Critical Thinking and the Realism/Anti-realism Debate

Soraj Hongladarom
Department of Philosophy
Chulalongkorn University


Much has been discussed about the virtues of epistemological realism and anti-realism, and their roles in defining and teaching critical thinking. Donald Hatcher argues that teachers have an obligation to teach critical thinking, but only in such a way that realism is presupposed.[1] Hatcher urges us to embrace the realist epistemology and found teaching strategies on it. That is to say, the intellectual standard constitutive of critical thinking is predicated on the belief that truth is objectively 'out there' and is largely accessible (save occasions for fallibility, as Hatcher's 'fallibilistic' realism indicates). We can, conditions permitting, grasp the truth and, as the Greeks say, become one with reality. Hatcher contends that our goals in conducting epistemic activities is first and foremost to find that truth. The teacher's duty, in short, is to help students learn how to seek and grasp truth, how to come ultimately to know the truth which transcends boundaries of language, culture, or locality.[2]

On the other hand, Robert Sutton, an anti-realist, argues that "realism is in serious danger of falling into the pile of irrelevant Western ideas."[3] For, he maintains, the facts just do not stack up for realism. Sutton challenges realists to come up with totally accurate descriptions of reality, descriptions not already mediated with the peculiarities of a language or conceptualization. Since Hatcher and other realists apparently have not actually come up with one such set of descriptions, Sutton claims that realism "fails to deliver the goods;" namely, realism fails to deliver what it promises to do--known truth of objective reality. In another paper, Hostetler argues in roughly the same direction.[4] According to the latter, objectivism and presumably realism is untenable since it overlooks the role of communities in essentially shaping the standards by which claims to knowledge are ultimately judged. Sutton would like to see critical thinking be thought of in such a way that students appreciate the claim that there is no final set of vocabularies to describe reality, and that the students develop "ironic distance" from any of the positions being studied and their "redescription."[5] Hostetler, on the other hand, sees the role of community to be crucial in the act of teaching. Community according to him provides the guide or the standard by which critical thinking is ultimately judged. Hostetler thus does not provide an account on the details of how critical thinking should be taught, what the content of a class on critical thinking in a particular community should be; instead he offers a criterion of correctness for the practice of teaching critical thinking.

In this paper, I would like to examine the relationship between the practice of teaching critical thinking and the philosophical debate on realism and anti-realism. It appears from the brief look at debate between realists and anti-realists that both sides are putting forward their favorite conceptions of how to teach critical thinking and how standards of critical thought are to be found, supported by widely differing philosophical positions. Thus both sides already share a common assumption in that they seem to agree that there is a relationship between philosophy and the practice of teaching critical thinking. One set of philosophical positions tells how the practice should be. Another set tells otherwise. However, I doubt that such a relationship is as strong as both sides in the debate seem to presuppose.

My contention is this: Instead of assuming, as the debaters mentioned here seem to be doing, that one must have a clear philosophy and be ready to defend it before one knows how to teach critical thinking or grasp the standard of correctness inherent in the practice, what if the strength of the relationship be toned down so that the practice is more independent from philosophical systems? Instead of finding a philosophical position, defending it, and then using it to found a particular conception of critical thinking teaching, why shouldn't we focus more on the practical aspect of the practice. In other words, the philosophy of critical thinking--the whole batch of justificatory effort aiming at establishing certain conceptions of critical thinking and its strategies--may not be necessary if we are focusing upon finding out the most suitable way to teach critical thinking which is sensitive and responsive to the needs at hand. A teacher, qua philosopher, can be a realist or an anti-realist, but if she is going to be an effective teacher of critical thinking, she may have to set aside her philosophical preoccupations and get on with the practical task. She may have to consider who her students are, what kind of society they are and will be in, what their motivations are and so on, to decide which skills of critical thought should be useful for them at the moment. For example, the students may need to understand how to make coherent arguments, how to distinguish faulty reasonings from good ones, or to know the subject matter of the arguments well enough to judge them effectively. These skills clearly are becoming more and more important in the increasingly more complex world. Mastery of these skills, as I shall try to point out, does not presuppose that the students' philosophical conviction be realist or anti-realist. It just requires, among other things, that students be diligent enough and eager to learn.

A corollary to this is that attacks on anti-realism as a position not suitable for one to hold in order to become a good and effective teacher of critical thinking are mistaken. Since philosophical theories and the practical nature of teaching critical thinking are not as strongly tied as generally believed, one can be an anti-realist while being a good and effective teacher too, and the same for realists.


