American scholar Jared Diamond deploys his powers of interpretation to great effect in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which seeks to understand the meaning behind the available evidence describing societies that have survived and those that have withered and died.
Why, for example, did the Norsemen of Scandinavia who colonized Greenland in the early tenth century not survive, while the inhabitants of Highland New Guinea did? With the evidence to hand, Diamond notes that a societys collapse tends to be preceded by a severe reduction in population and considerable decreases in political, economic and social complexity. Delving even deeper, Diamond isolates five major factors determine the success or failure of human societies in all periods of history: environmental degradation, which occurs when an ecosystem deteriorates as its resources are exhausted; climate change (natural or man-made); hostile neighbors; weakened trading partners; and access or otherwise to the resources that enable the society to adapt its challenges.
The breadth of Diamonds research provides the springboard from which to reach these definitions, but it inevitably also introduces complications; how can evidence produced by specialists in so many different disciplines be compared? Diamonds ability to understand the meaning of the evidence at hand and his readiness to seek and supply clarifications of meaning where necessary underpin his achievement, and comprise a textbook example of how interpretative skills can provide a framework for strong critical thinking.
Franz Boass 1940 Race, Language and Culture is a monumentally important text in the history of its discipline, collecting the articles and essays that helped make Boas known as the father of American anthropology.
An encapsulation of a career dedicated to fighting against the false theories of so-called scientific racism that abounded in the first half of the 20th-century, Race, Language and Culture is one of the most historically significant texts in its field and central to its arguments and impact are Boass formidable interpretative skills. It could be said, indeed, that Race, Language and Culture is all about the centrality of interpretation in questioning our assumptions about the world.
In critical thinking, interpretation is the ability to clarify and posit definitions for the terms and ideas that make up an argument. Boass work demonstrates the importance of another vital element: context. For Boas, who argued passionately for cultural relativism, it was vital to interpret individual cultures by their own standards and context not by ours. Only through comparing and contrasting the two can we reach, he suggested, a better understanding of humankind.
Though our own questions might be smaller, it is always worth considering the crucial element Boas brought to interpretation: how does context change definition?
Claude Lévi-Strauss is probably the most complex anthropological theorist of all time. His work continues to influence present-day thinkers in his field, but he is perhaps even more influential beyond it. As one of the key figures in the development of what is known today as French theory, Lévi-Strauss was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th-century. His theories of interpretation, meaning and culture have helped shape the ideas and methodologies of a range of disciplines, above all literature and philosophy. At the heart of Lévi-Strausss work are the questions of meaning and where meaning comes from. As an anthropologist, he was primarily interested in what completely different and separate cultures might have in common. Crucially, he saw how common ground resides not on the surface of cultures (i.e., in similar customs), but deep inside invisible background structures of thought. His quest was to peel away the surface of different cultures through careful interpretation, advancing from one layer to another until he discovered the structures that lay behind all of the exterior practices and meanings. Infamously challenging, his work shows interpretative skills working at the highest, most abstract level possible.
The Anti-Politics Machine (1990) examines how international development projects are conceived, researched, and put into practice. It also looks at what these projects actually achieve. Ferguson criticizes the idea of externally-directed development and argues that the process doesnt take proper account of the daily realities of the communities it is intended to benefit. Instead, they often prioritize technical solutions for addressing poverty and ignoring its social and political dimensions, so the structures that these projects put in place often have unintended consequences. Ferguson suggests that until the process becomes more reflective, development projects will continue to fail.
The Gift exploits Mausss high-level analytical and interpretative skills to produce a brilliant investigation of the forms, meanings, and structures of gift-giving across a range of societies. Mauss, along with many others, had noted that in a wide range of societies especially those without monetary exchange or legal structures gift-giving and receiving was carried out according to strict customs and unwritten laws. What he sought to do in The Gift was to analyse the structures that governed how and when gifts were given, received, and reciprocated in order to grasp what implicit and unspoken reasons governed these structures. He also wanted to apply his interpretative skills to asking what such exchanges meant, in order to explore the implications his analysis might have for modern, western cultures. In Mausss investigations, it became clear that gift-giving is, in many cultures, a crucial structural force, binding people together in a web of reciprocal commitments generated by the laws of gifting. Indeed, he concluded, gifts can be seen as the glue of society..
In Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne tackle the central problem facing all businesses: how to perform better than your competitors? Their solution involves taking a creative approach to the normal view of competition. In the normal framework, competition is a zero-sum game: if there are two companies competing for the same market, as one does better, the other has to do worse.
The authors’ creative leap is to suggest one can beat the competition by not competing. Companies should avoid confronting competitors in crowded marketplaces, what they call “red oceans,” and instead seek out new markets, or “blue oceans.” Once the blue oceans have been identified, companies can get down to the task of creating unique products which exploit that market. Chan and Mauborgne argue, for example, that a wine company might decide to start appealing to a group previously uninterested in wine.
This would be a “blue ocean” market, giving the winemaker a huge advantage, which they could exploit by creating a wine that appealed to the tastes of a beer-drinking demographic. A classic of business writing, Blue Ocean Strategy is creative thinking and problem solving at its best.
Michael E. Porters 1980 book Competitive Strategy is a fine example of critical thinking skills in action. Porter used his strong evaluative skills to overturn much of the accepted wisdom in the world of business. By exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the accepted argument that the best policy for firms to become more successful was to focus on expanding their market share, he was able to establish that the credibility of the argument was flawed.
Porter did not believe such growth was the only way for a company to be successful, and provided compelling arguments as to why this was not the case. His book shows how industries can be fragmented, with different firms serving different parts of the market (the low-price mass market, and the expensive high-end market in clothing, for example) and examines strategies that businesses can follow in emerging, mature, and declining markets. If printing is in decline, for example, there may still be a market in this industry for high-end goods and services such as luxury craft bookbinding.
Porter also made excellent use of the critical thinking skill of analysis in writing Competitive Strategy. His advice that executives should analyze the five forces that mold the environment in which they compete new entrants, substitute products, buyers, suppliers, and industry rivals focused heavily on defining the relationships between these disparate factors and urged readers to check the assumptions of their arguments.
Porter avoided technical jargon and wrote in a straightforward way to help readers see that his evaluation of the problem was strong. Competitive Strategy went on to be a highly influential work in the world of business strategy.
Theodore Levitt’s 1960 article “Marketing Myopia” is a business classic that earned its author the nickname “the father of modern marketing”. It is also a beautiful demonstration of the problem solving skills that are crucial in so many areas of life – in business and beyond.
The problem facing Levitt was the same problem that has confronted business after business for hundreds of years: how best to deal with slowing growth and eventual decline. Levitt studied many business empires – the railroads, for instance – that at a certain point simply shrivelled up and shrank to almost nothing. How, he asked, could businesses avoid such failures? His approach and his solution comprise a concise demonstration of high-level problem solving at its best. Good problem solvers first identify what the problem is, then isolate the best methodology for solving it. And, as Levitt showed, a dose of creative thinking also helps. Levitt’s insight was that falling sales are all about marketing, and marketing is about knowing your real business.
The railroads misunderstood their real market: they weren’t selling rail, they were selling transport. If they had understood that, they could have successfully taken advantage of new growth areas – truck haulage, for instance – rather than futilely scrabbling to sell rail to a saturated market.
Thomas Piketty is a fine example of an evaluative thinker. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he not only provides detailed and sustained explanations of why he sees existing arguments relating to income and wealth distribution as flawed, but also gives us very detailed evaluations of the significance of a vast amount of data explaining why incomes is distributed in the ways it is. As Piketty stresses, “the distribution question… deserves to be studied in a systematic and methodical fashion.”
This stress on evaluating the significance of data leads him to focus on the central evaluative questions, and look in turn at the acceptability, relevance, and adequacy of existing justifications for the unequal distribution of wealth. In doing so, Piketty applies his understanding of the data to answering the deeply important question of what political structures and what policies are necessary to move us towards a more equal society. Piketty’s evaluation of the data supports his argument that inequality cannot be depended on to reduce over time: indeed, without government intervention, it is highly likely to increase.
In addition, he evaluates international data to argue that poor countries do not necessarily become less poor as a result of foreign investment. This strong emphasis on the interrogation of data, rather than building mathematical models that are divorced from data, is a defining feature of Piketty’s work.
