Friday, June 23, 2006

Critical thought: Affective strategies

Here are some strategies to try to use when trying to think critically. Think about your own ways of thinking and try to change to these ways.

• Thinking independently
Many people hold opinions because others hold them, many hold opinions that were formed at an early age, before they were old enough to be able to rationalize or understand all the relevant issues connected to forming that opinion.

To think independently means being free to think about things without necessarily taking too much notice of what others think they should think. Standing on your own two feet, as we say, means forming your own decisions based upon the evidence you are aware of and can marshal to come up with opinions that are yours and yours alone.

• Developing insight into egocentricity and sociocentricity
Confusing what we feel and even what we see with reality is common; everybody does it at some time or other in their lives. Being aware that you are doing it is the first step to righting your thinking to come more in line with reality.

Confusing what your peer group thinks, first with what you should think and second with reality is also common. Peer groups work to help us, but their influence can be insidious, pervasive and convincing. Learning to think independently whilst not alienation friends or colleagues is both a brave thing to do and a difficult one. When studying, it is vital.

• Exercising fairmindedness
Recognizing the strengths and the weaknesses of views other than the ones we ourselves hold is also difficult. Being fair-minded is about being critical of every viewpoint, without becoming cynical about other people’s views or the people who hold them.
• Exploring thoughts and underlying feelings and feelings underlying thoughts
A common saying is ‘Think with your head, not your heart’, but in practice separating the two from your thoughts is practically impossible, if you do not want to appear stone-hearted or remote from people. However, if, when you are stating your opinion, you do so with tact and sensitivity rather than just brushing aside other people’s points of view when they are plainly at variance with your own is not the best way to proceed.

Again, standing back from a situation and taking other people’s views into account is a useful tactic when thinking about an issue about which you may have strong feelings.

• Developing intellectual humility and suspending judgement
The ability and the desire to realize that you don’t know everything, or that you might actually be wrong is a valuable one. People who think they know everything invariably come to realize that they do not. This can be painful or humiliating or both. Admitting you are wrong or at least not quite right on some issues and then waiting until you find more information before you make a decision or form an opinion is also very valuable and marks a courageous person, not a weak one.

• Developing intellectual courage
Standing up for what you believe, even in the face of opposition is a courageous and difficult thing to do. If you can do it, you are in good company; some of our greatest thinkers – politicians, theologians and the like have all, at one time or another, had to stand up and be counted.

• Developing intellectual good faith and integrity
An additional ability to the one previously mentioned is to be consistent in your views and opinions; not bend under pressure, as well as altering them only in the light of new information rather than an increase in the attacks you come under in holding the views you hold.

• Developing intellectual perseverance
The world isn’t a simple place, and discovering a point of view that is rational and consistently so is hard work, which only perseverance and determination will reach. Above all, do not get discouraged when you discover something in your argument that isn’t consistent with other parts of it or that has implications that turn out to be nonsensical or irrational.

• Developing confidence in reason
Reason and rationality have forged the world we lived in. Science and technology, and also the arts and the humanities are based upon rationality, based upon ideas that can be verbalized, listened to, and examined.

In the arts, for example, it is all too easy to think there is virtually no reasoning behind the way a painting has been created or the sound of what at first seems like a piece of discordant music, but the artist or the composer will always be able to talk about her work and discuss the reasons why it is the way it is rather than any other way, even when the audience does not always perceive the difference.

The author James Joyce said, after he had written his final novel, Finnegans Wake, that it would keep the professors busy for years, and this has proved to be the case, despite that work appearing nonsensical at first.

• The last word
This is a lot to take in and a lot to undertake to try to emulate. The first thing needed is patience, and then a desire to learn, and finally, the tenacity to see it through. The rewards are great; having the ability to think fairly and deeply, seriously and thoughtfully about the world we inhabit should ensure that we have a better world to live in.

Robert L. Fielding


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