Critical Thinking

To begin to dialogue requires the development of the skill of critical thinking. Very simply put, critical thinking means to:

  1. (a) Raise our unconscious presuppositions to the conscious level, and
    (b) after reflection, make a reasoned judgment (Greek krinein to judge) about our presuppositions;
  2. Think analytically (Greek: ana up, lysis break), i.e., to break ideas into their component parts to see how they fit together;
  3. Think synthetically (Greek: syn together, thesis to put), i.e., to put components of different ideas together in new ways;
  4. Understand and use very precisely each word and phrase so that our deliberations and decisions are informed with clarity and grounded in reality;
  5. Understand all statements/texts in their contexts and only then apply them to our contexts;
  6. Recognize  
     (a) that our view of reality is one view, shaped by our experience, becoming aware, thereby, of multiple worldviews, and
     (b) that each worldview is a new meaning network.


CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 1a: “Raise our unconscious presuppositions to the conscious level.”

Explanation: To be conscious of something is, of course, to be aware of it. Obviously being un-conscious means to not be aware of something. Also clearly, pre (Latin) means beforehand, and sup-position (Latin: sub positio) means something underlying. Hence, a presupposition is an idea that ahead of time underlies another idea or set of ideas, and in the case at hand this presupposition is something of which we are unaware; it is unconscious. Example: previously, and unfortunately still today, many men, and women, thought that women were incapable of clear, rational thought. This was a presupposition that prevented women from attending college, for instance. For the most part it was unconscious, that is, most did not think about it but just assumed it without being aware that they were doing so.

Exercise: Think of one presupposition you hold that was previously unconscious and is becoming more conscious to you. 

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 1b: “After reflection, make a reasoned judgment (“critical,” Greek krinein to judge) about our presuppositions.”

Explanation: As long as a presupposition remains uninvestigated, we cannot know with any surety that we are acting on the basis of reality or mirage. We cannot truthfully tell ourselves that we are acting thus in a rational manner. The situation is even vastly more devastating when the presupposition is unconscious. Then we are controlled totally in the concerned area by an idea that might be partially, or even totally, unwarrantedand we can do absolutely nothing about it, for we are powerless to analyze an idea and change the consequent action if we do not even know of the existence of the “motor” that secretly runs our mind and behavior.

Exercise: Analyze your example of one of your unconscious presuppositions. What rational judgments do you make of it? If satisfied with it, why?  If not, how would you change your thinking?

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 2: “Think analytically (Greek: ana up, lysis break), i.e., to break ideas into their component parts to see how they fit together.”

Explanation: When something is simple, it has no parts but is only a single-part object. Almost nothing is truly simple. Even the smallest particles we have discovered so far in nuclear physics are not what they are except in relationship to other things. For example, to speak of a proton doesn’t make sense except in relationship to the electron. Negative has no meaning except as distinct from positive. So, even such a “simple” object as an electron is what it is only because it is related to a proton. Conclusion: Practically everything is made up of parts.

Consequently, if we are to understand something, whether an object or an idea, we will need to know what the parts are that make it up and how they are related to each other. For example, how can we correctly care for or repair an automobile engine if we do not know what the parts and their functions are that make up the engine and how they interrelate? We can’t. Again, how can we know that we are fostering a democratic society if we do not know what the essential parts and their functions are that make a democracy and how they interrelate? We can’t.

Exercise: Think of a situation in your own life or society that is complex or hard to understand.  Name three “parts” or “influences” in that situation that deserve to be better understood.

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 3: “Think synthetically (Greek: syn together, thesis to put), i.e., to put components of different ideas together in new ways.”

Explanation: Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas after him, noted that, Nihil in intellectu quod non prior in sensu (“Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.”). All our ideas are made up of various parts that we absorbed in some way first through our senses; that is, we saw something or heard, touched, tasted, or smelled something. From those sensory experiences we “abstracted” general concepts or ideas. For example, after seeing and feeling numerous chairs of various shapes, we came to abstract (Latin: ab trahere pull out, as in “tractor”) the general form or concept of a chair as “something to sit on.” While in analytic thinking we break ideas into their parts, in synthetic thinking we do the opposite: We either take the component parts of an idea and put them together (synthesize) in a way different from how we found them in the original idea, thereby forming a new idea, or we take parts from more than one idea and put them together, thus forming a new idea. Hence, synthetic thinking can also be called "creative thinking" or "imaginative thinking."

Exercise: Review the three “parts” or “influences” you named in the situation in the preceding exercise, synthesizing them now into a new interpretation of the situation.

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 4: “Understand and use very precisely each word and phrase so that our deliberations and decisions are informed with clarity and grounded in reality.”