Milton Friedman was arguably the single most influential economist of the 20th-century. His influence, particularly on conservative politics in America and Great Britain, substantially helped – as both supporters and critics agree – to shape the global economy as it is today.
Capitalism and Freedom (1962) is a passionate but carefully reasoned summary of Friedman’s philosophy of political and economic freedom, and it has become perhaps his most directly influential work. Friedman’s argument focuses on the place of economic liberalism in society: in his view, free markets and personal economic freedom are absolutely necessary for true political freedom to exist.
Freedom, for Friedman, is the ultimate good in a society – the marker and aim of true civilisation. And, crucially, he argues, real freedom is rarely aided by government. For Friedman, indeed, “the great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government”. Instead, he argues, they have always been produced by “minority views” flourishing in a social climate permitting variety and diversity.”
In successive chapters, Friedman develops a well-structured line of reasoning emerging from this stance – leading him to some surprising conclusions that remain persuasive and influential more than 60 years on.
Milton Friedman was one of the most influential economists of all time – and his ideas had a huge impact on the economic policies of governments across the world. A key theorist of capitalism and its relationship to democratic freedoms, Friedman remains one of the most cited authorities in both academic economics and government economic policy. His work remains striking not just for its brilliant grasp of economic laws and realities, but also for its consistent application of high-level evaluation and reasoning skills to produce arguments that can convince experts and laypeople alike. Friedman’s 1968 essay ‘The Role of Monetary Policy’ is a key example of how Friedman’s critical thinking skills helped to cement his influence and reputation. The paper addressed the question of how a government’s monetary policy affects the economy – from employment levels to inflation and so on. At its heart lies an evaluation and critique of the most widely accepted conception of monetary policy at the time – the ‘Phillips Curve’ – which argued that increased inflation leads naturally to increased employment. Systematically noting the flaws and weaknesses of the Phillips Curve theory, Friedman showed why this is not, in fact, the case. He then drew up a systematic alternative argument for what governmental monetary policy could and should aim to do. Though economists now consider Friedman’s ideas to have considerable limitations, ‘The Role of Monetary Policy’ remains a masterclass in evaluating and countering faulty arguments.
Charles Darwin called on a broad and unusually powerful combination of critical thinking skills to create his wide-ranging explanation for biological change, On the Origin of Species.
Its one of those rare books that takes a huge problem the enormous diversity of different species and seeks to use a vast range of evidence to solve it. But it was perhaps Darwins towering creative prowess that made the most telling contribution to this masterpiece, for it was this that enabled him to make the necessary fresh connections between so much disparate evidence from such a diversity of fields.
All of Darwins critical thinking skills were required, however, in the course of the decades of work that went into this volume. Taken as a whole, Darwins solution to the problem that he set himself is carefully researched, considers multiple explanations, and justifies its conclusions with well-organised reasoning. At the time of the publication, in 1859, there were various explanations for the changes that Darwin and others observed; what separated Darwin from so many of his contemporaries is that he deployed critical thinking to arrive at a significantly new way of fitting explanation to evidence; one that remains elegant, complete and predictive to this day.
Joan Scott's work has influenced several generations of historians and helped make the topic of gender central to the way in which the discipline is taught and studied today. At root a new way of conceptualizing capitalist societies, Scott's theories suggest that gender is better understood as a social construct than as a biological fact.
Scotts original contribution to the debate, however, stems in her use of the critical thinking skill of analysis to understand how the arguments of earlier generations of historians were built in order to fully grasp both their structure and the assumptions that underpinned them. From there, Scott was able to use problem-solving to resolve the issues that emerged from her analysis, asking productive questions focused on better ways to build a model capable of explaining the historical phenomenon of gender difference.
Scott answered these questions by introducing models created by deconstructionist scholars notably Jacques Derrida, who challenged the idea that any term or concept has a stable or dependable meaning rooted in material reality. She was able, in consequence, to refute that idea that gender inequality is the natural (hence justifiable) consequence of biological sexual differences, and issue a fundamental challenge to the capitalist system itself.
