Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity, but most of it is dormant and undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, ballet, or playing the saxophone. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don't do the work required for improvement.
Development in thinking is a gradual process requiring plateaus of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker by simply taking a beginning course. Changing one's habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker, examined briefly in Chapter 3, require an extended period of development.
Here are the stages we go through if we aspire to develop as thinkers Figure 5.1:
Stage 1 The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
Stage 2 The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)
Stage 3 The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve, but without regular practice)
Stage 4 The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)
Stage 5 The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)
Stage 6 The Master Thinker (skilled and insightful thinking becomes second nature)
In this chapter, we will explain the first four stages with the hope that understanding these stages, even at a provisional level, will help you begin to grasp what is necessary in order to develop as a thinker. Only through years of advanced practice can one become an "advanced" or "master" thinker.
We all are born as unreflective thinkers, fundamentally unaware of the role that thinking is playing in our lives. Most of us also die this way. At this unreflective stage, we have no useful conception of what thinking entails. For example, as unreflective thinkers we don't notice that we are continually making assumptions, forming concepts, drawing inferences, and thinking within points of view. At this stage, we don't know how to analyze and assess our thinking. We don't know how to determine whether our purposes are clearly formulated, our assumptions justified, or our conclusions logically drawn. We are unaware of intellectual traits and so are not striving to embody them.
At this stage poor thinking causes many problems in our lives, but we are unaware of this. We think of our beliefs as truth. We think of our decisions as sound. We lack intellectual standards and have no idea what such standards might be. We lack intellectual traits, but are not aware that we lack them. We unconsciously deceive ourselves in many ways. We create and maintain pleasant illusions. Our beliefs feel reasonable to us, and so we believe them with confidence. We walk about the world with confidence that things really are the way they appear to us. We judge some people to be "good" and some to be "bad." We approve of some actions. We disapprove of others. We make decisions, react to people, go our way in life, and do not seriously question the thinking we do or its implications.
At this stage, our egocentric tendencies play a dominant role in our thinking, yet we do not recognize this. We lack the skills and the motivation to notice how self-centered and prejudiced we are, how often we stereotype others, how frequently we irrationally dismiss ideas because we don't want to change our behavior or our comfortable way of looking at things.
Test the Idea
If you have trouble answering these questions, you may well be at the unreflective stage in your development as a thinker. If you are, you do not need to apologize for it or feel badly about it. Most people are at this stage and don't know it. Traditional schooling and the way people are typically reared do not help them become skilled thinkers. Often, parents and teachers themselves are unreflective thinkers. This is the product of a vicious circle. Unreflective persons raise unreflective persons. Once you recognize explicitly that you are at this stage, however, you are ready to move to the next stage. And when you move to the next stage, you may be close to breaking out of the vicious circle of unreflectiveness. This requires that we become honestly reflective - that we begin to notice some problems in our thinking, that we begin to recognize that our thinking is often egocentric and irrational, that changes in our own thinking are essential.
Honest reflectiveness leads to a healthy motivation to change. It is functional and productive. You must not only see problems in your thinking but also have some sense of how those problems might be addressed. You must become reasonably articulate about what you have to do to improve. Motivation is crucial. Without a drive to change, nothing of much significance will happen.
We cannot solve a problem we do not own. We cannot deal with a condition we deny. Without knowledge of our ignorance, we cannot seek the knowledge we lack. Without knowledge of the skills we need to develop, we will not develop those skills.
As we begin to become aware that "normal" thinkers often think poorly, we move into the second stage of critical thinking development. We begin to notice that we often:
Make questionable assumptions;
Use false, incomplete, or misleading information;
Make inferences that do not follow from the evidence we have;
Fail to recognize important implications in our thought;
Fail to recognize problems we have;
Form faulty concepts;
Reason within prejudiced points of view; and
Think egocentrically and irrationally.
We move to the "challenged" stage when we become aware of the way our thinking is shaping our lives, including the recognition that problems in our thinking are causing problems in our lives. We are beginning to recognize that poor thinking can be life-threatening, that it can lead literally to death or permanent injury, that it can hurt others as well as ourselves. For example, we might reflect upon the thinking of:
The person who is a perpetual procrastinator;
The irrational manager who can't understand why his employees "don't get it;"
The person who is angry at the world in general;
The teenager who thinks that smoking is cool;
The woman who thinks that Pap smears are not important;
The motorcyclist who reasons that helmets obstruct vision and, therefore, it is safer to ride without one;
The person who thinks he can drive safely while drunk;
The person who decides to marry a self-centered person with the thought that he or she will "change" after marriage.
We also recognize the difficulty involved in "improving" our thinking. If you are at this stage in your own thinking, you recognize that the problem of changing your habits of thought is an important challenge requiring extensive and difficult changes in your normal routines.
