Why Should I Care About Critical Thinking?

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Why does critical thinking matter – and what does it mean to build the fundamental habits underpinning it? These are two of the questions we’ll address over the course of this Skill. But first of all, here’s an even more fundamental question. What does critical thinking actually mean?

There are lots of different definitions out there. Some people emphasise arguments, evidence, and reasoning when talking about critical thinking (for more on this, check out Identifying and Reconstructing Arguments); some focus on engaging critically with different kinds of information, sources, and claims.

This is because critical thinking isn’t one thing. It’s not so much a single skill as a toolkit: a set of habits, techniques, and ideas that can help you think twice about important questions, become more confident in your own studies and research, and (equally importantly) get better at recognising when you or someone else risk falling into error.

I’ll start this Skill by discussing why critical thinking matters in the context of its opposite: uncritical thinking. This is where we take someone else’s claims at face value, without pausing to question whether these claims are well-founded. The dangers of uncritical thinking are one of the best ways I know of highlighting how important an everyday practice critical engagement is. Just imagine what the world would look like if everyone took every single claim made by politicians, advertisers, and other people at face value.

From here, we’ll move on to explore scepticism and objectivity; what it means to identify and mitigate against different forms of bias; and how paying careful attention to your own habits and routines can support critical engagement. We’ll also look at everyday barriers to critical thinking, and what it might mean for you in particular to develop your confidence and skills.

As I hope you’ll discover during the course of this module, thinking critically doesn’t mean pretending we can or should act entirely rationally all the time. It’s about learning to recognise our own – and others’ – limitations; and knowing when to pause, think again, and reach for the right questions in order to work out (as best we can) what is really going on. Here, then, is my definition of the kind of critical thinking we are going to be working towards:

When we are thinking critically, we are setting out actively to understand what is going on by using reasoning, evaluating evidence, and thinking carefully about the process of thinking itself.

This ‘thinking about thinking’ is sometimes known as metacognition. It is, I believe, one of the most important habits all of us can cultivate in a digital age. There’s now more information at everyone’s fingertips than they can possibly consume in countless lifetimes. And this means that it’s not so much the facts at our disposal that matter as the quality of the questions we are able to ask of them – and the higher-order skills that equip us to adapt and continue learning throughout our lives.

Pause for Thought

How might the skills and habits outlined above be most useful to you? What are you hoping to get out of this resource?

Suggested Readings

  • My own books for SAGE aim to explore critical thinking accessibly from a variety of angles, and include: Critical Thinking (SAGE, 2017) and How To Think (SAGE, 2021).
  • For free, thought-provoking listening, the Philosophy Bites podcast boasts hundreds of bite-sized interviews with world-leading thinkers at https://philosophybites.com
  • The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is a free, extensive online resource for thinking about thinking – best enjoyed by diving in at https://plato.stanford.edu/
  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Pelican, 2018) makes an elegant case for the significance of critically engaged thought today.
  • If you want an insight into one of the most important battlegrounds for modern knowledge, get into the habit of clicking on ‘view history’ to look into the edit history behind different Wikipedia articles – especially those you know something about!