Few historians can claim to have undertaken historical analysis on as grand a scale as Geoffrey Parker in his 2013 work Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. It is a doorstop of a book that surveys the general crisis of the 17th century, shows that it was experienced practically throughout the world, and was not merely a European phenomenon, and links it to the impact of climate change in the form of the advent of a cold period known as the Little Ice Age.
Parkers triumph is made possible by the deployment of formidable critical thinking skills reasoning, to construct an engaging overall argument from very disparate material, and analysis, to re-examine and understand the plethora of complex secondary sources on which his book is built. In critical thinking, analysis is all about understanding the features and structures of argument: how given reasons lead to conclusions, and what kinds of implicit reasons and assumptions are being used. Historical analysis applies the same skills to the fabric of history, asking how given chains of events occur, how different reasons and factors interact, and so on.
Parker, though, takes things further than most in his quest to understand the meaning of a centurys-worth of turbulence spread across the whole globe. Beginning by breaking down the evidence for significant climatic cooling in the 17th-century (due to decreased solar activity), he moves on to detailed study of the effects the cooling had on societies and regimes across the world. From this detailed spadework, he constructs a persuasive argument that accounts for the different ways in which the effects of climate change played out across the century an argument with profound implications for a future likely to see serious climate change of its own.
To the dismay of many commentators who had hoped the world was evolving into a more tolerant and multicultural community of nations united under the umbrellas of supranational movements like the European Union the nationalism that was such a potent force in the history of the 20th-century has made a comeback in recent years. Now, more than ever, it seems important to understand what it is, how it works, and why it is so attractive to so many people.
A fine place to start any such exploration is with Ernest Gellner's seminal Nations and Nationalism, a ground-breaking study that was the first to flesh out the counter-intuitive but enormously influential thesis that modern nationalism has little if anything in common with old-fashioned patriotism or loyalty to one's homeland. Gellner's intensely creative thesis is that the nationalism we know today is actually the product of the 19th-century industrial revolution, which radically reshaped ancient communities, encouraging emigration to cities at the same time as it improved literacy rates and introduced mass education. Gellner connected these three elements in an entirely new way, contrasting developments to the structures of pre-industrial agrarian economies to show why the new nationalism could not have been born in such communities. He was also successful in generating a typology of nationalisms in an attempt to explain why some forms flourished while others fizzled out. His remarkable ability to produce novel explanations for existing evidence marks out Nations and Nationalism as one of the most radical, stimulating and enduringly influential works of its day.
A key theme of Gayatri Spivak's work is agency: the ability of the individual to make their own decisions. While Spivak's main aim is to consider ways in which "subalterns" her term for the indigenous dispossessed in colonial societies were able to achieve agency, this paper concentrates specifically on describing the ways in which western scholars inadvertently reproduce hegemonic structures in their work.
Spivak is herself a scholar, and she remains acutely aware of the difficulty and dangers of presuming to "speak" for the subalterns she writes about. As such, her work can be seen as predominantly a delicate exercise in the critical thinking skill of interpretation; she looks in detail at issues of meaning, specifically at the real meaning of the available evidence, and her paper is an attempt not only to highlight problems of definition, but to clarify them.
What makes this one of the key works of interpretation in the Macat library is, of course, the underlying significance of this work. Interpretation, in this case, is a matter of the difference between allowing subalterns to speak for themselves, and of imposing a mode of "speaking" on them that however well-intentioned can be as damaging in the postcolonial world as the agency-stifling political structures of the colonial world itself. By clearing away the detritus of scholarly attempts at interpretation, Spivak takes a stand against a specifically intellectual form of oppression and marginalization.
Ferdinand de Saussures Course in General Linguistics is one of the most influential texts of the 20th-century an astonishing feat for what is, at heart, a series of deeply technical lectures about the structure of human languages.
What the Courses vast influence shows, fundamentally, is the power of good interpretative skills. The interpretative tasks of laying down and clarifying definitions are often vital to providing the logical framework for all kinds of critical thinking whether it be solving problems in business, or esoteric academic research. At the time sat which Saussure gave his lectures, linguistics was a scattered and inconsistent field, without a unified method or rigorous approach. He aimed to change that by setting down and clarifying definitions and distinctions that would provide a coherent methodological framework for the study of language.
