A recent Wall Street Journal article asks: “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?” (October 21, 2104).

The subtitle asserts that critical thinking, while an “important skill for young workers,” has “a variety of definitions.”  It’s no secret that critical thinking requires a variety of skills and dispositions, some of which are mentioned in the article, and that the term has been defined differently (perhaps unsurprisingly so) by writers from different backgrounds, professions, and theoretical orientations. But the implied message is that we are thrashing about trying to lay our hands on some elusive conception of the art.

What is problematic is the article’s focus on the notion that there are multiple incompatible descriptions of critical thinking each vying for the status of “definition.” Even worse is the suggestion that “critical thinking” eludes coherent articulation, remaining a notion like “obscenity”—you just know it when you see it.

Is “critical thinking” really no more than a variety of loosely associated descriptions—too unrelated to provide practical guidance to those responsible for screening job candidates and hiring? The answer is: no. In fact, the article itself provides most of the ingredients we need to cook up a serviceable definition of critical thinking. Let’s look at these ingredients one at a time.

Argument Appraisal: Evidence and Logic

In the WSJ article,  New York University sociology professor Richard Arum is quoted as defining critical thinking as the ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument.” This is a good start. The first step toward defining critical thinking requires that we identify the basic premise that underpins the various skills associated with critical thinking. That premise is: the ability to identify and assess arguments.

Notice that Arum mentions “evidence” and “argument.” When we analyze an argument, we can examine its content independently of its structure. That is, we can assess the evidence and reasons, or premises, mentioned in an argument in terms of veracity, plausibility, or acceptability. We can also dissect the logical structure of the argument in terms of the relationships between its premises and conclusion, and then assess the overall cogency of the argument.

I follow Govier’s understanding of cogency:

First, cogency requires that premises be rationally acceptable, but does not strictly require that they be true. Second, cogency allows forms of support other than deductive entailment, in recognition of the fact that there are several distinct types of argument, and premises may support conclusions in other ways. (Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument 6th ed., p. 65.)

Judgments about argument cogency will therefore depend on (a) the rational acceptability of the premises given, as well as those that are implied but not stated, and (b) the strength with which the premises support the argument’s conclusion. (Of course, much more could be said about what these standards mean and how to apply them. We have barely just scratched the surface here.)

Arriving at Rationally Defensible Conclusions

Consider Goldman Sachs’ asking “investment-banking and sales-and-trading candidates to assess … stock pitches and then to explain how they arrived at their conclusions.” In this hiring context, Goldman Sachs is really asking candidates how well they can assess the reasons given for purchasing a stock in a “stock pitch” in terms of how well those reasons support the conclusion that the stock ought to be bought.

A “stock pitch” can be analyzed as an argument, and a good equities analyst should be able to appraise the logic of the pitch, the relevance and probative value of the reasons cited on behalf of the purchase recommendation, and infer the background assumptions made. If the reasons cited in the pitch provide a cogent basis for endorsing a purchase recommendation, given plausible assumptions, then that purchase can be regarded as rationally defensible.

A standard like “rationally defensible” can cover factual assertions as well as value judgments, so it is a more suitable standard than, say, true. It is difficult to see how a judgment like “Goldman Sachs should purchase as much XYZ stock as possible at under $40 per share” could be considered “true.” If truth consists of the correspondence of fact and assertion, what is the fact that would correspond to this judgment?

Independence, Honesty and Objectivity

What about the idea proposed by Brittany Holloway (in the same article) that critical thinking entails “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources?” This is a correct description of an aspect of critical thinking, but not a definition in terms of essentials. This description affirms the critical thinking disposition of intellectual independence — of not accepting the say-so of a single person (or group), nor a single person’s evidence or assumptions. The critical thinker’s first job, then, is to seek alternatives to whatever perspective they encounter.

It is possible that there are at least two contending positions on an issue. It is also possible that, for a single position on that issue, there are at least two separate sets of reasons that have been offered in support of that position. Guided by the question “is there an alternative?”, the critical thinker will seek to discover the various claims made, and the arguments that purport to back them up.

Having uncovered the full variety of reasons, evidence, assumptions and arguments related to an issue, intellectual independence may well have done its job. But we haven’t yet done the analysis of the argumentation backing these differing conclusions, making a determination about which argument best supports its conclusion, and then forming an opinion based on that analysis. We need to call upon two more dispositions to support the competent conduct of argument analysis: honesty and objectivity.

Honesty entails that you acknowledge evidence and argumentation that supports a standpoint you make not like. You consciously avoid evading, denying, or downplaying evidence that challenges your own beliefs. Critical thinkers can put enough cognitive “distance” between their own opinions and what the facts entail to see those facts objectively. In other words, critical thinkers can “detach” from their beliefs and their egos for the purposes of argument appraisal. As a consequence, they can take in a full view of all the evidence and argument in an unbiased way.

Critical Thinking in the Context of Argumentation

Linda Elder’s description of critical thinking, quoted in the same WSJ article, is brazenly vague. She says it is “thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.” The description could be given context and paraphrased as “thinking about your reasoning, while you are arguing, in order to improve the logical strength of your arguments.” Placing thinking in the context of argumentation illuminates what we are thinking about, when we are doing it, and why.

For the sake of brevity, I have ignored some of the other descriptions from the WSJ article of aspects of critical thinking that are supposedly essential to the concept. I have also ignored many of the secondary skills and supporting dispositions that critical thinkers have. I have done so to focus on essentials; foremost, to illustrate how being able to identify and assess arguments are the key skills associated with critical thinking. Taking that perspective allows us to see that the various descriptions suggested as definitional were but aspects of argumentation competency. If we integrate these different perspectives, we can take a stab at a definition that is succinct and can provide guidance to those pursing critical thinking.

A Proposed Definition

Synthesizing the suggestions from the WSJ article and my own reflections upon them, I suggest the following definition of critical thinking:

Critical thinking is thinking that seeks to arrive at a rationally defensible position on an issue by identifying available arguments in support of alternative positions on that issue, and objectively assessing the cogency of each argument in terms of the plausibility of the premises given and the strength with which the premises support the argument’s conclusion.

H/T to Breanne Harris, writing on critical-thinkers.com.