Critical thinking and philosophy

Regular readers of TheEGG might have noticed that I have a pretty positive disposition toward philosophy. I wound’t call myself a philosopher — at least not a professional one, since I don’t think I get paid to sit around loving wisdom — but I definitely greatly enjoy philosophy and think it is a worthwhile pursuit. As a mathematician or theoretical computer scientists, I am also a fan of rational argument. You could even say I am a proponent of critical thinking. At the very least, this blog offers a lot of — sometimes too much — criticism; although that isn’t what is really meant by ‘critical thinking’, but I’ll get back to that can of worms later. As such, you might expect that I would be supportive of Olly’s (of Philosophy Tube) recent episode on ‘Why We Need Philosophy’. I’ll let you watch:

I am in complete support of defending philosophy, but I am less keen on limiting or boxing philosophy into a simple category. I think the biggest issue with Olly’s defense is that he equates philosophy to critical thinking. I don’t think this is a justified identity and false in both directions. There is philosophy that doesn’t fall under critical thinking, and there is critical thinking that is not philosophy. As such, I wanted to unpack some of these concepts with a series of annotated links.

Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?
by Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal.

Now, I apologize for starting with comedy, but I felt like I had to open either with the Onion article or the WSJ to lighten the mood. The latter happened to be closer at hand. The article presents a range of definitions for ‘critical thinking’ centered at the surface level around analyzing data to come to conclusions, although there were outliers like Linda Elder: “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.” At a deeper level, it seems like most of the definitions are centered around “doing an ill-specified job better than I expect”. But whatever it is, college’s aren’t teaching the kids enough of it and need to get their act together as the external HR and training departments of corporate America.

This brings me to the first issue with ‘critical thinking’ — it is vague statement that has now become nearly synonymous with ‘good thinking’ or ‘thinking that I like’.

A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking
by Greg R. Haskins.

This is the closest that I’ve seen to a proper definition of critical thinking. It gives you a how-to guide, and a great list of common biases that inhibit critical thinking with suggestions on how to overcome them. I came across this on /r/philosophy and agree with the comments there that this is a great way to teach high school students on how to start analyzing the statements they come across. In fact, I think this would be (more than) sufficient for the needs of the WSJ. When paired with Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I think it would also be a good guide for day-to-day life. Is this what Olly is equating with philosophy?

In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined
by Winnie Hu of the New York Times.

The critical thinking guide is definitely covered in a philosophy major, along with many other aspects that help you integrate into society. So if you want to get a job then you might be surprised by how practical a philosophy major can be. As the executive director of the American Philosophical Association, David E. Schrade, said: “[philosophy is] a major that helps [students] become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking.”

For more great resource on why philosophy is worth studying in college, see Massimo Pigliucci’s collection of links; from which the two in this section were drawn.

Can critical thinking be taught?
by Artem Kaznatcheev at the Cognitive Sciences StackExchange.

Now, there are two assumptions that we have carried around so far. One is that people equate ‘critical thinking’ with ‘good’ and that it can be taught. Turns out the first assumption is false — and not only for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as Olly discusses — but also for the GOP in Texas, which in 2012 voiced opposition to the teaching of critical thinking in public schools. The second assumption, although not blatenly false is under debate with Wellinghom (2008) arguing that critical thinking cannot be effectively taught, although some interpret this is just opportunity for new methodologies to replace the failed techniques.

On the recently popular “really awesome critical thinking guide” and its relation to this subreddit
by Reddit_Ben of /r/philosophy.

As I suggested in the opening, my real qualm with Olly’s video was the implicit identification of philosophy with critical thinking. Although he did not explicitly spell out what he meant by ‘critical thinking’, if he meant the sort of things expanded in the guide above then this is a great argument that this is in fact not philosophy. Reddit_Ben begins with:

[The critical thinking guide presupposes] an objective reality that is filtered through our prejudices and perception … critical thinking involves getting as clean and efficient a filter as possible, emptying one’s self of prejudices and beliefs that obscure the view of what is really true.

Note that right at this opening we eliminated huge swaths of philosophy that reject an objective reality. Reddit_Ben goes on to discuss how difficult it would be to judge many great historic philosophers in the context of the guide, and how some particular points — like the roles of ambiguity — are far from settled points.

In the end, I think that just like with science, we cannot prescribe a single method to philosophy. When we try to identify philosophy with something — even something vague like critical thinking — we are more often being oppressive than empowering.


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

5 Responses to Critical thinking and philosophy

  1. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging: the philosophical turn | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  2. Pingback: An update | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  3. Pingback: Emotional contagion and rational argument in philosophical texts | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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