Critical Thinking and Knowledge Domains

by Stephen Downes

Responding to Alex Reid (posting here in case he doesn't approve the post in moderation):

It would be helpful if we understood what you mean by critical thinking, because critical thinking as I understand it (and have taught it) doesn't really resemble what you describe in this article. You write, "critical thinking generally means 'close reading,'", but that suggests to me that you don't know what critical reasoning is, not that critical reasoning is somehow deficient.

As an analogy, think of critical thinking as being similar to math. That is to say, critical reading is not only a mechanism for study and representation (for example, 'close reading') but also a mechanism for drawing inferences and correcting errors. If a person says "I had four boxes and you have three, so we have eight," we have to 'close read' to understand the sentence, but beyond that, we want to use mathematics to correct the error.

The same with critical thinking. If someone says "If he was polluting the river, we'd see it, and by George we see it! so he must be polluting the river," we need to read to understand, but it is an application of critical thinking (and specifically, the rules of propositional inference) when we say that this person's conclusion is not supported by the evidence and reasoning.

Critical thinking cuts a wide swatch across all disciplines. Just like with mathematics, the principles of critical thinking do not change from one domain to the next. An argument that fails in history also fails in biochemistry. What counts as a good type of explanation in physics also counts in English (and the types of explanations are evaluated in the same way). We criticize definitions in geography the same way we criticize definitions in botany.


hi, it is just a simple contribution not a critics, by me. But  the first part as cri or cry or cre, all referance for a simple problem model. In term of its etymology, the term of "critical" and its way of  thinking should represent a problem or contradiction or something else to reflect an unverified dimension, that makes a rule of methodic value in case of thematic frame rather than its dependency to any kind of data.  ... thanks and regards. 

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
To me, you reinforce Reid's article. That is, in English studies, critical thinking and close reading are close to synonymous, but as you noted, they're not the same, or in other words, what counts as critical thinking in one domain (i.e., English) doesn't in another domain.

All seem a way to relativity theory.Yeap! the fresh news on higgs boson and so the quantum discourses are ringing even the ring is a circle as a closed term, per se. While to the relative domain adresses, the network itself is an interdepented system of doing a main ping  as an inquiry of theory of everything that may let a discourse for critical thinking of everything. Thus interdisciplinary thinking should have some critics. For example: Laser test on mars is called as a chemical test. But should it be called as if only  chemical, really?  

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
> in English studies, critical thinking and close reading are close to synonymous,

I'm sorry, they're not. Not in English studies. Not anywhere.

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
Perhaps the word "synonymous" was too strong, but they are closely associated in English studies as close reading is a part of critical thinking when reading and analyzing texts. For just a few examples:

Amemic, Joel H. ""Close Readings" of Internet Corporate Financial Reporting: Towards a More Critical Pedagogy on the Information Highway." Internet and Higher Education, v1 n2 p87-114 1998.

Elder, Linda, & Richard Paul. "Critical Thinking... and the Art of Close Reading, Part IV." Journal of Developmental Education, v28 n2 p36-37 Win 2004. (and see Parts II, III, & IV)

Kelemen, Erick. "Critical Editing and Close Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom." Pedagogy; Winter2012, Vol. 12 Issue 1, p121-138.

Webb, Allen. "Digital Texts and the New Literacies". English Journal, v97 n1 p83-88 Sep 2007.
Abstract excerpt: "Using these online resources opened up possibilities for new ways of teaching and learning traditional skills of close reading and critical analysis."

And from an English department's website:
"Through courses in literature and in writing, our majors hone their ability to read critically, reason analytically, and write clearly."

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
'Critical Reading' is not the same as 'critical thinking'. And being 'associated' is not the same as being 'synonymous'. If there are online versions, I'll review the articles you cite; otherwise, I'm hundreds of kilometres from any library that might have them.

AYDIN SARIKAYA30 Aug 2012 (edited)

It seems as happy end. I would like to conribute with a correction:
the first referance: Amemic, Joel H.. It seems a result of copy-past accidents, as a good example of self-critical manners. ... Anyway, its original form is not AMEMIC but AMERNIC, and it may be caused because of Amemic and Amernic "similarity":).

That seems other example of value of design pedagogy.. Here is online link for it and others as I realised for this nice case: Here they are dear Stephen:

 AMERNIC Joel H. ""Close Readings" of Internet Corporate Financial Reporting: Towards a More Critical Pedagogy on the Information Highway."

Elder, Linda, & Richard Paul. "Critical Thinking... and the Art of Close Reading,

parts are linked at bottom..

