I know, that I know nothing

In our weekly reading my cohort is engaged with the book The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking. Concepts and Tools by Richard Paul and Linda Elder. (You can download a short abstract of the book here).

In this short mini-guide the authors seek to provide essential concepts and tools as an introduction to the method of critical thinking.

Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder are experienced in the field of critical thinking. They published several books and articles on this topic, either with a scientific or with a practical training approach. Dr. Richard Paul is also the director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking and the chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. Dr. Linda Elder is an educational psychologist, executive director of the Center for Critical Thinking, and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Based on the assumption that by nature our thinking is “biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced” the authors present several steps to use the method of critical thinking to overcome this inbred lack. This is why they define critical thinking as “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”

In the title of the book the authors promise “Concepts and Tools.“ Actually its rather ONE concept instead of the presentation of several different concepts. In fact Paul and Elder are unfolding one singular concept, that they are presenting as the critical thinking method. As directors of different organizations that research in this topic and at the same time publish own books on their own techniques, it seems to be their goal to favor their own methods, rather than giving a broad comparison of others. (But this may also be caused by the short form of the book).

In different steps they provide questions to examine reasoning, to use the elements of thought, to analyze the logic of an article, to solve problems and to assess research. All this is done to develop a higher intellectual standard of critical thinking. The authors define the highest reachable stage as the level of a so called accomplished thinker: one who managed to install intellectual skills and virtues as a second nature in his or her life.

The structure of different questions to reflect complex topics and to break them down into smaller and more achievable steps seems to be very handy. I assume by using and following this steps the patterns of thinking might become more systematized. (Which works with almost any ordered method of thinking and problem solving and therefore is no statement for the worth of the substance and contents of this specific method).

To me the parallels to Greek philosophy though the Socratic debate were obvious in their presented method. Paul and Elder are using forms of the old didactical tradition of maieutics (μαιευτική midwifery – giving birth to new thoughts). Seeking to stimulate critical thinking Greek philosophers asked questions and tried to answer them. Though this dialectical method the persons in the conversation were all benefitting from the questions by learning and improving through the other (and even though the differing and opposing viewpoint).

The central method oft this is the cross-examining (ἔλεγχος Elenchus). Plato is his book politeia uses this method in a conversation with three people about the virtue of justice. By asking the question “What is justice?” he seeks to get a deeper understanding. At the end he states that justice is the premise of individual happiness.

Not only the technique of posing questions is similar, its also the obvious underlying parallel of virtues in the method itself. Paul and Elder are presenting essential intellectual traits that affect the individual character and personality of the critical thinker and – though this – have an influence at the people the critical thinker is surrounded with.

Ambitions like humility, courage, empathy, perseverance and fair-mindedness are virtues the authors of our book are asking for.

This also resonates with the goals of the Foundation for critical thinking itself, who published this books (and others similar to this). They seek to promote an essential change in society through the cultivation of these virtues.

By stating that, it puts this simple step-by-step guide on a different level of intellectual standard, with a far deeper social and political dimension.

Not mentioning the underlying (philosophical) history is loss, but tracking the intrinsic traces and influence of it, enhances the status of the methodical book.

But – I don’t know if the socraitian link is indented or just my interpretation. I have to state this due to the trait of intellectual humility, Paul and Elder are asking for:

“Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows.”

Or to quote it from the Socrates:

“ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα. I know, that I know nothing


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