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Chapter 6. The Parts of Thinking

One of the most important sets of skills in thinking develops through one's understanding of the parts of thinking. In other words, we are better able to find problems in our thinking when we are able to take our thinking apart. In this chapter, we focus on these parts. In the next chapter, we focus on intellectual standards, the key to the assessment of thinking.

Thus, as you work through this chapter and the next, you will begin to understand some of the most fundamental concepts critical thinkers use on a daily basis, for it is through the analysis and assessment of thinking that critical thinking occurs. To analyze thinking we must be able to take thinking apart and scrutinize how we are using each part. Once we have done so, we apply the standards for thinking to those parts (standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, logicalness, fairness, etc.). Once we have a clear understanding of the parts of thinking (or elements of reasoning) and the intellectual standards, and once we begin to use them in our thinking on a daily basis, we begin to see the quality of our lives significantly improve.

Figure 6.1. Critical thinkers routinely apply the intellectual standards to the elements of reasoning in order to develop intellectual traits.

Standards, Elements, Intellectual Traits

Here we begin with a brief discussion of reasoning, the mental process the mind uses to make sense of whatever we seek to understand.

Reasoning Is Everywhere in Human Life

The words thinking and reasoning are used in everyday life as virtual synonyms. Reasoning, however, has a more formal flavor. This is because it highlights the intellectual dimension of thinking.

Reasoning occurs whenever the mind draws conclusions on the basis of reasons. We draw conclusions whenever we make sense of things. The result is that whenever we think, we reason. Usually we are not aware of the full scope of reasoning in our lives.

We begin to reason from the moment we wake up in the morning. We reason when we figure out what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, whether to stop at the store on the way to school, whether to go with this or that friend to lunch. We reason as we interpret the oncoming flow of traffic, when we react to the decisions of other drivers, when we speed up or slow down. We reason when we figure out solutions to problems. We reason when we formulate problems. We reason when we argue.

One can draw conclusions, then, about everyday events or, really, about anything at all: about strategic planning, newspaper articles, poems, microbes, people, numbers, historical events, social settings, psychological states, character traits, the past, the present, or the future.

To reason well, we must scrutinize the process we are using. What are we trying to figure out? What information do we need? Do we have that information? How could we check it for accuracy? The less conscious we are of how we are thinking, the easier it is to make some mistake or error.

Test the Idea
Becoming More Aware of the Role of Reasoning in Your Life

Make a list of all the things you did today. Then, for each act, figure out the thinking that led you to do, or guided you while doing, the act. (Remember that most of your thinking is unconscious.) For example, when you left your house this morning, you may have stopped at the store for food. This act makes no sense unless you somehow had come to the conclusion that you needed some food. Then, while at the store, you bought a certain number of items. This action resulted from the tacit conclusion you came to that you needed some items and not others.

Realize that every time you make a decision, that decision represents a view or conclusion you reasoned to. For each action you identify, answer these two questions: 1) What exactly did I do? and 2) What thinking is presupposed in my behavior?

Does Reasoning Have Parts?

The parts of thinking can also be called the elements of reasoning or the fundamental structures of thought. We will use these expressions interchangeably. The elements or parts of reasoning are those essential dimensions of reasoning that are present whenever and wherever reasoning occurs - independent of whether we are reasoning well or poorly (Figure 6.2). Working together, these elements shape reasoning and provide a general logic to the use of thought.

Figure 6.2. These parts or elements of reasoning are always present in human thinking.

Elements of Reasoning

When we become adept at identifying the elements of our reasoning (Figure 6.3), we are in a much better position to recognize flaws in our thinking, by locating problems in this or that part. We are in a much better position, in other words, to analyze the mistakes in our thinking (or mistakes in the thinking of others).

Figure 6.3. Critical thinkers understand the importance of taking thinking apart in order to analyze it for flaws.

Dissect Thinking

Beginning to Think About Your Own Reasoning

Reasoning is a process whereby one draws conclusions on the basis of reasons. On the surface, reasoning seems somewhat simple, as if it has no component structures. Looked at more closely, however, it implies the ability to engage in a set of interrelated intellectual processes.

It is useful to practice making conscious what is subconscious in your thinking. Then you can better understand what's going on beneath the surface of your thought. In this chapter, we introduce you to important ideas you can use for this task.

The Elements of Thought: A First Look

Let us begin by looking at the parts of thinking as they stand in an interrelated set. It is possible to name them in just one, somewhat complex, sentence:

Whenever you reason, you do so in some circumstances,
making some inferences (that have some implications and consequences) 
based on some reasons or information (and assumptions) 
using some concepts, 
in trying to settle some question (or solve some problem)
for some purpose
within a point of view.

If you like, you can put it in two sentences (also see Figure 6.4):

Whenever you are reasoning,
you are trying to accomplish some purpose,
within a point of view, 
using concepts or ideas.
You are focused on some issue or question, issue, or problem,
using information 
to come to conclusions, 
based on assumptions,
all of which have implications.

Figure 6.4. If you understand the parts of thinking, you can ask the crucial questions implied by those parts.

Questions Concerning Structures of Thought

Let us now examine, at least provisionally, each of these crucial concepts. We will be using them throughout this resource. It is essential that they become a comfortable part of your vocabulary. As you read these explanations, see if you can write out your understanding of them, with an example drawn from your own experience.

By reasoning, we mean making sense of something by giving it some meaning in one's mind. Virtually all thinking is part of our sense-making activities. We hear scratching at the door and think, "It's the dog." We see dark clouds in the sky and think, "It looks like rain." Some of this activity operates at a subconscious level. For example, all of the sights and sounds about me have meaning for me without my explicitly noticing that they do. Most of our reasoning is unspectacular. Our reasoning tends to become explicit to us only when someone challenges it and we have to defend it. ("Why do you say that Jack is obnoxious? I thought he was quite pleasant."). Throughout life, we begin with a goal or purpose and then figure out what to do to achieve our goal. Reasoning is what enables us to come to these decisions using ideas and meanings.