The terms laid down in the Course did exactly that and they still make up the core of linguistic terminology a full century later. More than this, however, Saussure also highlighted the centrality of linguistic interpretation to understanding how we relate to the world, founding semiotics, or the study of signs a field whose influence on academics across the humanities and social sciences is unparalleled.
The essay for which The Sacred Wood is primarily remembered is one of the most famous pieces of criticism in English: Tradition and the Individual Talent helped to re-orientate arguments about the study of literature and its production by redefining the nature of tradition and the artist's relation to it.At a time when the word traditional had become a way of damning with faint praise by reference to the past, Eliot reinterpreted the term to mean something entirely different. It is not, he argues, something just handed down, but, instead, a prize to be obtained by great labour, not least in the making of a huge effort of understanding how the past fits together. Seen thus, Eliot suggests, a literary and artistic tradition has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order and it is not just past, but present as well. For Eliot, art never improves, but only changes, and each part of the tradition is constantly being reinterpreted in light of what is added to the whole. The role of the poet, in Eliot's view, is to subjugate their own personality, and become a receptacle, in which numberless feelings, phrases, images can unite to form a new compound. Redefining the issue of poets' relations to the past in this new way is a fine example of creative thinking, and Eliots ability to connect existing concepts in new ways was what gave weight to the argument that he advanced: that poets cannot succeed without understanding that they are taking their place on a continuum that stretches back to all their predecessors, and incorporate the ideas, strengths and failings of the entire body of work that those poets represented.
David Humes Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a philosophical classic that displays a powerful mastery of the critical thinking skills of reasoning and evaluation. Humes subject, the question of the existence and possible nature of God, was, and still is, a persistent topic of philosophical and theological debate. What makes Humes text a classic of reasoning, though, is less what he says, than how he says it. As he noted in his preface to the book, the question of natural religion was unanswerable: so obscure and uncertain that human reason can reach no fixed determination with regard to it.
Hume chose, as a result, to cast his thoughts on the topic in the form of a dialogue allowing different points of view to be reasoned out, evaluated and answered by different characters. Considering and judging different or opposing points of view, as Humes characters do, is an important part of reasoning, and is vital to building strong persuasive arguments. Even if, as Hume suggests, there can be no final answer to what a god might be like, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion shows high-level reasoning and evaluation at their best.
Baruch Spinozas Ethics is a dense masterpiece of sustained argumentative reasoning. It earned its place as one of the most important and influential books in Western philosophy by virtue of its uncompromisingly direct arguments about the nature of God, the universe, free will, and human morals.
Though it remains one of the densest and most challenging texts in the entire canon of Western philosophy, Ethics is also famous for Spinozas unique approach to ordering and constructing its arguments. As its full title Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order suggests, Spinoza decided to use the rigorous format of mathematical-style propositions to lay out his arguments, just as the Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid had used geometrical propositions to lay out the basic rules of geometry.
In choosing such a systematic method, Spinozas masterwork shows the crucial aspects of good reasoning skills being employed at the highest level. The key use of reasoning is the production of an argument that is well-organised, supports its conclusions and proceeds logically towards its end. Just as a mathematician might demonstrate a geometrical proof, Spinoza sought to lay out a comprehensive philosophy for human existence an attempt that has influenced generations of philosophers since.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaards 1843 book Fear and Trembling shows precisely why he is regarded as one of the most significant and creative philosophers of the nineteenth century.
Creative thinkers can be many things, but one of their common attributes is an ability to redefine, reframe and reconsider problems from novel angles. In Kierkegaards case, he chose to approach the problems of faith and ethics in a deliberately artful and non-systematic way. Writing under the pseudonym John the Silent, he declared that he was nothing of a philosopher, but an amateur, wanting to write poetically and elegantly about the things that fascinated him. While Fear and Trembling is very much the work of a philosopher, Kierkegaards protests showed his intent to take a different path, approaching his topic like no one else before him.
The book goes on to ask what the real nature of our personal relationship with God might be, and how faith might interact with ethics. What, Kierkegaard asks, can we make of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and of Abraham obeying? Arguing the unorthodox position that in following Gods incomprehensible will Abraham had acted ethically, Kierkegaard set out the parameters of a moral argument that remains strikingly novel over a 150 years later.
