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Chapter 7. The Standards for Thinking

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

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

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

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

Test the Idea
Beginning to Think About Intellectual Standards

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

Here are the standards to consider:

  • Clarity

  • Relevance

  • Logicalness

  • Accuracy

  • Depth

  • Significance

  • Precision

  • Breadth

  • Fairness

Taking a Deeper Look at Universal Intellectual Standards

Thinking critically requires command of fundamental intellectual standards. Critical thinkers routinely ask questions that apply intellectual standards to thinking. The ultimate goal is for these questions to become so spontaneous in thinking that they form a natural part of our inner voice, guiding us to better and better reasoning. In this section, we focus on the standards and questions that apply across the various facets of your life.


Questions that focus on clarity include:

Clarity is a gateway standard. If a statement is unclear, we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant. In fact, we cannot tell anything about it because we don't yet know what is being said. For example, the question "What can be done about the education system in America?" is unclear. To adequately address the question, we would need a clearer understanding of what the person asking the question is considering the "problem" to be. A clearer question might be, "What can educators do to ensure that students learn the skills and abilities that help them function successfully on the job and in their daily decision-making?" This question, because of its increased clarity, provides a better guide to thinking. It lays out in a more definitive way the intellectual task at hand.

Test the Idea
Converting Unclear Thoughts to Clear Thoughts

Can you convert an unclear thought to one that is clear? Suppose you are engaged in a discussion about welfare and one person says, "Let's face it - welfare is corrupt!" What does this mean? What could it mean?

It could mean some very different things. It could mean, "The very idea of giving people goods and services they have not personally earned is equivalent to stealing money from those who have earned it" (a moral claim). Or it could mean, "The welfare laws have so many loopholes that people are receiving money and services that were not envisioned when the laws were initially formulated" (a legal claim). Or it could mean, "The people who receive welfare so often lie and cheat to falsify the documents they submit that they should be thrown in jail" (a claim about the ethical character of the recipients).

Now, take this statement: "She is a good employee." This statement is unclear. Because we don't know the context within which this statement is being made, we aren't sure in what way "she" is "good." Formulate three possible meanings of this statement.

Now take the statement, "He is a jerk." Again, formulate three possible different meanings of this statement.

When you become skilled in differentiating what is clear and what is unclear, you will find that much of the time we are unclear both about what we are thinking and about what we are saying.

Clarifying a Problem You Face at Work

Now take a problem you are currently facing at work. Write down the problem as clearly as possible. Then see if you can reformulate the problem so that it is even clearer. Reformulate the problem until you are very clear about the issue you are facing.


Questions focusing on making thinking more accurate include:

A statement may be clear but not accurate, as in, "Most dogs weigh more than 300 pounds." To be accurate is to represent something in accordance with the way it actually is. People often present or describe things or events in a way that is not in accordance with the way things actually are. People frequently misrepresent or falsely describe things, especially when they have a vested interest in the description. Advertisers often do this to keep a buyer from seeing the weaknesses in a product. If an advertisement states, "Our water is 100% pure" when, in fact, the water contains trace amounts of chemicals such as chlorine and lead, it is inaccurate. If an advertisement says, "this bread contains 100% whole wheat" when the whole wheat has been bleached and enriched and the bread contains many additives, the advertisement is inaccurate.

Good thinkers listen carefully to statements and, when there is reason for skepticism, question whether what they hear is true and accurate. In the same way, they question the extent to which what they read is correct, when asserted as fact. Critical thinking, then, implies a healthy skepticism about public descriptions as to what is and is not fact.

At the same time, because we tend to think from a narrow, self-serving perspective, assessing ideas for accuracy can be difficult. We naturally tend to believe that our thoughts are automatically accurate just because they are ours, and therefore that the thoughts of those who disagree with us are inaccurate. We also fail to question statements that others make that conform to what we already believe, while we tend to question statements that conflict with our views. But as critical thinkers, we force ourselves to accurately assess our own views as well as those of others. We do this even if it means facing deficiencies in our thinking.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Inaccurate Statements

Can you identify a statement that you heard recently that was clear but inaccurate? You will find an abundance of examples in everyday statements that people often make in praise or criticism. People in general have a tendency to make two kinds of inaccurate statements: false positives about the people they personally like (these would be untrue positive statements about people they like) and false negatives about the people they personally dislike (untrue negative things about people they don't like). Politically motivated statements tend to follow a similar pattern. See if you can think of an example of an inaccurate statement from your recent experience. Write out your answer.

In Search of the Facts

One of the most important critical thinking skills is the skill of assessing the accuracy of "factual" claims (someone's assertion that such-and-so is a fact).

In an ad in the New York Times, a coalition of 60 nonprofit organizations accused the World Trade Organization (a coalition of 134 nation states) of operating in secret, undermining democratic institutions and the environment. In the process of doing this, the nonprofit coalition argued that the working class and the poor have not significantly benefited as a result of the last 20 years of rapid expansion of global trade. They alleged, among other things, the following facts:

  1. "American CEOs are now paid, on average, 419 times more than line workers, and the ratio is increasing."

  2. "Median hourly wages for workers are down by 10% in the last 10 years."

  3. "The top 20% of the U.S. population owns 84.6% of the country's wealth."

  4. "The wealth of the world's 475 billionaires now equals the annual incomes of more than 50% of the world population combined."

Using whatever sources you can find discuss the probable accuracy of the factual claims. For example, visit the the World Trade Organization website ( They might challenge some of the facts alleged or advance facts of their own that put the charges of the nonprofit coalition into a different perspective.


