Book Recommendations For New Critical Thinkers

The books I recommend to someone who has a lot of prior exposure, or who comes at these issues from an academic background, are very different from the books I recommend to people who are coming to this for the first time.

The books on this page are in the latter category. They cover a wide array of critical thinking topics related to logic, argumentation, persuasive speech, and cognitive biases, in an engaging and accessible way for a general audience, that hopefully will whet your appetite for deeper explorations of these issues.

I have sometimes called these "bathroom reading recommendations", because the chapters are often short enough to be completed in a single sitting (ahem). I do not disparage these kinds of books, they are some of my favorites!

I wanted this starter bundle to offer introductions to three topics:

  • logical fallacies and argumentation
  • cognitive biases and the psychology of human (ir)rationality
  • classical rhetorical techniques related to persuasive speech

The recommendations below do just that.

From here, one can dive more deeply into any of these areas, or branch out to investigate more specialized topics, which would have more specialized reading recommendations (e.g. science and pseudoscience, media and information literacy, cognitive biases and decision-making for business, etc.)

How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic (Madsen Pirie)

There are several books on the market with similar titles. Some are focused more on rhetoric and persuasion than logic. If it's written by a philosopher it's more likely to focus on logical issues in argumentation, and that's what I was looking for. Pirie is a philosopher, and this book does just that.

The book is not an introduction to logical concepts or foundational principles of argument analysis. It is basically an encyclopedia of logical fallacies, which Pirie defines broadly as "any trick of logic or language which allows a statement or a claim to be passed off as something it is not". A more academic treatment would spend more time on defining and classifying fallacies, but this book lists them alphabetically.

In its brief 220 pages it covers almost 50 fallacies.

The book also has a number of helpful recommendations for how to engage in argumentation with other people in different settings (with friends, in a group, in a formal debate, online, etc.).

The author is aware that books like these can also serve as tools for unethical persuasion and manipulation, a manual for students of the Dark Side as well as the Light.

But this is the case for almost any topic in argumentation or the psychology of human reasoning. That's why critical thinking involves MORE than logic and persuasion skills. It also involves developing certain attitudes and values -- the character traits of a critical thinker.

For a more conventionally structured introduction to argument analysis aimed at beginning philosophy students, see the next recommendation below.

A Rulebook for Arguments (Anthony Weston)

Anthony Weston is a professor of philosophy at Elon College in North Carolina. He works mainly in the areas of environmental philosophy and the philosophy of education, and I confess his perspective on philosophy was an influence on me during my undergraduate and graduate years.

Early in his career, Weston wrote this short little gem that has subsequently been used as a supplementary text in many introductory philosophy courses. A Rulebook for Arguments has ten short chapters that review a variety of argument types, deductive vs inductive arguments, fallacies, and principles for writing argumentative essays. It follows a structure that many philosophers will be familiar with, and is worth having on your bookshelf if you've never been exposed to basic principles of logic and argument analysis.

It's also very cheap, you can find used versions for under 5 dollars on Amazon.

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself (David McRaney)

David McRaney is a journalist who has dedicated himself to communicating what modern psychology has taught us about human irrationality in all its forms. This book was a best-seller.

You Are Not So Smart gives an encyclopedic introduction to cognitive biases and other features of human psychology that make us prone to error and overconfidence. He summarizes influential research from the past 40 years in bite-sized chapters that are engaging and eye-opening.

The book is 300 pages and covers almost 50 cognitive biases. In my 2.5 hour video course on cognitive biases I only covered six or seven!

As with logical fallacies, this information can be used (and is being used) to intentionally manipulate people. But once you're aware of it, you're at least in a position to take steps to protect yourself and minimize the negative effects of these biases.

If you like this book, you may be interested in the sequel, You Are Now Less Dumb. I also recommend the You Are Not So Smart podcast, which has lots of great interviews.

Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion (Jay Heinrichs)

This is one of those books that could easily be confused for a book on logical fallacies, but it's not about logical fallacies. Heinrich's training is in journalism, and he's a student of classical rhetoric with a flair for bringing to life the principles of persuasive speech that Aristotle and other ancients first articulated thousands of years ago.

The book is an irreverent and entertaining introduction to classical rhetorical techniques and persuasion strategies, using vivid contemporary examples.

As a philosopher trained in the analytic tradition I never studied the classic Aristotelian modes of persuasive speech -- logos, pathos and ethos. Heinrich's book gave me a taste to learn more about argumentation and persuasion within the 3000 year old tradition of rhetoric, and it has enriched my understanding of the complexities and subtleties of human communication.