Elizabeth Anscombes 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy is a cutting intervention in modern philosophy that shows the full power of good evaluative and analytical critical thinking skills.
Though only 16 pages long, Anscombes paper set out to do nothing less than reform the entire field of modern moral philosophy something that could only be done by carefully examining the existing arguments of the giants of the field. To do this, she deployed the central skills of evaluation and analysis.
In critical thinking, analysis helps understand the sequence and features of arguments: it asks what reasons these arguments produce, what implicit reasons and assumptions they rely on, what conclusions they arrive at. Evaluation involves judging whether or not the arguments are strong enough to sustain their conclusions: it asks how acceptable, adequate, and relevant the reasons given are, and whether or not the conclusions drawn from them are really valid.
In Modern Moral Philosophy, Anscombe dispassionately turns these skills on figures that have dominated moral philosophy since the 18th-century, revealing the underlying assumptions of their work, their weaknesses and strengths, and showing that in many ways the supposed differences between their arguments are actually negligible. A brilliantly incisive piece, Modern Moral Philosophy radically affected its field, remaining required and controversial reading today.
Friedrich Nietzsches On the Genealogy of Morality is a sustained feat of incisive interpretation. Well known as one of Nietzsches greatest works, and as one of the most important books of nineteenth-century philosophy, On the Genealogy of Morality also provided the inspiration for the methodologies of several key philosophers of the modern age. Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, among others, cite Nietzsche as an influence specifically because of the interpretative techniques laid out in this work techniques which are a model for the ways in which interpretation can be used to power critical thinking of the highest order.
The key aspects of interpretation are understanding, clarifying, and questioning definitions; what Nietzsche brings to the process is a sense of how important context, history and culture are to understanding any term. In the case of morals, for instance, he argues that if we are to truly understand what we mean by good or evil, we cannot ever assume the two concepts have a stable meaning, outside of a given moment in history. Indeed, to understand what they mean now, and might mean in the future, we need to trace the genealogy of concepts back to their very roots a feat of interpretation that Nietzsche undertakes masterfully.
Hegels 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit is renowned for being one of the most challenging and important books in Western philosophy. Above all, it is famous for laying out a new approach to reasoning and philosophical argument, an approach that has been credited with influencing Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many other key modern philosophers. That approach is the so-called Hegelian dialectic an open-ended sequence of reasoning and argument in which contradictory concepts generate and are incorporated into a third, more sophisticated concept.
While the Phenomenology does not always clearly use this dialectical method and it is famously one of the most difficult works of philosophy ever written the Hegelian dialectic provides a perfect template for critical thinking reasoning skills. A hallmark of good reasoning in the construction of an argument, and the searching out of answers must necessarily consider contradictory viewpoints or evidence. For Hegel, contradiction is key: it is precisely what allows reasoning to progress. Only by incorporating and overcoming contradictions, according to his method, is it possible for thought to progress at all. While writing like Hegel might not be advisable, thinking like him can help take your reasoning to the next level.
Many still consider Ludwig Wittgensteins 1953 Philosophical Investigations to be one of the breakthrough works of twentieth-century philosophy.
The book sets out a radically new conception of philosophy itself, and demonstrates all the attributes of a fine analytical mind. Taking an argument from Plato and subjecting it to detailed (and very clear) analysis, Wittgenstein shows his understanding of how the sequence and function of differing parts of a highly-complex argument can be broken down and assessed. In so doing, he reaches a logical position of simultaneous agreement and disagreement with Platos philosophical position.
Philosophical Investigations is also a powerful example of the skill of interpretation. Philosophical problems often arise from confusions in the use of language and the way to solve these problems, Wittgenstein posits, is by clarifying language use. He argues that philosophers must study ordinary uses of language and examine how people use it as a tool in their everyday lives. In this highly-interpretative way, the meaning of a word or sentence becomes relative to the context (people, culture, community) in which it is used. Rather than debate abstract problems, Wittgenstein urges philosophers to concern themselves with ordinary life and the concrete situations in which humans find themselves.