Questions focusing on making thinking more precise include:

A statement can be both clear and accurate but not precise, as in "Jack is overweight." (We don't know how overweight Jack is - 1 pound or 500 pounds.) To be precise is to give the details needed for someone to understand exactly what is meant. Some situations don't call for detail. If you ask, "Is there any milk in the refrigerator?" and I answer "Yes," both the question and the answer are probably precise enough for the circumstance (though it might be relevant to specify how much milk is there). Or imagine that you are ill and go to the doctor. He wouldn't say, "Take 1.4876946 antibiotic pills twice per day." This level of specificity, or precision, would be beyond that which is useful in the situation.

In many situations, however, specifics are essential to good thinking. Let's say that your friend is having financial problems and asks you, "What should I do about my situation?" In this case, you want to probe her thinking for specifics. Without the full specifics, you could not help her. You might ask questions such as, "What precisely is the problem? What exactly are the variables that bear on the problem? What are some possible solutions to the problem-in detail?

Test the Idea
Recognizing when Precision is Needed

Can you think of a recent situation at work or at home in which you needed more details to figure something out, a circumstance in which, because you didn't have the details, you experienced some negative consequences? For example, have you ever been given directions to someone's house, directions that seemed precise enough at the time? Yet when you tried to find the person's house, you got lost because of lack of details in the directions?

First identify a situation in which the details and specifics were important (for example, in buying a house, a computer, or a car). Then identify the negative consequences that resulted because you didn't get the details you needed to think well in the situation.


Questions focusing on relevance include:

A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue. For example, students often think the amount of effort they put into a course should contribute to raising their grade in the course. Often, however, effort does not measure the quality of student learning and therefore is irrelevant to the grade. Something is relevant when it is directly connected with and bears upon the issue at hand. Something is also relevant when it is pertinent or applicable to a problem we are trying to solve. Irrelevant thinking encourages us to consider what we should set aside. Thinking that is relevant stays on track. People are often irrelevant in their thinking because they lack discipline in thinking. They don't know how to analyze an issue for what truly bears on it. Therefore, they aren't able to effectively think their way through the problems and issues they face.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Irrelevant Statements

Can you identify a statement you heard recently that was clear, accurate, and sufficiently precise, but irrelevant to the circumstance, problem, or issue? Though we all sometimes stray from a question or task, we need to be sensitive to when failure to stay on task may have a significant negative implication.

Identify, first, circumstances in which people tend to introduce irrelevant considerations into a discussion (for example, in meetings, in response to questions in class, in everyday dialogue when they have a hidden agenda - or simply want to get control of the conversation for some reason).


Questions focusing on depth of thought include:

We think deeply when we get beneath the surface of an issue or problem, identify the complexities inherent in it, and then deal with those complexities in an intellectually responsible way. Even when we think deeply and deal well with the complexities in a question, we may find the question difficult to address. Still, our thinking will work better for us when we can recognize complicated questions and address each area of complexity in it.

A statement can be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant, but superficial - lacking in depth. Let's say you are asked what should be done about the problem of drug use in America and you answer by saying, "Just say no." This slogan, which was for several years used to discourage children and teens from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. Nevertheless, it lacks depth because it treats an extremely complex issue superficially - i.e. it hardly addresses the pervasive problem of drug use among people in our culture. It does not address the history of the problem, the politics of the problem, the economics of the problem, the psychology of addiction, and so on.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Superficial Approaches

Identify a problem you have experienced at work where the solutions presented to the problem were superficial in nature. If decisions were made based on this surface thinking, what were the consequences that followed from the decision? If final decisions have not yet been made on this issue, try to think of some implications (or potential consequences) of following the superficial thinking that has been presented to deal with the problem.


Questions focusing on making thinking broader include:

A line of reasoning may be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep, but lack breadth. Examples are arguments from either the conservative or the liberal standpoint that get deeply into an issue but show insight into only one side of the question.

When we consider the issue at hand from every relevant viewpoint, we think in a broad way. When multiple points of view are pertinent to the issue, yet we fail to give due consideration to those perspectives, we think myopically, or narrow-mindedly. We do not try to understand alternative, or opposing, viewpoints.

Humans are frequently guilty of narrow-mindedness for many reasons: limited education, innate socio-centrism, natural selfishness, self-deception, and intellectual arrogance. Points of view that significantly disagree with our own often threaten us. It's much easier to ignore perspectives with which we disagree than to consider them, when we know at some level that to consider them would mean to be forced to reconsider our views.

Let's say, for example, that you like to watch / listen to TV in the bedroom as a way of falling to sleep. But let's say that your spouse has difficulty falling to sleep while the TV is on. The question at issue, then, is "Should you have the TV on in the bedroom while you and your spouse are falling asleep?" It is easy enough to rationalize your "need" to have the TV on every night while falling asleep, by saying such things to your spouse as "It is impossible for me to fall asleep without the TV on. And, after all, I really don't ask that much of you. Besides, you don't seem to have any real problem falling to sleep with the TV on." Yet both your viewpoint and your spouse's are relevant to the question at issue. When you recognize your spouse's viewpoint as relevant, and then intellectually empathize with it - when you enter her / his way of thinking so as to actually understand it - you will be thinking broadly about the issue. You will realize common consideration would require you to come to an agreement that fully takes into account both ways of looking at the situation. But if you don't force yourself to enter her/his viewpoint, you do not have to change your self-serving behavior. One of the primary mechanisms the mind uses to avoid giving up what it wants is unconsciously to refuse to enter viewpoints that differ from its own.