Explanation: The most frequent reason for disagreement in discussions or even arguments is that, though the disputants are using the same central term, they in fact understand it differently. In every beginning philosophy class the students are taught the three D’s: “Define your terms, and Disagreements Disappear!”

Example one: Ivan claims that A is the biggest city in the country, but Mirjam counters that, No, B is the largest city! Question one: Do both Ivan and Mirjam understand “city” to mean the strict legal city limits, or the “greater” city limits? Question two: Do Mirjam and Ivan both understand “biggest” to mean in area, or population, or something else?

Example two: In 1970 West Germany, called the Federal Republic of Germany, claimed that it was a democracy and a republic, and that East Germany, even though named the German Democratic Republic, was in fact neither a democracy nor a republic. How could one decide which, if either, was correct? Simply by defining what was meant by the terms "democracy" and "republic," and then comparing that with the facts on the ground. Of course, in this example most East Germans knew perfectly well that their government was lying, as proved by the fact that at the first opportunity the people chose to abandon their “Democratic Republic." 

Exercise: What example(s) can you think of where different meanings of a word or idea caused serious misunderstanding?

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 5: “Understand all statements/texts in their contexts and only then apply them to our contexts.”

Explanation: Every statement and every text can be properly understood only within its original context, that is, knowing where, when, why, by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, using what kind of language the statement was first made. To explain the meaning of a text is called “ex-egesis”—Greek: ex (out of) and egesmai (to lead), meaning: to “lead out of” the text what is in it. The wrong-headed direction is “eis-egesis”─Greek: eis (into) and egesmai (to lead), meaning: to put something into the text that was not there, but came from outside. This is very similar to an unconscious presupposition, where we do not see the facts in front of us but unconsciously read into them what we mistakenly think are the facts in front of us. In reading texts, the greatest danger for which we must be on the alert is mistakenly doing unconscious eisegesis, instead of exegesis.

Only after we have found out what the author meant to say in the original situation can we accurately apply that meaning to our context, if we judge it appropriate. If we don’t first learn what the text originally meant, we are not able to apply it to ourselves; we will simply be applying our own or somebody else’s imagined meaning.

Exercise: Where there is serious misunderstanding among persons you know, what information could you provide that would increase understanding of the context of the problem?

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 6a: “Recognize that our view of reality is one view, shaped by our experience, becoming aware, thereby, of multiple worldviews.”

Explanation: If, in fact, all data in our minds arrive there initially through our five senses, then obviously the capabilities of our senses will affect our view of reality. If we are color blind, our view of reality will perhaps be in shades of grey rather than in the colors of the spectrum­just as in the difference between the “silver screen” and “technicolor” in the movies. All of our perceptions of reality necessarily come through the “lens” of our various knowing capacities. Thus, on a “higher” level, if we are socialized to think that diseases come as punishment for our past sins, or because someone has bewitched us, or from bacteria and other biological negativities, our views of reality will be shaped accordingly.

When we become aware of this fact, we will then begin to become aware that there are many differing views of reality, many even held in a stressful tension within ourselves. We then become ready for dialogue.

Exercise: Choose a situation where you had a difference perception from someone else about “what happened.” What in your experience influences your “lens”? How did you come to your perception?  How did the other person perceive the situation differently from you? What “lens” do you suppose “the other” was using?

CRITICAL THINKING - Principle 6b: “See that each worldview is a new meaning network.”

Explanation: Nuclear physicists (micro level), cosmologists (macro level), and other physical scientists have known for a long time that everything is connected with everything else. They tell the proverbial story of a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia, and, through a myriad of causes and effects, months later a hurricane erupts in the Caribbean! So, too, it is with the mind of each person. Each of us has a unique view of the world that we create through our senses and mind within our particular communal context. Our views of the world share many things with those of many others. And yet, each worldview is unique, like each snowflake. Both Judaism and Islam make that clear in their sacred writings: “To whomever saves a single soul [Self] it is reckoned as if s/he saved the whole world . . . To whomever destroys a single soul [Self] it is reckoned as if s/he destroyed the whole world . . . From this you learn that one human is worth the whole of creation” (Mishnah: Aboth Rabbi Nathan 31); “Whoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all humankind, and whoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all humankind” (Qur’an: 5:32 ). Note the near identity in these two different religion’s “revelations”!

Exercise: Describe one component of your worldview; examples include: a) how the natural world works, b) humans' place in it, c) the relationship between the individual and the community, d) male-female relationship, e) the function of work, f) leisure, g) money. These are only suggestions.  Choose an important component for you. Then identify a worldview that is different from your own and identify a component in that worldview that is new for you or that you have heard of but do not understand. Describe that component as best you can.

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