Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophical Education, An Overview of

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_159



Education has always been closely related to philosophy. The first serious observation about the purpose and means of education was undertaken by the Pre-Socratic thinkers. Pedagogy, didactics, and other educational disciplines originated from philosophical thinking. In fact, it is impossible to have a serious discussion about education without venturing into the philosophy of education. As Max Black put it nicely, “All serious discussion of educational problems, no matter how specific, soon leads to a consideration of educational aims, and becomes a conversation about the good life, the nature of man, the varieties of experience” (Black 1969). It is precisely from this quote that we can interpret philosophy of education as a modern philosophical discipline which aims to determine the purpose and means of education, as well as its influence on life and society. It can range from research of educational theories to the history of philosophy from the beginnings of philosophical thinking to present day. Nowadays, we can discuss Aristotle’s philosophy of education knowing that, formally speaking, the philosophical discipline did not exist in his time. Perhaps we can find the simplest and clearest definition of philosophy of education in Encyclopædia Britannica: “Philosophy of education, philosophical reflection on the nature, aims, and problems of education. The philosophy of education is Janus-faced, looking both inward to the parent discipline of philosophy and outward to educational practice” (Siegel).

Philosophy of education primarily researches and deals with philosophical education, but is not limited to that. Philosophical education is a comprehensive philosophical education which aims to raise a person as a philosophical being. Although it may sound strange, this is necessary. A philosophical human being would be a person who reflects about things and events happening around them. Primarily, a person should be able to think critically about themselves and the world around them. After that, the second level of such an education assumes a higher degree of critical thinking about common philosophical issues. Ideally speaking, this level of philosophical education should be present at philosophy departments at university level (and higher). Today, first-level philosophical education is teaching and learning critical thinking.

Education without philosophical education most often leads to two things – short-term memory and practicing certain skills to cope through life. Such education is one-dimensional and defeats the purpose. If we consider critical thinking at early educational stages, ideally speaking, it would consist of content (knowledge) and reflection on that content. Therefore, there should be content and a method for processing that content. In that way, we ensure that the content is understood, information processed, but also encourage taking a personal critical stand.

Philosophy in education is the existence of philosophy in education either as a separate teaching subject or a group of subjects. A person can acquire certain philosophical notions or methods. Philosophy in education can also be considered in terms of particular theories which exist around a specific type of education.

Philosophy of education as a philosophical discipline is comprehensive and contains, among other things, philosophical education. Philosophical education also incorporates what is called “philosophy in education.” As a Venn diagram, it looks like this:

As part of philosophical education, learning critical thinking is a philosophical study. One of the specific aims of philosophical education at present is to find ways and methods of teaching critical thinking. In addition, one of the aims of philosophy of education is to reflect about the nature, aims, problems, and usefulness of teaching for critical thinking. This is important in today’s world when people (and children) are bombarded with thousands of relevant and irrelevant pieces of information which expose them to different types of manipulation: political, media, economic, etc. It is precisely critical thinking that can provide the individual with the proper tools to resist this manipulation and choose only relevant information while also developing their own critical thinking.

Critical thinking started in philosophy and that is why critical thinking has to be regarded as philosophy in education and must be strongly connected with philosophical knowledge. Critical thinking in formal and informal education nowadays is rather popular and in demand. There are many different programs for learning critical thinking. Unfortunately, there are programs which neglect their philosophical origin, only claiming that they teach critical thinking, when, in fact, they do not. Learning for critical of thinking cannot be learning critical thinking if it is not based on philosophy. Among many definitions of critical thinking, the one that really points out the essence of the relation between critical thinking and philosophy is in Lipman’s most famous work Thinking in Education. While listing the definitions of critical thinking, he states that critical thinking is “a light version of philosophy” (Lipman 2003).