The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant is as daunting as he is influential: widely considered to be not only one of the most challenging thinkers of all time, but also one of the most important. His Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason takes on two of his central preoccupations the reasoning powers of the human mind, and religion and applies the full force of his reasoning abilities to consider the relationship between them. In critical thinking, reasoning is all about constructing arguments: arguments that are persuasive, systematic, comprehensive, and well-evidenced. And any examination involves stripping reasoning back to its barest essentials and attempting to get at the nature of the world by asking what we can know about God and morality from the power of our minds alone. Beginning from the axiom that God is, by definition, unknowable, Kant reasons that it is humans who bear the responsibility of creating the Kingdom of God. This, he suggests, we can do by acting morally in the world we experience with a morality that can be shaped by reason alone. Dense and challenging, but closely and persuasively reasoned, Kants case for human responsibility shows reasoning skills at their most impressive.
David Humes 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is a modern philosophical classic that helped reshape epistemology the philosophy of knowledge. It is also a classic of the critical thinking skills of analysis and reasoning.
Analysis is all about understanding how arguments work and fit together. Having strong analytical skills helps to break down arguments, pull out the evidence on which they rely, and understand the kinds of implicit assumptions and reasons on which they work. Reasoning, meanwhile, means building and presenting arguments, forming well-structured, evidenced, and organised cases for a particular point of view. Hume applied his analytical skills to arguments about how humans know and understand the world, and how our minds work. At base, he was trying to analyse human reason itself to show the workings and limitations of the human mind, and show the origins of our beliefs.
Hume went on to apply his reasoning skills, creating an enduring argument about the nature of human knowledge. The result was one of the most striking and famous works in the history of philosophy.
Hannah Arendts 1958 The Human Condition was an impassioned philosophical reconsideration of the goals of being human. In its arguments about the kind of lives we should lead and the political engagement we should strive for, Arendts interpretative skills come to the fore, in a brilliant display of what high-level interpretation can achieve for critical thinking. Good interpretative thinkers are characterised by their ability to clarify meanings, question accepted definitions and posit good, clear definitions that allow their other critical thinking skills to take arguments deeper and further than most. In many ways, The Human Condition is all about definitions. Arendts aim is to lay out an argument for political engagement and active participation in society as the highest goals of human life; and to this end she sets about defining a hierarchy of ways of living a vita activa, or active life. The book sets about distinguishing between our different activities under the categories of labor, work, and action each of which Arendt carefully redefines as a different level of active engagement with the world. Following her clear and careful laying out of each words meaning, it becomes hard to deny her argument for the life of action as the highest human goal.
John Lockes 1689 Two Treatises of Government is a key text in the history of political theory one whose influence remains marked on modern politics, the American Constitution and beyond.
Two Treatises is more than a seminal work on the nature and legitimacy of government. It is also a masterclass in two key critical thinking skills: evaluation and reasoning. Evaluation is all about judging and assessing arguments asking how relevant, adequate and convincing they are. And, at its heart, the first of Lockes two treatises is pure evaluation: a long and incisive dissection of a treatise on the arguments in Sir Robert Filmers Patriarcha. Filmers book had defended the doctrine that kings were absolute rulers whose legitimacy came directly from God (the so-called divine right of kings), basing his arguments on Biblical explanations and evidence. Locke carefully rebutted Filmers arguments, on their own terms, by reference to both the Bible and to recorded history. Finding Filmers evidence either to be insufficient or unacceptable, Locke concluded that his argument for patriarchy was weak to the point of invalidity.
In the second of Lockes treatises, the author goes on to construct his own argument concerning the sources of legitimate power, and the nature of that power. Carefully building his own argument from a logical consideration of man in the state of nature, Locke creates a convincing argument that civilised society should be based on natural human rights and the social contract.
Henry Kissingers 2014 book World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History not only offers a summary of thinking developed throughout a long and highly influential careerit is also an intervention in international relations theory by one of the most famous statesmen of the twentieth century. Kissinger initially trained as a university professor before becoming Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon in 1973 a position in which he both won the Nobel Peace Prize and was accused of war crimes by protesters against American military actions in Vietnam.