Test the Idea
Thinking Broadly About an Issue

Take the question, "Is abortion morally justified?" Some argue that abortion is not morally justifiable, and others argue that it is. Try to state and elaborate on each of these points of view in detail. Articulate each point of view objectively, regardless of your personal views. Present each point of view in such a way that a person who actually takes that position would assess it as accurate. Each line of reasoning should be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep. Try not to take a position on the issue yourself.


Questions that focus on making thinking more logical include:

When we think, we bring together a variety of thoughts in some order. When the combined thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, the thinking is logical. When the combination is not mutually supporting, is contradictory in some sense, or does not make sense, the combination is not logical. Because humans often maintain conflicting beliefs without being aware that we are doing so, it is not unusual to find inconsistencies in human life and thought.

Let's say we know, by looking at standardized tests of students in schools and the actual work they are able to produce, that for the most part students are deficient in basic academic skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and the core disciplines such as math, science, and history. Despite this evidence, teachers often conclude that there is nothing they can do to change their instruction to improve student learning (and in fact that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way they teach). Given the evidence, this conclusion seems illogical. The conclusion doesn't seem to follow from the facts.

Let's take another example. Say that you know a person who has had a heart attack, and her doctors have told her she must be careful what she eats. Yet she concludes that what she eats really doesn't matter. Given the evidence, her conclusion is illogical. It doesn't make sense.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Illogical Thinking

Identify a situation at work where decisions made seemed to be based on illogical thinking - thinking that didn't make sense to you.

  1. What was the situation?

  2. What was the thinking in the situation that you consider to be illogical? Why do you think it was illogical?

  3. What were some consequences that followed from the illogical thinking?


Questions that focus on making thinking more significant include:

When we reason through issues, we want to concentrate on the most important information (relevant to the issue) in our reasoning and take into account the most important ideas or concepts. Too often we fail in our thinking because we do not recognize that, though many ideas may be relevant to an issue, it does not follow that all are equally important. In a similar way, we often fail to ask the most important questions and are trapped by thinking only in terms of superficial questions, questions of little weight. In college, for example, few students focus on important questions such as, "What does it mean to be an educated person? What do I need to do to become educated?" Instead, students tend to ask questions such as, "What do I need to do to get an "A" in this course? How many pages does this paper have to be? What do I have to do to satisfy this professor?"

In our work, we too often focus on that which is pressing, at the expense of focusing on that which is significant. In our personal lives, we also often focus on the trivial mundane details, rather than the important bigger picture of our lives. Very few people, for example, have seriously thought about questions such as:

Test the Idea
Focusing on Significance in Thinking

Think about your life, about the way you spend your time, in terms of the amount of time you spend on significant versus trivial things. As you do so, write the answers to these questions:

  1. What is the most important goal or purpose you should focus on at this point in your life? Why is this purpose important? How much time do you spend focused on it?

  2. What are the most trivial or superficial things you spend time focused on (things such as your appearance, impressing your friends or colleagues, spending money on things you don't need, chatting about insignificant things at parties, and the like)?

  3. What can you do to reduce the amount of time you spend on the trivial, and increase the amount of time you spend on the significant?


Questions that focus on ensuring that thinking is fair include:

When we think through problems, we want to make sure that our thinking is justified. To be justified is to think fairly in context. In other words, it is to think in accord with reason. If you are vigilant in using the other intellectual standards covered thus far in the chapter you will (by implication) satisfy the standard of fairness. We include fairness in its own section because of the powerful nature of self-deception in human thinking. For example, we often deceive ourselves into thinking that we are being fair and justified in our thinking when in fact we are refusing to consider significant relevant information that would cause us to change our view (and therefore not pursue our selfish interest). We often pursue unfair purposes in order to get what we want even if we have to hurt others to get it. We often use concepts in an unjustified way in order to manipulate people. And we often make unjustified assumptions, unsupported by facts, which then lead to faulty inferences.

Let's focus on an example where the problem is unjustified thinking owing to ignoring relevant facts. Let's say, for instance, that Kristi and Abbey share the same office. Kristi is cold natured and Abbey is warm-natured. During the winter, Abbey likes to have the window in the office open while Kristi likes to keep it closed. But Abbey insists that it's "extremely uncomfortable" with the window closed. The information she is using in her reasoning all centers around her own point of view - that she is hot, that she can't work effectively if she's hot, that if Kristi is cold she can wear a sweater. But the fact is that Abbey is not justified in her thinking. She refuses to enter Kristi's point of view, to consider information supporting Kristi's perspective, because to do so would mean that she would have to give something up. She would have to adopt a more reasonable, or fair, point of view.

When we reason to conclusions, we want to check to make sure that the assumptions we are using to come to those conclusions are justifiable given the facts of the situation. For example, all of our prejudices and stereotypes function as assumptions in thinking. And no prejudices and stereotypes are justifiable given their very nature. For example, we often make broad sweeping generalizations such as:

The problem with assumptions like these is that they cause us to make basic - and often serious - mistakes in thinking. Because they aren't justifiable, they cause us to prejudge situations and people and draw faulty inferences - or conclusions - about them. For example, if we believe that all intellectuals are nerds, whenever we meet an intellectual we will infer that he or she is a nerd (and act unfairly toward the person).

In sum, justifiability, or fairness, is an important standard in thinking because it forces us to see how we are distorting our thinking in order to achieve our self-serving ends (or to see how others are distorting their thinking to achieve selfish ends).

Test the Idea
Are You Always Fair?