By reasoning having a purpose, we mean that when humans think about the world, we do not do so randomly but, rather, in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values. Our thinking is an integral part of a patterned way of acting in the world, and we act, even in simple matters, with some set of ends in view. To understand someone's thinking - including one's own - we must understand the functions it serves, what it is about, the direction it is moving, and the ends that make sense of it. Most of what we are after in our thinking is not obvious to us, though. Raising human goals and desires to the level of conscious realization is an important part of critical thinking.

By reasoning within a point of view, we mean that our thinking has some comprehensive focus or orientation. Our thinking is focused on something from some angle. We can change either what we focus on or the angle of our focus. We often give names to the angle from which we are thinking about something. For example, we could look at something politically or scientifically, poetically or philosophically. We might look at something conservatively or liberally, religiously or secularly. We might look at something from a cultural or a financial perspective, or both. Once we understand how people are approaching a question or topic (what their comprehensive perspective is), we are usually much more able to understand the whole of their thinking.

By using concepts in reasoning, we mean the general categories or ideas by which we interpret, classify, or group the information we use in our thinking. For example, in this resource the concepts of critical thinking and uncritical thinking are important. Everything written in this resource can be classified as an attempt to explain one or the other of these two important ideas. Each of these ideas is explained, in turn, by means of other ideas. Thus, the concept of thinking critically is explained by reference to yet other concepts such as "intellectual standards for thought." Each profession or discipline (business, psychology, science, geology, literature, history) develops its own set of concepts or technical vocabulary to facilitate its thinking. All sports require a vocabulary of concepts that enables those who are trying to understand or master the game to make sense of it. Try to explain baseball to someone without using these ideas: strike, ball, shortstop, inning, at bat, hit, run, safe, out, balk. To play the game, we must interpret everything we do in it by means of concepts such as these. The rules would not make sense without them. The game would be incomprehensible.

By reasoning upon some question, issue, or problem, we mean that when we think about the world in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values, we often face questions we need to answer, problems we need to solve, and issues we need to resolve. Therefore, when we find ourselves confronting a difficulty, it makes sense to say, "What is the question we need to answer?" or, "What is the problem we need to solve?" or, "What is the issue we need to resolve?" To improve our ability to think well, it is important to learn how to put the questions, problems, and issues we need to deal with in a clear and distinct way. If we change the question, we change the criteria we have to meet to settle it. If we modify the problem, we need to modify how we are going to solve the problem. If we shift the issue, new considerations become relevant to its resolution.

By using information in our reasoning, we mean using some set of facts, data, or experiences to support our conclusions. Whenever someone is reasoning, it makes sense to ask, "Upon what facts or information are you basing your reasoning?" The factual basis for reasoning can be important. For example, in a media ad, the following pieces of information were used in support of an argument against capital punishment:

"Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme court in 1976, for every 7 prisoners who were executed, one prisoner awaiting execution was found to be innocent and released."

"At least 381 homicide convictions have been overturned since 1963 because prosecutors concealed evidence of innocence or presented evidence they knew to be false."

"A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found racial prejudice in death sentencing...: killers of whites were proportionally more likely to be executed than were killers of blacks."

"Since 1984, 34 mentally retarded people have been executed. "

Can you see how information such as this - if true - gives strength to the reasoning? The opposing position would, of course, advance information of its own to try to challenge or counter this information. Two important critical thinking axioms are: check your facts and check your data!

By coming to conclusions we mean taking something (which we believe we know) and figuring out something else on the basis of it. When we do this, we make inferences. For example, if my boss walks right by me without saying hello, I might come to the conclusion (make the inference) that he or she is angry with me. If the market goes up for six straight months, I might infer that it will go up again in the next month. If my business was successful with a strategy last year, I might infer that it will work again next year. In everyday life, we are continually making inferences (coming to conclusions) about the people, things, places, and events of our lives.

By reasoning based on assumptions we mean whatever we take for granted as true in order to figure something else out. Thus, if you infer that since a candidate is a Republican, he or she will support a balanced budget, you assume that all Republicans support a balanced budget. If you infer that foreign leaders presented in the news as "enemies" or "friends" of the U.S. are in fact enemies or friends, you assume that the news in the U.S. is always accurate in its presentation of the character of foreign leaders. If you infer that someone who invites you to their apartment after a party "to continue this interesting conversation" is really interested in you romantically or sexually, you assume that the only reason for going to someone's apartment late at night after a party is to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship. All reasoning has some basis in the assumptions we make (but usually do not openly express).

By the implications of reasoning, we mean that which follows from our thinking. It means that to which our thinking is leading us. If you say to someone that you "love" him, you imply that you are concerned with his welfare. If you make a promise, you imply that you intend to keep it. If you call a country a "democracy," you imply that the political power is in the hands of the people at large (as against in the hands of a powerful minority). If you call yourself a "feminist," you imply that you are in favor of the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. We often test the credibility of people by seeing if they are true to the implications of their own words. "Say what you mean and mean what you say" is a sound principle of critical thinking (and of personal integrity, for that matter).

An Everyday Example: Jack and Jill

Let's now look at, and then analyze, a disagreement that might arise in everyday life - in this case, between lovers who come to different conclusions about a situation they both experienced.

Suppose Jack and Jill, who are in a romantic relationship, go to a party, during which Jack spends most of the evening talking with Susan. On their way back, Jack, sensing that Jill is upset, asks, "What's wrong?"

After some hesitation, Jill says, "I didn't appreciate your spending the whole night flirting with Susan!"

Analysis of the Example

Now let's analyze this exchange using the elements of thought:

Both see themselves as a victim of the other. Both see themselves as blameless.

Given what we know about the dispute, it is not possible to assess who is correct and to what extent. To decide whose interpretation of the situation is most plausible, we would need more facts. There is a variety of subtle but observable behaviors that - if we could verify them in the behavior of Jack toward Susan - might lead us to conclude that Jill is correct and that Jack was behaving flirtatiously. Or, if we heard the conversation firsthand, we might decide that Jill's response is unjustified.

