Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
~Dorothy Sayers in The Lost Tools of Learning (1947)
Here is our predicament. Critical thinking is scarce. Leadership depends on critical thinking. Consequently, leadership is scarce. Consider the facts.
In business and the professions, the reliance on mergers and acquisitions instead of creative competition to generate growth suggests a utilitarian preference for process overthinking. And what line of reasoning has delivered the waste and inefficiency that has accompanied the bureaucratization of corporate life, the widespread preference for spending profits rather than investing them, the failure to articulate a cogent vision for the technological workplace of the future, seemingly endemic ethical scandals, relentless churn, and chronically disengaged people in business generally?
As Ross Douthat pointed out in a recent article, the hopelessly unprofitable Uber is “another case study in what happens when an extraordinarily rich society can’t find enough new ideas that justify investing all its stockpiled wealth. We inflate bubbles and then pop them…and the supposed cutting edge of capitalism is increasingly defined by technologies that have almost arrived, business models that are on their way to profitability…”
In politics, recurrent crises like out-of-control debt, uncontrolled immigration, environmental degradation, unaffordable healthcare, the student loan disaster, burgeoning education budgets that bear no fruit, constitutional breakdown, the massive human and financial costs of unremitting social dysfunction, and apocalyptic geopolitical nightmares all confirm that critical thinking has given way to incorrigible scheming in the corridors of power. A now declining life expectancy in the US is not without its ironies.
Inevitably, excuses erupt from the people who preside over these predicaments, the current favourite being ‘complexity’. But the most complex material entity in the known universe is the human brain – and we are still light years away from fathoming the depths of the mind. So the reality is that we have some decisive advantages that we are not using as best we might. The issues are just challenges, and we are able to see them as such for the simple reason that we are naturally equipped to address them one way or another. As Einstein made clear:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” By us, that is.
We have the intellect, the power of critical thinking. But what is it exactly? And how do we use it? And why don’t we use it? Let’s address these questions in that order.
As Aristotle told us, we are rational animals; we have conceptual reasoning, that is, intellect, over and above the purely perceptual reasoning we share with other animals. For a dog or a cat, the present experience is everything, and thought is little more than anticipation, moving from this experience to the next. A human person, on the other hand, has the innate urge to explain things; the question “Why?” is the mark of humanity and the essence of philosophy. Answering the “why?” enables us to answer the question “where next?” And we are enabled to shape our own future to a quite remarkable degree.
The Latin word ‘intellectus’ means ‘read from within’. To think critically means to use our intellect, to get inside things, immersing ourselves in the issue that confronts us as we seek to understand the reality so that we can deal with it. Critical thinking entails the objective analysis of an issue to enable one to form judgments, uncover insights, and generate innovative possibilities.
It is active, goal-oriented thinking. Obviously it is different from jumping to conclusions, ignoring compelling evidence, reasoning from an ideological standpoint, template or formulaic thinking, and just ‘following your feelings’.
Our critical thinking faculties are free will (thinking for oneself is the first freedom), intellect (i.e. conception, abstraction, and logic), sense perception, instinct, language, memory, imagination, cultural literacy (a bank of knowledge, which should be well-stocked), and the emotional and attitudinal attributes of a lively, insatiable curiosity, confidence, practical wisdom, courage, self-discipline, a sense of justice, and a spirit of adventure.