From Critical Thinking to Integrative Rationality
Having taught undergraduate courses at Canadian and American universities covering the subject matter of “critical thinking,” I recognize that a generally accepted definition of the concept has not (yet) emerged. Various well-respected authors (and not only philosophers) have taken a stab at it, and everyone brings their own particular perspective to the task. So we are in the position of having many nuanced descriptions of what is essential to critical thinking, without there being agreement on the sort of very short list of differentia that would satisfy a definition maven. It is not the case that any of these characterizations is false; we can find truth in any of them. In very general terms, however, there is a shared sense in which uncritical thinking is a concern: thinking that is nonjudgemental, unreflective, and nonchalant about the truth can lead to unfortunate consequences.
Since critical thinking encourages the detection and questioning of assumptions, its methods can effectively mitigate those bad consequences. So if everyone was a competent practitioner of critical thinking, then the seemingly intractable social and economic problems besetting various cultures should just vanish, right? I have my doubts. The text books on critical thinking usually just assume that human beings can be critical thinkers about any topic or question, provided they learn the right techniques, in the same sort of way that microeconomics textbooks make assumptions about the rationality of economic agents. A theory based on an unrealistic or oversimplified model of human reason will ultimately fail — just at the point we need the theory to work.
Most of us know someone who seems completely rational and grounded in reality, but when a particular topic comes up, they suddenly turn into a barking moon bat. When challenged to question their assumptions, they may throw up a wall of denial, be evasive, get hostile, or just go bonkers. Critical thinking doesn’t give us a theory of how that happens or what to do about it. We humans are also prone to subtle patterns of bias, prejudice and inconsistency that, even when they are pointed out to us, may continue to trip us up. Critical thinking doesn’t give us a theory about these common forms of irrationality or how to overcome them.
Logic (especially informal logic) and argumentation theory obviously have implications for critical thinking. But why stop there? I contend that we can (and need to) look farther afield, to popular as well as academic work in areas like philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, action theory, decision theory, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. My vision for Effective Thinking (and the reason for the name of this blog) is the promotion of “integrative rationality” — a cross-disciplinary approach that leaves no stone unturned in the search for useful information or techniques that can help us achieve the goal of better living through better thinking.