All of us want to see ourselves as imminently fair. Yet because we are by nature self-serving, we are not always able to consider the rights and needs of others in equivalent terms as we do our own. Indeed, one of the most difficult things for people to do is identify times when they are unfair. Yet highly skilled thinkers, aware of this human tendency, routinely search for problems in their thinking.

In the spirit of this idea, try to think of several times in the past few weeks where you were not fair. You are looking for situations where your behavior was selfish or self-serving and as a result, you negated another person's desires or rights. You placed your desires first. Remember that the more examples you can think of, the better. Also remember that, because of our native egocentrism, we are highly motivated to hide our unfair thoughts and behavior. Try not to fall into this trap.

Bringing Together the Elements of Reasoning and the Intellectual Standards

We have considered the elements of reasoning and the importance of being able to take them apart, to analyze them so we can begin to recognize flaws in our thinking. We also have introduced the intellectual standards as tools for assessment. Now let us look at how the intellectual standards are used to assess the elements of reason (Table 7.1 & Figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1. Critical thinkers routinely apply the intellectual standards to the elements of reasoning.

Elements of Reasoning

Table 7.1
Powerful questions are implied by the intellectual standards. Critical thinkers routinely ask them.


  • Could you elaborate?

  • Could you illustrate what you mean?

  • Could you give me an example?


  • How could we check on that?

  • How could we find out if that is true?

  • How could we verify or test that?


  • Could you be more specific?

  • Could you give me more details?

  • Could you be more exact?


  • What factors make this a difficult problem?

  • What are some of the complexities of this question?

  • What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?


  • How does that relate to the problem?

  • How does that bear on the question?

  • How does that help us with the issue?


  • Does all of this make sense together?

  • Does your first paragraph fit in with your last?

  • Does what you say follow from the evidence?


  • Is this the most important problem to consider?

  • Is this the central idea to focus on?

  • Which of these facts are the most important?


  • Do we need to look at this from another perspective?

  • Do we need to consider another point of view?

  • Do we need to look at this in other ways?


  • Is my thinking justifiable in context?

  • Are my assumptions supported by evidence?

  • Is my purpose fair given the situation?

  • Am I using my concepts in keeping with educated usage or am I distorting them to get what I want?

Purpose, Goal, or End in View

Whenever we reason, we do so to some end, to achieve an objective, to satisfy some desire or fulfill a need. One source of problems in human reasoning is traceable to defects at the level of goal, purpose, or end. If the goal is unrealistic, for example, or contradictory to other goals we have, if it is confused or muddled, the reasoning used to achieve it will suffer as a result.

As a developing critical thinker, then, you should get in the habit of explicitly stating the purposes you are trying to accomplish. You should strive to be clear about your purpose in every situation. If you fail to stick to your purpose, you are unlikely to achieve it. Let's say that your purpose in parenting is to help your children develop as life-long learners and contributing members of society. If you keep this purpose clearly in mind and consistently work to achieve it, you are more likely to be successful. But it is easy to lose sight of such an important purpose in the daily life of dealing with children. It is all too easy to get pulled into daily battles over whether a child's room is kept clean, whether they wear clothes considered "appropriate," whether they can get their nose pierced or their stomach tattooed. To achieve your purpose, you must revisit again and again what it is you are trying to accomplish. You must ask yourself on a daily basis questions like, "What have I done today to help my child develop as a rational, caring person?"

As an employee, you can begin to ask questions that improve your ability to focus on purpose in your work. For example: Am I clear as to my purpose - in this meeting, in this project, in dealing with this issue, in this discussion? Can I specify my purpose precisely? Is my purpose a significant one? Realistic? Achievable? Justifiable? Do I have contradictory purposes?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Purpose

Think of an important problem in your life. This can be a problem in a personal relationship, at your place of work, etc. Now state your purpose in the situation clearly and precisely. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Is your purpose fair, or justifiable? Is it realistic?

Question at Issue or Problem to Be Solved

Whenever you attempt to reason something through, there is at least one question to answer - one question that emerges from the problem to be solved or issue to resolve. An area of concern in assessing reasoning, therefore, revolves around the very question at issue.

An important part of being able to think well is assessing your ability to formulate a problem in a clear and relevant way. It requires determining whether the question you are addressing is an important one, whether it is answerable, whether you understand the requirements for settling the question, for solving the problem.

As an employee, you can begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on the important questions in your work. You begin to ask: What is the most fundamental question at issue (in this meeting, in this project, in this discussion)? What is the question, precisely? Is the question simple or complex? If it is complex, what makes it complex? Am I sticking to the question (in this discussion, in this project I am working on)? Is there more than one important question to be considered here (in this meeting, etc.)?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon the Question at Issue

Go back to the important problem in the previous activity. Now state the problem you are trying to address. Then state the question that emerges from that problem. State your question clearly and precisely. What complexities, if any, are inherent in the problem? Is there more than one question that you need to address to effectively reason through the problem?

Point of View, or Frame of Reference

Whenever we reason, we must reason within some point of view or frame of reference. Any "defect" in that point of view or frame of reference is a possible source of problems in the reasoning.

A point of view may be too narrow, may be based on false or misleading information, may contain contradictions, and may be narrow or unfair. Critical thinkers strive to adopt a point of view that is fair to others, even to opposing points of view. They want their point of view to be broad, flexible, and justifiable, to be clearly stated and consistently adhered to. Good thinkers, then, consider alternative points of view as they reason through an issue.

