Critical Thinking in Political Context: Justice, Subjects, and Judgments


Critical thinking, properly understood, is not as a set of ‘skills,’ tools, attitudes, or behaviors one can learn and apply. Or, to make a more modest claim, in this book, I do not treat critical thinking as such. Critical thinking may involve certain intellectual skills and habits, but critical thinking is, itself, a subject of knowledge.

As in all subjects of knowledge, the study of critical thinking is undertaken with the belief that inquiring into this area will teach us specific and meaningful lessons about human life. Put another way, one does not — or one ought not — enter into a course on the subject of economics with the meager expectation that, no matter what one studies, one will emerge with a set of ‘economic thinking skills’ or with the ability to ‘think economically.’

While part of the study of economics does include the acquisition of the ability to ‘think economically’ — meaning to think about or see the world in in the ways that economists think about and see it — there are also the subjects of economics, the debates within economics, and the critiques of various propositions and models within economics that must be learned, understood, investigated, contemplated, and questioned.

The same, I maintain, is true of critical thinking. The title of the book, Critical Thinking as the Subject of Inquiry, clearly emphasizes this point. It also relies on the double-meaning of the term subject, a double-meaning that is, itself, related to the subjects considered here. In the first and perhaps most common sense of the word, subject, a subject means an academic subject, a subject of knowledge, or a topic of study, such as molecular biology, or art history, or French poetry.

But in another, more specialized but equally important sense of the term, a subject is a person. Using the term subject in this sense, then, draws our attention to the (rather obvious) fact that persons engage in critical thinking, and that critical thinking is caught up with a number of complex internal processes in the mind of those persons (i.e., those subjects) who engage in critical thought.

Here, in the second sense of the term subject, we also must note the political, psychological, and philosophical differences between subject and object. While every person likely has both subjective and objective qualities — and indeed, as we shall see, persons and groups have inter-subjective and inter-objective qualities as well — subjectivity or subjecthood refers to an idea or ideal of autonomy, of self-determination, of being the author, more or less, of one’s own life.

This use of the term subject does not presume that all persons are subjects, that subjecthood is easy to attain, nor even that subjectivity is perfectly or absolutely attainable. Nevertheless, it is both possible and helpful to contrast the idea of subjectivity or subjecthood with its opposite: the idea of objectivity or objecthood. If a person can be or become the subject of her own thoughts and actions, a goldfish or a wristwatch cannot, for the goldfish and wristwatch are determined not by themselves but by biological instinct or mechanical engineering. While we may love, cherish, and respect our goldfish or our wristwatch, we know that they are not subjects but objects.

By the same token, there is a kind of tragedy, perhaps the greatest tragedy, in a human being’s loss of potential to be a subject, when persons fail, for one reason or another and sometimes due to challenges or disadvantages that are no fault of their own, to become subjects. When the thoughts and actions of individuals or groups are determined by internal or external factors that are not consonant with developed, integrated selves, then, we might say, those individuals or groups tend to become more object than subject. In this book, we explore the forces that preclude or thwart subjectivity in one important respect (but not the only respect): failures of critical thinking.

It is important to note here, that, especially in a book about critical thinking, readers are welcomed and even encouraged to wonder if the distinction offered just above is accurate, whether, in fact, subjects and objects can be so distinguished or categorized. Some human experiences would seem to suggest the opposite: that many persons and groups shift or slide, if you will, back and forth between subject and object, often residing in the grey areas in between. And are growing fields of scholarship that are dedicated to challenging this very subject/object binary.

I would only submit that ideal or archetypal distinctions do not in any way discount the reality of blurriness, the possibility that the categories are hard to define in practice or are even to some degree mixed-up in our experience. Indeed, becoming aware of the fine lines between subject and object, between the modes of being that define both and the ease with which one may swing from one to the other, and between the factors and forces that facilitate subjectivity versus those that pull us toward objectivity are all parts of the study of critical thinking.

Critical thinking, then, is defined here as the study of the development of the subjective capacity of thought within individuals and groups. The subjective capacity of thought — or, put more simply, the ability to think — in turn depends on the capacity of persons to filter information, to delineate and defend the boundaries that determine what gets ‘in’ and what is ‘left out,’ and to reflect on and sometimes resist political, social, and psychological pressures.

This book encourages readers not just to read passively about critical thinking but to engage critically with the readings, questions, arguments, commentaries, and problems posed throughout. That is, this book hopes to facilitate critical engagement with the topic of critical thinking. That might mean questioning claims, especially those made by the author of this book, either resisting or accepting them based on good reasons and careful attention, arguing about them to try to get a fuller picture, or challenging instructors and classmates to explain or defend them more fully. The process may seem a bit circular — to think critically about critical thinking — but that is precisely what we must do.