28 Critical Thinking

Critical thinking helps readers evaluate the credibility of an argument.


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how thinking critically about another author’s work can improve your own
  • Judge whether or not an author’s argument is solid or in need of improvement using critical thinking



  • Critical thinking is a vital skill for students taking writing-intensive courses in unfamiliar disciplines. The humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences all utilize an arsenal of critical thinking skills, analytical methods, and theoretical material; critical thinking enables you to apply theories or methods from your area of expertise to another, and vice versa. You may even find commonalities between your discipline and the unfamiliar subject that you can use to expand the scope of your work or add a fresh perspective.
  • Discovering a flaw in another source’s argument can inspire great paper ideas. An argument that directly engages with other writers in your discipline will make your work automatically relevant. This approach also demonstrates an active engagement with the current discourse surrounding your topic. As you read other sources, ask analytical questions to see if you can uncover any flaws or inconsistencies: Are key terms clearly defined, and do you agree with those definitions? Are the writers experts in their field? Upon what assumptions and theoretical frameworks do the argument rely? Are these assumptions and frameworks appropriate for the discipline? Is the methodology valid? Does the argument have consistent logic? Are the style and organization appropriate, or do they obscure certain details? What is the intended audience for this work? What is the author’s intent in writing this work? Does the author have any ulterior motives or conflicts of interest that might undermine credibility?
  • French philosopher Michel Foucault based his famous book, The History of Sexuality, on his belief that the popular “repressive hypothesis” is a flawed. The repressive hypothesis suggests that the nineteenth century marked a rapid escalation in our centuries-old progression toward repressing sexual drives and discouraging conversations about sexuality. Foucault contends that, while references to sexuality became increasingly coded and symbolic in the nineteenth century, discussion of sexual matters actually increased. He cites examples of unprecedented expectations for official sexual disclosures in the nineteenth century, such as the Catholic Church’s focus on increasing the frequency and formal importance of confession. Foucault mocks his contemporaries as the “Other Victorians,” unable to stop talking about how they cannot talk about sexuality.
  • Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ research plays an important role in Jacques Derrida’s landmark book Of Grammatology. The connection between the two thinkers is not immediately obvious: Derrida is primarily known for his theories about literary interpretation and linguistics; Derrida finds common ground with Lévi-Strauss, however, in their shared interest in the relationship between speech and writing. When he discusses Lévi-Strauss’ field research on native languages, Derrida reveals assumptions about the origin of language in a way that enriches his own text-based approach.

In researching the status quo, you will probably come across work by other writers that you would like to use in your own writing. This can be a very successful argument strategy when done properly. Using sources well means doing more than just repeating what other authors say; you need to engage with your source text – comment on it, argue with it, analyze it, expand upon it. To do any of those things, you need to start with a thorough and accurate understanding of the other authors’ work.

This level of understanding begins with thinking critically about the texts you are reading. In this case, “critically” does not mean that you are looking for what is wrong with a work (although in the course of your critical process, you may well do that). Instead, thinking critically means approaching a work as if you were a critic or commentator. Your primary goal is to evaluate the text at hand.

This is an essential step in analyzing a text, and it requires you to consider many different aspects of a writer’s work. Do not just consider what the text says. Think about what effect the author intended to produce in a reader. Look at the process through which the writer achieves (or does not achieve) the desired effect, and which rhetorical strategies are being used. If you disagree with a text, what is the point of contention? If you agree with it, how do you think you can expand or build upon the argument put forth?

Critical thinking has many uses. If you apply it to a work of literature, for example, it can become the foundation of a detailed textual analysis. With scholarly articles, critical thinking can help you evaluate their potential reliability as future sources. Finding an error in someone else’s argument can be the point of destabilization you need to make a worthy argument of your own. Critical thinking can even help you hone your own argumentation skills, since it requires you to think carefully about which strategies are effective for making arguments.


Key Points

  • Critical thinking is a method of approaching texts that calls for a reader to consider what the author is arguing and how he or she makes that argument.
  • Critical thinking is one of the first essential steps in analyzing and writing about a text, topic, or argument.
  • Thinking critically about other writers’ work can help you improve your own. By applying the same critical standards you use when reading someone else’s work to your own, you can greatly increase the clarity, accuracy, and value of your work.


  • status quo
    • The state of things; the way things are, as opposed to the way they could be; the existing state of affairs.
  • critical thinking
    • A method of thinking involving analysis and evaluation. It questions assumptions with the goal of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.


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