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Critical Thinking - An Outline

by David Barnhill last modified Feb 04, 2015 12:59 PM

Levels of Inquiry

1. Information: correct understanding of basic information.

2. Understanding basic ideas: correct understanding of the basic meaning of key ideas.

3. Probing: deeper analysis into ideas, bases, support, implications, looking for complexity.

4. Critiquing: wrestling with tensions, contradictions, suspect support, problematic implications. This leads to further probing and then further critique, & it involves a recognition of the limitations of your own view.

5. Assessment: final evaluation, acknowledging the relative strengths & limitations of all sides.

6. Constructive: an articulation of your own view, recognizing its limits and areas for further inquiry.



Ø  Reading: Know the issues an author is responding to.

Ø  Writing: Animate and organize your paper around issues.


Ø  Reading: assume that there is more to an idea than is immediately obvious; assume that a key term can be used in various ways and clarify the meaning used in the article; assume that there are different possible interpretations of a text, various implications of ideals, and divergent tendencies within a single tradition, etc.

Ø  Writing: Examine ideas, values, and traditions in their complexity: multiple aspects of the ideas, different possible interpretations of a text, various implications of ideals, different meanings of terms, divergent tendencies within a single tradition, etc.


Ø  Reading: Highlight the kind and degree of support: evidence, argument, authority

Ø  Writing: Support your views with evidence, argument, and/or authority

Basis! (ideas, definitions, categories, and assumptions)

Ø  Reading: Highlight the key ideas, terms, categories, and assumptions on which the author is basing his views.

Ø  Writing: Be aware of the ideas that give rise to your interpretation; be conscious of the definitions you are using for key terms; recognize the categories you are applying; critically examine your own assumptions.


Ø  Reading: If the author is making judgments, analyze what criteria those judgments are made of.

Ø  Writing: If you are evaluating an idea or tradition, be clear about the criteria you are applying and think critically about their validity and appropriateness.


Most activities of the mind involve motivations, which are often implicit only. It is important to recognize the motivations of others and of yourself.  To beat one’s opponents? To gain or maintain power?  To get a good grade?  To save the world?  To fulfill one’s responsibilities as a member of the community of life?

What are the motivations of critical thinking? 
–      To see the full complexity of an issue. 
–      To come up with a position that is supported by reason, evidence, authority. 
–      To be critically aware of the bases for your view. 
–      To be aware of the limitations and problems in your view. 
–      To affirm the ongoing intellectual community, including those with differing views.

Qualities of Mind

Critical thinking isn’t limited to things you do but depends on particular qualities of mind that dispose you toward critical thinking and enable you to do it.

1. Seriousness and inquisitiveness. Critical thinking depends on being serious about ideas, values, and the conditions of the world around you (taking yourself seriously gets in the way). And true seriousness leads to a deep inquisitiveness.

2. Respect and criticalness. To inquire deeply one needs to have an openness and respect for divergent and unusual ideas and worldviews, recognizing their significance, and at the same time a tendency to wrestle with problems. You need both to get beyond the surface.

3. Imagination and precision. In order to engage the ideas and problems, one needs both creative imagination and precise logic. The former is a mental suppleness that allows you to enter another’s worldview while the latter enables penetrating rational analysis – both are necessary.

4. Openness and thoroughness. Critical thinking requires an openness to ambiguity – an ability to consider conflicting but compelling options as well as inconclusive arguments. It also requires at the same time a determined drive toward some type of resolution, even if it is complex and open-ended.


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by David Barnhill last modified Feb 04, 2015 12:59 PM