Often when we use the word critical we mean “negative and fault-finding.” This is the sense we have in mind, for example, when we complain about a parent or a friend who we think is unfairly critical of what we do or say. But critical also means “involving or exercising skilled judgment or observation.” In this sense critical thinking means thinking clearly and intelligently. More precisely, critical thinking is the general term given to a wide range of cognitive skills and intellectual dispositions needed to effectively identify, analyze, and evaluate arguments and truth claims; to discover and overcome personal preconceptions and biases; to formulate and present convincing reasons in sup- port of conclusions; and to make reasonable, intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do.

Put somewhat differently, critical thinking is disciplined thinking governed by clear intellectual standards. Among the most important of these intellectual

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.

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The purpose which runs through all other educational purposes—the common thread of education—is the development of the ability to think.

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2 CHAPTER 1 Introduction to Critical Thinking

standards are clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, consistency, logical cor- rectness, completeness, and fairness. 1 Let’s begin our introduction to critical thinking by looking briefl y at each of these important critical thinking standards.


Before we can effectively evaluate a person’s argument or claim, we need to understand clearly what he or she is saying. Unfortunately, that can be diffi cult because people often fail to express themselves clearly. Sometimes this lack of clarity is due to laziness, carelessness, or a lack of skill. At other times it results from a misguided effort to appear clever, learned, or profound. Consider the following passage from philosopher Martin Heidegger’s infl uential but notori- ously obscure book Being and Time:

Temporality makes possible the unity of existence, facticity, and falling, and in this way constitutes primordially the totality of the structure of care. The items of care have not been pieced together cumulatively any more than temporality itself has been put together “in the course of time” [“mit der Zeit”] out of the future, the having been, and the Present. Temporality “is” not an entity at all. It is not, but it temporalizes itself. . . . Temporality temporalizes, and indeed it tempo- ralizes possible ways of itself. These make possible the multiplicity of Dasein’s modes of Being, and especially the basic possibility of authentic or inauthentic existence. 2

That may be profound, or it may be nonsense, or it may be both. Whatever exactly it is, it is quite needlessly obscure.

As William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White remark in their classic The Elements of Style, “[M]uddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter. . . .” 3 Only by paying careful attention to language can we avoid such needless miscommunications and disappointments.

Critical thinkers not only strive for clarity of language but also seek max- imum clarity of thought. As self-help books constantly remind us, to achieve our personal goals in life we need a clear conception of our goals and priori- ties, a realistic grasp of our abilities, and a clear understanding of the problems and opportunities we face. Such self-understanding can be achieved only if we value and pursue clarity of thought.


Detective stories contain some of the most interesting examples of critical thinking in fi ction. The most famous fi ctional sleuth is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, the immortal creation of British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In Doyle’s stories Holmes is often able to solve complex mysteries when the

Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

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