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Defining Critical Thinking

The following is a compilation of definitions of critical thinking from various sources, individuals, educational organizations and otherwise.

 Sir Francis Bacon[1]:

"For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things... and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture."

William Graham Sumner, longtime Yale professor of social science:

"Critical thinking is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances."

 Diane Halpern, author of An Introduction to Critical Thinking[2]:

“Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned and goal directed - the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task. Critical thinking also involves evaluating the thinking process - the reasoning that went into the conclusion we've arrived at the kinds of factors considered in making a decision. Critical thinking is sometimes called directed thinking because it focuses on a desired outcome.”

 NCTE Committee on Critical Thinking and the Language Arts:

Critical thinking is "a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action."

 MCC General Education Initiatives: 

"Critical thinking includes the ability to respond to material by distinguishing between facts and opinions or personal feelings, judgments and inferences, inductive and deductive arguments, and the objective and subjective. It also includes the ability to generate questions, construct, and recognize the structure of arguments, and adequately support arguments; define, analyze, and devise solutions for problems and issues; sort, organize, classify, correlate, and analyze materials and data; integrate information and see relationships; evaluate information, materials, and data by drawing inferences, arriving at reasonable and informed conclusions, applying understanding and knowledge to new and different problems, developing rational and reasonable interpretations, suspending beliefs and remaining open to new information, methods, cultural systems, values and beliefs and by assimilating information."

 Foundation for Critical Thinking[3]:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking - in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes - is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components:

1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills

2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior.

It is thus to be contrasted with:

1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated

2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them

3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking--about any subject, content, or problem--in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely

  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively

  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards

  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences

  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.


"Critical thinking is a mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that are offered as true. It is a process of reflecting upon the meaning of statements, examining the offered evidence and reasoning, and forming judgments about the facts. Such information may be gathered from observation, experience, reasoning, or communication. Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual values that go beyond subject matter divisions and include: clarity, accuracy, precision, evidence, thoroughness and fairness."

The process of critical thinking responds to many subjects and situations, finding connections between them. It is, therefore, a system of related modes of thought that run across fields like science, mathematics, engineering, history, anthropology, economics, moral reasoning and philosophy.

Critical thinking may be seen as involving two aspects: a set of cognitive skills, and the ability and intellectual commitment, to use those skills to guide behavior. It does not include simply the acquisition and retention of information, or the possession of a skill-set which is not used regularly, nor is it mere exercise of those skills without acceptance of the results.

Critical thinking has a useful sequence to follow:

  • Itemize opinion(s) from all relevant sides of an issue and collect Logical argument(s) supporting each.

  • Break the arguments into their constituent statements and draw out various additional implication(s) from these statements.

  • Examine these statements and implications for internal contradictions.

  • Locate opposing claims between the various arguments and assign relative weights to opposing claims.

  • Increase the weighting when the claims have strong support especially distinct chains of reasoning or different news source|sources, decrease the weighting when the claims have contradictions.

  • Adjust weighting depending on relevance of information to central issue.

  • Require sufficient support to justify any incredible claims; otherwise, ignore these claims when forming a judgment.

  • Assess the weight of the various claims:

Mind maps are an effective tool for organizing and evaluating this information; in the final stages, numeric weights can be assigned to various branches of the mind map.

Ellis, Becoming a Master Student (1997):

Uses of critical thinking:

  • "underlies reading, writing, speaking, and listening . . . the basic elements of communication"

  • "plays an important part in social change . . . institutions in any society - courts, governments, schools, businesses - are the products of a certain way of thinking."

  • "helps us uncover bias and prejudice."

  • "is a path to freedom form half-truths and deceptions."

  • "the willingness to change one point of view as we continue to examine and re-examine ideas that may seem obvious. Such thinking takes time and the willingness to say three subversive words: I don't know."

Critical thinkers: distinguish between fact and opinion; ask questions; make detailed observations; uncover assumptions and define their terms; and make assertions based on sound logic and solid evidence.

Ferrett, Peak Performance (1997):

Attributes of a critical thinker:

  • asks pertinent questions

  • assesses statements and arguments

  • is able to admit a lack of understanding or information

  • has a sense of curiosity

  • is interested in finding new solutions

  • is able to clearly define a set of criteria for analyzing ideas

  • is willing to examine beliefs, assumptions, and opinions and weigh them against facts

  • listens carefully to others and is able to give feedback

  • sees that critical thinking is a lifelong process of self-assessment

  • suspends judgment until all facts have been gathered and considered

  • looks for evidence to support assumption and beliefs

  • is able to adjust opinions when new facts are found

  • looks for proof

  • examines problems closely

  • is able to reject information that is incorrect or irrelevant


[1] Robbins, Stever. Harvard Business School.

[2] Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. 1996

[3] Scriven, Michael and Richard Paul. Foundation for Critical Thinking.