Sunday, October 2, 2016

Critical thinking as meta-thinking in Gadske's dissertation

Critical thinking is often associated with what psychologists call metacognition. In such cognition, the mind thinks (and hopefully gains knowledge) about its own operations. This is akin to what Kant pursued in his own work, where the mind turns its focus back upon itself in order to reflect on its own functioning. Philosophers say that such thinking is 'higher-order' in nature (though they sometimes reserve this phrase for a more restricted kind of thought). Here, 'higher-order' does not mean simply that the thinking is very sophisticated; rather, the point is that such thoughts take as their object further thoughts (just as higher-order desires are directed at other desires).

Some authors identify critical thinking with a specific type of higher-order thinking or metacognition. For example, in his unpublished, 1940 dissertation, Richard Edward Gadske* writes:
The adjective 'critical', therefore, suggests a very special phase of thinking. Thus, critical thinking becomes a process of becoming aware and criticising the thinking that has already taken place. In other words, it is a process of thinking about thinking from the point of view of a critic.' (Gadske, Demonstrative Geometry as a Means for Improving Critical Thinking, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University [Evanston, Illinois, June, 1940], p. 9; emphasis added)
A critic, says Gadske, is one 'who expresses a judgment on any matter with respect to its value, truth, or beauty'. (Ibid.) However, Gadske's notion of critical thinking might extend beyond what philosophers typically mean by 'higher-order thinking' and what psychologists seem to mean by 'metacognition', since it may be directed at the thinking of others (rather than just at one's own thinking). As Gadske puts it, critical thinking occurs
... when a person is analyzing his own thinking as well as the thinking of others through the media of self-scrutiny, questioning, discrimination, search, and research with respect to any situation that may be of interest or of vital concern to him. (Ibid.; emphasis added)
But critical thinking, on Gadske's conception, may yet be a species of higher-order thought or metacognition. After all, even if my aim is to assess the thoughts of someone else, it's hard to see how I can do so without exploring those thoughts, and this seems to require me to think those thoughts (or relevantly similar ones). I have to make those thoughts my own before I can subject them to critical scrutiny. Also, recall (from the previous post) that critical thinking is plausibly taken to be directed at a decision that culminates in a judgment of my own. That is, the outcome should be a decision about what I ought to think (or believe or conclude). Thus, even if my focus initially was on someone else's thinking, the critical-thinking process must include a step whereby I assess the thoughts and consider the sort of judgment that I ought to form about them.

Still, one may doubt that critical thinking is always a matter of thinking about one's own thinking. When I reflect on whether local real-estate prices will go up in the next year, I entertain propositions about recent market trends, interest rates, the approaching introduction of a new land-transfer tax, etc. Here, my thoughts seem transparent: rather than thinking of them, I think, via them (or through them), of the market, interest rates, new taxes, etc. Insofar as I consider logical and evidential relations, they are relations among propositions about these things (rather than relations among my thoughts about the propositions).

Regardless of the merits of Gadske's conception, his notion of critical thinking is similar to one of Richard Paul's later definitions. According to Paul, 'Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better'.

*Richard Edward Gadske (1901-1989) was born in Chicago on April 4, 1901. He held a B.S. in Electrical Engineering (awarded by the University of Colorado or the South Dakota School of Mines -- the records are conflicting -- in 1925) and two advanced degrees in Education from Northwestern University: an M.S. (1932) and a doctoral degree (1940). As an undergraduate, he played on a varsity football team for four years. For most of his career, he taught math at New Trier High School (Winnetka, Illinois). He coached high-school football, basketball, baseball, and track teams. In WWII, he served for four years as a commander in the US Navy. He died on July 21, 1989. (Gadske was the high-school advisor of James C. Warren, who is one of the Tuskegee airmen. Warren played on football and baseball teams that Gadske coached, and Gadske accompanied the young Warren to father-son events.)

No comments: