What does it mean to be a critical thinker?

When I was growing up, my mom would often tell me not to be so critical.  This was often followed by the refrain “you’re so negative sometimes.”  During my childhood, the idea that being critical is being negative was a powerful influence on my thinking, but it didn’t stick.  As I grew older and began to embrace the Humanities in university and graduate studies, I discovered that that being critical does not necessarily mean one is negative.  Indeed, a critical mindset lies behind most important discoveries, drives scientific exploration and philosophical inquiry, and is foundational to a political perspective upon which democracies thrive.  My mom was wrong!  I may be critical, but that does not necessarily imply a negative mindset.  It is, well…a necessary mindset if one is to free oneself of inherited prejudices and dogmatic ideologies that too often tether us needlessly to an ineffective past.

Critical theory can also mean many things as well and recently, narratives forwarded mostly by the Right have cast critical theory in a very negative light, sort of like my mom (she was, by the way, a Republican).  Given my background in the Humanities, at the heart of which lies critical theory, the Right’s continual ranker is as confounding to me as my mom’s litany of anti-critical rhetoric when I was a child.  Why are they so distrustful of it?  What is the problem with critical theory?  This essay is my attempt to answer these questions.  Critical theory, based as it is on a critical assessment of whatever it is attached to (e.g., historical critical analysis, critical race theory, critical feminist theory, etc.), may call into question our tethers to past thoughts, misconceptions, and ineffective ideas, but that is not reason to oppose it.  As Immanuel Kant understood, critical thought, grounded as it is in reason, is humanity’s release from “self-incurred tutelage.”  What does it mean, then, to be critical and why embrace critical theory?

Very broadly speaking, Western thought has birthed two different epistemologies (theory of knowledge).  One is a “bottom-up” way of thinking and one is a “top-down” way of thinking.  Let’s take the latter first.  A “top-down” way of thinking begins with an idea and then searches for “evidence” to support the idea.  So, for example, I might begin with the idea that “All apples are crisp and sweet.”  Now, this may sound a little ridiculous, but suppose a person has a vested interest in apples that are crips and sweet.  Suppose this person owned an apple orchard and raised Honey Crisp apples, which are crisp and sweet. We’ll call this person “HC.”   HC wants people to buy their apples, so HC creates a narrative that states “If it is an apple, it is crisp and sweet” and begins to market that narrative.  If all apples are crisp and sweet, what can be said of those apples that are tart or those that are not crisp?  Well, since these apples don’t live up to HC’s idea of what entails an apple, any apple that is not crips and sweet is not truly an apple.  They are “less” than an apple and dismissed as such.  Furthermore, if anyone were to work for HC, they must be loyal to HC’s narrative about apples or they will be fired.  If HC could, through mass media and advertising, make the HC narrative true for all apple-eating people, then all apples that are not crisp and sweet would be rejected helping HC’s bottom line and giving HC a great deal of power. 

GS is surprised, then, when HC opposes the new narrative.  To include more apples in the narrative is to take away HC’s power because now there are more apples that meet the criteria cutting into HC’s bottom line and diminishing HC’s power.

However, there is another person who owns an orchard where Granny Smith apples are grown.  Let’s call this person “GS.”  Granny Smith apples are crisp, but often they are also tart.  GS is put off by HC’s apple narrative and opposes it.  Doing so means creating a new narrative, one that includes Granny Smith apples.  The narrative GS comes up with is “All apples are crisp.”  Since this narrative includes both Honey Crisp and Granny Smith Apples, GS believes that HC will also embrace the new narrative.  The new narrative is win, win.  GS is surprised, then, when HC opposes the new narrative.  To include more apples in the narrative is to take away HC’s power because now there are more apples that meet the criteria cutting into HC’s bottom line and diminishing HC’s power.  The result is two competing narratives and a rift between HC and GS with the two of them demanding loyalty of apple eaters.  Being loyal to HC means rejecting GS’s narrative, but while being loyal to GS’s narrative may mean liking Honey Crisp apples as well, it also means rejecting HC’s narrative.