As an employee, you begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on point of view in your work. These questions might be: From what point of view am I looking at this issue? Am I so locked into my point of view that I am unable to see the issue from other points of view? Must I consider multiple points of view to reason well through the issue at hand? What is the point of view of my colleague? How is she seeing things differently than I? Which of these perspectives seems more reasonable given the situation?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Points of View

Continue with the problem from the last two activities. Now state the point or points of view that are relevant to the issue at hand. State each point of view clearly and precisely. Make sure you are considering all relevant points of view (that you are thinking broadly), and that you are representing each point of view accurately (even if it means sympathetically expressing a view that you do not personally hold).

Information, Data, Experiences

Whenever we reason, there is some "stuff," some phenomena about which we are reasoning. Any "defect," then, in the experiences, data, evidence, or raw material upon which a person's reasoning is based is a possible source of problems.

Those who reason should be assessed on their ability to give evidence that is gathered and reported clearly, fairly, and accurately. Therefore, as a developing thinker, you should assess the information you use to come to conclusions, whether you are reasoning through issues at work or reasoning through a problem in your personal life. You should assess whether the information you are using in reasoning is relevant to the issue at hand and adequate for achieving your purpose. You should assess whether you are taking the information into account consistently or distorting it to fit your own (often self-serving) point of view.

At work, you can begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on information in your work. These questions might be: What is the most important information I need to reason well through this issue? Are there alternate information sources I need to consider? How can I check to see if the information I am using is accurate? Am I sure that all of the information I am using is relevant to the issue at hand?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon the Information You are Using in Your Reasoning

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the information you are using in your thinking. This could be data, facts, or experiences that, in conjunction with your assumptions, lead you to conclusions. It could come from your experience, word of mouth, research, the media, or other sources. State the information clearly. How could you determine whether the information is accurate and relevant to the question at issue?

Concepts, Theories, Ideas

All reasoning uses some ideas or concepts and not others. These concepts include the theories, principles, axioms, and rules implicit in our reasoning. Any defect in the concepts or ideas of the reasoning is a possible source of problems in our reasoning.

As an aspiring critical thinker, you begin to focus more deeply on the concepts you use. You begin to assess the extent to which you are clear about those concepts, whether they are relevant to the issue at hand, and whether your principles are inappropriately slanted by your point of view. You begin to direct your attention to how you use concepts, what concepts are most important, and how concepts are intertwined in networks.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you begin to ask questions that improve your ability to focus on the importance of concepts in your life. These questions may include: What is the most fundamental concept I am focused on in this situation? How does this concept connect with other key concepts I need to consider? What are the most important theories I need to consider? Am I clear about the important concepts in this meeting? What questions do I need to ask to get clear about the concepts we are discussing?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear upon the Concepts You Use

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important concepts you are using to guide your reasoning. For example, if you are concerned with how you can keep in physical shape while also dedicating enough time to family and work, your key concepts might be physical fitness, good family relationships, and productive work life. (You usually can find the key concepts you are using in your reasoning by looking at your question and purpose.) Elaborate on each of these concepts so you understand exactly how you are using them. State your concepts clearly and precisely.


All reasoning must begin somewhere. It must take some things for granted. Any defect in the assumptions or presuppositions with which reasoning begins is a possible source of problems in the reasoning.

Assessing skills of reasoning involves assessing our ability to recognize and articulate assumptions, again according to relevant standards. Our assumptions may be clear or unclear, justifiable or unjustifiable, consistent or contradictory.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you begin to ask questions that improve your ability to analyze the assumptions you and others are using. These questions could include: What am I taking for granted? Am I justified in taking this for granted? What are others taking for granted? What is being assumed in this meeting? What is being assumed in this relationship? What is being assumed in this discussion? Are these assumptions justifiable, or should I question them?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Assumptions

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important assumptions you are making in your reasoning. What are you taking for granted that might be questioned? Using the previous example of how to keep in physical shape while also dedicating enough time to your family and your work, your main assumptions might be:

  1. High-quality family relationships are more important than work productivity.

  2. I know enough about physical fitness to do appropriate exercises.

  3. I must spend a considerable amount of time at work in order to support my family.

  4. I have enough time to do all of the above well.

State your assumptions clearly and precisely. Make sure they are justifiable in the context of the issue.

Implications and Consequences

Whenever we reason, implications follow from our reasoning. When we make decisions, consequences result from those decisions. As critical thinkers, we want to understand implications whenever and wherever they occur. We want to be able to trace logical consequences. We want to see what our actions are leading to. We want to anticipate possible problems before they arise.

No matter where we stop tracing implications, there always will be further implications. No matter what consequences we do see, there always will be other and further consequences. Any defect in our ability to follow the implications or consequences of our reasoning is a potential source of problems in our thinking. Our ability to reason well, then, is measured in part by our ability to understand and enunciate the implications and consequences of reasoning.

In your work and personal life, you begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on the important implications in your thinking and the thinking of others. These questions could include, for example: What are the most important implications of this decision? What are the implications of my doing this versus my doing that? Have we thought through the implications decision in this meeting? Have I thought through the implications of my parenting behavior? Have I thought through the implications of the way I treat my spouse?

Test the Idea
Thinking Through the Implications of Your Reasoning

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important implication of potential decisions you might make. Fill in these blanks: If I decide to do ___________________________, then _________________________________ is likely to follow. If I decide to act differently by doing _________________________________________, then __________________________________ is likely to follow.

In this activity, you are emphasizing the logical implications and potential consequences of each potential decision. Make sure you emphasize important implications of each decision. For further practice, what would be the most likely implications of (1) getting married, (2) staying in your hometown for the whole of your life, (3) staying in the same job for the whole of your life, (4) deciding to get a divorce (if you are married)?