It seems that there are as many conceptions and definitions of 'critical thinking' as there are critical thinking theorists. McPeck, Ennis, Hatcher, Johnston, Sutton, Hostetler, Missimer, Paul and Weinstein and others have proposed different definitions supported by different sets of premises.[6] The situation leads one to think that 'critical thinking' is similar to terms like 'justice,' 'democracy,' or 'knowledge' in that they are value terms.[7] By 'value terms' I mean terms whose meanings are imbued with values such that each party may agree that justice or democracy, for example, are valuable, but disagree on how exactly to implement those in reality. Most agree that democracy is valuable, but they disagree on exactly what systems of government best exemplify democracy. Proponents of direct or participatory democracy would like to see the people having a more direct say on the day to day functions of the government. Representative theorists, on the other hand, argue that it is best to let the people's representatives time and leisure to deliberate on policy issues. To let the people rule themselves directly would ultimately destroy democracy, in their view. Various conceptions of knowledge abound in the epistemological literature. Foundationalists, as is well known, maintain that for a belief to be justified, it must bear some kind of an objective relation to reality. Pragmatists dispute this position, arguing that such a relation between belief and reality is not tenable, and it is better to view justified belief as something that works for us. However, all sides agree that it is better to have knowledge than not to have it. Differing theories of justice are in existence also; witness the debate between liberals and communitarians. But nobody is saying that it is better to be unjust than to be just.

Similarly with the other value terms, all agree that critical thinking is good to have, and that students are better off being critical thinkers than uncritical thinkers, or no thinkers at all. They disagree, on the other hand, on how best to implement critical thinking in the real world. However, it is possible someone might claim that critical thinking itself can be criticized and rejected. But when somebody argues that students should not be "critical thinkers," more often than not what she is pointing out is not that critical thinking per se is not valuable, but only a conception of critical thinking. For example, she might be dissatisfied with a certain way of teaching thinking which excessively emphasizes formal logical methods. What she is doing here is that she is disagreeing with one conception of 'critical thinking,' and if she proposes her own strategy on how best to teach, then she is in fact offering an alternative conception of critical thinking in place of the other one. (In fact it is impossible to argue that critical thinking is not possible, since in order for an act of arguing to be possible, one has to subscribe to certain commonly shared standards of argumentation. One can force another to say out loud, for example, that critical thinking is no good, but that is obviously not a case of argument.)


Since 'critical thinking' is a value term, it is straightforward to see why it has attracted so many theorists and philosophers. As the debate between Hatcher and Sutton illustrates, conceptions on how critical thinking is best implemented have become part of philosophical systems, just like conceptions of how democracy is best implemented have become part of philosophical systems. However, as John Rawls points out, debates on public issues in the public arena should avoid bringing in philosophical or religious reasons, for these tend to provoke disagreements so deep that it is not possible to reconcile them.[8] According to Rawls, participants deliberating on policy matters in the public arena would do best to set their philosophical and religious convictions aside, and try to find a way toward coexistence based on the use of reasons which are free from such convictions. Debates in the public arena can be as vigorous and engaging as the participants want them to be. But since debates are possible, the participants have a common agreement that debates--the use of words and reasons--are the best way to bring about changes in matters of public concern. Each one of the participants are entitled to have their own comprehensive moral doctrines which provide for them explanations of life, the universe, their place within the scheme of things, and other basic and deep issues. However, these moral doctrines are left behind in the privacy of their homes or immediate civil societies, and the participants are, once in the public arena, armed only with words and reasons whose content is geared toward common understanding among participants of various comprehensive doctrines. In the public arena, debates on policy issues are seen by Rawls to be pragmatic and devoid of deep moral or religious engagements. Since the theories informing the participants' philosophical and religious convictions are so deep as to be hardly reconcilable with other such doctrines, Rawls sees that it is of a practical concern that these participants, as members of the democratic polity, be able to coexist with one another. And for that to be possible they need to bracket their moral and religious convictions when engaging with others on public policy issues.

When participants have different comprehensive doctrines but have to live together, peaceful coexistence is possible only if they share some conception or vision of how to live together. Each party wants to live in a free, constitutional democracy. It is only in such a place that each party is free to pursue their interests and beliefs in matters of religions and other comprehensive doctrines. It is only when some members act out their beliefs in such a way that threatens the existence of the very democracy they depend on that it is justified for the state to use force against them. The continued existence of liberal democracy requires that the citizens share very basic and low level standards and assumptions without with the system is not possible.

