Category Archives: Critical Thinking

What People Do

What People Do ImageHere’s a little intellectual exercise that won’t earn you any points toward your GPA, and it certainly won’t earn you any money.

Take one of those yellow legal pads of paper and begin to create a list of “things that people do.”  That seems simple enough, but it will take you some time before you actually have drained from your head all the things you can think of.

Be careful to include both good and bad things, and after each item indicate in parentheses at what level the thing takes place: at the personal, family, institutional, church, state, national, or global levels.

If you are really interested in this exercise, you might consider creating your list on a computer spreadsheet like Excel. If you do, you will be able to sort the list in a variety of revealing ways.

In addition to the level at which the thing takes place, you could add another column on frequency or probability–how often does the thing happen or is likely to happen, and at what levels? For instance, if you were to sort the list alphabetically, war would end up near the bottom. But if you were to sort the list in order of frequency or probability, surely war would end up much higher on the list.

If you added a fourth column, somehow placing each item in some kind of category such as violence, you would certainly have to place war in that category, but you’d also have to place spousal abuse and schoolyard bullying, and  whole lot of other things.  Use the computer to sort the list on violence and see how far up the whole list it appears.

You could add two more columns if you wished.  One would be to record a simple binary state: is the thing good or bad? Don’t be afraid to make value judgments here–it’s your list.  The other new column would also be binary: past or present–that is, was the item of human activity confined to the past or does it still take place today?

This all sounds like quite a project, but since there’s no academic credit to earn, there’s also no due date.  Give it a shot. You might discover a number of very interesting things about the world.

Critical Thinking Series III: Figure, Question, Problem

This article will discuss the second item on the list presented in Critical Thinking Series I:  All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, or solve some problem.  Here are a few steps to take in the process.

  • State the question or problem as clearly as possible.
  • Express the question or problem in more than one way to explore all its “angles.”
  • Break the question or problem into its component parts.
  • Distinguish questions for which there is a concrete answer from those which can be reduced no further than personal opinion or basic belief.

As always, it helps immensely to write this stuff down.  On a sheet of paper, just go down the list and figure out, as far as you can, the question or problem at hand.  Your mind is for having ideas–it’s not so good at storing them.  Put them on paper instead.

Critical Thinking Series IV will address assumptions used in reasoning.

Empire of Illusion

Review of Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009).

This book is not a happy read.  I did know the job was dangerous when I took it; Empire of Illusion is not a positive-sounding title.  It speaks of something wrong.  It doesn’t praise, it warns.   The gist of Hedges’s message is that Americans have been largely diverted from literacy by what he calls spectacle: the replacement of words and ideas by images and mirages. In the previous literate society, people kept informed by reading books, newspapers, and magazines–that is, words–and they were not as easily influenced by images and spectacle. “Looks” didn’t mean so much, words and deeds were what mattered most. That reality, one of the great progressive developments of the modern era, is now endangered by the decline of literacy. Continue reading →

Critical Thinking Series II: All Reasoning Has a Purpose

This is a continuation of my series on Critical Thinking. My last post contained a checklist of reasoning principals. This post will address the first item on that checklist: “All reasoning has a purpose.” Though it may seem obvious, it’s sometimes not clear why you are trying to reason something through, and it is very often true that the reasons for someone else’s reasoning are obscure as well. Here are some things you can do to clarify your purposes and those of others:

  • State your purpose as clearly as possible at the very beginning. Often just forcing yourself to do this will make you clarify your intentions. When you are trying to understand the reasoning of others, see if he or she has been clear in terms of purpose.
  • Distinguish your purpose or that of others from related purposes. This will really help you to clarify your intentions and how well you’ve defined them. Again, having to show to yourself and others how your current purpose is different from other possible “purposes” will help to “crystalize” your thinking and to sharpen your focus.
  • As you construct as reasoned argument or explanation, check back as often as necessary with your purpose to make sure you haven’t strayed or that you haven’t been guilty of “mission creep.” Likewise, if you detect a wondering in the reasoning of others, you’ll be in a better position to evaluated their claims and assertions.
  • Make sure your purposes are both important and realistic. Don’t waste you time or scarce mental energy (yes, it is limited) with trifles. Remember what Eugene O’Neill wrote: “We fought so hard against the small things that we became small ourselves.” At the same time, don’t waste you time with the stupendously unreal. This doesn’t mean you can’t create or even “dream,” but it does mean that if your head is in the clouds, your feet ought to be on the ground.

See the next post in this series to learn read about the second item on the reasoning checklist.

Stay well, do good work, enjoy yourself.

Doc Carney

Critical Thinking Series I

This post begins a series of articles on critical-thinking concepts and skills. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and evaluate statements, claims, or assertions made by others (or by oneself) based on evidence and careful reasoning. Its essence is judgment, though critical thinking often reveals the need to accept and tolerate ambiguity regarding what we are told or even what we observe ourselves. I know the preceding sounds like vague double talk, but it really isn’t. If you follow this series throughout fall term, you’ll get a pretty concrete idea just what critical thinking is all about.

We’ll begin with a simple Checklist for Reasoning:

  1. All reasoning has a PURPOSE.
  2. All reasoning is an attempt to FIGURE something out, to settle some QUESTION, or solve some PROBLEM.
  3. All reasoning is influenced by often-unstated ASSUMPTIONS.
  4. All reasoning is done from some POINT OF VIEW.
  5. All reasoning is based on DATA, INFORMATION, AND EVIDENCE.
  6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, CONCEPTS and IDEAS.
  7. All reasoning contains INFERENCES or INTERPRETATIONS by which we draw CONCLUSIONS and give meaning to data.
  8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has IMPLICATIONS and CONSEQUENCES.

The next eight articles in this series will explore each item on this list and give examples of how it can be put into practice.

Stay tuned.

Doc Carney