Saturday, 15 September 2012

The difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking

I must admit outright that I have an addiction problem: I'm addicted to posting comments on the Huffington Post (Canadian edition). It was when a response to one of my comments on critical thinking came in that I was forced to think about the difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking.

I said something to the effect that much of what passes for 'higher education' nowadays is actually now nothing more than glorified vocational training, that the diminution of what Northrop Frye calls the 'liberal arts' education has caused this general lack in critical thinking skills. A response to my comment inadvertantly confused the difference between 'critical' thinking with 'analytical' thinking, and it got me thinking.

As a linguist, analytical thinking is very important to me; but, it is critical thinking that is important to me as a political junkie. The difference is subtle but significant.

Analytic thinking is captured quite succinctly by Feynman (in classic Feynman facetiousness) who said that an 'elementary demonstration' has a quality that:

very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence. (cited from a special issue of Discover Magazine, Discover Presents Einstein, 2009)

whereas, 'critical thinking' has some element of a willingness to question one's own and others' statements of opinion in the interest of clarity if not certainty:

Men become [more] civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt. (H. L. Mencken) - editorial addition by me.

Critical thinking is not a necessarily a negative way of looking at things because one can be 'critical' without any cynicism behind it. Socratic dialectics is a perfect example of critical thinking in action. It is based on a set of principles of debate in 'good faith'.

Another way of distinguishing 'critical thinking' and 'analytical thinking' is that the former is an examination of opinions, and the latter is an examination of facts.


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