We can now see some of the implications of Rawls' idea here toward the relation between critical thinking and the realism versus anti-realism debate. Participants in the debate can be as vigorous or vicious as they would like in a philosophy seminar room. But I think a critical thinking, where students are usually very ignorant about the nuances and the richly textured nature of philosophical debates, is hardly a place where the debate can take place fruitfully. As all seem to agree that critical thinking is good for the students, this basic agreement should form a basis on which conceptions develop as to the details and the strategies of how best to teach it. A consequence of this is that Hatcher's attacks on anti-realists are mistaken. Anti-realists can and usually do teach critical thinking in a responsible manner. That is, they agree on the usefulness and the value of critical thinking, while being convinced of the tenability of their anti-realist positions. They subscribe to the common agreement on the need for critical thought and the necessity to educate students in such a way that they can cope with the rapid changes in the world today in a thoughtful, reflective and intelligent manner. Being an anti-realist does not entail that one is against critical thought.

In order for teaching critical thinking to be effective, teachers need to subscribe to some basic and low level standard. The standard informs a very general feature of critical thinking, feature that obviously allows for a wide range of interpretations and content. Thus debates are certainly possible on the optimal nature of critical thinking. Parties may well disagree on the amount of formal logical methods to be used, or whether and to what extent creative thinking (here I mean the kind of thinking one normally expects from graphic designers or music composers, but not lawyers or journalists) should be included in a conception of critical thinking. However, all agree that a student who is able to respond well to changing situations satisfies one condition of a critical thinker than another student who is not. In fact a complete explication of the low level standard that informs any conception of critical thinking may not be possible, but this is the case for other value terms like 'democracy' or 'justice' too. As with these other terms, there seems to be an intuitive grasp of the meaning of the term, which makes it possible for proponents of different conceptions of critical thinking to understand one another's position and even to respect the argumentative skills and the persons of those who do not share the same conceptions as they do.

This basic and low level standard is certainly present when a proponent of one conception recognizes an effective argument from the other side and a bad one from the same side as his. Thus a realist might recognize an effective, or even a powerful argument from an anti-realist who is his professional peer, while having to endure reading mediocre student papers arguing for realism. He may even praise his anti-realist peer on his critical acumen, while despairing at his student's lack of such ability. Here it is entirely possible that the realist and the anti-realist can agree on what makes a good paper and what not. What they disagree is on the truth and falsity of the content of their philosophical convictions. But that is quite irrelevant when one is intent on finding out how best to teach critical thinking. A promising and well argued paper by a student should get better grades than a sloppy one, even though the conclusion of the former paper happens to disagree squarely with the philosophical position of the professor. But as a teacher of critical thinking, the professor cannot let his philosophical positions interfere with the judgment of his students' reasoning skills. To do that would defeat the rationale of having students to write argumentative papers in the first place. The writer of the well argued paper is generally regarded as a more critical thinker than the author of the sloppy one. Critical thinking is quite independent from any philosophical positions or theories one subscribes to.

The reverse also obviously applies. A postmodern or anti-realist professor judging arguments of his students should refrain from injecting his philosophical preoccupations onto the papers he is grading. What should be looked at should solely be the standard of argumentation--whatever it takes for the students to participate actively and fully in the realm of rational thought and well informed, carefully thought out argumentation. The professor might be skeptical of the power of reason to know things. He might also be convinced that ultimate truth of the matter can never be found. But that does not imply that there is no standard of argumentation, the basic and low level agreement which makes rational thought possible. The professor might even be convinced that it is story telling rather than arguments that brings us closer to the truth of things. But there must be a conception of how a good, effective and convincing story telling should be, in contrast to aimless, unfocused rambling. That conception should form a necessary part of the standard. Professionally the professor might have a detailed theory supporting the view that story telling can get us closer to the truth than arguments can, but if she is to be heard in her professional community, she has to subscribe to some sort of standard commonly shared by both her sympathizers and opponents alike. The standard should at least contain some argumentation, taken as the form of presentation of thought, no matter what content it contains.

It appears paradoxical that, in order to convince others of the limited role and power of reason, reason itself is necessary. But the roles of reason in both cases are different. In order to for philosophical deliberations on this matter to be possible, participants must already share some background assumptions which make mutual understanding possible. These assumptions invariably include the use of reasoning, but at this level reasoning is used to build up the framework of discussion and argument. It does not constitute the content to be argued for or against. Since reasoning makes such arguing for or against possible, it is there already and shared by both parties in the debate. Therefore, no real paradox takes place. The situation is akin to a strategy to avoid the liar's paradox by insisting that, when a Cretan says that all Cretans are liars, at least this statement is true. That is, Cretans are liars on any content whatsoever, except only when they say of themselves that they are liars. When they make this statement, what they say is true and most importantly its content does not apply to itself because at this level they are not directly talking of any first order content, which of course consists of lies, but are making a statement that makes an understanding of their condition possible.

