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2.1 The philosophical approach

The philosophical approach draws heavily on writings from Socrates, Aristotle and many others placing a lot of emphasis on disposition and the character of the critical thinker as opposed to the behaviours and processes associated with critical thought. A very commonly cited analogy of this school of thought is drawn from Socrates in Plato’s Republic, where he uses a ‘Cave Analogy’ to illustrate how our world-view shapes the assumptions we make, and the consequences of this inter-relationship on how we react or respond to other world-views. The reliance on disposition implies these are attitudes that cannot be easily taught. But rather being immersed in a culture where this happens often, gives way to the tendency for anyone to cultivate the habit associated with criticality through modelling the behaviours of others.

Glaser (1942) includes another layer, such as attitude and traits, when he defines critical thinking as ‘(1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods’ (p. 5–6).

This view is shared by modern-day philosophers such as Paul (1993) for example, who posits that ‘Critical thinking is based on two assumptions: first, that the quality of our thinking affects the quality of our lives, and second, that everyone can learn how to continually improve the quality of his or her thinking’ (p. 23). This definition pushes the debate of critical thinking and analysis to something that can be learned or taught. But most importantly, Paul’s theory focuses on the search for truth and distinguishes between sophistic thinkers, who use their critical thinking capacities to defend their own interest by unearthing fallacies in other people’s arguments and reasoning but fail to apply these same principles to their own, and then ‘true’ critical thinkers, who are unbiased in their critique and searchers of truth, hence question their own disposition.

Paul’s critique of earlier philosophical perspectives on critical thinking focused on identifying minimal conditions for an adequate theory of critical thinking. Paul’s arguments were premised on the following:

  • human thinking pervades every aspect of life and every dimension of the human mind
  • though it is human nature to think, it is not natural for humans to think well (human nature is heavily influenced by prejudice, illusion, mythology, ignorance and self-deception)
  • therefore, we need to be able to intervene in thinking, to analyse, assess it, and where necessary, improve it.

Paul posited that there are intellectual abilities that cannot be completely separated from intellectual traits in the mind of the critical thinker. This is evident from a number of scholarly work where critical thinkers are able to present two contrasting views accurately and providing thorough insights into both sides of the debate. For Paul, people who are better critical thinkers have the capacity to present alternative and opposing viewpoints in a coherent manner to provide understanding and new insights (intellectual empathy), distinguish what they know from what they do not know and are prepared to examine new evidence and arguments even if such examination leads to the discovery of flaws in their own beliefs (intellectual humility), think for themselves while adhering to rigorous standards for thought (intellectual autonomy), and are open to critique and can be moved by reasoning that is better than their own (confidence in reason).