What Critical Thinking Is Not

A number of widespread misconceptions about critical thinking can throw off your understanding of critical thinking and influence the way you develop in your thinking skills.

Critical Thinking and Negativity

Critical Thinking Is Not Negative

The word critical often has negative overtones. A “critical person” is one who does a lot of fault-finding. To “criticize” someone usually means to say something negative. A “critic” is often thought of as someone who is against something.

But the word critical in “critical thinking” has no negative connotations at all. It is related to the word criteria: It means thinking that meets high criteria of reasonableness. To learn to think critically is to learn to think things through, and to think them through well: accurately, clearly, sufficiently, reasonably. Some people have proposed the term effective thinking as a synonym for “critical thinking,” and using that term can help in removing negative overtones. Critical thinking does involve making judgments. Unfortunately, the term judgment has also acquired negative connotations in certain contexts. To be judgmental is certainly not to be a critical thinker, and the judgments a critical thinker makes are far removed from being judgmental.

We cannot exist without making judgments. We make judgments all the time, whether we know it or not. People sometimes say, “I just want to accept people the way they are – myself included – without making judgments about them.” There can be a lot of wisdom in that approach. It can mean, for example, “I am going to accept people as having the feelings they have, and the reactions they have, without condemning them for it.” That is, refraining from making judgments often means refraining from making harsh value judgments. But it can’t be generalized to mean not making judgments at all. To accept people’s feelings and reactions as they are involves making a judgment—the judgment that those indeed are their feelings and reactions. Critical thinking comes in directly because accepting people as they are presupposes making accurate, clear, relevant judgments about what their feelings and reactions are. That is accepting people as they are, rather than imposing preconceptions on them.

The Importance of Negative Feedback

Another aspect of negativity is that sometimes sensitivity to negative feedback gets in the way of critical thinking. Suppose someone makes a judgment about your work—that it is inaccurate or unclear, or not relevant to the question asked. Maybe the person even personalizes it, criticizing you when he or she is actually talking about your work. The person might say you are unclear or inaccurate. Maybe the person even says it harshly.

You need to sort out the judgments, separating out the harshness or the over-generalization on the speaker’s part. You are left with feed-back about your work on this occasion. Many people view such feedback as negative, but you don’t have to view it that way. Instead, you can choose to view it as a source of valuable information. If you can distance yourself from the negativity, you can free yourself to look for the kernel of truth it may contain. First, it should be clear that you are free to accept or reject people’s judgments about you or your work. That’s a simple statement of fact. That is not saying it’s right or wrong to do so. It’s saying that you can. It is within your ability. That includes your teacher’s judgments about you. In fact, you already do this.

Because the judgment is not binding on you, you can choose what to learn from it. You may learn something about the other person (“My teacher values grammar very highly. Just how important is grammar?”); but you may also learn something about your work and the way you think (“Well, the fellow student who is responding to my answer says this is irrelevant. Maybe I need to explore this. Did I just write something down because it simply popped into my head? Did I imagine a connection that isn’t really there? Or did I not state the connection as clearly as I needed to?”).

Back to: Module 2. Critical thinking, creative problem solving