Foundations of critical thinking as processes-in-context

This series of post digs down into the concept of critical thinking and ends up with a framework quite different from the current texts in the field.
Let us start from the classical idea that critical thinking entails scrutinizing evidence, assumptions, and reasoning for an idea (or the equivalent for some practice or technology), then work through four passes on what follows from that idea.

Pass A. Two initial observations: If the idea or practice does not stand up to scrutiny, then the challenge is to influence the person(s) who hold them to change. Note, however, that it is difficult to scrutinize if you do not have alternatives to contrast with the idea or practice in question. (For example, if there were no alternative explanation of how you came to be reading this sentence, the evidence is quite consistent with the idea that some supreme being created you one millisecond ago with memories that fill in everything you would call the past.)

If we put the two observations together, we might also note the following points:
* critical thinking invites you to build a constituency to support your best alternative (i.e., the one that stands up best to your scrutiny); which, in turns means that:
* the ideas and practices you subject to scrutiny (or don’t) may be conditioned by your ability to a imagine building a constituency for the alternative; and
* your ability to even come up with relevant alternatives may be conditioned by the existence of a constituency receptive to them.
(“Constituency building involves getting others to adopt or adapt your action proposals, or, better still, enlisting others to become part of the ‘you’ that shapes, evaluates, and revises any proposals”; Taylor and Szteiter 2012, 41).

Now, you are also always embedded in implicit or taken-for-granted constituencies (including your own self, with your capacities) that keep you continuing along previous lines—neither envisaging alternatives, scrutinizing the established ideas and practices, or building a constituency to support alternatives if the established ideas don’t stand up to your scrutiny. This is understandable; indeed, building on one’s existing cognitive structures and physical capabilities is part of being human.

However, the world is never stable and coherent enough to shield you from having to face some shifts and alternatives during your life course. Is there a way then for you to build a constituency that supports your development as a person who explores, rather than suppresses, alternatives, and that supports your trying to build the constituency to support the alternative idea/practice that stands up best to your scrutiny? By extension, if you are the teacher or coach of a person who is developing as a critical thinker, what can you bring into their constituency and constituency-building?

Pass B. The observations above can be captured by a schema. Start with an idea or practice, X, placed near the bottom left. Suppose you have an alternative, A, then let us place that vertically above X.


If the horizontal axis corresponds to the size of the constituency for X or for the alternative A, then the person or writer with the idea X is a constituency of one, and so are you. Your task is to influence that person and move them diagonally up to the right so that the alternative A has the consistuency of two. In this schema we can think of the difficulty of making that move as the length of that diagonal line.


In practice, there is more than one person who holds any established idea or follows practice X. Moreover, alternative ideas often have implications, that is, are connected in a web of alternative ideas. For example, suppose I’m talking to someone at a party who tells me they made a lot of money when they sold their house. Suppose that I want them to think about the idea that a person does not make money when they sell a house for more money (inflated corrected dollars) than they bought it for, they take money from someone else. The person I am talking to is not the only one who says that you can make money when you sell a house – it is an unquestioned commonplace for most Americans. Moreover, once someone begins to explore the alternative, one might come to question the role of realtors in promoting house sales, to trace the various ways that some people in some places eventually lose money on their houses (e.g. when a freeway is routed nearby), and, perhaps, to extend the idea to explore how many profits in a capitalist economy are made by displacing the costs (health, environmental, cleanup, etc.) onto some other people, sometimes in a distant place.
Quite often, then, the schema looks more like this


and the diagonal is quite long.
(In a previous post I have explored a variant of this schema in which the vertical axis is the depth of “counterfactual social arrangements entailed by a proposal to change knowledge or technologies” and the horizontal is the “size of the constituency built to support any action around changes in knowledge or technologies.”)

Let us now use this schema to review pass A. Returning to the example above, although I would like the person who tells me they made a lot of money when they sold a house to think about where the money came from – to go beyond saying that someone, the buyer, paid them. However, I almost always let the statement pass. I do that because I understand the size of the constituency that supports the person’s statement; I cannot imagine undertaking or joining the work to build a constituency for the alternative idea. That thinking of mine is straightforward. However, my other claim, that my ability to come up with relevant alternatives in the first place may be conditioned by the whether there is a constituency receptive to them, is hard to show—if I did not even come up with the alternatives then how can I point to them? The best I can say to back up the last of the points is to observe that, in well-facilitated participatory planning, groups of people come up with plans that no one person had envisaged beforehand (Taylor and Szteiter 2012, 260). In other words, the group as a constituency for the plan and the plan arise together.

By bringing in this last observation I am beginning to answer my question about building a constituency that supports your development as a person who explores alternatives: Get involved in well-facilitated participatory planning (or some analogue of it) in which ideas and constituency for them are built together. The role of the teacher, coach, or colleague might be to facilitate well (which requires training and practice) or bring a good facilitator into the process. Short of that, the teacher, coach, or colleague might show enthusiasm for your vertical process even if they are not part of the constituency for the outcome. They might also encourage you to take yourself seriously in the sense of trying to influence others to take up your alternative idea or practice. Putting all that together, if you want to develop as a critical thinker, you also have to bootstrap the structures of wider support for the vertical and horizontal processes in the schema and further develop them. This is the topic of Pass C (to be presented in a future post).

Taylor, P. J., & Szteiter, J. (2012). Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

2 Responses to Foundations of critical thinking as processes-in-context

  1. Pingback: Foundation of critical thinking as processes-in-context 2 | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Pingback: Foundations of critical thinking as processes-in-context 3 | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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