True North Mastery Blog

Critical Thinking

The following excerpt is taken from the opening comments by Professor Richard W. Paul at the 12th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform in 1992:

Ironically, humans are not simply the only “logical” animal, they are also the only “illogical” animal. They are the only animal that uses meanings – ideas, concepts, analogies, metaphors, models, theories, and explanations – to make sense of things, to understand, predict, and control things. They are also the only animal that uses meanings to negate, contradict, and deceive themselves, to misconceive, distort and stereotype, to become dogmatic, prejudiced and narrow-minded. Humans are the only animal whose thinking can be characterized as clear, precise, accurate, relevant, consistent, profound, and fair; they are also the only animal whose thinking can be characterized as often vague, imprecise, inaccurate, irrelevant, inconsistent, superficial, trivial, and biased.

Critical thinking makes sense in the light of this paradoxical dichotomy. Humans should not simply trust their instincts. They should not believe unquestioningly what spontaneously occurs to them. They should not accept as true everything taught as true. They should not assume their experience is unbiased. They are not born with, but need to form, intellectually sound standards for belief, for truth, for validity. They need to cultivate habits and traits which integrate these standards into their lives.

In the last three decades, much has been discovered about animals and their thinking, including the fact that, seen from a certain light, they are very often quite “logical” in their orientation to the world. Still, Paul’s comments about the dichotomous nature of human thought and action are as relevant today as ever. How do we effectively deal with the fact that on the one hand we can be rational, reasonable creatures while on the other, irrational and unreasonable? One and the same person can be logical, open-minded and empathic in one setting while close-minded, selfish and unreasoning in another. As Paul rightly points out, critical thinking is central to approaching and ameliorating our peculiar proclivities​.

Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform (9 – 12 August 1992)

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