The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying.Alfred North Whitehead
Which ideas should live on? Probably the ones that lead to good decisions. In order to find them, we must develop the very reasoning skills that separate excellent ideas from the deadly ones. I’ve put together a list of five books on critical thinking to do precisely that. Books that provide the knowledge, skills and inspiration needed to not only think but to think critically. But before diving into how they can improve the quality of our thinking, let’s briefly talk about what critical thinking is — and what it isn’t.
Table of Contents
- What Is Critical Thinking?
- 5 Critical Thinking Books
- Closing Thoughts
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What Is Critical Thinking?
Broadly speaking, the goal of thinking critically is to make judgements through objective analysis. According to philosopher Robert Ennis, it’s about “deciding on what to believe or do.” But there’s more to it:
- Critical thinking tends to be a solitary exercise, a form of reflective and deliberate cognition and metacognition. It’s the act of thinking things through by means of examination and evaluation while also thinking about our thought process itself.
- A crucial part of this process is the questioning of our assumptions, the identification of biases and poor thinking and the development of alternative hypotheses. In this way, questions can be seen as a catalyst of the exercise. Which brings us to the last aspect.
- It’s important to note that critical thinking is highly process-oriented. This distinguishes it from attempts to figure something out through trial and error, by following a pre-defined path, or by memorising a checklist to solve a specific problem.
Critical thinking is concerned with the results of our reasoning while being highly focused on improving the quality of our thought process itself. Rationality, scepticism and an unbiased lens are key when coming to independent judgements.
5 Critical Thinking Books
With that being said, let’s dive into five books on critical thinking to help you develop a more reflective mind.
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow
When people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.Daniel Kahneman
Find out what makes our brains tick, how we think and often deceive ourselves. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the two systems functioning in our brains: System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional. System 2 is slow yet analytical and deliberate. This distinction serves as a springboard to dive deep into mental shortcuts and cognitive biases. Kahneman explains how overconfidence in our cognitive capabilities can lead us astray.
Have you ever fallen victim to the anchoring effect? Can you solve the Linda problem? If there ever was a book that gets you thinking about how you think, Kahneman’s “landmark book” (Nassim Taleb) is it. It’s an admittedly dense but humbling read. Chances are it will change the way you come to judgements and reconsider those you’ve already made. To the very least it’ll make you re-evaluate your relationship with your intuitive self.
2. The Demon-Haunted World
What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.Carl Sagan
Explore the principles of scientific thinking infused with witty anecdotes and examples. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan is a classic book on critical thinking. It’s very accessible to experienced thinkers and beginners alike. That makes Sagan’s book an entertaining way to cover the scientific side of critical thinking.
A case in point is his famous fiery anecdote about an invisible dragon living in his garage, which he uses to demonstrate the virtue of scepticism and the importance of empirical evidence. With his memorable style, the astronomer’s goal is to instil a healthy scepticism in the reader. He equips his audience with a baloney detection kit, a set of practices for the critical and reflective mind.
3. Think Again
How do you know? It’s a question we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental — a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.Adam Grant
Discover the benefits of changing your mind. In Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant explains the mechanisms behind our laziness to change our minds. The organisational psychologist approaches thinking from a different perspective; that of critical rethinking and unlearning the old ways. His focus is on what it takes to break through our motivated reasoning.
By design, critical thinking requires us to be open about discarding ideas and altering our judgments. As our initial quote about the death of ideas implies, this is a painful process. Grant gives the effort of rethinking and attempting to disprove our own ideas a positive spin. Instead of chasing the addictive feeling of being right, how does confident humility sound? Instead of giving them up, how would you feel about upgrading your views?
4. Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques
Analysts in the intelligence profession — and many other disciplines — often fall victim to cognitive biases, misapplied heuristics, and intuitive traps that are manifestations of commonly recognised biases. Structured Analytic Techniques help analysts avid, overcome, or at least mitigate their impact.Randolph H. Pherson
Utilise 33 structured analytic techniques to help you or your team overcome thinking errors and make better judgments. The Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques by Randy Pherson features very practical ways to improve our judgements and decision-making. From various brainstorming methods for idea generation to more specialised analytical techniques such as deception detection.
The application of the analytical methods is surely not limited to intelligence analysis. Pherson’s strategies provide a scaffold for reflective thinking and the questioning of assumptions. They’re designed to mitigate thinking errors and intuitive traps. The goal is to ensure a judgement that’s as objectively as possible and to cultivate the habits of a master thinker.
5. Critical Thinking: The Basics
Most animals and toddlers are not what we would call ‘critical thinkers’, but nor are we much of the time. […] Poor reasoning and the absence of reasoning on ocassions where it would serve us well are everywhere. Life is typically fast-paced and mistakes will happen, but even when things are slowed down (for example, drafting a speech than being interviewed on the radio), we think errenously in predictable ways.Stuart Hanscomb
Learn about the basics of critical thinking from the perspectives of reasoning, argumentation and dialogue. Critical Thinking: The Basics by Stuart Hanscomb focuses on the evaluation and construction of arguments. The senior lecturer covers the psychology of persuasion as well as typical thinking errors and informal fallacies we commit when formulating a position.
Hanscomb’s book ticks all the boxes if we want to not only improve our thinking but also the way we write and speak. It may not be as entertaining as Sagan’s work and not as hands-on as Pherson’s handbook. However, if you’re after a foundational guide and want to sharpen your arguments, this book on critical thinking might be for you.
Bonus: Essay Writing Guide
The primary reason to write an essay is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.Jordan B. Peterson
Admittedly, the Essay Writing Guide by psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson is not a book. Neither is it about critical thinking per se. Unless you subscribe to the idea that the ultimate way to improve your critical thinking skills is to write. As the title suggests, it’s a very practical guide to writing an academic essay from start to finish. How to research a topic? How to structure your ideas? How to go about putting it all on paper including final editing?
But none of the knowledge and skills in the above books matter if we have nothing of substance to think about. With a topic that grips us, however, everything can be brought to bear. If “writing is thinking”, as the psychologist says then practising it improves the quality of our thought processes. It forces us to reflect on a topic deeply and — if done properly — change the way we think about something in the process. For what it’s worth, it’s the reason why I’m writing my essays.
We may think all the time. But that doesn’t mean we think critically. If there’s a common thread that goes through all of the above books on critical thinking it’s that we’re naturally really bad at being rational and unbiased. Not to mention the limits of our knowledge. So first and foremost critical thinking is the acknowledgement of our own unconscious incompetence and inadequacies.
In this spirit, I should note that this list is by no means complete. There are many more great books on critical thinking out there. If you’re interested in more advanced literature, stay tuned for my upcoming list of books on intelligence analysis. In any case, when it comes to developing a reflective mind, there’s no substitute for practice. And for getting comfortable with the feeling we get when realising that yet another of our treasured ideas has to die.