Critical Thinking as Intellectual and Emotional VirtueSubmitted by Rebecca Scott, Philosophy

Across the disciplines, the ability to think critically is one of the most important things that we teach our students. The capacities to reflect on one’s own beliefs and evaluate the evidence for claims are invaluable not only for academic pursuits, but also for simply being an informed and engaged citizen.

Defining critical thinking, however, is surprisingly complicated. Often, we think of critical thinking as a set of purely (or primarily) cognitive skills. That is, the abilities to understand the conclusion of an argument, to weigh the evidence for a claim, to break an argument down into a series of premises and conclusions, to generate counter-examples, and so on, appear, on the surface at least, to essentially involve linguistic and logical skills. And in fact, it is not uncommon for instructors of critical thinking (in philosophy anyway!) to tell students to set aside their feelings when evaluating an argument. The important thing is not how you feel about an argument or whether you like a conclusion, we insist, but whether or not the argument is a good one, that is, whether or not it follows principles of good reasoning.

But the ability to navigate our emotions when engaging with arguments is–as anyone who has ever found themselves in an argument on the internet knows–much more than a cognitive capacity. To engage with views other than our own or to evaluate evidence that pushes back against a deeply held belief requires complex attributes like humility, open-mindedness, and an openness to introspection. These characteristics have a cognitive component, but they also involve our affective (i.e. emotional) capacities and our understanding of our own and others’ identities. It is not enough, therefore, to tell students that they need to set aside their emotions. We need to teach them what this means, as well as how, when, and why they should do so.

To think about how we might help students to develop these more complex affective capacities, it is helpful to turn to one of the most influential philosophers in the Western tradition, the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. (Stick with me–I promise he’s helpful here!) For Aristotle, the key to becoming a good person is the development of virtues, which are habits that dispose people to act in a certain way. For example, a generous person can be called generous because they are in the habit of acting generously and tend to act that way when the situation requires it. Importantly for Aristotle, the only way to become virtuous is to practice. The generous person is not born generous, they become generous by repeatedly performing generous actions until being generous has become a habit or disposition of their soul, a ‘second nature.’ And this practice is not something a person can do only in their mind or all at once. Rather, practicing virtues takes time and it involves the whole person, body and soul, feelings and all.

The skills of critical thinking can similarly be understood as virtues in Aristotle’s sense. To be willing to change your mind when appropriate, to be open to hearing the views of someone you disagree with, to be curious in seeking out evidence, all require the development of cognitive-emotional habits of mind. These abilities are, as philosophers would say, intellectual virtues. And the only way for students to get better at them is to practice.

This means that in our classes in which we emphasize critical thinking, we need to take into account the emotional dimensions of good thinking. We need to give students practice navigating their emotions when they encounter arguments that trouble or upset them, and we need to offer them strategies for how to do so effectively so that they can be good critical thinkers. Perhaps students need to learn to take deep breaths, to engage in empathetically imagining themselves in the position of someone else, to prepare for the experience of discomfort when they inevitably realize that some of their beliefs may not be true, to be given space to process these experiences with their classmates, and so on.

What this looks like in different classes will, of course, vary depending on the material and the context. But if it is true that critical thinking involves more than just our cognitive capacities and we want these skills to be transferable outside of the classroom, we have to attend to critical thinking in all of its dimensions, even and especially how students feel.