The Society for Applied Philosophy argues on its website that “many topics of public debate are capable
of being illuminated by the critical, analytic approach characteristic of philosophy.”
This essay argues that critical thinking in philosophy, as described in
courses with that title, as well as in reference books on the topic, and in
particular in the emphasis on argument, does not fully meet its objective, if
that objective is to strengthen our ability to think critically.
I shall first define critical thinking. Then, using three philosophical
works as benchmarks, I shall assess whether the thinking methods that they
propose is capable of clarifying issues of public debate. The assessment, on the
whole, finds that deeper, more analytical methods from other disciplines will
strengthen our capability to think critically on issues of concern to us individually
and also as members of organised society.
The three benchmarks are: Jill LeBlanc, (1998) “Thinking Clearly. A guide to critical
, Lewis Vaughn, (2008, 2nd. ed.) The Power of Critical Thinking
, and the course notes for an
undergraduate course on Creative Thinking at Macquarie University.
What is critical thinking?
This examination in part depends on a definition of ‘critical thinking,’ and
in part, through an answer to the question of why we should teach it. It would
seem almost axiomatic that to think critically would be to strengthen our
ability to think through and decide on the issues and concerns that face us,
and our communities. This is consistent with the SAP statement above, which
implies that we need a critical, analytical approach to throw light on ways to
resolve issues of public concern. Such
thinking is also consistent with the SAP statement
The Society for Applied Philosophy (UK) was founded in 1982
with the aim of promoting philosophical study and research that has a direct
bearing on areas of practical concern.
The term ‘critical’ has at least two meanings. One is to find fault; the
second is the meaning implied by the immediately preceding paragraphs – that it
is to think through issues of significance to ourselves and our communities. I
will use the second definition as the only one which is useful, and draw on the
three references to explain why it is ‘crucial or decisive’, to use a Lewis
Vaughn description. He states: “You came into this world without opinions or
judgements …and now your head is brimming with them”. He further adds: “the quality of your beliefs is the
fundamental concern of critical thinking.”
(op.cit .p. 1)
‘Ultimately, what critical thinking leads you to is knowledge,
understanding and - … empowerment’ (op.cit.p.1)
“Critical thinking enables problem solving and active learning” (p.5)
An examination of various references on this topic gives similar
conclusions. One series of definitions, however, is that critical thinking
comes down to argument. Jill
LeBlanc, in her treatise on thinking clearly emphasises the role of argument.
“Our ultimate goal in studying critical thinking is to learn to evaluate
arguments” (p.1.). She defines an argument as: “… an attempt to justify or
prove a conclusion” (p.2).
The Macquarie University
course ‘Critical thinking’, emphasises reasoning; “Our aim in this course is to
teach you the fundamentals of good reasoning. We will illustrate these
fundamentals by looking at reasoning from newspapers, journals, advertisements,
textbooks, and some philosophical works.”
Despite the wide ranging
definition that he uses, Vaughn also agrees with the emphasis on argument
are the main focus of critical thinking”, (p.10),
The Macquarie statement leaves
unanswered, or at least only implies, a more fundamental question – why do we need
good reasoning. For this answer I will
again draw on Vaughn - that it is to lead us further to knowledge. I also argue
that in attempting to think critically we are seeking answers to the long asked
questions “What should we do? “, “How should we lead our lives?”
baseline references draw upon the early Greek philosophers in seeking answers to these questions.
are, in a strong sense, philosophical questions.
The Macquarie unit also
places an emphasis on argument, but provides a wide ranging objective behind
this approach: “
We do not argue solely to make
someone agree with us, but to find the truth about some matter, and to provide
good reasons for others to believe our conclusions.”
LeBlanc also reaches beyond the argument to embrace wider issues. She
says: “If you accept a candidate’s arguments to vote for her, you cannot forget
that her policies will affect the lives of many citizens. Will her policies
change their lives for the worse?”
These statements again bring up the issue that critical thinking has as
one of its objectives, developing our thoughts, and arguments, on the broad
social issues that we face in life. Finding a solution to the refugee boats
coming to Australia and the loss of life with them is a good example. But in the broad, I would argue that the
objective behind attempts to think critically is to advance knowledge.