Some signs of emerging reflectiveness are that:
You find yourself striving to analyze and assess your thinking;
You find yourself working with the structures of mind that create, or make possible, thinking (for example: concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view);
You find yourself thinking about the qualities that make thinking sound - clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness - though you may have only an initial grasp of how these qualities can be achieved;
You find yourself becoming interested in the role of self-deception in thinking, though your understanding is relatively "abstract" and you may not be able to give many examples from your own life.
At this point in your development, there is a distinct danger of self-deception. Many resist accepting the true nature of the challenge - that their own thinking is a real and significant problem in their life. If you do as many do, you will revert to the unreflective stage. Your experience of thinking about your thinking will fade. Your usual habits of thought will remain as they are. For example, you may find yourself rationalizing in the following way:
My thinking is not that bad. Actually I've been thinking well for quite a while. I question a lot of things. I'm not prejudiced. Besides that, I'm very critical. And I'm not near as self-deceived as lots of people I know.
If you reason in this way, you will not be alone. You will join the majority. The view - "if everyone were to think like me, this would be a fine world" - is the dominant view. Those who share this view range from the poorly schooled to the highly schooled. There is no evidence to suggest that schooling correlates with human reflectiveness. Indeed, many college graduates are intellectually arrogant as a result of their schooling. There are unreflective thinkers who did not go beyond elementary school, but there are also ones who have done post-graduate work and now have advanced degrees; unreflective people are found in the upper, middle, and lower class. They include psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, senators, judges, governors, district attorneys, lawyers, and indeed people of all professions.
In short, absence of intellectual humility is common among all classes of people, in all walks of life and at all ages. It follows that active or passive resistance to the challenge of critical thinking is the common, not the rare case. Whether in the form of a careless shrug or outright hostility, most people reject the challenge of critical thinking. That is why some soul-searching is important at this point in the process.
Test the Idea
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
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.
Are you committed to regular practice? When people explicitly recognize that improvement in thinking requires regular practice, and adopt some regimen of practice, then, and only then, have they become what we call "practicing thinkers."
There is no one way to go about this process of designing a regimen of practice. There are many potential ways, some better, and some worse for you. For example, you might thumb through some of the other chapters of this resource. Each provides some suggestions for improving your thinking. You can use any of these suggestions as a starting point.
You might review the "Test the Idea" activities. You might study the elements of thought, the standards for thought, and the traits of mind. You might analyze Chapter 9, on making intelligent decisions, and Chapters 15 and 16, on strategic thinking. Think of it this way: Everything you read in this resource represents a resource for you to use in devising a systematic plan for improving your thinking. It's a good idea to read it with this orientation.
If you are like most people, you can discover some practical starting points. The problem will be in following through on any that you find. This is the problem in most areas of skill development: People do not usually follow through. They do not establish habits of regular practice. They are discouraged by the strain and awkwardness of early attempts to perform well.
You need to make decisions regarding a plan you think is do-able for you. This means a plan you can live with, one that will not burn you out or overwhelm you. Ultimately, success comes to those who are persistent and who figure out strategies for themselves.
Still, at this stage you probably don't know for sure what will work for you, only what seems like it might. You have to field-test your ideas. To be realistic, you should expect to experiment with a variety of plans before you find one that works well for you.
What you should guard against is discouragement. You can best avoid discouragement by recognizing from the outset that you are engaged in the field-testing of plans. You should prepare yourself for temporary failure. Success is to be understood as the willingness to work your way through a variety of relative failures. The logic is analogous to trying on clothes. Many that you try may not fit or look good on you, but you plod on anyway with the confidence that eventually you will find something that fits and looks good on you.
Consider another analogy. If you want to become skilled at tennis, you improve not by expecting yourself to begin as an expert player. You improve not by expecting to win every game you play or by mastering new strokes with little practice. Rather, you improve when you develop a plan that you can modify as you see what improves your "game." Today you may decide to work on keeping your eye on the ball. Tomorrow you may coordinate watching the ball with following through as you swing. Every day you rethink your strategies for improvement. Development of the human mind is quite parallel to the development of the human body. Good theory, good practice, and good feedback are essential.
As you begin to take your thinking seriously, you need to think about what you can do consistently every day to improve your thinking. Because excellence in thinking requires a variety of independent skills and traits that work together, you can choose to work on a range of critical thinking skills at any given point in time. The key is in focusing on fundamentals and on making sure that you don't try to do too much. Choose your point of attack, but limit it. If you overdo it, you will probably give up entirely. But if you don't focus on fundamentals, you will never have them as a foundation in your thought.
Start slowly, and emphasize fundamentals. The race is to the tortoise, not the hare. Be a good and wise tortoise. The solid, steady steps you take every day are what determine where you ultimately end up.