Webb, Allen. "Digital Texts and the New Literacies".  This referance is also in the part of source:  Literature and the Web

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
"You write, "critical thinking generally means 'close reading,'", but that suggests to me that you don't know what critical reasoning is."

One problem for me is that you are declaring that your version of critical reasoning is the only one that's valid and that other disciplines have no right to decide what critical thinking means in their own field. 

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
There's isn't something that is "my version" of critical thinking - and your suggestion that there is begs the question.

Howard Johnson00:00
I think there are different levels of analysis that are possible and likely in play in this discussion.  Alex's point about transfer between contexts is valid.  We always speak into an ongoing conversation that shapes what is considered to be appropriate to say and to do.  Though it is possible to take a critical stance, the details are different, which may create transfer problems for anyone using a standard process.  An understanding of potential analytic lenses like rhetoric or assessment validity will deepen what is meant by any critical analysis.
So, I do believe that a valid approach to critical thinking is not a process, but a stance or an attitude that is shaped to the context where it find its application.  

Enaa Zausen13:07
i havent read far into his piece yet...but even in the first few dozen lines i sense an odd disconnect between what you write and what he has written.....  there are obvious sentiment inferences he makes (despite his english errors) that make him not the target you take him for...
perhaps you are 'transferring' from somewhere inside your head... to take advantage of his position and rather silly (rhinestone like) opening assertion... in order to acquire a target for your own ends....
i often find my psychology attempting this over my own mindful and thinking processes....

Stephen Downes13:32Edit
It will probably be useful for me to at some time write about what actually varies from domain to domain, and what does not.

For example, evidence.

- in different domains, different standards of evidence apply - eg. a CSI requires forensic evidence, while a lawyer might need only circumstantial evidence
- but in all domains, evidence must be tangible, publicly observable and documented (otherwise it is not evidence, it is something else)

Or, for example, definitions.

- in different domains, the word 'allowable' may be defined by different criteria, eg. what is 'legally' allowable may be different from what is 'morally' allowable
- but in all domains, the definition must describe all and only instances of 'allowable', may be criticized for being too broad or too narrow, and is illegitimate if inherently contradictory

In my own word, I describe six critical literacies, which define the fundamentals of critical thinking. They are: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, context, cognition and change.

In 'context', for example, I discuss the changing standards of evidence. While we recognize that there are different standards of evidence for different domains, it is a general skill, not specific to any domain, to be able to identify the appropriate domain and, accordingly, the standards of evidence to apply.

Similarly, 'definition' falls under the heading of 'cognition'. While we recognize that different definitions apply in different domains, it is a general skill, independent of any domain, to be able to create and evaluate appropriate definitions.

I find that people arguing that critical thinking varies from domain to domain do not draw these distinctions appropriately, often because of a lack of clarity in describing exactly what changes from domain to domain.

For example, Howard Johnson says, "An understanding of potential analytic lenses like rhetoric or assessment validity will deepen what is meant by any critical analysis."

The use of the 'lens' metaphor is common in the humanities and social sciences, and indicates a process of looking for specific entities (such as the use of rhetorical devices, or an assessment of the validity of arguments).

The nature and availability of these 'lenses' may vary from discipline to discipline (the use of rhetorical device, for example, doesn't apply (much) to cartography), but surely the process of identifying, selecting and evaluating a 'lens' is something not specific to any given discipline.

The very suggestion that there are different domains of knowledge, and that we can switch between them, entails the existence of a meta-domain, called 'critical thinking', which consists at a minimum of the knowledge of,selection of, and evaluation of, these domains.


  1. Stephen, first let me say I'm sorry your comment didn't appear on my blog sooner. It's there now. Apparently disqus changed something and I stopped getting email updates when a comment was submitted.

    Anyway. Our disagreement appears to be regarding the extent to which a set of thinking skills or practices is commonly shared across disciplines. It isn't my contention that there are no common thinking practices. My contention is that the degree of commonality is such that college students have already acquired it. However, I would not characterize these common thought processes as a meta-domain that would subsume other kinds of thinking. I disagree with your assertion that a meta-domain necessarily exists because there are different domains. I don't believe that this kind of taxonomic hierarchy is epistemologically or ontologically necessary or even possible.

    I certainly value the kinds of critical skills you describe in this last comment. I just don't see how they are held in common across disciplines in any significant way. When you say, for example, that there is a general skill of creating and evaluating appropriate definitions, I'm just not sure what that skill would be. I suppose we can say, tautologically, that definition defines something. A definition tries to distinguish between essential and accidental characteristics of an object. E.g., the color of the phone is not significant for a definition of the phone. Of course, as you point out, what is essential and what is accidental is disciplinary specific. So only the fact that when defining an object some things matter and some things don't is held in common.

  2. Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be.


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