Introduction: A Few Thoughts About Critical Thinking Textbooks

Critical thinking textbooks are a particular genre of "improve your thinking" books. They are in many ways a distinctively North American phenomenon. These books are written with a specific academic audience in mind -- students in college and university classes that are devoted to teaching critical thinking.

That means that they're designed to be used in a classroom setting with an instructor, for students who have completed high school and have been accepted into a post-secondary academic institution.

One virtue of textbooks is that they're written for students with no previous background and they make an effort to teach the material and not just present it.

That's why I always recommend to anyone interested in improving their critical thinking skills to pick up one or two decent textbooks on Amazon and keep them on their bookshelf for reading and reference.

The main problem with textbooks is that they're often too narrow in their disciplinary focus. So they tend to be very strong in some areas and very weak, or entirely lacking, in other important areas.

For example, I make a big deal about the importance of learning about the psychology of human reason and judgment, including cognitive biases and their impact on critical thinking.

Yet very few critical thinking textbooks have good discussions of this subject, and many have NO discussion at all.

This is why I also recommend getting a separate book on cognitive biases.The stand-alone books are much more informative than anything I've encountered in a critical thinking textbook.

Critical Thinking Courses in North American Colleges and Universities

The texts themselves are usually authored by university academics, and in most cases -- especially if they actually have the words "critical thinking" in the title -- by academics whose professional training is in philosophy and who teach in philosophy departments. These textbooks usually feature principles of basic logic and argument analysis that are familiar to philosophers, and there is an expectation that these classes will be taught by philosophers.

This is indeed the case in the United States and Canada, but it is not necessarily the case elsewhere in the world.

There are in fact very few places in the world where you can find a class called "critical thinking", outside of North America. Many programs claim to teach critical thinking and writing skills to students, but they don't have particular classes dedicated to "critical thinking".

Critical thinking classes are an American innovation. They have several roots. One is the emergence of courses on "informal logic", an outgrowth of frustration among younger academic philosophers in the US during the 1960s over the perceived lack of relevance of what they were teaching to the growing social concerns of the day, such as the civil and women's rights movements, and the Vietnam War. These academics wanted to teach principles of good reasoning that were relevant to assessing real-world social and political debates.

Another source of influence in the 1980s was the growing interest in critical thinking across a range of distinct educational and practical contexts -- critical thinking and psychology, critical thinking and the media, critical social theory, critical thinking and education, and so on. Work in these areas was generally done by scholars in these respective fields, and often quite different from work being done by philosophers. On campuses it lead to a "critical thinking across the curriculum" movement, where colleges and universities began to embrace the rhetoric of critical thinking as an institutional objective.

Nevertheless, in most cases, these institutions only offer a single dedicated course on critical thinking, and most students aren't required to take it. Many institutions have a general education "critical thinking" requirement for the undergraduate degree, but it can be satisfied by some combination of ordinary courses (philosophy, english composition, science, math, etc.).

They're Part of a Larger Academic Textbook Industry

Still, there are enough dedicated critical thinking courses that there is a reliable audience to purchase critical thinking textbooks, and so we have seen the rise of a textbook industry within the North American market, with different publishers competing for dominance.

There is money to be made in this industry. Success has gone primarily to people who got into the game early, and who are comfortable working within the rules set by the large commercial publishers who have a virtual monopoly in the market.

It can be an immoral and exploitive industry, with inflated prices and mandatory new editions every few years with no justification and no meaningful changes between editions.

But it has produced some interesting critical thinking textbooks.

You Should Get One Or Two Critical Thinking Textbooks For Your Critical Thinking Bookshelf

I recommend to anyone interested in critical thinking to pick up one or more used or out-of-date editions of textbooks on Amazon. The latest editions of the most popular textbooks can be criminally expensive, but you'll get just as much value out of the earlier edition for a fraction of the price.

The most valuable feature of a dedicated critical thinking text is that you'll be exposed to a wide range of topics and principles between the covers of a single book. All of them will cover basic principles of logic and argument analysis. All of them will cover formal and informal fallacies. All of them will cover some set of applied topics -- scientific reasoning, critical thinking and the media, etc. I cover a lot of these topics in the video courses on the Academy site, but it's always helpful to see how different authors tackle these subjects.

I'll Give You My Thoughts On the Textbooks in This Section

One of the downsides of textbooks is that they often obscure the perspective and goals of the author's approach to the subject. And when they do share how their approach is different from others, students aren't in a position to really appreciate it since they have no context to really understand what's being said.

In the following entries I offer some comments on a few of the critical thinking textbooks I have on my shelves. This is only a fraction of them -- I used to be sent new ones from publishers every year when I was teaching in the classroom, so you accumulate quite a variety -- but each of the ones I list here adopts a particular perspective on the topic of critical thinking, and I always learn something from trying to understand these different approaches.

Note: I'm not necessarily recommending any one text over another, they all have strengths and weaknesses. But I will tell you what I think of those strengths and weaknesses.