The above propositions put forward the early Greek philosophers and the
dialectic approach to explain the development of critical thinking. De Bono
(2000) also makes this assertion. However, other references claim a development
of critical thinking concepts as late as the 1980s (Tucker, 1997).
Critical thinking (CT) gained widespread recognition as a behavioral
science construct in the
1980's when Goodwin Watson and Edward Glaser’s ‘Critical Thinking’ Appraisal became a
widely used tool for assessing the
effects of undergraduate education on reasoning skills,
Subsequent paragraphs in this essay tend to draw the conclusion that
there are several theories on critical reasoning. As the three base references
are philosophical in origin, and as the authors themselves are philosophers, we
can reasonably categorise as philosophical, the critical thinking methods in
this paper in the comparison with other disciplines
with the suggested approach on thinking critically
The questioning of this approach is based on three concerns:
1. That it does not present the full pedagogical content of what is
required to think critically.
2. That critical thinking, as defined, is oriented excessively to
criticism - that it does not build
on itself. It is a thinking approach that can be contrasted with that of
3. Some of the concepts that are presented are misleading
In a sense these are sins of both omission and commission. ;
in concept and practice
This primary concern arises from the implications of LeBlanc’s statement
on the importance of critically examining political commitments, and the impact
that they have on our lives. Evaluation practices attempt to question our
thinking about policies that affect ourselves (and our societies). Yet
evaluation does not appear to be covered in any of the referenced texts on
critical thinking. I argue that effective evaluation is necessary for the
putting forward of arguments and deciding of answers to the many questions that
we are asking of ourselves, of our societies, or our governments.
I will first briefly explain evaluation and then expand on its role in
Evaluations can be put in terms of an argument. If I state for instance, The intervention in the Northern Territory indigenous communities has
and if I provide positive statements from several politicians and public
servants as reasons for supporting this assertion, then I have an argument.
And, I trust, an example of critical thinking
If a formal
evaluation of this program has been undertaken, I have a strong factual basis
behind the conclusion that has been drawn. An independent evaluation will tell
me what has worked, what has not, and will give indications, sometimes quite
powerfully, of what should or should not be done in the future. In short,
evaluations provide sound arguments behind adopting a particular course of
action. Much new legislation and many policy initiatives require that they be
evaluated after a stipulated period of operation.
There are many
programs set up by public authorities , charities and other non-government agencies, and even by private
businesses, the evaluation of which lead society into new ways of thinking.
Examples include the benefits of early interventions in education; provision of
mental health services, types of prison reform, ways of stopping unethical
conduct in the public sector, and so on. These are all social issues about
which we need considerable critical thinking.
Evaluation has many
components: ex-ante evaluation (which is an evaluation of the thinking before
it is put into practice), impact evaluation, process or on–going evaluation,
ex-post evaluation. These components and their role in collective thinking have
not changed greatly in several years. See Bowden (1988) and texts such as De
Coninck et al (2008). These texts describe methods of analyses that are
designed to strengthen our
thinking on programs, small or large, that have the potential to contribute to
the betterment of society,
A second aspect of the critical
thinking process that raises a concern is that the texts mention nothing on
creative or innovative thinking. It could well be argued that much thinking that is important, that is attempting
to resolve the question of what should we do about a particular issue, requires
creative or innovative thinking. It is
questionable whether the methods set out for analysing arguments engender
creative thinking. The Macquarie notes for instance specifically mention that
one of the two types of reasoning even prevents imaginative reasoning:
deductive conclusion may be used to arrive at something which is implicit, but
will not allow us to arrive at genuinely novel facts.
There are several
approaches to generating innovative thinking that could be taught. This
writer’s favourite is The Five Whys - a thinking process developed by the
founder of the Toyota Car company. It asks in succeeding order why a particular
problem is occurring. An example is Why is the world is facing economic problems
at the moment? – Because of the Global Financial Crisis…Why did this crisis
occur? – Because loan funds were too cheap…Why were loan funds,,,, etc., etc.
thinking concepts are Edward de Bono’s concept of Lateral Thinking (1970), or
his revised Six Thinking Hats (2000).There are many others – brainstorming,
delphi techniques, etc. - available in the literature.