Critical Thinking as a Light Version of Philosophy

There are well-known and well-researched studies and theories on education by eminent philosophers. Now that learning critical thinking has reappeared as an important issue as the purpose of education, we have to think back on what critical thinking is and look for the origins of critical thinking among a variety of thinkers. Recent literature offers many definitions of critical thinking. Some of the crucial aspects of critical thinking are present in Richard Paul and Linda Elder’s definition: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them” (Paul and Elder 2002).

With critical thinking, that is, a light version of philosophy, we improve the quality of our thinking and thought processes. Critical thinking allows us to view things and events in and around our lives from all sides and find solutions to our problems more easily. The only rules that can be true for critical thinking are the rules of formal and informal logic. In all periods of human history, critical thinking was a desirable human trait. Naturally, thinking critically can be dangerous sometimes, if we remember Socrates and how he had to drink poison to carry out his own death sentence.

Critical thinking does not hold any concrete values or principles that could be imposed by teaching critical thinking. It is a way of thinking that avoids emotional content and arbitrary principles. Critical thinking needs to be impartial and has to rely on common sense and consistent argumentation, according the rules of formal and informal logic, as mentioned before. The need to practice critical thinking in modern-day society has become stronger due to the fact that we are permanently exposed to different means of manipulation. Along with standard manipulation, such as, political and economic, there is media manipulation that has reached every segment of our lives. In part, media manipulation is so obvious that it does not even call for critical thinking. However, critical thinking is an exceptionally adequate tool for uncovering media manipulation on a larger scale. It encourages people to think about the messages received on a daily basis from the media and, by doing so, notices how people are being manipulated by the media.

Even the very use of the term “critical thinking” is sometimes subject to manipulation. The term is sometimes used to attract target audience and justify unfounded criticism that only serves its own purpose. Obviously, that is not critical thinking nor should it be. Critical thinking is not, even though it is sometimes perceived that way, negative thinking only for the purpose of criticizing. That is not critical thinking that is the opposite of it.

Critical Thinking Through the History of Philosophy

Critical thinking is the light version of philosophy, that is why we need to take a look back and see who among the eminent philosophers promoted what we may nowadays refer to as critical thinking. Teaching for critical thinking was developing alongside philosophical thought. Here is a brief overview.

There are traces of critical thinking even among the Pre-Socratic thinkers. The first teachers of critical thinking that we know of were the sophists. As it is often claimed, they taught reasoning skills, that is, oratory. Known as the masters of persuasion, they often prepared their students to discuss in court and at political gatherings. This becomes more understandable if we consider the fact that the sophists rejected any kind of objective norms, including the truth. Nevertheless, we must not equate sophism with sophistry and its distortions, also known as eristic, as the use of fallacious arguments for the sole purpose of outsmarting someone. Further, there is a famous quote by Protagoras: “DIOG. IX 51 It was he who first said [Protagoras] that there are two opposed arguments on any matter” (Diels 1983). Therefore, a thing or event can be viewed from different angles; if we think critically about an event, then we are looking at it from all possible angles, forming at least two opposing views. Critical thinking should encourage us to question all possible pros and cons of a premise and lead us to a valid conclusion. Perhaps certain sophists pursued the wrong goal, but they were among the first to encourage critical thinking.

Socrates is an essential figure for critical thinking. With a carefully constructed line of questioning, he pointed his interlocutors toward the “truth,” and that truth was something they were not aware of before the conversation with Socrates. In modern terms, we could say that Socrates did not teach his interlocutors what to think but how to think. Socrates’ ways of “extracting” the opinion out of the interlocutor, the way he “made” them think about their own views and judgment, is known as the Socratic method. This is the first known method for learning critical thinking. The goal of the Socratic method was to define the notions under discussion. “He wanted to give birth to true ideas in the clear form of definition, not for a speculative but for a practical end” (Copleston 1993). Although it is not always possible to agree on a definition, the process can guide us toward a clearer, more understandable, and concrete definition. The process itself has actually resulted in fundamental rules of definition. Even Matthew Lipman points out Socrates and the sophists as the philosophers who started to develop critical thinking.

