Note status: :seedling:

“Critical” in Thinking or Theory

It’s long struck me as peculiar that both “critical thinking” and “critical theory” distinguish themselves with the word “critical”—but mean different things with that word.

My best attempt to make sense of this difference is that “critical thinking” aims to uncover the hidden assumptions in a line of thought (or usually in its starting point, or framing). “Critical theory” also aims to uncover hidden assumptions, while emphasizing power (social, legal, psychological, etc.) as one of these hidden elements.

If I had all the time in the world, I’d love to research the history of this keyword.

(As it’s an academic term with known origins in the Frankfurt School, there are already a number of histories of the narrowest definition of “critical theory”, meaning the thoughts and thinkers involved in the Frankfurt School. I’d be more interested in the ways “critical thinking” has dovetailed with and diverged from a more broadly-defined “critical theory”. I was taught “critical thinking” starting in my North Florida public elementary school, which certainly implies that it’s not as esoteric as many consider “critical theory” to be. Maybe a formula like the below can help make “theory” seem less daunting?)

Formula or Set of Questions

Here’s a brief formula or set of questions as a starting point for critical thinking.

This list started out as me reminding myself to ask “for whom, under what conditions”—effectively, Frederic Jameson’s “always historicize!” suggestion in a nut shell. Then I just kept adding a few more questions, and now we’ve got this list.

When reading a claim, it’s useful to ask:

  • …for whom is this accurate?
  • …under what conditions?
  • …to whose benefit?
  • …who can intervene? (and/or is well-positioned to intervene effectively?)
  • …in which material, ideological, and/or representational ways?

A longer list would also include:

  • …what are the histories of the concepts/keywords being used, and is this claim using them in ways consistent with other pieces that use those terms?
  • …would other people who use those terms recognize this as an example of what they do?
  • …what do the histories of these concepts/keywords indicate about what might be useful, harmful, etc. here?
  • …what does this particular framing illuminate, and what does it obscure?
  • …what additional framings would be useful?
  • …how to reframe persuasively, for which audiences?

:seedling: = emerging note
:herb: = established note
:evergreen_tree: = evergreen note