All reasoning proceeds by steps in which we reason as follows: "Because this is so, that also is so (or is probably so)" or, "Because this, therefore that." The mind perceives a situation or a set of facts and comes to a conclusion based on those facts. When this step of the mind occurs, an inference is made. Any defect in our ability to make logical inferences is a possible problem in our reasoning. For example, if you see a person sitting on the street corner wearing tattered clothing, a worn bed roll beside him and a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag in his hand, you might infer that he is a bum. This inference is based on the facts you perceive in the situation and of what you assume about them. The inference, however, may or may not be logical in this situation.

Critical thinkers want to become adept at making sound inferences. First, you want to learn to identify when you or someone else has made an inference. What are the key inferences made in this discussion? Upon what are the inferences based? Are they justified? What is the key inference (or conclusion) I made in this meeting? Was it justified? What is the key inference in this way of proceeding, in solving this problem in this way? Is this inference logical? Is this conclusion significant? Is this interpretation justified? These are the kinds of questions you begin to ask.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you should ask questions that improve your ability to spot important inferences wherever they occur. Given the facts of this case, is there more than one logical inference (conclusion, interpretation) one could come to? What are some other logical conclusions that should be considered? From this point on, develop an inference detector, the skill of recognizing the inferences you are making in order to analyze them.

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Inferences

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the inferences, or conclusions, you might come to (about the information you have) in solving your problem. You may have already stated these in the activities above. Once you have thought through the potential conclusions you might come to in reasoning through the question at issue, state a possible final conclusion. Be clear and precise in stating each potential conclusion. Make sure your inferences make good sense, based on the information and concepts you are using.

Using Intellectual Standards to Assess Your Thinking: Brief Guidelines

As we have emphasized, all reasoning involves eight elements, each of which has a range of possible mistakes. Here we summarize some of the main "checkpoints" you should use in reasoning (See also Tables 7.27.9).

  1. All reasoning has a purpose.
    • Take time to state your purpose clearly.

    • Choose significant and realistic purposes.

    • Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.

    • Make sure your purpose is fair in context (that it doesn't involve violating the rights of others).

    • Check periodically to be sure you are still focused on your purpose and haven't wandered from your target.

  2. All reasoning is an attempt to figure out something, to settle some question, solve some problem.
    • Take time to clearly and precisely state the question at issue.

    • Express the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope.

    • Break the question into sub-questions (when you can).

    • Identify the type of question you are dealing with (historical, economic, biological, etc.) and whether the question has one right answer, is a matter of mere opinion, or requires reasoning from more than one point of view.

    • Think through the complexities of the question (think deeply through the question).

  3. All reasoning is based on assumptions.
    • Clearly identify your assumptions and determine whether they are justifiable.

    • Consider how your assumptions are shaping your point of view.

  4. All reasoning is done from some point of view.
    • Clearly identify your point of view.

    • Seek other relevant points of view and identify their strengths as well as weaknesses.

    • Strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view.

  5. All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.
    • Restrict your claims to those supported by the data you have.

    • Search for information that opposes your position as well as information that supports it.

    • Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue.

    • Make sure you have gathered sufficient information.

    • Make sure, especially, that you have considered all significant information relevant to the issue.

  6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.
    • Clearly identify key concepts.

    • Consider alternative concepts or alternative definitions for concepts.

    • Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision.

    • Use concepts justifiably (not distorting their established meanings).

  7. All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
    • Infer only what the evidence implies.

    • Check inferences for their consistency with each other.

    • Identify assumptions that lead you to your inferences.

    • Make sure your inferences logically follow from the information.

  8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.
    • Trace the logical implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning.

    • Search for negative as well as positive implications.

    • Consider all possible significant consequences.

Test the Idea
Checkpoints in Thinking

For all of the eight categories outlined, transform each checkpoint into a question or a set of questions; figure out one or more questions that the checkpoint implies. When you have completed your list and you are actively using the questions you formulated, you will have powerful tools for thinking.

Under the first category, All reasoning has a purpose, for example, the first checkpoint is, "Take time to state your purpose clearly" Two questions implied by this checkpoint are: "What exactly is my purpose?" and "Am I clear about my purpose?"

Table 7.2 This chart focuses on purpose in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to purpose and in differentiating between the use of purpose in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning has a purpose)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) significance, (3) achievability, (4) consistency, (5) justifiability

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) trivial, (3) unrealistic, (4) contradictory, (5) unfair

Principle: To reason well, you must clearly understand your purpose, and your purpose must be fair-minded.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

take the time to state their purpose clearly.

are often unclear about their central purpose.

Have I made the purpose of my reasoning clear?

What exactly am I trying to achieve?

Have I stated the purpose in several ways to clarify it?

distinguish it from related purposes.

oscillate between different, sometimes contradictory, purposes.

What different purposes do I have in mind?

How do I see them as related?

Am I going off in somewhat different directions?

How can I reconcile these contradictory purposes?

periodically remind them-selves of their purpose to determine whether they are straying from it.

lose track of their fundamental object or goal.

In writing this proposal, do I seem to be wandering from my purpose?

How do my third and fourth paragraphs relate to my central goal?

adopt realistic purposes and goals.

adopt unrealistic purposes and set unrealistic goals.

Am I trying to accomplish too much in this project?

choose significant purposes and goals.

adopt trivial purposes and goals as if they were significant.

What is the significance of pursuing this particular purpose?

