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Chapter 7. The Standards for Thinking

One of the fundamentals of critical thinking is the ability to assess one's own reasoning. To be good at assessment requires that we consistently take apart our thinking and examine the parts with respect to standards of quality. We do this using criteria based on clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logicalness, and significance. Critical thinkers recognize that, whenever they are reasoning, they reason to some purpose (element of reasoning). Implicit goals are built into their thought processes. But their reasoning is improved when they are clear (intellectual standard) about that purpose or goal. Similarly, to reason well, they need to know that, consciously or unconsciously, they are using information (element of reasoning) in thinking. But their reasoning improves if and when they make sure that the information they are using is accurate (intellectual standard).

Put another way, when we assess our reasoning, we want to know how well we are reasoning. We do not identify the elements of reasoning for the fun of it. Rather, we assess our reasoning using intellectual standards because we realize the negative consequences of failing to do so. In assessing our reasoning, then, we recommend these intellectual standards as minimal:

  • Clarity

  • Relevance

  • Logicalness

  • Accuracy

  • Depth

  • Significance

  • Precision

  • Breadth

  • Fairness

These are not the only intellectual standards a person might use. They are simply among those that are most fundamental. In this respect, the elements of thought are more basic, because the eight elements we have identified are universal—present in all reasoning of all subjects in all cultures. On the one hand, one cannot reason with no information about no question from no point of view with no assumptions. On the other hand, there are a wide variety of intellectual standards from which to choose—such as credibility, predictability, feasibility, and completeness—that we don't use routinely in assessing reasoning.

As critical thinkers, then, we think about our thinking with these kinds of questions in mind: Am I being clear? Accurate? Precise? Relevant? Am I thinking logically? Am I dealing with a matter of significance? Is my thinking justifiable in context? Typically, we apply these standards to one or more elements.

Test the Idea
Beginning to Think About Intellectual Standards

Consider the list of intellectual standards below. Then try to identify times in your work when you have explicitly focused on them. For example, can you think of a time in a meeting where you focused on clarifying what someone was saying? Can you think of a time when you questioned the relevance of what someone was saying (e.g., "How is this relevant to the issue we are discussing?") Can you think of a time when you questioned the fairness of a potential decision?

Here are the standards to consider:

  • Clarity

  • Relevance

  • Logicalness

  • Accuracy

  • Depth

  • Significance

  • Precision

  • Breadth

  • Fairness

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