The challenge for the aspiring critical thinker is to take the conceptual framework for critical thinking and apply it productively to real-life situations. Doing so with skill and confidence takes time, practice, and perseverance. In addition, to realize the full value of critical thinking, we must learn how to reason critically in a field or discipline, be it sociology or psychology, business or law, technology, or journalism.
In this article, we look at how the conceptual components of critical thinking fit together to form an integrated approach to problem solving. We also address what it means to think critically in a field or discipline. We define the logic of a field and explain how a field’s vocabulary helps us to grasp that logic. We also cover fundamental and powerful concepts, the central question, and point of view as they relate to a discipline.
How does critical thinking operate in the real world? The process can seem daunting at first. At this stage, be mindful that your grasp of and facility with critical thinking will improve the more you do it and reflect upon it.
Crucial to your understanding is seeing how the conceptual components fit together to form the whole of critical thinking.
Core Process of Critical Thinking
The heart of critical thinking (what Gerald Nosich, in Learning to Think Things Through, calls its core process) is a 3-step exercise:
- Addressing a question or problem
- Thinking it through using the elements of reasoning.
- Evaluating the reasoning against the standards of critical thinking.
When the question pertains to a particular discipline – for example, economics, medicine, agriculture, or criminology – the core process requires modification. The critical thinker must reason through the question from the point of view of that particular discipline, in terms of that discipline’s central concepts. Doing so leads the critical thinker to insights she wouldn’t otherwise achieve.
Nosich has coined the acronym QEDS for the core process:
Q – Look at the question
E – Think it through using the elements
D – Think it through in terms of the discipline
S – Keep the standards in mind throughout
Considering the Discipline
We optimize the value of critical thinking when we are able to apply it in a particular field or discipline. Thinking critically in a given discipline leads us to a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of it. Such understanding gets at the conceptual foundation of the discipline.
What Is a Field or Discipline?
A common mis-impression holds that a field or discipline is simply a body of information. In fact, it is much more than that. A field certainly comprises a set of information, but it also defines a distinctive way of viewing, organizing, and understanding the world. Sociology embodies a different perspective, founded on different core concepts than, for example, psychology, anthropology, or biology.
Logic of a Field
The logic of a field is a key concept in learning to think critically. How the information and concepts distinctive to sociology fit together to form a coherent whole defines its logic. To think critically in sociology (or psychology, anthropology, or biology) is to grasp the logic of that discipline. The critical thinker must understand the logic well enough to be able to reason within it.
Nosich instructs us that the logic of a field can be revealed by analyzing it with the elements of reasoning (see Module 2). A discipline addresses questions. It involves a set of purposes, assumptions, and concepts. It collects and organizes information. It entails a distinctive point of view. It embodies implications and consequences. And it draws conclusions. The synthesis of these elements defines the logic of the discipline.
Vocabulary of the Discipline
A good entry point for grasping a field’s logic is to learn and use its vocabulary. As Nosich observes, to do so is a means to an end—namely, to be able to reason better within the field. Learning the terminology is not an end in itself. We need to know the vocabulary in order to understand how the discipline coheres and to communicate clearly about it.
Thinking in a field’s specific vocabulary goes beyond memorizing definitions. It leads us to see conceptual linkages among different terms within the discipline. Take economics, for example. A consideration of the term supply leads us to the term demand and an appreciation for how they are connected. These terms, in turn, point toward other terms (e.g., free market, factors of production, inflation), our understanding of which helps us see the interconnectedness of the economics vocabulary.
Every field or discipline has what Gerald Nosich calls fundamental and powerful (or f&p) concepts. They represent the most central ideas in the discipline, and the ones with the broadest usefulness. In any given field, these concepts are used to reason out the problems or questions with which the field is concerned. We distinguish f&p concepts from less general ones in the discipline or from information specific to it.
A concept is fundamental because it forms the basis for understanding the discipline. It is powerful because it can be used to illuminate all the problems, questions, and issues that fall within the discipline’s orbit. All fields have f&p concepts. For example, justice meets the criteria for the field of law; while community is a core concept in sociology. Most fields have only a few truly f&p concepts. Ones beyond these are narrower and more specific concepts and thus don’t rank as fundamental.
In Learning to Think Things Through, Nosich presents a concept map as a simple tool for identifying (as a starting point) three f&p concepts in a field:
First, identify one central concept – i.e., the f&p concept. Then, proceed to identify two others that stem from the first one. The following example applies the concept map to the field of the law:
By this means, we identify justice, due process, and standards of evidence as f&p concepts.
The Central Question
The central question of a discipline is the unifying question around which it revolves. To understand a field is to grasp how it all fits together in terms of its central question. Sticking with our example of the law, the central question could be formulated as follows: What constitutes justice? All other topics and issues that belong to the field of law turn on this question and are unified by it.
Point of View of the Discipline
A field embodies a particular way of looking at the world. This is the field’s unique point of view or perspective. According to Gerald Nosich, it involves three elements:
- Identifying the domain of the field. The domain comprises all the items (objects or events) which the field investigates as its area of expertise. (For example, the domain of the law includes criminal statutes, rules of evidence, court trials, judicial appeals, etc.)
- Seeing the items in the domain in terms of the field’s concepts
- Recognizing connections among those items
The connections we begin to see when we inhabit the point of view of a field lead us to a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Analysis and Synthesis
Analysis is the process in critical thinking of breaking a problem down into the elements of reasoning. When we go around the cycle of elements, evaluating the problem in light of each, we are analyzing the problem.
Bringing the elements together into a coherent whole that communicates logical understanding of the problem is the process of synthesis.
Becoming a Critical Thinker
Critical thinking, Gerald Nosich observes, is associated with certain key personal dispositions and character traits. Striving to embody these attributes is vital to our development as critical thinkers. The graphic below highlights these dispositions and traits.
Start by Stepping Back
Often in critical thinking, the best approach to addressing a question is to first take time to reflect upon it. Our initial impulse is to answer it because there it is. Instead, we should step back from it and ask, “What is the question getting at?” This reflection can help us devise the best approach to answering the question.
Categories of Questions
Questions fit into one of three general categories, as follows.
|Questions that call for facts as answers…||What is the capital of Afghanistan?|
What is the circumference of a circle with a radius of 2 inches?
|Questions that call for mere opinions or personal preferences as answers…||What’s your favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor?|
Which current movie star do you think is the best actor?
|Questions that call for reasoned judgments|
|Should we convert from oil to gas heat?|
Is the magnet-school model good for public education?
The category of questions that preoccupies the critical thinker is the third one. Facts and opinions can (and do) inform the answers to critical-thinking questions. But such questions, by their nature, demand reasoned judgments reached through sound thinking.
The Right Questions
As M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley instruct us in Asking the Right Questions, the critical thinker should ask the following series of questions in reasoning through a problem:
- What is the issue?
- What is the conclusion?
- What are the reasons offered to support the conclusion?
- Which words or phrases are ambiguous?
- What are the value conflicts and assumptions?
- What are the descriptive assumptions?
- Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?
- How good is the evidence?
- Are there rival causes?
- Are the statistics deceptive?
- What significant information is left out?
- What reasonable conclusions are possible?
The foundation of critical thinking is knowing when and how to pose these questions productively.