A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking The intellectual roots of critical thinking are as ancient as its etymology, traceable, ultimately, to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates 2,500 years ago who discovered by a method of probing questioning that people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric. Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in “authority” to have sound knowledge and insight.
He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position ND yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance Of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief. He established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well. His method of questioning is now known as “Socratic Questioning” and is the best known critical thinking teaching strategy.
In his mode of questioning, Socrates highlighted the need in thinking for clarity and logical consistency. Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which ? however appealing they may be to our native egocentrics, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may be ? lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.
Socrates’ practice was followed by the critical thinking of Plato (who recorded Socrates’ thought), Aristotle, and the Greek skeptics, all Of whom emphasized hat things are often very different from what they appear to be and that only the trained mind is prepared to see through the way things look to us on the surface (delusive appearances) to the way they really are beneath the surface (the deeper realities of life).
From this ancient Greek tradition emerged the need, for anyone who aspired to understand the deeper realities, to think systematically, to trace implications broadly and deeply, for only thinking that is comprehensive, well-reasoned, and responsive to objections can take us beyond the surface. In the Middle Ages, the tradition of systematic critical thinking was embodied n the writings and teachings of such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas (Sauna Theological) who to ensure his thinking met the test of critical thought, always systematically stated, considered, and answered all criticisms of his ideas as a necessary stage in developing them.
Aquinas heightened our awareness not only of the potential power of reasoning but also of the need for reasoning to be systematically cultivated and “cross-examined. ” Of course, Aquinas’ thinking also illustrates that those who think critically do not always reject established beliefs, only those beliefs that lack reasonable foundations. In the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a flood of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique.
Among these scholars were Collect, Erasmus, and Moore in England. They followed up on the insight of the ancients. Francis Bacon, in England, was explicitly concerned with the way we misuse our minds in seeking knowledge. He recognized explicitly that the mind cannot safely be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement Of Learning, he argued for the importance Of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes.
He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called “idols”) that lead them to believe what is false or misleading. He called attention to “Idols of the tribe” (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), “Idols of the market-place” (the ways we misuse words), “Idols of the theater” (our tendency to become trapped in conventional systems of Hough), and “Idols of the schools” (the problems in thinking when based on blind rules and poor instruction).
His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking. Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules For the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt.
He emphasized the need to base thinking on well-thought through foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested. In the same time period, Sir Thomas Moore developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and or the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.
In the Italian Renaissance, Machiavellian The Prince critically assessed the politics of the day, and laid the foundation for modern critical political thought. He refused to assume that government functioned as those in power said it did. Rather, he critically analyzed how it did function and laid the foundation for political thinking that exposes both, on the one hand, the real agendas of politicians and, on the other hand, the many contradictions and inconsistencies of the hard, cruel, world of the politics of his day
Hobbes and Locke (in 16th and 1 7th Century England) displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered “normal” in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought.
He laid the theoretical inundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens. It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Bayle (in the 1 7th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 1 8th Century) did their work. In his Skeptical Chemist, Bayle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought which roundly criticized the traditionally accepted world view.
He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Keeper. After Bayle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views of world must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning. Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Nonentities, Voltaire, and Derider. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world.
What is ore, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning. Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools.
Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration Of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Cant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In the 1 9th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comet and Spencer. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx.
Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darning’s Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, It led to the field of Linguistics and to many deep probing of the functions of symbols and language in human life. In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations.
In 1 906, William Graham Sumner published a land-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology, Folkways, in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think concentrically and the parallel indecency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination : “Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe. An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life.
It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations (p. 630). At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life ND in education: “Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power.
It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational intro of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded.
They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens” (UP. 632, 633). John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the ragtime basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives.