stage in thinking, our values must begin to shift. We must begin to explore the foundation of our thinking and discover how we have come to think and believe as we do. Let us consider this goal in a little more detail. Reflect now on some of the major influences that shaped your thinking (and ours):

  • You were born into a culture (European, American, African, Asian).

  • You were born at some point in time (in some century in some year).

  • You were born in some place (in the country, in the city, in the North or South, East or West).

  • You were raised by parents with particular beliefs (about the family, about personal relationships, about marriage, about childhood, about obedience, about religion, about politics, about schooling).

  • You formed various associations (largely based on who was around you—associations with people with a viewpoint, values, and taboos).

If you were to change any one of these influences, your belief system would be different. Suppose you had been born in the Middle Ages as a serf in the fields in France. Can you see that if you had, virtually all of your beliefs would be altered? See if you can perform similar reflective experiments of your own. For example, imagine other changes in these influences and then imaginatively compare some of the beliefs you likely would have with the beliefs you actually do have. You will begin to appreciate how much you, and every other human, are a product of influences over which you, and they, had little or no control. Neither you nor we directed these influences upon us. Their effects, clearly, were both good and bad.

If, for example, we assume that many of these influences engendered false beliefs in us, it follows that in our minds right now there are false beliefs and we are acting on them. Yet, notice that the mind has no mechanism for screening out false beliefs. We all carry around in our minds prejudices from our culture, prejudices from where we were born and raised, prejudices from our parents, and prejudices from our friends and associates. Finding ways to locate those flawed beliefs and replace them with more reasonable ones is part of the agenda of critical thinking.

Another way to look at the forces, rational and irrational that shaped our minds is in terms of "modes of influence."

For example, we think within a variety of domains: sociological, philosophical, ethical, intellectual, anthropological, ideological, political, economical, historical, biological, theological, and psychological. We ended up with our particular beliefs because we were influenced to do so in the following ways:

  • Vocational: our minds are influenced by our work environment;

  • Sociological: our minds are influenced by the social groups to which we belong;

  • Philosophical: our minds are influenced by our personal philosophy;

  • Ethical: our minds are influenced by the extent to which we behave in accordance with our obligations and the way we define our obligations;

  • Intellectual: our minds are influenced by the ideas we hold, by the manner in which we reason and deal with abstractions and abstract systems;

  • Anthropological: our minds are influenced by cultural practices, mores, and taboos;

  • Ideological and political: our minds are influenced by the structure of power and its use by interest groups around us;

  • Economic: our minds are influenced by the economic conditions under which we live;

  • Historical: our minds are influenced by our history and by the way we tell our history;

  • Biological: our minds are influenced by our biology and neurology;

  • Theological: our minds are influenced by our religious beliefs and attitudes;

  • Psychological: our minds are influenced by our personality and personal psychology;

  • Physiological: our minds are influenced by our physical condition, stature, and weight.

Reflections such as these should awaken in us a sense of how little we really know about our own minds. Our minds are largely unexplored worlds, inner worlds that have been taking shape for the whole of our lives. This inner world is the most important fact about us, for it is where we live. It determines our joy and frustration. It limits what we can see and imagine. It highlights what we do see. It can drive us crazy. It can provide us with solace, peace, and tranquility. If we can appreciate these facts about us, we will find the motivation to take charge of our thinking, to be something more than clay in the hands of others, to become, in fact, the ruling force in our own lives.

Test the Idea
Move to the Beginning Thinker Stage

Try to figure out the extent to which, and in what ways, your thinking has been influenced by the following factors:

  1. Your culture

  2. Your family

  3. Your personal history

  4. Your colleagues

  5. Your supervisors

As you do so, try to imagine how your thinking might be different if you had been born in a different culture with different influences than those you have had in your life. Obviously you cannot know precisely how you would differ, but the idea is to step outside yourself and imagine that if the above factors were different for you, your thinking would differ accordingly.

Let's now consider two lurking traps that can derail the beginning thinker:

Trap #1, the temptation of dogmatic absolutism—believing that truth is acquired not through reasoning and inquiry but, rather, through some predetermined nonintellectual faith.

Trap #2, the temptation of subjective relativism—believing that there are no intellectual standards by which to judge anything as true or false.

Both traps promise easy answers. To advance as a beginning thinker and not fall into one or the other of these traps requires developing confidence in reason as a way of acquiring sound knowledge and insight. These two pathologies are mirror images of each other. If we become either a subjective relativist or a dogmatic absolutist, we will lose our motivation to develop as a critical thinker. As a subjective relativist, we will come to believe that everyone automatically acquires "their own truth" in some inexplicable subjective way. As a dogmatic absolutist, we end up following wherever our "faith" leads us. In both cases, there is no real place for the intellectual work and discipline of critical thinking. Both render it superfluous. Both free us from any intellectual responsibility.

If we avoid these traps, if we recognize how we have been shaped by forces beyond our control, if we discover that there are skills that can help us begin to take charge of our minds, if we develop some initial confidence in reason, if we develop some intellectual humility and perseverance, we are ready to begin creating a genuine foundation on which we can rebuild our identity and character as thinkers and persons of integrity.

The key question is how? How exactly can we do this? We shall focus on this question to the end of this chapter. In a sense, it is the most vital goal of the whole book.

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