While a controversial figure, Kissinger is widely agreed to have a unique level of practical and theoretical expertise in politics and international relations and World Order is the culmination of a lifetimes experience of work in those fields. The product of a master of the critical thinking skill of interpretation, World Order takes on the challenge of defining the worldviews at play in global politics today. Clarifying precisely what is meant by the different notions of order imagined by nations across the world, as Kissinger does, highlights the challenges of world politics, and sharpens the focus on efforts to make surmounting these divisions possible. While Kissingers own reputation will likely remain equivocal, there is no doubting the interpretative skills he displays in this engaging and illuminating text.
Michel Foucault is famous as one of the 20th-centurys most innovative and wide-ranging thinkers. The qualities that made him one of the most-read and influential theorists of the modern age find full expression in History of Sexuality, the last project Foucault was able to complete before his death in 1984.
Central to Foucaults appeal is the creativity of his thought. Creative thinking takes many forms from redefining an issue in a novel way to making unexpected and illuminating connections. Foucaults particular talent could perhaps best be described as turning questions inside out. In the case of sexuality, for instance, his interpretation of the historical evidence led him to argue that the sexual categories that we are used to (homosexual, lesbian, straight, and so on) are not natural, but constructs that are products of the ways in which power and knowledge interact in society.
Such categories, Foucault continues, actually serve to produce the desires they seek to name. And their creation, in turn, is closely linked to the power that society exerts on those who belong to different sexual groups.
Foucaults ideas familiar now were so novel in their time that they proved highly challenging. But to see the world through Foucaults thought is to see it in a profoundly different and illuminating way an example of creative thinking at its best.
Emile Durkheims 1897 On Suicide is widely recognized as one of the foundational classic texts of sociology. It is also one that shows the degree to which strong interpretative skills can often provide the bedrock for high-level analysis.
Durkheim's aim was to analyse the nature of suicide in the context of society itself examining it not just as an individual decision, but one in which different social factors played important roles. In order to do this, it was vital that he both define and classify suicide into subtypes kinds of suicide with different causal factors at play. From his research, Durkheim identifed four broad types of suicide: egoistic (from a sense of not-belonging), altruistic (from a sense that group goals far outweigh individual well-being), anomic (from lack of moral or social direction), and fatalistic (in response to excessive discipline or oppression). These definitions opened the way for Durkheim to pursue a close social analysis examining how each type related to different social contexts.
While his study is in certain ways dated, it remains classic precisely because it helped define the methodology of sociology itself in which interpretative skills remain central.
The German sociologist Max Weber is considered to be one of the founding fathers of sociology, and ranks among the most influential writers of the 20th-century. His most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is a masterpiece of sociological analysis whose power is based on the construction of a rigorous, and intricately interlinked, piece of argumentation.
Webers object was to examine the relationship between the development of capitalism and the different religious ideologies of Europe. While many other scholars focused on the material and instrumental causes of capitalisms emergence, Weber sought to demonstrate that different religious beliefs in fact played a significant role. In order to do this, he employed his analytical skills to understand the relationship between capitalism and religious ideology, carefully considering how far Protestant and secular capitalist ethics overlapped, and to what extent they mirrored each other.
One crucial element of Webers work was his consideration the degree to which cultural values acted as implicit or hidden reasons reinforcing capitalist ethics and behavior an investigation that he based on teasing out the arguments that underpin capitalism. Incisive and insightful, Webers analysis continues to resonate with scholars today.
C.S. Lewiss Mere Christianity is a perfect example of one of the most effective aspects of critical thinking skills: the use of reasoning to build a strong, logical argument. ¶Lewis originally wrote the book as a series of radio talks given from 1942-1944, at the height of World War II. The talks were designed to lay out the most basic tenets of Christianity for listeners, and to use these to make a logical argument for Christian belief and Christian ethics. While Lewis was not an academically-trained theologian or philosopher (specializing instead in literature), his own experience of converting from atheism to Christianity, along with his wide reading and incisive questioning, power a charming but persuasive argument for his own beliefs. ¶Whether or not one agrees with Lewiss arguments or shares his faith, Mere Christianity exemplifies one of the most useful aspects of good reasoning: accessibility. When using reasoning to construct a convincing argument, it is crucial that your audience follow you, and Lewis was a master at constructing well-organised arguments that are immediately understandable to readers. The beautifully written Mere Christianity is a masterclass in cogently walking an audience through an elegant and well thought-through piece of reasoning.