Alternatively, this strategy is not too dissimilar from what Kant did in the Critique of Pure Reason, a critique of the power of reason to know things a priori. There is certainly no contradiction in this type of project, since it is a reasoned acknowledgment that reason alone is not capable of establishing complete knowledge of things are they are in themselves. In other words, the use of reason, according to Kant, leads one to realize that it has power only within a well defined boundary. In addition, in order that a postmodernist philosopher gain a hearing in her professional community, she has to employ the generally accepted mode of presentation.[9] She has especially to be able to convince her peers who do not share the same view as hers. Philosophy thrives on conflicts of thought. It is no fun preaching only to those already converted.


Therefore, Hatcher's question--whether anti-realists should teach critical thinking--can be answered. Anti-realists should teach critical thinking if and only if they subscribe to the low level standard I am talking about. But realists should do that too. So should materialists, idealists, monists, dualists, Kantians, utilitarians, libertarians, determinists, and so on. Now the crucial question is: If philosophical positions are not relevant to the practice of teaching critical thinking, how then can we know which conception is the one we should follow? What exactly is this basic and low level standard of critical thinking I am talking about? I think one way to answer these questions is to look at the historical situation that gave rise to the critical thinking movement as well as what the needs and ideals of the society are and how critical thinking will help realize them. Thus the answer, it seems to me, is necessarily contextualized. I am in no position to comment on the situation in North America; hence I am going to say a little about my own country, hoping that the answer might lead proponents of the movement in North America and elsewhere to think of their own contexts. To say that standards of critical thinking are contextualized does not mean that teachers from different cultures cannot communicate and share their thoughts. As I have tried to point out, we can all agree that critical thinking is good for students and for their societies; at the same time we can debate among ourselves on the details. In other words, we can agree, at the most general level, that critical thinking is the kind of thinking that is valuable for individuals and their communities. Naturally this general conception leaves a wide room for interpretation.

One aim in teaching critical thinking in Thailand is to bring the students to become participating members in the deliberative community of citizens so vital for democracy. Another is to equip the students with the tools which will help them in the increasingly competitive globalized businesses.[10] The students at least need to be able to think for themselves and to form their own opinions based on reasons; they should know how not to believe anything that has not been critically examined. As Thailand is now an emerging democracy and a player in the worldwide network of trade and commerce, these skills are becoming very important. Furthermore, Thai society is undergoing a comprehensive transition from an agrarian, hierarchical society to a more modern, cosmopolitan and industrial one. The change necessitates that the people change their thinking habits. The process does not go on smoothly, however. Educational system in the country is still mired in the old habit inherited from the past when Thailand needed to modernize quickly in order to avoid colonization by the Western powers. The habit emphasizes rote learning of established facts designed to mass produce basically literate graduates to satisfy the government's manpower needs. It also accords well with the traditional custom of absolute deference to the teachers. However, it is apparent that in such an atmosphere the habit of critical thinking cannot take root. Moreover, when the country needs a new kind of graduates who are independent and capable of learning and creating new knowledge on their own, the traditional way of learning is severely deficient.

There is a general consensus in Thailand now that students need to be taught differently, and they need especially to learn how to think critically. Here 'critical thinking' is understood as the kind of thinking that is independent, logical, rational, free from superstitions or absolute acquiescence to the authority of teachers and texts. These characteristics are old stories in the West, which spent centuries forging modernity out of the shackles of the ancient system. But, without such a history of a struggle, Thai educators and policy makers are struggling now to change the culture in such a way that critical thinking become more prevalent. The characteristics mentioned here are some of the necessary conditions of critical thinking, and a low level conception of critical thinking agreeable to all has to include them.

Is this call for contextualizing critical thinking any different from Hostetler's? For one thing, my aim is to decouple critical thinking from philosophy, while Hostetler presupposes just the opposite. Surely there is a line leading from anti-realist, anti-objectivist philosophy to the awareness of the role of contexts in teaching critical thinking, to a conception of how critical thinking should be taught. But there is a line leading from realism and objectivism to maybe a different conception of teaching critical thinking too. As Rawls put it, if we are intent on finding a real and workable solution to the problem, philosophical debates are best left inside and a practicable way of resolving disputes based on what is actually happening in the political arena should come to the fore instead. In this case, disputes on how to teach critical thinking are not dissimilar from disputes on what to teach or even how much to tax, or how public money should be spent. There can be a lot of philosophies backing up many differing positions, but if a decision is to be made affecting the community, these philosophies are best avoided.


