A short incomplete introduction to Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking? Critical thinking is a practice that is useful for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of situations and arguments so as to ascertain their validity and usefulness for our lives. Critical thinking involves formal logic, argumentation, rhetoric, background knowledge and an attitude of life-long learning. Some of this can be taught while some has to be learned on one’s own.

If you have been an anarchist any length of time, no doubt you have had someone in your life try to tell you how stupid or unworkable anarchy is. They might say, “Everyone would kill everyone else if there were no government” or “Who will work at the sewage plant if no one has to work?” Critical Thinking is a tool for these and similar situations.

Formal logic can be quite technical and abstract but is just a tool for figuring out if (logical) conclusions can actually follow from the given premises. If you take a course in formal logic you will learn all sorts of terms for valid and invalid forms of argumentation and common fallacies. Here are just a sample of common fallacies: “Appeal to Authority”, which means stating something is true because some ‘important’ person said it was so. This should be an obvious error to anarchists. “Ad Hominem” means ‘argument directed to the man’, which means attacking the person making the argument rather than attacking their argument. Another is “False Dilemma” where a limited number of options is given, when there are really many options. One more is the “Straw Man” in which one attacks an argument, usually a weaker one, that is different from the actual argument given. There are a lot of these fallacies and having a familiarity with them can help us argue better. Formal logic has nothing to say about whether the premises are actually true (to the extent we find ‘truth’ a valid category) and as anarchists that is mostly what we are interested in. Formal logic is the most straight forward to learn but is mostly concerned with the form of argumentation, such as: all cats speak French, Bruce has a cat, therefore Bruce’s cat speaks French. The form of this is valid because the conclusion follows logically from the premises, but obviously the argument is false. Formal logic also gives us a vocabulary for a framework of assessment, such as valid vs. invalid, strong vs. weak and sound vs. unsound arguments, but most of all it can help us see consistency and contradiction in arguments.

Argumentation is broader than logic yet covers some of the same issues, though in a more philosophical manner. What does it mean to have good reasons to believe something? What are good arguments and what are bad arguments? What is an argument anyway? So, whereas logic is about the formal properties of an argument, argumentation is about the meanings of the premises and whether they make sense and/or are plausible, do they need more supporting evidence, or are they leaving out evidence that would make them invalid.

Rhetoric is making our arguments persuasive, it is about having a style of argumentation that makes others want to at least listen to what we have to say. But we must also resist the flashy persuasive rhetoric if it means trying to sell our ideas over trying to communicate.

Background knowledge is the hardest part of critical thinking because it really depends on you wanting to know about the subject at hand. If we try to argue on subjects we know nothing about we will just look stupid and if we are subjected to arguments from others on things we know nothing about we will be bamboozled beyond belief. But this doesn’t mean we have to know everything about everything. Knowing one or two subjects very well (i.e. Foucault and carpentry) and also knowing how we know things (epistemology) and what can be known or not known (what Mr. Smith had for lunch? or is there life after death?) will go a long way toward being confident and skeptical enough to wade into arguments or wade into a new subject now and again.

Having some background knowledge on many subjects comes with a commitment to life-long learning something we as anarchists ought to embrace. If our broadest project is the dismantling of this world it behooves us to be aware of theories of such a task, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what are new theories being born now.

So, when someone asks “Won’t we all kill each other without government?” we can look at their assumptions (premises) and challenge them. Does this person really think everyone’s deepest desire is to kill and the only thing stopping them is the state? Do they think police stop crimes before they happen (rather than just investigate afterward)? And so on. We can see that their conclusion is based on faulty premises and reasoning.

You can find used Logic textbooks at good book stores which will emphasize formal, abstract logic. An anthology of critical essays will present argument in a more real world prose form and these can be found on many subjects, also at good book stores.