Another important figure for critical thinking in Antiquity is Aristotle. He is considered to be the founder of formal logic, which later developed and also shaped informal logic. Critical thinking without the rules of formal and informal logic is not possible.

The doubt advocated by ancient skeptics is related to the development of critical thinking theories. The name itself comes from the Greek word σkέψις, which means searching, but also skepsis. If we take the etymological meaning, critical thinking is closely related to skepticism because it requires doubt to look for the truth. Of course, there is a big difference, because sometimes we can arrive at verifiable truths.

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas developed a system for thoroughly questioning views and beliefs. For each idea under his study, he would demonstrate all the views; he would argue those points of view, either to dispute or support them; and in the end he would express his own sound views on the matter. He executed this so precisely that it is safe to say that every idea in his system was the subject of critical thinking. However, Thomas Aquinas did not question religious dogmas. In spite of that, the systematic approach to certain theories and facts suggests a methodology which is more than acceptable as part of the written methodology of critical thinking.

During the Renaissance, the most interesting author is Erasmus. He pinpointed fables as a great source of practical thinking simply because fables carry a strong message for practicalities of life. Erasmus encourages people to read and think about fables as a good exercise for developing critical thinking. Whether Erasmus used the term critical thinking the same way as we do today, that is difficult to say. More importantly, he claimed that fables were a “guide to practical thinking” and added that they were appropriate for practicing “good vocabulary.” These two things (practice thinking and vocabulary development) are the goals of modern-day critical thinking workshops.

In any case, even though elements of contemporary critical thinking theories can be found among Renaissance thinkers, the actual call for the practice of critical thinking in the modern sense of the term only happened with Francis Bacon.

In 1605, the English philosopher Francis Bacon published Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human. This is the first work that is considered to tackle critical thinking (and not only what we call critical thinking). Bacon states that the mind cannot follow the “right path” if left only to its natural tendencies. He points out that the world has to be observed empirically. Bacon outlines the main topics and ideas which he developed and perfected in his later works. He also suggests clear obstacles or disorders in learning which have to be avoided or addressed to ensure progress. He diagnosed three distempers of learning: “So that in reason as well as in experience there fall out to be these three distempers (as I may term them) of learning: the first, fantastical learning; the second, contentious learning; and the last, delicate learning; vain imaginations, vain altercations, and vain affectations” (Bacon 1906). Here, it is clear that Bacon is discussing erroneous learning/thinking, which he explores further in Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620), where he describes four types of idols for four kinds of natural human tendencies that lead to misconception and prejudice. We can get rid of misconception and prejudice with reason. With his three distempers of learning (fantastical, contentious, delicate) and four types of idols (tribe, cave, marketplace, theater), Francis Bacon offered a wide range of misconceptions and prejudice. By discovering the errors in our thinking and becoming aware of the misguided beliefs and views, we have made the first step toward eliminating them.

The goal of developing critical thinking is nothing more than learning how to think correctly. Therefore, Bacon’s observations on “distempers of learning” and “idols” could be labeled as a catalogue of incorrect thinking or typical mistakes in thinking. Other notable works crucial to the theoretical development of critical thinking are Rules for the Direction of the Mind (Regulae ad directionem ingenii, 1684) by René Descartes, a French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. Even though he planned to write 36 rules, Descartes only managed 21 rules for direction of the mind. From the point of view of critical thinking theory, some of these rules can be applied to shaping the rules of not only scientific, mathematical, and philosophical research but also critical thinking. The first 12 rules relate directly to the rules of the scientific method. However, critical thinking cannot be excluded from that. One of the aims of critical thinking is reaching valid conclusions, which can be related to the truth. Some 10 years after Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes wrote Discourse on the Method (Discours de la méthode, 1637). Here again, Descartes explains the four rules of the scientific method, but the rules can also be applied to the “rules” of critical thinking.