Is there a more significant purpose I should be focused on?

choose goals and purposes that are consistent with other goals and purposes they have chosen

inadvertently negate their own purposes.

do not monitor their thinking for inconsistent goals.

Does one part of my proposal seem to undermine what I am trying to accomplish in another part?

adjust their thinking regularly to their purpose.

do not adjust their thinking regularly to their purpose.

Does my argument stick to the issue?

Am I acting consistently within my purpose?

choose purposes that are fair-minded, considering the desires and rights of others equally with their own desires and rights.

choose purposes that are self-serving at the expense of others' needs and desires.

Is my purpose self-serving or concerned only with my own desires?

Does it take into account the rights and needs of other people?

Table 7.3 This chart focuses on questions in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to questions and in differentiating between the use of questions in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, solve some problem.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity and precision, (2) significance, (3) answerability, (4) relevance

Common problems: (1) unclear and unprecise, (2) insignificant, (3) not answerable, (4) irrelevant

Principle: To settle a question, it must be answerable, and you must be clear about it and understand what is needed to adequately answer it.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the question they are trying to settle.

are often unclear about the question they are asking.

Am I clear about the main question at issue?

Am I able to state it precisely?

can re-express a question in a variety of ways.

express questions vaguely and find questions difficult to reformulate for clarity.

Am I able to reformulate my question in several ways to recognize the complexity of it?

can break a question into sub-questions.

are unable to break down the questions they are asking.

Have I broken down the main question into sub-questions?

What are the sub-questions embedded in the main question?

routinely distinguish questions of different types.

confuse questions of different types and thus often respond inappropriately to the question they ask.

Am I confused about the type of question I am asking?

For example: Am I confusing a legal question with an ethical one?

Am I confusing a question of preference with a question requiring judgment?

distinguish significant from trivial questions.

confuse trivial questions with significant ones.

Am I focusing on trivial questions while other significant questions have been addresses?

distinguish relevant questions from irrelevant ones.

confuse irrelevant questions with relevant ones.

Are the questions I'm raising in this discussion relevant to the main question at issue?

are sensitive to the assumptions built into the questions they ask.

often ask loaded questions.

Is the way I'm putting the question loaded?

Am I taking for granted from the outset the correctness of my own position?

distinguish questions they can answer from questions they can't.

try to answer questions they are not in a position to answer.

Am I in a position to answer the question?

What information would I need to have before I could answer the question?

Table 7.4 This chart focuses on point of view in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to point of view and in differentiating between the use of point of view in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning is done from some point of view.)

Primary standards: (1) flexibility, (2) fairness, (3) clarity, (4) breadth, (5) relevance

Common problems: (1) restricted, (2) biased, (3) unclear, (4) narrow, (5) irrelevant

Principle: To reason well, you must identify those points of view relevant to the issue and enter these viewpoints empathetically.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

keep in mind that people have different points of view, especially on controversial issues.

do not credit alternative reasonable viewpoints.

Have I articulated the point of view from which I am approaching this issue?

Have I considered opposing points of view regarding this issue?

consistently articulate other points of view and reason from within those points of view to adequately understand other points of view.

cannot see issues from points of view that are significantly different from their own; cannot reason with empathy from alien points of view.

I may have characterized my own point of view, but have I considered the most significant aspects of the problem from the point of view of others?

seek other viewpoints, especially when the issue is one they believe in passionately.

can sometimes give other points of view when the issue is not emotionally charged but cannot do so for issues they feel strongly about.

Am I presenting X's point of view in an unfair manner?

Am I having difficulty appreciating X's viewpoint because I am emotional about this issue?

confine their monological reasoning to problems that are clearly monological.[*]

confuse multilogical with monological issues; insist that there is only one frame of reference within which a given multilogical question must be decided.

Is the question here monological or multilogical? How can I tell?

Am I reasoning as if only one point of view is relevant to this issue when in reality other viewpoints are relevant?

recognize when they are most likely to be prejudiced.

are unaware of their own prejudices.

Is this prejudiced or reasoned judgement?

If prejudiced, where does it come from?

approach problems and issues with a richness of vision and an appropriately broad point of view.

reason from within inappropriately narrow or superficial points of view.

Is my approach to this question too narrow?

Am I considering other viewpoints so I can adequately address the problem?

[*] Monological problems are ones for which there are definite correct and incorrect answers and definite procedures for getting those answers. In multilogical problems, there are competing schools of thought to be considered.

Table 7.5 This chart focuses on information in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to information and in differentiating between the use of information in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning is based on data, information, evidence, experience, research.)

Primary standards: (1) clear, (2) relevant, (3) fairly gathered and reported, (4) accurate, (5) adequate, (6) consistently applied

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) irrelevant, (3) biased, (4) inaccurate, (5) insufficient, (6) inconsistently applied

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the information it is based on.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

assert a claim only when they have sufficient evidence to back it up.

assert claims without considering all relevant information.

Is my assertion supported by evidence?

can articulate and evaluate the information behind their claims.

don't articulate the information they are using in their reasoning and so do not subject it to rational scrutiny.

Do I have evidence to support my claim that I haven't articulated?

Have I evaluated for accuracy and relevance the information I am using?

actively search for information against (not just for) their own position.

gather information only when it supports their own point of view.

Where is a good place to look for evidence on the opposite side? Have I looked there? Have I honestly considered information that doesn't support my position?

focus on relevant information and disregard what is irrelevant to the question at issue.

do not carefully distinguish between relevant information and irrelevant information.

Are my data relevant to the claim I'm making?

