What is critical thinking?

The ability to think critically, and the freedom to do so, are essential elements of good theological education – and of any modern democratic society. Theological students are expected to be active critical thinkers, and to develop their critical thinking skills in the context of their studies and in daily life.

Raphael, The School of Athens (1509-1511), depicting Aristotle in dialogue with Plato.


The word “critical” comes from the Greek word kritikos, meaning “to question, to make sense of, to be able to analyse.” John Chaffee observes that “Thinking is the way you make sense of the world; thinking critically is thinking about your thinking so that you can clarify and improve it.”[1] Critical thinking also applies to analysing and evaluating the thoughts and arguments of others.

Stella Cottrell defines critical thinking as “a complex process of deliberation which involves a wide range of skills and attitudes.”[2] It requires effort and patience, but improves with practice and a proper sense of what is expected in academic discourse. Cottrell lists nine aspects:

    1. identifying other people’s positions, arguments and conclusions;
    2. evaluating the evidence for alternative points of view;
    3. weighing up opposing arguments and evidence fairly;
    4. being able to read between the lines, seeing behind surfaces, and identifying false or unfair assumptions;
    5. recognising techniques used to make certain positions more appealing than others, such as false logic and persuasive devices;
    6. reflecting on issues in a structured way, bringing logic and insight to bear;
    7. drawing conclusions about whether arguments are valid and justifiable, based on good evidence and sensible assumptions;
    8. synthesising information: drawing together your judgments of the evidence, synthesising these to form your own new position;
    9. presenting a point of view in a structured, clear, well-reasoned way that convinces others.[3]

Which of these nine skills reflect what you are good at, or attract the highest praise from others? Is there an aspect in which you have sensed recent improvement? What is one aspect of critical thinking you need to work on in order to be a more effective or successful student?

Approaching the concept from a slightly different perspective, John Chaffee lists ten characteristics of great critical thinkers:

    1. open-minded: In discussions, they listen carefully to every viewpoint, evaluating each perspective carefully and fairly.
    2. knowledgeable: When they offer an opinion, it’s always based on facts or evidence. On the other hand, if they lack knowledge of a subject, they acknowledge this.
    3. mentally active: They take initiative and actively use their intelligence to confront problems and meet challenges instead of simply responding passively to events.
    4. curious: they explore situations with probing questions that penetrate beneath the surface of issues instead of being satisfied with superficial explanations.
    5. independent thinkers: They are not afraid to disagree with the group opinion. They develop well-supported beliefs through thoughtful analysis instead of uncritically ‘borrowing’ the beliefs of others or simply going along with the crowd.
    6. skilled discussants: They are able to discuss ideas in an organized and intelligent way. Even when the issues are controversial, they listen carefully to opposing viewpoints and respond thoughtfully.
    7. insightful: They are able to get to the heart of the issue or problem. While others may be distracted by details, they are able to zero in on the essence, seeing the ‘forest’ as well as the ‘trees.’
    8. self-aware: They are aware of their own biases and are quick to point them out and take them into consideration when analyzing a situation.
    9. creative: They can break out of established patterns of thinking and approach situations from innovative directions.
    10. passionate: They have a passion for understanding and are always striving to see issues and problems with more clarity.[4]

When you think of contemporary speakers, writers or thinkers who embody some of these qualities, who comes to mind? Which historical figures come to mind?

To what extent do you think of yourself as a critical thinker? With which of the qualities above do you most easily identify? Which three qualities would you be least likely to apply to yourself? Why is this so? What do you need to do to develop your critical thinking abilities in these three areas?

This post was written by Rod Benson for The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


[1] John Chaffee, Thinking Critically (12th edition; Boston: Cengage Learning, 2019), 50 (my emphasis).

[2] Stella Cottrell, Critical Thinking Skills: Effective Analysis, Argument and Reflection (London: Red Globe Press, 2017), 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chaffee, Thinking Critically, 51.

Image source: Wikipedia

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