Lexical Investigations: Critical Thinking

Though the phrase critical thinking wasn’t coined until the early twentieth century, its principles can be traced back to Aristotle. The educator and psychologist John Dewey first used the phrase in its modern sense in his 1910 book How We Think, though there are instances of the words appearing together in texts before this time. Dewey defined critical thinking as “reflective thought,” requiring healthy skepticism, an open mind, and suspended judgment. Critical thinking is active, in contrast to passive acceptance of the ideas of others. Different criteria and tests used to determine whether or not critical thinking is taking place have been put forth by different educators. Robert Ennis’s popular definition from 1989 also states that, “critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do,” adding an emphasis on the resulting action. Critical thinking has been a reoccurring fad in education for over a hundred years, and in 1997, Michael Scriven, an educator who served as president of both the American Educational Research Association and the American Evaluation Association, declared it an “academic competency,” similar to reading and writing.

Relevant Quotations:

“The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment; and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution. This, more than any other thing, transforms mere inference into tested inference, suggested conclusions into proof.”

—John Dewey, How We Think (1910)

“Critical thinking, as the term is generally used these days, roughly means reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do. 2 In doing such thinking, one is helped by the employment of a set of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that I shall outline, and that can serve as a set of comprehensive goals for a critical thinking curriculum and its assessment. Pedagogical and psychometric usefulness, not elegance or mutual exclusiveness, is the purpose of this outline. It could be used for an overall critical thinking curriculum outline, or as a comprehensive table of specifications for critical thinking assessment.”

—Robert H. Ennis, “An Outline of Goals for a Critical Thinking Curriculum and Its Assessment” (2002)

Read our previous post about the word bomb.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
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