In conclusion, realists and anti-realists already share quite an extensive set of assumptions which make the activity of philosophizing possible. One such assumption is evident when neither side comes up with and justifies their position through consulting oracles, for example. However, beyond the philosophical debate both sides are pitted against one another, and in their roles usually as teachers rather than philosophers, both should take a look at whatever makes both side understand and even possibly respect one another. Rawls' view that comprehensive moral doctrines should be left in private when debates in the public arena on issues of social and public policies are going on is appropriate here. One should regard critical thinking, not as a part of a philosophical system to be defended or attacked, but as a practical matter, a part of social, educational, and even political policies. This implies that politicians, civil servants, parents, teachers and even the students themselves should have a role in saying how the teaching of thinking should be done too. The domain should not be an exclusive enclave of philosophers.


[1]Donald Hatcher, "Critical Thinking and Epistemic Obligations," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.3 (Spring 1995): 38 pars.,; "Should Anti-Realists Teach Critical Thinking?," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 21 pars.,

[2]Notes about David Johnston, "Hypothesis and Realism: A Comment on Sutton," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 15.1 (Autumn 1995): 17 pars,

[3]Robert Sutton, "Realism and Other Philosophical Mantras," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 18 pars.,

[4]Karl Hostetler, "Community and Neutrality in Critical Thought: A Nonobjectivist View on the Conduct and Teaching of Critical Thinking," Educational Theory, 41.1(Winter 1991): 1-12.

[5]Robert Sutton, "Realism and Other Philosophical Mantras," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 18 pars.,

[6]See, for example, John E. McPeck, "What is Learned in Informal Logic?," Teaching Philosophy, 14.1(March 1991): 25-34; J. Anthony Blair and Ralph H. Johnson, "Misconceptions of Informal Logic: A Reply to McPeck," Teaching Philosophy, 14.1(March 1991): 35-52; Robert Ennis, "Critical Thinking, A Streamlined Conception," Teaching Philosophy 14.1(March 1991): 5-24; Mark Weinstein, "Critical Thinking: Expanding the Paradigm," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 15.1(Autumn 1995): 63 pars.,; Connie Missimer, "Where's the Evidence?," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 47 pars.,; Karl Hostetler, "Community and Neutrality in Critical Thought: A Nonobjectivist View on the Conduct and Teaching of Critical Thinking" Educational Theory, 41.1(Winter 1991): 1-12; Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World (Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1993); Donald Hatcher, "Critical Thnking and Epistemic Obligations," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.3 (Spring 1995): 38 pars.,; "Should Anti-Realists Teach Critical Thinking?" Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 21 pars.,; Robert Sutton, "Realism and Other Philosophical Mantras," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.4 (Summer 1995): 18 pars.,

[7]This conception is quite similar to Paul's in Critical Thinking. According to him, critical thinking is the kind of thinking one makes when one thinks about how to make one's own thinking better. (See Richard Paul, Critical Thinking, p. 91.) Here it is apparent that 'critical thinking' is a value term because the word 'better' is in the definiens. It is plausible, then, that people agree on this conception, while disagree on how actually to make thinking better.

[8]John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical," Philosophy & Public Affairs, 14.3 (Summer 1985): 223-251. See also John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[9]A conception of an argument which does not rely solely on the relation of logical entailment among propositions provides a support for this contention. If an argument is more than just a set of propositions related to one another through the formal rules of logic, then it is plausible that some sort of nonlogical argumentation might be possible. Michael Gilbert, in "The Delimitation of Argument," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 15.1(Autumn 1995): 38 pars.,, details theories defending and opposing the expansion of the meaning of 'argument' to include nonlogical parts such as the pragmatic aspects of arguing, and others. Gilbert shows that the most tenable view on the definition of 'argument' is the "Liberal View," the view that the definition of 'argument' includes pragmatic aspects of arguing, what people do when they in fact argue, rather than only logical exposition of inferential steps. Thus story telling may have a place in philosophical discussions and arguments according to this view if some philosophers do "argue" through story telling. The scenario looks more plausible if we imagine that one philosopher's story may not go along with another's, igniting a contest (Greek, ago n).

[10]Here the situation is not too different from that in Japan detailed by Bruce Davidson in "Critical Thinking Education Faces the Challenge of Japan," Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, 14.3(Spring 1995): 31 pars.,