Critical thinking as criticism
Yet another concern,
related to creative thinking, is the negative aspects of critical thinking. To
be critical is one definition of a criticism.
It is relatively simple to pull apart an argument. It is much more difficult to build a thought
that wins acceptance, that advances knowledge.
My concern is that the emphasis on argument and on the analysis of
arguments makes it much more difficult to move thinking forward.
skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not
completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of
self-satisfied debunkers (Roth,
It could well be
argued that this difficulty has also likely been the reason why little
agreement is achieved in philosophical thought. Many examples can be given of this disagreement. John Stuart Mill, in
the opening sentences of Utilitarianism
From the dawn of philosophy, the
question concerning the summum bonum, (the controversy respecting the criterion of right and
wrong) has been accounted the main
problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and
divided them into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one
another. And after more than two thousand years the same discussions continue,….
An even more
telling example of the negative power of argument is seen in some of these
‘sects and schools’ .The Beauchamp and Childress formulae, for instance (2001),
a combination of Kant and Mill, although developed for biomedical ethics,
provide an extremely wide ranging set of ethical guidelines. They are taught in
the health sciences disciplines throughout much of the world. But they are
Bernard Gert’s formulation of a common
morality (2004) has been treated in an even more cavalier fashion. It is
perhaps an even more encompassing theory. But at a relatively recent symposium,
it is attacked by every philosopher who had a say on Gert’s prescriptions.
(AJPAE, 2005) The essence of their attack was a counter-argument, not an
attempt to find a universal formulation.
In one clear
example of the negative approach engendered by argument, in a book edited by Peter Singer, one
philosopher describes as ‘Internecine warfare’, the conflict between deontology
and utilitarianism, before going on to put forward his arguments for his own
theory – Virtue Ethics (Pence 1993).
LeBlanc, in her definition that “critical thinking is
to learn to evaluate arguments”, sets a scene where our thinking is not to
portray a positive, forward looking or innovative picture, but to assess whether the argument,
and therefore thinking behind it, is faulty. Possibly of greatest significance
is that part of a course on thinking critically which teaches you to recognise
logical fallacies. The Macquarie Notes
tell you that some references provide over 90 different fallacies. Macquarie
itself has upwards of twenty -
ambiguity, equivocation, vagueness, unclear meaning, vacuity, question-begging,
circular, relevance, straw
person arguments being among them. There is only one purpose in learning these
fallacies – to recognise fallacious arguments. In other words , to tear them
apart. Positive thinking – the
advancement of knowledge - would not use
can be drawn with the thinking approach of the sciences. Any new theory will
face opposition, often widespread, and often critical. Look for instance at the
controversies over the hobbit discoveries in Indonesia (Homo floresiensis) or over global warming. The professional recognition
will go in the long term, however, primarily to those who build on or take
these theories further. The methods used will primarily be empirical.
The value of empirical research
concern is the near complete ignoring of empirical research, and in particular,
the use of statistical analysis in research. None of the base line references
noted above have provided much of substance on empirically based research. Yet
if we quote a research project with a heavy statistical content as a premise in
support of an argument, it is necessary that we have also the statistical
capabilities to evaluate that research paper. Uncritical acceptance of a
statistical analysis, due to inability to assess the statistics, is uncritical
thinking, not the reverse. This issue is
linked with the concern about the validity of other types of argument,
discussed in the following paragraphs.
Concerns over misleading content
of this paper about argument as
a basis for critical thinking are not
without support. One example is
from Louis Pojman who, writing with Lewis Vaughn in the sixth edition of a
widely used undergraduate text, Philosophy.
The Quest for Truth,
states that he has “striven to present opposing views
on virtually every topic“(2009). His is
a questionable assertion, for the truth rarely has two sides. Nevertheless,
Pojman does assert that all philosophical issues have one position and a
counter argument. Bernard Williams also
speculates that philosophy is about reflective, persuasive argument (1985).