Inherent in the top-down scenarios is loyalty to a narrative.  While this can sometimes be helpful, it can also become a self-incurred tutelage.  To try and alleviate the rift, one sharp agronomist offered a different solution.  Rather than utilizing a top-down scenario, the agronomist argued, why not try a bottom-up scenario?  Rather than first defining an apple and then finding apples that validate the definition, the agronomist reasons, why not study as many apples as possible and, by defining their common characteristics, come up with a definition that includes all known apples.  This, the agronomist argued, is more reasonable than loyalty to only the HC or GS narratives.

Things did not go as the agronomist anticipated, however, for the rift between GS and HC was temporarily resolved not because GS and HC adopted the bottom-up scenario, but because they found the bottom-up scenario to be scandalous.  That’s not the way it has been done, they protested, and to do so represents a lack of loyalty to either the Honey Crisp or Granny Smith narratives.  Not only that, both HC and GS claim, the bottom-up scenario is inherently flawed.  First, the method (bottom-up) is too dependent upon human observation, which is not only fallible, but because it is fallible is always relative to the person doing the study.  There is no absolute truth as there is in the top-down scenario.  Second, the agronomist is not independent but teaches at and does research for a State University, which means that the agronomist’s research is government subsidized.  It must, therefore, be biased and what’s worse, it is actually a secret way for government to keep tabs on and interfere with growing apples (GS and HC make this claim even though they have no evidence supporting it).  The agronomist’s work must be opposed and refuted at all costs.  It seeks to undermine the independence, freedom, and well-being of apple growers everywhere HC and GS charge.

Will HS and GS ever change their minds?  Will they ever embrace the bottom-up scenario of the agronomist?  That depends upon how loyal they are to their respective narratives, but more than that, it depends upon their loyalty to the top-down method.  However, let’s suppose that HC and GS don’t accept the bottom-up narrative even through it begins to win the day with most apple-eaters and apple-growers.  With the public moving with the agronomist, the power base of HC and GS begins to wane, and their narratives begin to lose their appeal, fading into the background.  If this were to happen, GS and HC don’t have to acquiesce to the dominant narrative; they simply work in the background doing what they can to assure that their narratives will once again win the day restoring their power base.  They will do all they can to sow doubt in the bottom-up scenario even though it seems to be far more reasonable than either the HC or GS narratives.  So, through time, HS and GS, even though they are at odds with one another, begin to sow doubt in the minds of people and label the doubt they sow as freedom claiming that the dominance of the bottom-up scenario is infringing on their God-given rights to free speech and free thinking.  No one, they hold, appreciates it when their rights are threatened.  As they begin to reassert their narrative through social media and media networks, they begin to amass a following and soon, they find a base of support that promises to return them to power. 

Because the agronomist’s method relies upon observation, a bad apple could be missed and as they say, a bad apple can spoil the bunch.

Let’s look a little more fully at what is happening here.  So far, neither HS, GS nor the agronomist are embracing critical thinking.  Some of their points may be reasonable and those that are not have been rationalized to seem as if they were reasonable.  But none of these people are critical thinkers.  Why?

Into this foray comes the Thinker.  The Thinker realizes that when a person is loyal to a particular perspective, it is like wearing blinders.  Loyalty blinds the eyes, deafens the ears, and dulls the senses.  It also restricts new ideas and demands thinking conform to the narrative they champion.  Those who are loyal to the HC narrative can debate how to best grow HC apples, but they will never consider GS’s apples or any other apple for that matter.  Their ability to learn from this part of the apple-growing world is effectively cutoff.  Similarly, while the GS narrative is not limited to one type of apple but is limited to only those apples that are crisp, it too cuts off a large part of the apple-growing world.  And while the agronomist’s narrative is perhaps most inclusive, the agronomist is loyal to the bottom-up method and holds that anyone who understands the world from a top-down perspective is in error and doesn’t really know what they are talking about.  In effect, the agronomist cuts off the top-down world, which represents a large part of the apple-eating world and the arrogance of methodology limit’s the agronomist’s ability to speak to and appreciate what this part of the world has to offer.