The Elements of Thought in Relationship

The trick in learning the elements of thought is to express these ideas in a number of different ways until their nonlinear interrelationships begin to become intuitive to you. For example, you might think of the parts of reasoning as analogous to the essential parts of the human body. They are all present whether we are healthy or not. Like the parts of the body, the parts of thought function in an interdependent fashion. One way to express those interrelationships is that:

Test the Idea
Thinking Through the Elements of Your Reasoning

Select an important conclusion that you have reasoned to - for example, a decision to purchase a house or car or take a new job, or even to get married. Identify the circumstances in which you made that decision, some of the inferences you made in the process (about the likely advantages and disadvantages). State the likely implications of your decision, the consequences it has had, and will have, in your life, the information you took into account in making this decision, the way you expressed the question to yourself, the way you looked at your life and your future (while reasoning through the question). See if you can grasp the interrelationship of all of these elements in your thinking. Don't be surprised if you find this to be a difficult task.

In the remainder of this chapter, we will give a more detailed account of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, and point of view. We will direct special attention to the distinction between inferences and assumptions, as we find that people often have difficulty distinguishing these two. But once you become comfortable differentiating these two elements, the others tend to fall into place much more readily. Light is shed on all the elements throughout this resource. Periodically put down the book and see if you can elaborate on the elements of thought in your own words using your own examples. Success in these acts of active elaboration are what will make the concepts yours. You must talk ideas, write ideas, think ideas into your system.

The Relationship Between the Elements

Because the elements do not exist in isolation but in relation to each other, it is important not to think of the distinctions between them as absolute. The distinctions are always a relative matter. For example, if our purpose is to figure out how to spend less money, the question we have to figure out is, "What can I do to ensure that I spend less money?" The question is a virtual reformulation of the purpose. What is more, the point of view might be expressed as "viewing my spending habits to determine how to decrease my expenditures." This seems a virtual reformulation of purpose and question. The point is that it is important to recognize an intimate overlap among all of the elements by virtue of their interrelationship. At times, formulating some of the elements explicitly may seem to be a redundancy. Don't give way to this feeling. With practice, you will come to recognize the analytic power of making the distinctions explicit.

Thinking to Some Purpose

A British scholar by the name of Susan Stebbing wrote a book (1939) on the importance of purpose in thinking. In it, she said: "To think logically is to think relevantly to the purpose that initiated the thinking: all effective thinking is directed to an end." We agree. All thinking pursues a purpose. We do not think without having something we are trying to accomplish, without having some aim in view, something we want. When humans think about the world, we do not do so randomly but, rather, in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values. Our thinking is an integral part of a patterned way of acting in the world, and we act, even in simple matters, with some set of ends in view. To understand someone's thinking - including one's own - we must understand the functions it serves, what it is about, the direction it is moving, and the ends that make sense of it.

Much of what we are after in our thinking is not obvious to us. Raising human goals and desires to the level of conscious realization is an important part of critical thinking. Though we always have a purpose in thinking, we are not always fully aware of that purpose. We may have some vague idea of it. Perhaps we have not clearly come to terms with our purpose. For example, you might call a meeting to discuss an important issue with your staff, but you may not know exactly what you are trying to accomplish in the meeting. As a result, the thinking during the meeting may diverge in many unhelpful directions. Without a clear sense of what you are about, the thinking you do may be very unproductive.

One problem with human thinking is that we sometimes pursue contradictory ends. We might want to become educated and also want to avoid doing any intellectual work. We might want others to love us, but not behave in loving ways toward them. We might want people to trust us, but behave in ways that undermine trust. The purpose we might explicitly state may be simply what we would like to believe of ourselves. Our real purpose, however, might be one that we would be ashamed to admit. We might think we want to pursue a medical career to help and care for people when our actual purpose may be to make a lot of money, gain prestige and status, and be admired by others. We must be careful, therefore, not to assume that our purposes are consistent with one another or that our announced purposes are our actual purposes.

Also, the purposes we pursue influence and are influenced by our point of view, as well as by the way we see the world. Our purposes shape how we see things, and how we see things shapes what we seek. Each person formulates his or her purpose from a given point of view, determined by the context of his or her own experience. To understand our goals and objectives, then, we should consider the perspectives from which we see the world or some situation in it.

A hairdresser, for example, because of her perspective, might be more concerned than most janitors with personal appearance. Looking good and helping others to look good are more intimately connected with her view of herself and the world. An orthodontist would naturally think much more about teeth and their appearance than most other people would. Having straight teeth would naturally seem more significant to her than it might to, say, most professional football players. The orthodontist's purpose in fostering straight teeth arises out of her perspective or point of view

Test the Idea
Identifying Your Purposes: Understanding Your Thinking

To begin to see how intimately interconnected thinking is to purpose, we suggest the following activity. First, make a list of five fundamental goals you have. Then comment on how your thinking is shaped by those goals. Fill in the blanks: "One of my purposes is _______________. I can achieve this purpose best by ________________."

Second, identify five things that you think about a lot. Then comment on how those things are tied to your fundamental purposes. For example, if you spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how to improve your performance at work in order to make more money, one of your purposes is probably to make as much money as you can. Or if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve your intimate relationship, one of your purposes is probably to have a more meaningful intimate relationship.

Thinking with Concepts

Concepts are like the air we breathe. They are everywhere. They are essential to our life, but we rarely notice them. Yet only when we have conceptualized a thing in some way can we think about it. Nature does not give us instruction in how things are to be conceptualized. We must create that conceptualization, alone or with others. Once it is conceptualized, we integrate a thing into a network of ideas (as no concept stands alone).

Humans approach virtually everything in our experience as something that can be "decoded." Things are given meaning by the power of our mind to create a conceptualization and to make inferences on the basis of it - hence, we create further conceptualizations. We do this so routinely and automatically that we don't typically recognize ourselves as engaged in these processes. In our everyday life, we don't first experience the world in "concept-less" form and then deliberately place what we experience into categories so as to make sense of things. Rather, it is as if things are given to us with their name inherent in them. So we see trees, clouds, grass, roads, people, children, sunsets, and so on. We apply these concepts intuitively, as if the names belong to the things by nature, as if we had not created these concepts in our own minds.