Many publications on philosophical ethics, including those of JS Mill cited
above, are often little more than arguments that refine and re-interpret the
various differences and arguments over ethical
apparent that the “internecine warfare” is a well-established feature of moral
philosophy. Such a concept may cause few problems when the wrongs are simple
and straight forward. The problem is a
real one for many teachers and trainers in ethics however, when the ethical
issue is unclear. Such issues exist in almost every discipline,
John Lachs decries this
approach. He argues that “young philosophers (in the US) are taught that
argument is king …that knowledge of facts is superfluous” (2009). These
paragraphs endorse Lachs’ viewpoint.
The adoption of argument as a way of thinking is
widespread .Ethical classes recently introduced into Australian schools (in NSW) have a session on argument
.One of the Year 5 topics is ‘The Structure of Arguments’. The aim for this session
This topic introduces
students to the most fundamental tool of logical (and hence ethical) reasoning,
viz. the philosophical one of argument.
The children’s ethical classes reach as far as defining and discussing
deductively valid arguments.
Inductive and deductive arguments
I have particular
trouble with inductive and deductive arguments.
According to Vaughn “arguments come in two forms, deductive and
inductive. A deductive argument is
intended to provide logically conclusive support for a conclusion; an inductive
argument is intended to provide probable
- not conclusive – support for its conclusion” ( p.68)
Inductive arguments can present facts
I have a particular
difficulty with inductive argument being classified as weak or strong, never
valid. Yet a deductive argument can be valid. In the disciplines with which
this writer is familiar, most development is based on observation. And facts.
But if we take an example from the Macquarie Notes:
Every flame I have ever put my hand in has burnt me. Therefore, if I put
my hand in this new flame, it will burn me.
“Is this argument valid?”
The Macquarie course argues that
it is not valid …….”because it is possible that putting my hand in
this new flame might not burn me. Perhaps this flame is entirely different from
every other flame I have experienced, and would have some entirely different
effect. It would be possible for the argument to have its premise true and
conclusion false, so the argument is not valid”.
The argument is, of course,
valid (in the normal sense of the word). It is a fact that you will be burnt,
because of the laws of physics.
The sun will rise
tomorrow. It is not only because thousands of years of observations say it
will, but the physical laws of the universe saying that it will. If we come to know that it will not rise
tomorrow, it again is due the same laws and the functioning, or perhaps
malfunctioning, of comets, asteroids, and other missiles in space.
strongest argument that inductive reasoning can present facts is in a research
thesis. When first set out, it may only
be a theory – that this particular drug X will prevent illness Y. The
presentation for obtaining funding will be an argument. After the research, if
successful, and years of verifiable use, it has become a fact. Penicillin is a
are not truth preserving” is a statement by Vaughn (p.10), a statement repeated
by all three references. True, the white
swan observation until the black swan was sighted was misleading, but it had no
impact on useable knowledge. Many inductive observations have produced great
advances for the human race. To criticise them as not truth preserving is to
deny the value of these analyses.
what she describes as categorical statements, or categorical syllogisms, under
this category. A frequently quoted example is:
My concerns are
twofold: One is the definition: “these are arguments which, if the premise is
true, the conclusion must be true’ (LeBlanc p.110).The second is that along
with a belittling of empirical research has been the elevation of deductive
arguments to the possibly of being valid.
The validity of deductive arguments
according to the dictionary has several meanings - sound; just;
well-founded; producing the desired result. Yet we can
get a situation where an argument can be valid but still be faulty due to
unacceptable or faulty premises. To this writer, a faulty argument is an
invalid argument. Most observers would
have the same response.
LeBlanc states: “it
is sometimes said that deductive arguments are true in all possible worlds.“
(p.110). If the premise is correct, the conclusion is correct. In this case the
argument is stated to be ‘valid.’
The premise however,
may not be true. We can question not only its truth but its relevance. Her
If I were an earthworm, I could
So I am not an earthworm.
asserts that this argument denies the necessary condition. Therefore, it is “a
good argument”. But the other premise is
false – you are not an earthworm and they cannot fly; so overall it is an
Dorothy Rowe, in her
Why we lie
(2011) sets out an
argument where the premise is true, but “which can make an entirely false
This new person looks very much
like my cousin Harry
Therefore this new person is a
Rowe argument appears illogical yet the premises are true. The two guidelines appear to contradict. The
Rowe argument however could be inductive – by analogy. Her use of the term
“deduction’ and the similarity of the arguments illustrates this writer’s
concern with definitions and terminology. The use of commonly accepted terms in
an unfamiliar setting can easily mislead.