Bacon and Descartes were the first ones to grapple with the issues crucial to the theory of critical thinking today. Descartes points out that there has to be a special mental discipline to guide the mind while thinking. Descartes calls for precision and clarity. He also advocates skepsis as an important component of thinking. We could say that he follows Socrates’ line of thinking, who would successfully confuse the interlocutor and make them doubt their own views or way of thinking. That is when we start to think more deeply – when there is confusion and doubt. Descartes demands systematic doubt, which becomes integral to critical thinking. Furthermore, he insists that each argument has to be subject to doubt, to be questioned, and to be tested. Bacon and his catalogue of human misconceptions and typical errors in judgment and Descartes with systematic “skepsis” and demand for questioning are the modern pioneers of critical thinking.

Immanuel Kant pointed philosophy toward the knowing of the mind in his three critiques and the power of the mind to think systematically and reasonably. In What Is Enlightenment?, Kant urges using our own mind: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude!) Have the courage to use your own understanding, is therefore the motto of the enlightenment” (Kant 1970).

In The idea of a University from 1852, John Henry Newman indirectly suggests the advantages of critical thinking. Newman lists all the advantages we can attribute to someone who thinks critically. W. Graham Sumner, an American philosopher, published Folkways:A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs and Morals in 1906 with useful contributions to the discussion of critical thinking. He sees critical thinking as a way of raising good citizens. Newman, W.G. Sumner, and several other authors prove that in the mid-nineteenth century there was a need for theoretical research of the study of thinking, that is, for critical thinking in educational systems. Consequently, that was the time when social progress led to discussing “the learning of thinking” within the system of education. Living without thinking about what surrounds us, life without critical thinking, may be simpler, but most aforementioned authors, as well as Bertrand Russell, would agree that thinking philosophically is difficult but also that it is extremely useful for individual progress, s navigate life and find happiness.

John Dewey, the Founder of Modern Critical Thinking Theory

The importance of John Dewey in the modern development of critical thinking is probably best illustrated by the following quote: “In fact, people have been thinking about ‘critical thinking’ and have been researching how to teach it for about a hundred years. In a way, Socrates began this approach to learning over 2,000 years ago, but John Dewey, the American philosopher, psychologist and educator, is widely regarded as the ‘father’ of the modern critical thinking tradition” (Fisher 2001). Therefore, modern-day theory of critical thinking was founded by the American philosopher, pedagogue, and psychologist John Dewey, primarily in How We Think (1997). Dewey does not use the term “critical thinking,” he says “reflective thinking.” The idea is the same. Critical thinking is the reflection of our mind about events and things around us. Dewey’s successors gradually neglected the expression “reflective thinking,” and critical thinking became more common. According to Dewey’s definition of reflective thinking, we can gather that it is the same as critical thinking in the modern sense of the word: “Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought” (Dewey 1997). For most authors, this is evidence that Dewey was actually referring to critical thinking, being the “father,” originator, or founder of contemporary critical thinking theories. The slogan “learning to think” is also closely related to critical thinking in Dewey’s philosophy, where he demands learning, more specifically, practicing critical thinking. It was Dewey who was among the first thinkers to state that learning to think is fundamental to education.


After Dewey, a series of authors continued to develop his reflective thinking system, most famously, Matthew Lipman who elaborated on Dewey’s theory. With the aid of other theories, he developed the theoretical and practical framework of Philosophy for Children. The following articles deal with issues important to the current state of philosophical education. They bring a cross section of elaborate methods and approaches in Philosophy for Children, but also discuss the transition between the first and second step in philosophical education when students go from learning critical thinking to philosophical thinking at high school philosophy classes and thinking about philosophical issues at the International Philosophy Olympiad.

The only way to properly develop critical thinking is to start practicing it and developing thinking skills from early age with philosophical methodology. After that, it can be expanded across philosophic and academic areas. Therefore, think critically!


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Association Petit PhilosophyZadarCroatia