The Thinker realizes that when a person is loyal to a particular perspective, it is like wearing blinders.  Loyalty blinds the eyes, deafens the ears, and dulls the senses.  It also restricts new ideas and demands thinking conforms to the narrative they champion. 

Because of this, the Thinker realizes neither the HS/GS consortium nor the agronomist have approached apples from a critical perspective.  Growing apples, the Thinker understands, is not only science, but it is also art.  While understanding the science of apple-growing is important, there is also an aesthetic to apple-growing that is just as important.  But what does that mean?  What does it mean to say that growing apples is an art?

Put bluntly, the Thinker tells them, growing apples is something that human beings do, not just nature.  To understand the aesthetic of apple growing is to understand how the human element is intertwined in the process and that the quality of an apple is not independent of this involvement.  The Thinker realizes that this claim may sound a little trite.  Of course, human beings are involved.  However, as loyalty to a narrative becomes the issue, the role of human beings fades and with this loss, that which is supposed to be the central concern, the apple, also loses its place in the debate.  An apple is not “good” according to nature.  There is, the Thinker holds, no objectively good apple, or put differently, there is no true apple.  For nature an apple just is.  An apple is deemed good by human beings and understanding apple growing critically means putting this into perspective.  We understand apples, the Thinker claims, only as we understand the human beings that hold it is good, their tastes, their likes and dislikes and the differing value centers of their social order that causes them to favor one type of apple over another.  The critical narrative, then, is not an either/or way of understanding apples.  Neither is it a both/and.  There are good apples and there are bad apples, but it is human beings that decide this by trying different apples and talking to each other about their likes and dislikes.  From a critical perspective, then, a GS apple makes a good caramel apple while for others the HC apple is the best choice for a caramel apple.  From a critical perspective, the HC is not right while the GS is wrong.  Both are right if they enjoy the caramel apple. Critically, this is a perfectly reasonable and acceptable scenario.  Both are right and neither is wrong.  If we allowed loyalty to interfere, however, right and wrong interferes with enjoying the apple and the aesthetic of apples is destroyed and with it, the ability to truly enjoy apples.

To understand life critically means understanding existence aesthetically. Doing so allows us to immerse ourselves into a wonderful diversity of ideas that can teach us new ways of viewing the world while at the same time instructing us when we are wrong.

Self-imposed tutelage, from a critical perspective, takes place any time loyalty to a narrative is allowed to interfere with enjoying and appreciating the amazing diversity that is our world.  Why is this problematic?   Why would we not wish to liberate ourselves from these various self-imposed tutelages?  Is there anything truly attractive about loyalty to one narrative and one narrative alone?  The Thinker answers these questions with a resounding “no!”  If people truly long to be free; if they wish to liberate themselves from the prison of dogmatic narratives whatever their source, they do so not by opposing critical thinking, but by embracing it.  Critical thinking forges a path through this incredibly complex world that human beings have created so that rather than fearing its nuance and diversity, the critical thinker might begin to appreciate it by avoiding the apples that are bad while enjoying those that are good.  Critical thinking helps us know and appreciate the difference.

Why, then do some in our society hold that critical thinking or critical theory is a problem?  Why do they believe it is something to be opposed rather than embraced?  According to my analysis, they oppose critical thinking because they do not want to entertain the nuanced complexities of a versatile world comprised of a rainbow of difference.  They want it one way and are unwilling to consider the world in ways that do not fit with their narrative.  To do so, to admit that there are other ways of thinking that may surpass their own may mean admitting they are wrong.  Doing so, they fear, might cost them their power, something they cannot tolerate.  They shackle themselves through loyalty to ways of thinking that may lack merit and in doing so, find themselves slaves of self-imposed tutelage.  To these folks I say, listen to the Thinker—think critically—and then you will know what it means to be free.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

One thought on “What does it mean to be a critical thinker?

  1. I have finished my oral progesterone treatment and it seems to have helped. I’m still using my walker to get around and sleep in my recliner… Next week I talk with the spine dr to see what’s next.

    I am really getting bored with this back / hip thing…. so I thought I would give you a few of my thoughts on critical thinking…see attached…


    Mike Brugh mrbrugh@gmail.com 530-304-8954 cell

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