There is nothing magical about the ideas we have put together to stimulate your thought about a game plan. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible point of attack, one way to begin to do something plausible to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can't do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these. You can add any others you find in this resource or come up with yourself. We will explain how this works after you familiarize yourself with some of the options.
The key is that the time is "spent," and if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would not have deliberately spent our time in that way. So our idea is this: Why not take advantage of the time you normally waste, by practicing good thinking during that time. For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, you could spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. You might ask yourself questions like these:
When did I do my worst thinking today?
When did I do my best thinking?
What did I actually think about today?
Did I figure out anything?
Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily?
If I had to repeat today, what would I do differently? Why?
Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals?
Did I do what I set out to do? Why or why not?
Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values?
If I were to spend every day this way for 10 years, would I, at the end, have accomplished something worthy of that time?
It is important to take a little time with each question. It also would be useful (perhaps in a daily journal) to record your observations so you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize. As time passes, you also will be able to look back and search for patterns in your daily thinking and in your observations and assessments of that thinking.
Describe only situations that are emotionally significant to you (situations you care deeply about);
Describe only one situation at a time;
Describe (and keep this separate) what you did in response to that situation (being specific and exact);
Analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation; dig beneath the surface;
Assess the implications of your analysis. (What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could relive the situation?)
Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection. What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what you did? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved, you are probably engaging in self-deception.) (See Chapter 10 for more ways to identify egocentric thinking.)
Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive definitions. As a result, we can gain when otherwise we would have lost. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad. We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this game plan, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this game plan practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative situations in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We then could identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. Next, we would choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as our new emotions.
Suppose, for example, you are not a "morning person," that is, you do not like to get up early in the morning, preferring instead to sleep late. But let's say that your job requires you to get up early. You do not have a choice about whether to get up early. But you do have a choice about how you define the situation. You can either, on a daily basis, resent having to get up early, or you can redefine how you see your circumstance. You can remind yourself, for example, that you are able to get more done if you get an early start. You can focus your mental energy on being more productive (rather than being grumpy). Perhaps you have to get up early enough to see the sunrise, something you would never be able to see with a habitual pattern of sleeping late. If so, you can find daily pleasure in waking up with the sunrise.
Or let's say that you are in a job that is eliminated by the company for which you have worked for many years. As a result you are angry, dwelling on the injustice of the situation. But you have a choice. You can wallow in your resentment, or you can redefine the situation. You can see your unemployment as an opportunity to do something new; something interesting, something you would never have done had you not lost your job. Perhaps you decide to go back to college. Perhaps you decide to enter a new field of employment. The point is that you can choose not to be trapped by your thinking. Rather, you can take every opportunity you find to make lemonade out of lemons.
Or let's imagine that you feel constantly swamped at work. It seems that everyday is another day of too much work and not enough time. When you use your thinking to sort through your priorities and become creative about how to get your work done, you can begin to take control of the situation rather than being controlled by it. Instead of feeling frustration and anxiety, you can refuse to be a victim in the situation. In other words, you can define the situation differently in your mind. Instead of focusing on what you aren't getting done, you can focus on what you are accomplishing. Instead of doing all the work yourself, you might be able to delegate it or outsource it. In other words, through your thinking, you can redefine the situation, thereby redefining the way you experience it. (We are not assuming that doing this will be EASY. You may want to practice doing this in small ways first.)
When designing strategies, the key point is that you are engaged in an experiment. You are testing strategies in your professional and personal life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in light of your actual experience. All strategies have advantages and disadvantages. One plausible way to do this is to work with all of the strategies on the list below in any order of your choosing:
Suppose you find the strategy, "Redefine the way you see things" to be intuitive to you, so you use it to begin. Soon you find yourself noticing many situations in your life in which social definitions become obvious. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions these situations imply:
You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations and relationships enables you to "get in touch with your emotions." You recognize that the way you think (that is, you define things) generates the emotions you feel. When you think you are threatened (you define a situation as "threatening"), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a "failure," you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a "lesson or opportunity to learn," you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.
Next consider how you could integrate strategy #10 ("Analyze group influences on your life") into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is to control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to use. When a group defines some things as "cool" and some as "dumb," members of the group try to appear "cool" and not appear "dumb." When the boss of a business says, "That makes a lot of sense," his subordinates know they are not to say, "No, it is ridiculous." They know this because defining someone as the "boss" gives him or her special privileges to define situations and relationships.
You now have three strategies interwoven: You "redefine the way you see things," "get in touch with your emotions," and "analyze group influences on your life." The three strategies are integrated into one. You now can experiment with any of those below, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life:
Use wasted time.
Handle a problem a day.
Internalize intellectual standards.
Keep an intellectual journal.
Practice intellectual strategies.
Reshape your character.
Deal with your ego.
If you follow through on a plan, you are going beyond being a beginning thinker; you are becoming a "practicing" thinker. Good luck in your pursuit of a plan for yourself.