Deduction relies on observation, on research
The statement that t for a deductive argument he
premises have to be true before the argument can be acceptable makes considerable
sense. The reference texts tell us that there are four reasons for accepting
the premises – common knowledge, personal experience, expert authority, and
research (LeBlanc p.111). All are based on observation.
The deductive argument, therefore, in the ultimate
analysis, relies for its validity on induction.
under this category is that it is very difficult to identify a deductive
argument which advances knowledge. Most deductive arguments, it would appear,
are conditional. A conditional argument
is possibly the most common deductive argument. Such an argument takes the
form. “Only students with B+ grades can enrol in the subsequent unit’.
It would seem that
if an argument relies on a condition, then for the argument to advance
knowledge the condition would have to be filled. But we can never be sure that
the condition can be met, or whether wide observation or some empirical
research is necessary to determine if the condition can be filled. Take the example
of a conditional argument that attempts to advance our thinking:
The argument for introducing internet censorship is
that our children can find disgusting websites. These websites harm our
children in that it gives them a distorted view of life.
But censorship is contrary to the widespread
endorsement of the freedom of speech.
And we cannot prove that these websites cause any
harm to children. If we could prove that children were harmed we could advocate
censoring the internet.
Other arguments – ending
war in the Arab countries, reducing crime in the streets, will usually be
conditional on some premise of which we cannot be certain. Until the condition
is fulfilled, and found to be valid, there is no way in which the argument
would move us forward.
The exception occurs
on programs which have been evaluated. In other words, if we have obtained strong evidence, proof even,
that the condition has been effective. An example can be drawn from an argument
on childhood education strategies that children of low income, low education
families would do better in their school studies if they received a one year or
two year ‘head start’ at school. This
was a conditional argument. An ex-ante
evaluation said yes, it was likely that they would do better. The program was
put in place; an ex-post evaluation proved the assertion to be correct. The
program had an impact on early childhood education for all children as well as
for minority children (Graham, 1984).
The above paragraphs
have been leading to the concern that “critical thinking” as defined,
introduces a raft of definitions that do not assist in clear, innovative
thinking capabilities. It can be argued that ‘clear thinking’, as expounded by
the references quoted in this paper, consists primarily of a series of
definitions that are used to categorise types of arguments or parts thereof. It
is difficult to determine how these definitions strengthen a person’s creative
thinking. Examples are the terms inductive and deductive reasoning themselves,
noted earlier, when in the final analysis, all reasoning relies on observation
of some type. Deductive reasoning is possibly the more serious offender -
sufficient and necessary conditions; denying the necessary condition; affirming
the sufficient condition – in particular, are concerned with conditional
statements, LeBlanc describes her chapter on categorical logic ( the
‘Socrates is human’ logic) as ‘terminology-intensive’ (p. 54).
Linked and convergent premises, sub arguments, counter considerations,
etc. are other definitions where the contribution to strengthening critical
thinking in the positive sense argued in these pages, is difficult to identify.
The definitions, and what is argued as excessive terminology will assist a
reviewer in pulling an argument apart , in determining what is wrong with the
argument. They do little to strengthen
innovation in thinking - to create positive, forward looking
reliance on definitions is epitomised in one lecturer’s statement: “Only
DEDUCTIVE arguments can be valid or invalid (inductive arguments can be strong
or weak, such as arguments based on "research" and observation)”. An
argument where “a wrong premise can produce a valid conclusion has to be
deductive by definition”. (personal correspondence).
Other disciplines conceive critical thinking
Under this category first must
be mentioned a work by
Linda Elder and Richard Paul.
Elder is the President of the Foundation
for Critical Thinking. They argue that “all reasoning is based on
data, information and evidence” (Elder & Paul, 2007,Loc, 163). They assert
that there are eight universal structures of human thought: That it generates
purposes, raises questions, uses information, utilises concepts, makes
inferences, makes assumptions, generates implications, and embodies a point of
view. Aspects of their structure coincide with the main themes put forward in
the baseline references, but for the most part, the two thinking schemes are
very different. One obvious difference is their
argument that basis behind all
thinking is empirical.