If you want to develop as a thinker, you must come to terms with this human power of mind - to create concepts through which we see and experience the world - for it is precisely this capacity of which you must take charge in taking command of your thinking. You must become the master of your own conceptualizations. You must develop the ability to mentally "remove" this or that concept from the things named by the concept, and try out alternative ideas. As general semanticists often say: "The word is not the thing! The word is not the thing!" If you are trapped in one set of concepts (ideas, words), you can think of things in only one way. Word and thing become one and the same in your mind.

To figure out the proper use of words, the proper way to conceptualize things, events, situations, emotions, abstract ideas, it is important to first achieve a true command of the uses of words. For example, if you are proficient in the use of the English language, you recognize a significant difference in the language between needing and wanting, between having judgment and being judgmental, between having information and gaining knowledge, between being humble and being servile, between stubbornness and having the courage of your convictions. Command of distinctions such as these, and many others, in the language has a significant influence upon the way you interpret your experience. People who do not have this command confuse these important discriminations and distort the important realities they help us distinguish.

Test the Idea
Testing Your Understanding of Basic Concepts

To the extent that you have a sound command of the English language, you should be able to state the essential differences between related but distinguishably different realities that are marked by words or expressions in our language. To the extent that you can, you are conceptualizing the ideas labeled with these words in keeping with educated use.

In this activity, you will test your ability to do this. What follows is a set of related words, each pair illustrating an important distinction marked by our language. For each set, write down your understanding of the essential difference between each word pair.

After you have done this for each set of words, look up the words in the dictionary, and see how close your ideas of the essential difference of the word pair were to the actual distinctions the dictionary entries state or imply. (We recommend the Webster's New World Dictionary.)

  1. clever / cunning

  2. selfish / self-motivated

  3. power / control

  4. friend / acquaintance

  5. love / romance

  6. anger / rage

  7. believe / know

  8. jealousy / envy

  9. socialize / educate

In learning to speak our native language, we learn thousands of concepts. When properly used, these concepts enable us to make legitimate inferences about the objects of our experience. Unfortunately, nothing in the way we ordinarily learn to speak a language forces us to use concepts carefully or prevents us from making unjustifiable inferences in using them.

Often we misuse or confuse ideas because of our indoctrination into a social system, resulting in a distortion of our experience. As developing thinkers, we must continually distinguish the concepts and ideas implicit in our social conditioning from the concepts and ideas implicit in the natural language we speak. For example, people from many different countries and cultures speak the same natural language. The peoples of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, Canada, and the United States all speak English. By and large, they implicitly share (to the extent to which they are proficient in the language) the same set of concepts (codified in the 23 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary). Nevertheless, the people in these countries are not socially conditioned in the same way.

What is more, a person from China or Tibet could learn to speak the English language fluently without in any sense sharing in the same social conditioning. Because of this, natural languages (French, German, English, Swahili, or Hindi are examples) are repositories of concepts that, by and large, are not to be equated with the concepts implicit in the social indoctrination of any social or cultural group speaking the language. This is a difficult insight to gain, but it is a powerful and essential one.

In the United States, for example, most people are socially conditioned to believe that capitalism is superior to any other economic system (it is called "free enterprise"). Americans assume that no country can be truly democratic unless it has a capitalistic economic system. Furthermore, Americans assume that the major opposing systems, socialism or communism, are either wrong, enslaving, or evil (the "Evil Empire"). People in the U.S. are encouraged to think of the world in these ways by movies, the news, schooling, political speeches, and many other social rituals. Raised in the United States, Americans internalize different concepts, beliefs, and assumptions about themselves and the world than they would have had they grown up in China or Iran, for example.

Nevertheless, in a decent dictionary of the English language, lexicographers would not confuse these socially implied meanings and psychological associations with the foundational meanings of the words. The term communism would not be defined as "an economic system that enslaves the people." The word capitalism would not have the definition, "an economic system essential to a democratic society."

Nevertheless, because we are socialized to believe that we, as a people, are free, reasonable, just, and caring, we assume that our behavior matches what these words imply. Words often substitute, in human life, for the realities named by them. Fundamental contradictions or inconsistencies in our lives, then, go unquestioned. This is part of the self-deceptive tendencies to which the human mind is prone.

Critical thinkers learn how to strip off surface language and consider alternative ways to talk and think about things. For example, when thinking sociocentrically, we become trapped in the view of our peer group and society with little or no conscious awareness of what it would be to rationally decide upon alternative ways to conceptualize situations, persons, and events. Most people are awed by social ritual, in particular the trappings of social authority, status, and prestige. They live their life, as it were, in surface structures. Critical thinkers learn how to think sociologically. They therefore come to recognize when their ideas are controlled by social rituals, social expectations, and taboos.

Thinking with Information

It is impossible to reason without using some set of facts, data, or experiences as a constituent part of one's thinking. Finding trustworthy sources of information and refining one's own experience critically are important goals of critical thinkers. We must be vigilant about the sources of information we use. We must be analytically critical of the use we make of our own experience. Experience may be the best teacher, but biased experience supports bias, distorted experience supports distortion, and self-deluded experience supports self-delusion. We, therefore, must not think of our experience as sacred in any way but, instead, as one important dimension of thought that must, like all others, be critically analyzed and assessed.

Numerous problems exist in human life because people fail to understand the important role that information plays in everything we do. People often, for example, fail to see that they are excluding important information from their thinking when reasoning through a complex problem. People often operate on automatic pilot when it comes to their use of information. But when they are explicitly aware of the importance of information, they are much more careful in the conclusions they come to. They seek information when others would ignore the need to do so. They question the information they have, as well as the information that others are using. They realize that their thinking can only be as good as the information they use to come to conclusions.

Distinguishing Between Inert Information, Activated Ignorance, and Activated Knowledge

The mind can take in information in three distinctive ways: 1) by internalizing inert information; 2) by forming activated ignorance; and 3) by achieving activated knowledge.

