Willingness to Inquire: The Cardinal Critical Thinking Virtue

Benjamin Hamby


Every craft has its set of tools, which the expert craftsperson uses adeptly in her creative efforts. Critical thinking is a craft no different than others in this respect: through guided practice and refinement, the expert craftsperson of reasoned judgment has developed a set of cognitive tools she uses in her reflective endeavors. But how are the skills of a critical thinker connected to the character of such a craftsperson? I argue that the critical thinker's skills are suggestive of the person she must be to properly employ them. These critical thinking virtues are the motivations, dispositions, and values that animate her skilled thinking, and this willingness to think critically is what drives any appropriately applied skill. Rather than interpretive charity, open-mindedness, valuing nonfallacious reasoning, or any of the other virtues that connect to skills, I conclude that willingness to think critically is the most fundamental critical thinking virtue.

Most mainstream conceptions of critical thinking tend to focus on teaching transferable thinking skills that can be applied across a variety of curricular and real-life contexts. While my treatment is congruent with such common approaches, I follow Bailin and Battersby's (2010) conceptualization. They equate critical thinking with "critical inquiry," the process of "carefully examining an issue in order to reach a reasoned judgment" (4). Since I have argued elsewhere that this conceptualization is defensible (Hamby 2013, 45-46), I argue here that critical thinkers must have what I call a "willingness to inquire": the firm internal motivation to employ one's skills in the process of critical inquiry, seeking reasoned judgment through careful examination of an issue.

I make my case by first presenting what I take critical thinking skills to be. Then I explain how associated critical thinking virtues are suggested by those skills, when we imagine the kind of person who would consistently and competently use them to the ends of critical inquiry. The person who would tend to fail to use those skills appropriately, or who would not use them at all, is not someone whom we should call a critical thinker. I then argue for why willingness to inquire is the cardinal critical thinking virtue, after which I respond to one detractor, whose view I find ironically corroborates my own. I conclude that critical thinking virtues are important if a thinker is to be the kind of person who appropriately applies her skills in critical inquiry. We should seek to foster such virtues in our students, and we should only call a person a critical thinker if she possesses those virtues, especially the central motivating virtue, that is, a willingness to inquire.

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