A second issue is the variations in critical thinking methods
advocated by the different disciplines. If you search the holdings of a major
library for texts on critical thinking, you will locate many, numbering in the
several dozens. A sample of topics covered in a major university library
include critical thinking for language, for sports students, nursing,
psychotherapy, dental research, social care, sex and love and several others.
Most do not define critical thinking as argument. Taking just
one example Critical Thinking in the
Intensive Care Unit
2007), the author draws on the
following for a definition:
Alfaro-LeFevre (1999) defines critical thinking as careful,
deliberate, outcome-focused (results oriented) thinking that is mastered for a
context. Critical thinking is based on scientific method; the nursing process;
a high level of knowledge, skills, and experience; professional standards; a
positive attitude toward learning; and a code of ethics. It includes elements
of constant revaluation, self-correction, and continual striving for
Another example is Critical Thinking
by a psychologist and
business consultant (Feldman, 2009). He sets out four strategies for becoming a
critical thinker. Elements of his analyses coincide with aspects of the three
baseline references, but much of his work has no parallels. His examination of reasons to doubt certain
types of argument largely duplicate the baseline references, for instance, but
his treatment of explanations however, is considerably more detailed. Covering
roughly 20 % of the book, he treats explanations as a tool for strengthening
‘discovery and understanding’. LeBlanc assigns 9 pages out of close to 300 to
explanations - a much less detailed
coverage, and to this reader, quite superficial.
Yet a further example is
peer review. Although much criticised, peer review is a process which is
universally used to assess whether a particular line of thinking advances human
knowledge. The methods adopted in peer reviews across the disciplines would
appear to vary widely. They are not based on argument ,and do not necessarily follow the concepts
presented in the three references that this paper has used.
That different disciplines advocate different methods of ensuring one’s
thinking is critical, do not necessarily condemn the methods advocated in the
three references. But they do throw
doubt on any claim to a comprehensive coverage.
The differences also suggest the possibility that other methods may be
To sum up this argument: If we define critical thinking according to the
concepts set out in the three references that opened this paper, then those
concepts fail to provide a complete outline of possible approaches to
strengthen critical thinking. They also could also ,in the concepts that they do put forward,
mislead a student into adopting less
Alfaro-LeFevre, R. 1999. Critical Thinking
in Nursing: A Practical Approach. Philadelphia: WB Saunders.
Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics
(2005) Book Symposium.
Bowden P (1988) National Monitoring and Evaluation
Avebury , Aldershot
De Bono, Edward (1970). Lateral
thinking: creativity step by step.
Harper & Row
De Coninck, J et al (2008) Planning, monitoring and evaluation in
Elder, Linda and Paul, Richard (2007) The Thinker's Guide
to Analytic Thinking .
(1984). The uncertain triumph: Federal education policy in the Kennedy and
Johnson years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
“Can philosophy still produce public intellectuals? Philosophy Now,
LeBlanc Jill, (1998) “Thinking Clearly. A guide to critical reasoning.
New York, WW
(1993). ‘Virtue Theory’ in Peter Singer (Ed.). A Companion to Ethics,
Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, p. 249.
(1993). ‘Virtue Theory’ in Peter Singer (Ed.). A Companion to Ethics,
Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, p. 249.
Pojman, Louis P and Vaughn,
Lewis (2009) Philosophy. The Quest for
(7th ed.). New York Oxford University Press
Roth, Michael, “
Beyond Critical Thinking.” The chronicle of higher education. Jan 3 2010
Rowe, Dorothy (2011)Why we lie.
London, Fourth Estate , Harper Collins
Society for Applied
Philosophy (2012) on the website for its annual conference:
(1997), Less than Critical Thinking.
Accessed August 2012
Vaughn, Lewis, The Power of
(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, 2nd. ed.)
Bernard (1985) Ethics and the Limits of
. London, Fontana
The Macquarie University course, PHI 120, Critical
Thinking, is online. Quotations and references are available only to those with
a password. Excerpts containing the
online references will need to be accepted without verifying,
program was introduced
by the Australian federal government in
2007 to address claims of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect in Northern Territory aboriginal communities.