Inert Information

By inert information, we mean taking into the mind information that, though memorized, we do not understand - despite the fact that we think we do. For example, many people have taken in, during their schooling, a lot of information about democracy that leads them to believe they understand the concept. Often, a good part of the information they have internalized consists of empty verbal rituals. For example, many children learn in school that "democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people." This catchy phrase often sticks in their mind. It leads them to think they understand what it means, though most of them do not translate it into any practical criteria for assessing the extent to which democracy does or does not exist in any given country. Most people, to be explicit, could not intelligibly answer any of the following questions:

  1. What is the difference between a government of the people and a government for the people?

  2. What is the difference between a government for the people and a government by the people?

  3. What is the difference between a government by the people and a government of the people?

  4. What exactly is meant by "the people?"

Thus, people often do not sufficiently think about information they memorized in school to transform it into something truly meaningful in their mind. Much human information is, in the mind of the humans who possess it, merely empty words (inert or dead in the mind). Critical thinkers try to clear the mind of inert information by recognizing it as such and transforming it, through analysis, into something meaningful.

Test the Idea
In Search of Inert Information

Review information you were taught in school or at home. Look for what you may have repeated often on command, to see if it qualifies for what we are calling inert information. Review, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, slogans within subject fields, memorized bits and pieces of content, and sayings you have often heard, but probably have not made sense of. See how many candidates you can locate for inert information. Test each one with this criterion: If you cannot explain it or effectively use it, it is likely to be inert information in your mind. If, by chance, you do not find this sort of information, don't assume that you are free of inert information.

Activated Ignorance

By activated ignorance, we mean taking into the mind, and actively using, information that is false, though we mistakenly think it to be true. The philosopher Rene Descartes came to confidently believe that animals have no actual feelings, but are simply robotic machines. Based on this activated ignorance, he performed painful experiments on animals and interpreted their cries of pain as mere noises.

Some people believe, through activated ignorance, that they understand things, events, people, and situations that they do not. They act upon their false ideas, illusions, and misconceptions, often leading to needless waste, pain, and suffering. Sometimes activated ignorance is the basis for massive actions involving millions of people (think of the consequences of the Nazi idea that Germans were the master race and Jews an inferior race). Sometimes it is an individual misconception that is acted on only by one person in a limited number of settings. Wherever activated ignorance exists, it is dangerous.

It is essential, therefore, that we question our beliefs, especially when acting upon them has significant potential implications for the harm, injury, or suffering of others. It is reasonable to suppose that everyone has some beliefs that are, in fact, a form of activated ignorance. Eliminating as many such beliefs as we can is a responsibility we all have. Consider automobile drivers who are confident they can drive safely while they are intoxicated. Consider the belief that smoking does not have any significant negative health effects.

It is not always easy to identify what is and is not activated ignorance. The concept of activated ignorance is important regardless of whether we determine information we come across is false or misleading. What we need to keep in mind are clear-cut cases of activated ignorance so we have a clear idea of it, and personal vigilance with respect to the information we come across that is potentially false. Most people who have acted harmfully as a result of their activated ignorance have probably not realized that they hurt others. Ignorance treated as the truth is no trivial matter.

Test the Idea
In Search of Activated Ignorance

Review what you were taught in school, college, at work, or at home. Seek what you used to believe to be true but now have found to be false and harmful. For example, you probably picked up some activated ignorance from your peer group as you were growing up. Think of things you learned "the hard way." See how many candidates you can locate for activated ignorance. Test each one with this criterion: At one time I thought this was true. Now I know it is false. If, by chance, you do not find any, don't assume that you are free of activated ignorance. Pursue why you are having trouble finding it.

Activated Knowledge

By activated knowledge, we mean taking into the mind, and actively using, information that is not only true but that, when insightfully understood, leads us by implication to more and more knowledge.

Scientists have activated knowledge of the scientific method. They use this method (of hypothesis, prediction, controlled experiment, observation, and provisional conclusions) to acquire more and more knowledge. The method is powerful, enforces discipline on human thinking, and provides safeguards against misuse.

The basic principles of mathematics represented activated knowledge about numbers, shapes, space, and motion that enable the careful thinker to develop precise conclusions based on precise information.

The basic principles of critical thinking represent activated knowledge of the parts of thinking, standards by which thinking can be assessed, and ways in which thinking can be improved. These principles can be applied again and again with the consequence that we discover further knowledge on the basis of our present knowledge and disciplined thought about new information.

Some Key Questions to Ask When Pursuing Information

One of the most important skills in critical thinking is that of evaluating information. This skill begins with the important recognition that information and fact, information and verification, are not the same thing. It requires also the important recognition that everything presented as fact or as true is not. A third important recognition is that the prestige or setting in which information is asserted, as well as the prestige of the person or group asserting it, are no guarantee of accuracy or reliability. Consider the following, very helpful, maxim: An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, and mendacious - that is, information is often just dead wrong.

Careful professionals use a wide variety of safeguards in the disciplines in which they work. It is not possible to learn these safeguards separately from an actual study of the disciplines. However, it is possible to develop a healthy skepticism about information in general, especially about information presented in support of a belief that serves the vested interests of a person or group. This skepticism is given in the regular asking of key questions about information presented to us:

These questions, both singly and as a group, are no panacea. Everything depends on how we follow up on them. Used with good judgment, they help us to lower the number of mistakes we make in assessing information. They do not prevent us from making such mistakes. In later chapters, we will follow up on these concerns in a deeper way. You should begin now, however, to practice asking the above questions when information is presented to you as true and important.

Test the Idea
Assessing Information

Assess the following claims by figuring out whether you think they are true or false. Explain your reasoning:

  1. You hear a male colleague say that women are not as good as men in supervisory roles because they are too "soft" on employees and too emotional in crises.

  2. A friend of yours claims that astrology is accurate because he has used it to figure out why people he knew were behaving as they were. He also claims that you can use it to predict people's most likely behavior, including deciding whom it would make sense to marry (or not to marry).

  3. You hear someone say, "Science should use statements from the Bible to help assess scientific findings because anything that contradicts the Bible (the word of God) must be false."

  4. You read about a person who is reported to have returned from the dead as the result of resuscitation after a heart attack. The person says there is definitely a spirit world because he met a spirit while he was dead.

  5. A friend of yours claims that the universe is run on spiritual principles, citing the fact that once, when he was alone in the desert, the universe gave him a mantra (a chant).

  6. You hear a woman say that it is clear that no man can truly understand a woman because there is no way, as a man, he can have the experience of a woman.

