Critical Thinking and the Liberal Arts We neglect them at our peril.
Translate this page from English Print Page Change Text Size: The ideal of critical thinking is a central one in Russell's philosophy, though this is not yet generally recognized in the literature on critical thinking. For Russell, the ideal is embedded in the fabric of philosophy, science, liberalism and rationality, and this paper reconstructs Russell's account, which is scattered throughout numerous papers and books.
It appears that he has developed a rich conception, involving a complex set of skills, dispositions and attitudes, which together delineate a virtue which has both intellectual and moral aspects. It is a view which is rooted in Russell's epistemological conviction that knowledge is difficult but not impossible to attain, and in his ethical conviction that freedom and independence in inquiry are vital.
Russell's account anticipates many of the insights to be found in the recent critical thinking literature, and his views on critical thinking are of enormous importance in understanding the nature of educational aims. Moreover, it is argued that Russell manages to avoid many of the objections which have been raised against recent accounts.
With respect to impartiality, thinking for oneself, the importance of feelings and relational skills, the connection with action, and the problem of generalizability, Russell shows a deep understanding of problems and issues which have been at the forefront of recent debate.
The ideal of critical thinking is a central one in Russell's philosophy, though this is not yet generally recognized. Russell's name seldom appears in the immense literature on critical thinking which has emerged in philosophy of education over the past twenty years.
Few commentators have noticed the importance of Russell's work in connection with any theory of education which includes a critical component.
Chomsky, for example, reminds us of Russell's humanistic conception of education, which views the student as an independent person whose development is threatened by indoctrination.
Woodhouse, also appealing to the concept of growth, points out Russell's concern to protect the child's freedom to exercise individual judgment on intellectual and moral questions. Stander discusses Russell's claim that schooling all too often encourages the herd mentality, with its fanaticism and bigotry, failing to develop what Russell calls a "critical habit of mind".
More needs to be said, however, to establish the significance of Russell's conception of critical thinking, which anticipates many of the insights in contemporary discussions and avoids many of the pitfalls which recent writers identify.
Some factors, perhaps, obscure a ready appreciation of Russell's contribution. His comments on critical thinking are scattered throughout numerous writings, never systematized into a comprehensive account; 2 nor did Russell tend to use the now dominant terminology of "critical thinking".
This phrase only began to come into fashion in the s and s, and earlier philosophers spoke more naturally of reflective thinking, straight thinking, clear thinking, or scientific thinking, often of thinking simpliciter.
There are useful distinctions to be drawn among these, but it is often clear from the context that, despite terminological differences, the issue concerns what is now called critical thinking. Russell uses a wide variety of terms including, occasionally, references to a critical habit of mind, the critical attitude, critical judgment, solvent criticism, critical scrutiny, critical examination, and critical undogmatic receptiveness.
The ideal of critical thinking is, for Russell, embedded in the fabric of philosophy, science, rationality, liberalism and education, and his views emerge as he discusses these and other themes.
Believing that one central purpose of education is to prepare students to be able to form "a reasonable judgment on controversial questions in regard to which they are likely to have to act", Russell maintains that in addition to having "access to impartial supplies of knowledge," education needs to offer "training in judicial habits of thought.
Sometimes, Russell simply uses the notion of intelligence, by contrast with information alone, to indicate the whole set of critical abilities he has in mind.
Such critical skills, grounded in knowledge, include: Critical judgment means that one has to weigh evidence and arguments, approximate truth must be estimated, with the result that skill demands wisdom. Second, critical thinking requires being critical about our own attempts at criticism.
Russell observes, for example, that refutations are rarely final; they are usually a prelude to further refinements. Critical scrutiny of these is needed to determine the degree of confidence we should place in our beliefs.
He emphasizes the need to teach the skill of marshalling evidence if a critical habit of mind is to be fostered, and suggests that one of the most important, yet neglected, aspects of education is learning how to reach true conclusions on insufficient data.
Complete rationality, he observes, is an unattainable ideal; rationality is a matter of degree. The mere possession of critical skills is insufficient to make one a critical thinker.
Russell calls attention to various dispositions which mean that the relevant skills are actually exercised. Typically, he uses the notion of habit sometimes the notion of practice to suggest the translation of skills into actual behaviour.
Russell describes education as the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits [and a certain outlook on life and the world].
Such habits, of course, have to be exercised intelligently. Hence the need for a critical habit of mind. To be ready to act, or react, in these ways suggests both an awareness that the habits in question are appropriate and a principled commitment to their exercise. They have in common the virtue Russell called truthfulness, which entails the wish to find out, and trying to be right in matters of belief.
By the critical attitude, Russell means a temper of mind central to which is a certain stance with respect to knowledge and opinion which involves: Russell defends an outlook midway between complete scepticism and complete dogmatism in which one has a strong desire to know combined with great caution in believing that one knows.
Hence his notion of critical undogmatic receptiveness which rejects certainty the demand for which Russell calls an intellectual vice 28 and ensures that open-mindedness does not become mindless.The critical period hypothesis is the subject of a long-standing debate in linguistics and language acquisition over the extent to which the ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age.
The hypothesis claims that there is an ideal time window to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment, after which further language acquisition becomes much more difficult and effortful.
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