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What is Critical Thinking: The Internal and The External

Updated on April 20, 2011

Critical thinking is not just the ability to reason and argue effectively. It is not just logic. Critical thinking is actually made up of two components; one that is more external to the world or a person and the second which is the internal component of critical thinking. The two can be thought of as comprising different levels in the act of critical thinking. I have found that many texts and courses have disregarded this latter half of critical thinking which actually influences critical thinking in all of us a great deal.

External Critical Thinking

External critical thinking is the main level studied. It is the form of an argument that an individual makes. In this sense, it is more visible and thus can be thought of as external.  This is the path from a premise or belief, to a conclusion.  External critical thinking involves logic and fallacy (formal and informal). Before we proceed to what internal critical thinking is, it may be wise to define formal and informal fallacies. A formal fallacy is an error in ones inductive or deductive reasoning. An informal fallacy, on the other hand, happens when the error in reasoning occurs outside of the individuals deductive or inductive reasoning. The most common way that this is seen happens when an individual begins to insult or attack the other individual he is arguing with, instead of the topic they are actually discussing. By invalidating the speaker and believing that invalidates his’ argument, an informal fallacy is made. This last definition of informal fallacy, brings us closer to the second level of critical thinking, that of the internal.

For arguments to be able to take place without an overwhelming number of premises, individuals must share what are called “habits of belief”. Such habits of belief are that the Earth is round, all humans need oxygen to breathe, and all living things are Carbon based. These are things that are commonly accepted as facts and can therefore be discussed easily.

Which perspective of this optical illusion do you see?
Which perspective of this optical illusion do you see?

The Other Level: Internal Critical Thinking

Internal critical thinking can be thought of as the driving force behind external critical thinking. It is made up of our own personal beliefs and doubt, and how they interact inside us.  In fact, for our external critical thinking to change, we must first elicit change in our internal critical thinking. The majority of courses and discussions on critical thinking talk simply about premise leading to conclusion in an argument. What is left out (and what internal critical thinking is) is how our experience shapes and creates the premise. Internal critical thinking arises within our commonsense beliefs, which may not be so commonsense (haven’t you ever disagreed with someone vehemently over your differing perspectives on a situation where neither you nor the other could factually prove each other wrong?). In other words, it is our interpretation that makes sense of our experiences.  Our interpretations then inform our arguments by becoming premises.

One example of how our internal critical thinking (beliefs) influence our external critical thinking (arguments) would be individuality versus conformity. Both “schools of thought” have positives and negatives, but it is the individuals emotions, experiences, and culture which influences their belief on which is ‘correct’ and then shapes their external stances in related matters.

In Our Daily Lives

Understanding these two levels of critical thinking elucidates how logical reasoning does not always sway or convince others away from their stance or belief. We are all aware that we are emotional beings and that our thinking is based upon our ‘feelings on the matter’. Thus, we must openly and directly confront such ‘feelings on the matter’ to ultimately elicit change. Since internal critical thinking (our psychology) is the driving force behind our external critical thinking (arguments), we must acknowledge the emotions/feelings/beliefs behind the argument instead of just confronting the argument itself.


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    • Eliza Kay profile image

      Eliza Kay 5 years ago from Portland, OR

      thanks :) i agree!

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      atheistchick 5 years ago from Hangin' in my room

      I really like this hub...because Critical thinking is not always thought of as external and internal like you said. People don't give proper credit to it...shameful