Distinguishing Between Inferences and Assumptions

As we have said, the elements of reasoning interrelate. They are continually influencing and being influenced by one another. We now will focus at length on the crucial relationship between two of the elements: inference and assumption. Learning to distinguish inferences from assumptions is an important skill in critical thinking. Many confuse the two elements. Let us begin with a review of the basic meanings:

  1. Inference: An inference is a step of the mind, an intellectual act by which one concludes that something is true in light of something else's being true, or seeming to be true. If you come at me with a knife in your hand, I probably would infer that you mean to do me harm. Inferences can be accurate or inaccurate, logical or illogical, justified or unjustified.

  2. Assumption: An assumption is something we take for granted or presuppose. Usually it is something we previously learned and do not question. It is part of our system of beliefs. We assume our beliefs to be true and use them to interpret the world about us. If you believe that it is dangerous to walk late at night in big cities and you are staying in Chicago, you will infer that it is dangerous to go for a walk late at night. You take for granted your belief that it is dangerous to walk late at night in big cities. If your belief is a sound one, your assumption is sound. If your belief is not sound, your assumption is not sound. Beliefs, and hence assumptions, can be unjustified or justified, depending upon whether we do or do not have good reasons for them. Consider this example: "I heard a scratch at the door. I got up to let the cat in." My inference was based on the assumption (my prior belief) that only the cat makes that noise, and that she makes it only when she wants to be let in.

We humans naturally and regularly use our beliefs as assumptions and make inferences based on those assumptions. We must do so to make sense of where we are, what we are about, and what is happening. Assumptions and inferences permeate our lives precisely because we cannot act without them. We make judgments, form interpretations, and come to conclusions based on the beliefs we have formed (see Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5. Humans routinely draw conclusions in situations. Those conclusions are based on assumptions that usually operate at an unconscious level.

Conscious - Unconscious Levels of Thinking

If you put humans in any situation, they start to give it some meaning or other. People automatically make inferences to gain a basis for understanding and action. So quickly and automatically do we make inferences that we do not, without training, notice them as such. We see dark clouds and infer rain. We hear the door slam and infer that someone has arrived. We see a frowning face and infer that the person is angry. If our friend is late, we infer that she is being inconsiderate. We meet a tall guy and infer that he is good at basketball, an Asian and infer that she will be good at math. We meet a well-dressed person and infer he or she is successful. We think of the business we would like to start and infer it will be successful - because we ourselves desire what it will sell.

As we write, we make inferences as to what readers will make of what we are writing. We make inferences as to the clarity of what we are saying, what requires further explanation, what has to be exemplified or illustrated, and what does not. Many of our inferences are justified and reasonable, but some are not.

As always, an important part of critical thinking is the art of bringing what is subconscious in our thought to the level of conscious realization. This includes the skill of identifying and reconstructing the inferences we make so the various ways in which we shape our experiences through our inferences become more and more apparent to us. This skill enables us to separate our experiences into two categories. We learn to distinguish the raw data of our experience from our interpretations of those data, from the inferences we are making about them. Eventually we need to realize that the inferences we make are heavily influenced by our point of view and the assumptions we have made about people and situations. This puts us in the position of being able to broaden the scope of our outlook, to see situations from more than one point of view, and hence to become more open-minded.

Often different people make different inferences because they bring to situations different points of view. They see the data differently. To put it another way, they have different assumptions about what they see. For example, if two people see a man lying in a gutter, one might infer, "There's a drunken bum." The other might infer, "There's a man in need of help." These inferences are based on different assumptions about the conditions under which people end up in gutters, and these assumptions are connected to the point of view about people that each has formed. The first person assumes, "Only drunks are to be found in gutters." The second person assumes, "People lying in the gutter are in need of help."

The first person may have developed the point of view that people are fundamentally responsible for what happens to them and ought to be able to take care of themselves. The second may have developed the point of view that the problems people have are often caused by forces and events beyond their control. The reasoning of these two people, in terms of their inferences and assumptions, could be characterized in the following way:

Person One

Person Two

Situation: A man is lying in the gutter.

Situation: A man is lying in the gutter.

Inference: That man's a bum.

Inference: That man is in need of help.

Assumption: Only bums lie in gutters.

Assumption: Anyone lying in the gutter is in need of help.

As persons concerned with developing our thinking, we want to begin to notice the inferences we are making, the assumptions we are basing those inferences on, and the point of view about the world we are developing. To do this, we need lots of practice in noticing our inferences and then figuring the assumptions that lead to them.

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Information, Inferences, and Assumptions

As thinkers, it is important that we be able to distinguish among information, inferences, and assumptions. Whenever we are in a situation, we naturally make inferences. We come to conclusions about the situation or give it meaning through our interpretations. And these inferences result from the assumptions we made or are making.

For example:

  • If it were 12:00 noon, what might you infer? (It's time for lunch.)

  • If there are black clouds in the sky? (It's probably going to rain.)

  • If Jack comes to work with a black eye? (He was probably in a fight and hit by someone.)

  • If there are webs in the corners of the ceiling? (Spiders made them.)

  • If there is heavy traffic on the freeway? (I will probably be late for work).


  • If it were 12:00 noon and you inferred that it was time for lunch, what did you assume? (That whenever it is 12 noon, it is time for lunch.)

  • If there are black clouds in the sky and you infer that it's probably going to rain, what did you assume? (That it usually rains when there are black clouds in the sky.)

  • If Jack comes to work with a black eye and you infer that he must have been hit by someone, what did you assume? (That the only time you develop a black eye is when you have been hit by someone.)

In the following activity, we will provide you with situations (information). We want you to figure out what someone might infer (rightly or wrongly) in the situation. Usually there is a range of possible inferences that different people might make, depending on their various beliefs.

Then, having stated what you think someone might infer, figure out the assumption that would lead someone to make that inference. As a suggestion, first figure out a likely inference (whether rational or irrational), then, and only then, try to figure out the assumption. The assumption will be a generalization that led the person to make the inference. We have provided two examples to help you begin.


Possible Inference which one might make

Assumption Leading to the Inference

1. You see a woman in a wheelchair.

She must have a sad life.