Have I failed to consider relevant information?

draw conclusions only to the extent that they are supported by the data and sound reasoning.

make inferences that go beyond what the data support.

Does my claim go beyond the evidence I've cited?

state the evidence clearly and fairly.

distort the data or state it inaccurately.

Is my presentation of the pertinent information clear and coherent?

Have I distorted information to support my position?

Table 7.6 This chart focuses on concepts in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to concepts and in differentiating between the use of concepts in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) relevance, (3) depth, (4) accuracy

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) irrelevant, (3) superficial, (4) inaccurate

Principle: Reasoning can only be as clear, relevant, realistic, and deep as the concepts that shape it.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are aware of the key concepts and ideas they and others use.

are unaware of the key concepts and ideas they and others use.

What is the main concept I am using in my thinking?

What are the main concepts others are using?

are able to explain the basic implications of the key words and phrases they use.

cannot accurately explain basic implications of their key words and phrases.

Am I clear about the implications of key concepts? For example: Does the word cunning have negative implications that the word clever does not?

are able to distinguish special, nonstandard uses of words from standard uses.

are not able to recognize when their use of a word or phrase departs from educated usage.

Where did I get my definition of this central concept? For example: Where did I get my definition of the concept of...

Have I put my unwarranted conclusions into the definition?

are aware of irrelevant concepts and ideas and use concepts and ideas in ways relevant to their functions.

use concepts in ways inappropriate to the subject or issue.

Am I using the concept of "love" appropriately? For example: Do I unknowingly act as if loving a person implies a right to treat them discourteously?

think deeply about the concepts they use.

fail to think deeply about the concepts they use.

Am I thinking deeply enough about this concept? For example: The concept of health care, as I describe it, does not take into account the patient's rights and privileges. Do I need to consider the idea of health care more deeply?

Table 7.7 This chart focuses on assumptions in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to assumptions and in differentiating between the use of assumptions in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning is based on assumptions - beliefs we take for granted.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) justifiability, (3) consistency

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) unjustified, (3) contradictory

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the assumptions it is based on.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the assumptions they are making.

are often unclear about the assumptions they make.

Are my assumptions clear to me?

Do I clearly understand what my assumptions are based upon?

make assumptions that are reasonable and justifiable given the situation and evidence.

often make unjustified or unreasonable assumptions.

Do I make assumptions about the future based on just one experience from the past?

Can I fully justify what I am taking for granted?

Are my assumptions justifiable given the evidence I am using to support them?

make assumptions that are consistent with each other.

often make assumptions that are contradictory.

Do the assumptions I made in the first part of my argument contradict the assumptions I am making now?

constantly seek to figure out what their assumptions are.

ignore their assumptions.

What assumptions am I making in this situation? Are they justifiable?

Where did I get these assumptions?

Table 7.8 This chart focuses on implications in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to implications and in differentiating between how skilled and unskilled reasoners think about implications.


(All reasoning leads somewhere. It has implications and, when acted upon, has consequences.)

Primary standards: (1) significance, (2) logicalness, (3) clarity, (4) precision, (5) completeness

Common problems: (1) unimportant, (2) unrealistic, (3) unclear, (4) imprecise, (5) incomplete

Principle: To reason well through an issue, you might think through the implications that follow from your reasoning. You must think through the consequences likely to follow from the decisions you make.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

trace out a number of significant potential implications and consequences of their reasoning.

trace out few or none of the implications and consequences of holding a position or making a decision.

Did I spell out all the significant consequences of the action I am advocating?

If I were to take this course of action, what other consequences might follow that I haven't considered?

clearly and precisely articulate the possible implications and consequences clearly and precisely.

are unclear and imprecise in the possible consequences they articulate.

Have I delineated clearly and precisely the consequences likely to follow from my chosen action?

search for potentially negative as well as potentially positive consequences.

trace out only the consequences they had in mind at the beginning, either positive or negative, but usually not both.

I may have done a good job of spelling out some positive implications of the decision I am about to make, but what are some of the possible negative implications or consequences?

anticipate the likelihood of unexpected negative and positive implications.

are surprised when their decisions have unexpected consequences.

If I make this decision, what are some possible unexpected implications?

What are some variables out of my control that might lead to negative consequences?

Table 7.9 This chart focuses on inferences in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to inferences and in differentiating between the use of inferences in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.


(All reasoning contains inferences from which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data and situations.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) logicalness, (3) justifiability, (4) profundity, (5) reasonability, (6) consistency

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) illogical, (3) unjustified, (4) superficial, (5) unreasonable, (6) contradictory

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the inferences it makes (or the conclusions it comes to).

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the inferences they are making clearly articulate their inferences.

are often unclear about the inferences they are making do not clearly articulate their inferences.

Am I clear about the inferences I am making?

Have I clearly articulated my conclusions?

usually make inferences that follow from the evidence or reasons presented.

often make inferences that do not follow from the evidence or reasons presented.

Do my conclusions logically follow from the evidence and reasons presented?

often make inferences that are deep rather than superficial.

often make inferences that are superficial.

Are my conclusions superficial, given the problem?

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are reasonable.

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are unreasonable.

Are my conclusions reasonable?

make inferences or come to conclusions that are consistent with each other.

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are contradictory.

Do the conclusions I come to in the first part of my analysis seem to contradict the conclusions that I come to at the end?

understand the assumptions that lead to inferences.

do not seek to figure out the assumptions that lead to inferences.

Is my inference based on a faulty assumption?

How would my inference be changed if I were to base it on a different, more justifiable assumption?

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