What are Independent and Critical Thinking?

By Sharon Presley, Ph.D., Executive Director, RIT

The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary offers many definitions of independent, including "not depending on the authority of others" and "not dependent on others for forming an opinion." Making up your own mind, in other words. But what does that really mean? Does it mean forming an opinion without input from others? No, of course not, otherwise we "reinvent the wheel" every time we make a decision. We all need relevant information and data on which to base our opinions. It's the way that we seek information and how we apply it that makes us dependent or independent thinkers. If we uncritically accept whatever values or ideas we've been taught by parents, teachers or church, never questioning these ideas or asking ourselves if these ideas really make sense, then we are dependent thinkers (even if the ideas are true!).

If we reject what our parents, teachers or church have taught us simply because they say something is right, does that make us independent thinkers? No, that's just what psychologists call "anti-conformity" rather than non-conformity. Making up your own mind is an action, not a reaction.

Independent thinking means making sense of the world based on your own observations and experiences rather than just depending on the word of others. It means trusting your own ability to make judgments, even if they contradict what others say. It means acting in accordance with these judgments, even if you sometimes make mistakes. An independent thinkers knows it's psychologically better to make your own mistakes than someone else's.

Independent thinking is not necessarily rational or critical. Sometimes you make mistakes; sometimes it's difficult to know if your beliefs are your own or simply uncritically borrowed. No one ever said independent thinking is easy.

Critical thinking is a tool that you as an independent thinker can use. It can help you decide whether your old beliefs are sensible.

It can help you examine new ideas or help you solve problems in reasonable ways.

What is Critical Thinking?

There are many reasonable definitions of "critical thinking" but I like the one offered by Wade and Tavris because it emphasizes the positive side to critical thinking. Too often people think that being critical means just tearing some argument down: "Critical thinking," they write, "is the ability and willingness to assess claims and make objective judgments on the basis of well-supported reasons. It is the ability to look for flaws in arguments and resist claims that have no supporting evidence. Critical thinking, however, is not merely negative thinking. It also fosters the ability to be creative and constructive - to generate possible explanations for findings, think of implications, and apply new knowledge to a broad range of social and personal problems. You can't really separate critical thinking from creative thinking, for it's only when you question what is that you can begin to imagine what can be."

Nor is being an independent thinker and a critical thinker merely being "open-minded." As Wade and Tavris point out, "Sometimes people justify mental laziness by proudly telling you that they are 'open-minded.' 'It's good to be open-minded, replies philosopher Jacob Needleman, 'but not so open that your brains fall out.'"

Wade writes that sometimes her students think that being open-minded means that every opinion is just as good as every other opinion. "What comes across to students," she says," is that they shouldn't defend their own beliefs too passionately or criticize someone else's beliefs too strongly." When they complain 'it's just my opinion', she replies "Well, is it a good opinion or a bad opinion? Is it well-supported by evidence or reasons? The goal is to teach students how to take a position and defend it strongly and with passion, and yet fair-mindedly."

Commitment and Fair-mindedness

A theory that complements Wade's idea of fair-mindedness, as well as the notion of critical thinking, is one offered by developmental psychologist William Perry. He suggests that, as we mature to adulthood, we go through different stages in our thinking about beliefs. As young teens, many of us see the world from an authoritarian perspective. There's only one right answer and it's the teacher or authority figure's job to give us "the" answer. [Sadly, many adults never get out of this stage!]

Then, as we mature, we begin to see things in a more relative perspective, recognizing that different people have different points of view. At this point, we can take several paths - we can slip into complete relativism, believing like those students of Wade's, that any opinion is as good as any other; or we can slip into nihilism, giving up any belief; or, if we keep growing, we move forward to the final stage. Here, we recognize the need to make a commitment to personal beliefs that we have arrived at by careful thinking and a need to take responsibility for these beliefs. But at this stage, we also accept and respect the idea that others may hold contradictory values to which they are equally committed. In other words, we see the need defend our values and to be fair-minded.