All people in wheelchairs have a sad life.

2. A police officer trails your car closely for several blocks.

He is going to pull me over.

Whenever a police officer trails people he is going to pull them over.

3. You see a child crying next to her mother in the grocery story.


4. You do not get an increase in salary while others in your department do.


5. You meet a beautiful woman with blond hair.


6. You notice a man in the bookstore reading a book by Karl Marx.


7. While in a restaurant, your friend orders a steak cooked very rare.


8. A colleague tells you she is pregnant and is going to have an abortion.


9. Your teenage son comes home late from a late-night date.


10. Your spouse is talking to an attractive member of the opposite sex at a late night party.


11. The telephone rings in the middle of the night.


12. Your significant other does not call you when promised.


Our goal of becoming aware of the inferences we make and the assumptions that underlie our thinking enables us to begin to gain command over our thinking. Because all human thinking is inferential in nature, command of our thinking depends on command of the inferences embedded in it and thus of the assumptions that underlie it. Consider the way in which we plan and think our way through everyday events. We think of ourselves as preparing for breakfast, eating our breakfast, getting ready for work, arriving on time, attending meetings, completing necessary tasks, making plans for lunch, paying bills, engaging in small talk, and so on. Another way to put this is to say that we are continually interpreting our actions, giving them meanings, and making inferences about what is going on in our lives.

That is, we must choose among a variety of possible meanings. For example, am I "relaxing" or "wasting time"? Am I being "determined" or "stubborn"? Am I "joining" a conversation or "butting in"? Is someone "laughing with me" or "laughing at me"? Am I "helping a friend" or "being taken advantage of?" Every time we interpret our actions, every time we give them a meaning, we are making one or more inferences on the basis of one or more assumptions.

As humans, we continually make assumptions about ourselves, our jobs, our mates, our teachers, our parents, and the world in general. We take some things for granted simply because we can't question everything. Sometimes we take the wrong things for granted. For example, I run off to the store (assuming that I have enough money with me) and arrive to find that I have left my money at home. I assume that I have enough gas in the car only to find that I have run out of gas. I assume that an item marked down in price is a good buy only to find that it was marked up before it was marked down. I assume that it will not, or that it will, rain. I assume that my car will start when I turn the key and press the gas pedal. I assume that I mean well in my dealings with others.

We make hundreds of assumptions without knowing it - without thinking about it. Most of them are sound and justifiable. Some, however, are not. The question then becomes: "How can we begin to recognize the inferences we are making, the assumptions we are basing those inferences on, and the point of view, the perspective on the world that we are forming?"

As we become skilled in identifying our inferences and assumptions, we are in a good position to question the extent to which any one of our assumptions is justified. For example, are we justified in assuming that everyone eats lunch at 12:00 noon? Are we justified in assuming that it usually rains when there are black clouds in the sky? Are we justified in assuming that black eyes are only caused by someone hitting another person? The point is that we all make many assumptions as we go about our daily life and we ought to be able to recognize and question them. As you develop these critical intuitions, you should increasingly notice your inferences and those of others. You should increasingly notice what you and others are taking for granted. You should increasingly notice how your point of view shapes your experiences.

Test the Idea
Getting More Practice in Differentiating Inferences and Assumptions

Using the same format as we used in the previous activity, come up with 10 "episodes" of thinking for yourself, which include a situation, a possible inference in the situation, and the assumption leading to the inference.


Possible Inference one might make

Assumption Leading to the Inference





















Understanding Implications

Among the most important skills of critical thinking is the ability to distinguish between what a statement or situation actually implies and what people may merely (and wrongly) infer from it. An inference, again, is a step of the mind that results in a conclusion. For example, if the sun rises, we can infer that it is morning. Critical thinkers try to monitor their thinking so they infer only that which is implied in a situation - no more, no less. If I feel ill and go to the doctor for a diagnosis, I want the doctor to infer exactly what my symptoms imply. For example, I do not want her to infer that I simply have a cold requiring no medication when in fact I have a bacterial infection requiring antibiotics. My symptoms imply that I have a certain illness, which in turn implies a certain course of treatment. I want the doctor to accurately infer what my illness is, then accurately infer the proper treatment for it.

It is often the case that, in thinking, people fail to think successfully through the implications of a situation. They fail to think through the implications of a problem or decision. As a result, negative consequences often follow.

In any situation, three kinds of implications may be involved: possible ones, probable ones, and necessary ones. For example, every time you drive your car, one possible implication is that you may have an accident. If you drink heavily and drive very fast on a crowded roadway in the rain, one probable implication is that you will have an accident. If you are driving fast on a major highway and all the brake fluid drains out of your brake cylinders and another car immediately in front of you comes to a quick stop, one inescapable implication is that you will have an accident.

We reserve the word "consequences" for what actually happens in a given case. In short, a consequence is what in fact occurs in some situation. If we are good at identifying (making sound inferences about) possible, probable, and inevitable implications, we can take steps to maximize positive consequences and minimize negative ones. On the one hand, we do not want possible or probable negative implications to become real consequences. On the other hand, we do want to realize potential positive implications. We want to understand and take advantage of the real possibilities inherent in a situation.

We study the logic of things to become skilled in recognizing implications and acting accordingly. The art of doing this well is the art of making sound inferences about the implications of a situation by understanding exactly the logic of what is going on. As thinkers, then, we want to think through all of the implications (possible, probable, and inevitable) of a potential decision before we make a decision and act on it.

In addition to implications that follow from concrete situations are implications that follow from the words we use. These follow from meanings inherent in natural languages. There are always implications of the words we use in communicating with people. If, for example, I tell my daughter that she cannot go to a friend's house because she failed to clean up her room, I am implying that she knew she had a responsibility to clean up her room if she wanted to go to a friend's house. My statement to my daughter and my view that she should have consequences for failing to clean her room are reasonable if:

  1. I have previously communicated to her my desire for her to keep her room clean, and

  2. I have adequately explained my reasoning and the consequences that will follow if she fails to comply with my request.

As thinkers, then, we want to be aware of what precisely we are implying when we say things. We also want to take into account the reasonability of what we are implying. If we do, we say what we mean and mean what we say - an important principle of integrity.

