Putting Critical Thinking Skills Into Practice

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Establishing the Fundamentals

From Good Writing to Clear Thinking


Clarifying your thinking is a process: one that’s necessarily incremental, iterative, and imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfectly clear statement, or the perfect explanation of a particular idea. What’s important is the ongoing task of digging beneath the surface of words and ideas – and gradually improving your understanding of what is going on, and why. Here’s a six-part process that mirrors my own working practices, and that you may find useful:

  • Clarification comes from setting out your thinking, step by step, in as straightforward and explicit a manner as possible – and then stepping back, revisiting the result, and seeking to redress its limitations.
  • First of all: pause. It’s only by slowing down and attending carefully to your own thoughts that you can hope to embark upon a process of clarification.
  • What’s on your mind? Once you’ve worked out what deserves your attention, try to spell out why you believe it to be true or important. This entails reconstructing your reasoning systematically. Set it out in numbered sequence, being sure to ask of each claim: why should a reasonable person accept this; and what does (and doesn’t) follow once it’s been accepted.
  • Don’t be seduced by over-simplifications or too tidy a formulation of complex issues. It’s important to be as clear as possible about the tensions, ambivalences, and ambiguities you’re grappling with. Addressing complex ideas lucidly isn’t the same as pretending they’re simple.
  • Be explicit about the relevant assumptions your reasoning relies on. These will invariably include some claims you believe to be fundamental. Be aware that two perfectly reasonable lines of argument based upon different fundamental assumptions could lead to very different conclusions.
  • Engage charitably and rigorously with perspectives other than your own, and don’t assume dishonesty or bad faith in others without good reason.

This last point is perhaps the most important of all because it sets out the terms on which we engage with others – and, potentially, can learn from them, collaborate, or seek to resolve our differences constructively.

To idealise, a constructive exchange of views is one in which you first ensure you’ve stated someone else’s position in a manner they agree is fair – and only set about addressing your differences once you’ve done this.

This isn’t always practical in everyday life. But aspiring towards it can go a long way towards making everyday disagreements more constructive – and study and learning far richer. Watch the video for an example of a constructive exchange between two people modelled on the steps that we have just discussed.

Video 1. A Constructive Exchange of Views


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Pause for Thought

Is there a question or issue that’s on your mind at the moment, and that you’d like to clarify your thinking around? Can you work through the process above, and see if it helps you express your own views (in all their complexity) more clearly?