Just as there are implications of the language we use in communicating, there are implications of the way we say things. For example, the statement "Why didn't you clean the kitchen?" asked calmly has different implications from the same statement shouted aggressively. In the first instance, I perhaps am implying only that I think you should have cleaned the kitchen, and nothing more. In the second, I am implying that your failure to do so is a serious matter, warranting a severe reprimand.

What is more, as we may fail to notice the implications of a situation or of what we say, we also may fail to notice the implications of what others say to us. People often fail to infer precisely what others are, and are not, implying in their use of language. People often read things into what is being said, inferring more than what is being implied. If, for example, your spouse says he wishes you had consulted him before making a large purchase and means to imply nothing more, you do not want to infer that he thinks you are not a wise decision-maker. Nor does it imply that he doesn't want you to ever make important decisions on your own, or that he thinks he is better at making decisions than are you.

In sum, as developing thinkers, we want to realize the important role of implications in human life. When we are thinking through a problem, issue, or question, we want to think through all the significant implications of the decisions we might make. We want to infer only what is being implied in specific situations. When we use language, we want to be aware of what we are implying. When others are speaking to us, either verbally or in writing, we want to figure out what they are logically implying. In every case, we want to interpret precisely the logic of what is actually going on and infer only what is truly implied, no more, no less.

Test the Idea
Thinking Through the Implications of Your Potential Decisions

As we have said, the ability to think through the implications of a decision you are faced with or a problem you are trying to solve is an important critical-thinking skill. In this activity we want you to think of a problem you need to find a solution to or a decision you need to make. Complete these statements:

  1. The problem or decision I am facing is...

  2. Some potential solutions to the problem, or decisions I might make, are...

  3. For each of these solutions or decisions, some implications that might logically follow from my acting upon the solution or decision are...

Thinking Within and Across Points of View

Point of view is one of the most challenging elements to master. On the one hand, it is highly intuitive to most people that when we think, we think with a point of view. On the other hand, when we ask people, in the midst of reasoning something through, to identify or explain their point of view, they are likely to begin expressing anything and everything they are thinking about. Clearly, most people do not have a clear sense of how to identify someone's point of view, including their own.

Let us begin by recognizing that there are many potential sources for our point of view: time, culture, religion, gender, discipline, profession, peer group, economic interest, emotional state, social role, or age group - to name a few. For example, we can look at the world from:

Our dominant point of view as individuals reflects some combination of these dimensions. Unfortunately, most of us are little aware of the extent to which these factors shape our point of view. Typically, people do not say, "This is how I see it from the point of view of...." Typically, people say something that implies, "This is the way things are." Our minds tend to absolutize our experience. We easily lose a sense of the partiality of how we look at things.

This is not an argument for intellectual relativity (the self-refuting view that everything is relative and therefore nothing can be proved). Looking at things from some point of view does not negate our ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate statements. Doctors look at patients from the point of view of medical health, and that does not make their diagnoses relative or arbitrary.

Using Critical Thinking to Take Charge of How We See Things

As in the case of all the elements, one takes charge of their point of view by practicing bringing it out into the open. The more we recognize point of view at work in our thinking and in the thinking of others, the more points of view we learn to think within, the more effectively will we use point of view in our thinking.

Test the Idea
Practice in Making Explicit Our Point of View

What follows is a list of possible objects of our thinking. Choose from this list seven possible ones to think about. Then identify how you would look at each, from your point of view. For example, you might decide, "When I look at people, I see a struggle to find happiness" or, "When I look at the future, I see myself as a lawyer taking cases that protect the environment" or, "When I look at the health care system, I see a system that does not provide adequately for the poor." Once you write your sentence, see if you can further characterize how what you said explains your point of view.


my future

lifelong learning


the problems we face as a nation

the future


the problems we face as a species


human conflict

mass transportation

welfare recipients


the environment

drug use

the past

people without health insurance



our health care system

human values


modern lifestyle



the modern American city

the police


New Age ideas



human sexuality


the news



my economic future

life in America


education in the future


income tax


Complete the following, given the seven objects you have chosen to look at:

  1. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  2. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  3. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  4. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  5. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  6. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

  7. When I look at ____________________, I see (from my point of view)

The Point of View of the Critical Thinker

Critical thinkers share a common core of purposes with other critical thinkers, in keeping with the values of critical thinking. This fact has a variety of implications, one of the most important of which is that critical thinkers perceive explicit command of the thinking process as the key to command of behavior. Applied to the learning process, this entails that they see reading, writing, speaking, and listening as modes of skilled thinking.

When they read, they see the text as a verbal representation of the thinking of the author. They strive to enter the writer's point of view. They strive to reconstruct the author's thinking in their own mind. When they write, they think explicitly about the point of view of their intended audience. They use their insight into the thinking of the likely audience to present their thinking in the most accessible way. Their speaking reflects a parallel emphasis. They use the dialogue to find out specifically the point of view and concerns of those with whom they are talking. They do not try to force their ideas on others. They recognize that people must think their own way to ideas and beliefs. They, therefore, share experiences and information more than final conclusions. They listen attentively to the thinking of others. They ask more questions than they make assertions.

Critical thinkers have a distinctive point of view concerning themselves. They see themselves as competent learners. They have a "can do" vision of their own learning. They do not see opposing points of view as a threat to their own beliefs. They see all beliefs as subject to change in the face of new evidence or better reasoning. They see themselves as lifelong learners.


Just as the first step in learning basketball, tennis, soccer, or indeed any sport is to learn the most fundamental elements of the sport, the first step to learning critical thinking is to learn the most basic elements of thinking. These are the bread and butter of disciplined thinking, for if we cannot accurately analyze the parts of someone's thinking, we are in a poor position to assess it.

Analysis of the elements of thought is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of evaluation. To evaluate requires knowledge of the intellectual standards that highlight the qualities signaling strengths and weaknesses in thinking. For example, it is a strength in reasoning to be clear, a weakness to be unclear; a strength to be accurate, a weakness to be inaccurate. We shall focus on standards such as these in the next chapter, explaining and illustrating how they apply to the elements of thought.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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