Optimal thought and optimal fitness through reason, logic, science, passion, and wisdom.
A Critical Thinking Skill: Thinking in Principles
A Critical Thinking Skill: Thinking in Principles

A Critical Thinking Skill: Thinking in Principles

To think better, in life and at work, we should practice identifying basic ideas in things we read or hear. We often read something, but don’t stop to consider what all things the idea really applies to. We get “stuck” in one situation, and don’t grasp the broader application. Or implication.

It’s like we learn that a knife can cut a cake, but never grasp that it can cut other cakes, can cut cupcakes, can cut steak, can cut butter, or can be used at meals — and we don’t see that it can be used to spread jam on toast or that it can be used to open a letter, turn a screw, or pry something up.

We need to think in principles to identify basic ideas in a project. To draw lessons from one project that we can use in others. To identify abstract similarities and differences in projects and people. To identify the big picture involved, and the big picture beyond that, and so on. To go beyond the surface level. To find commonalities with others people. To think of different perspectives, and to “think outside the box.”

A principle is a basic truth on which other truths depend; it is an abstraction on which other abstractions depend. To think in principles is to identify the wider truths/abstractions involved in what we are reading, hearing, or thinking. It is to not take things at face value, and to not limit our thought to some small, confined context unconnected to anything else we know.

To improve, we can ask & explore questions like:

What is the scope of this idea? (What are more examples.)

What are some basic ideas in these thoughts (written or spoken)?

What lessons can we learn from this? (How does it help in life.)

We can get better at them by reading and talking widely. Pick out a book on some topic you are interested in (or talk to an expert on the topic), and see what it says that applies to other interests you have and to your work. Or pick out a book on some topic outside your scope of expertise and interest, and explore how its ideas are relevant to what you do and what lessons you can learn from the book.

Go at your own pace. Start out on a “white-belt” level, or wherever you feel comfortable, and develop patiently from there.

Read On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon (it’s on Audible), and explore how its ideas apply to business management, parenting, teaching, classroom management, child sports, etc. Which ideas can be moved straight over to another field? Which ones must be modified and adapted?

What are some fundamental factors that cause incompetence? Which cause competence? Where do those factors come from in the history of philosophy? How did they play out in the history of science? How do they affect you in your everyday life? How can you improve?

How would you characterize and analyze your boss? How could your boss be better? How could they be worse? What could your company do to control incompetence? Or could they do to promote leadership competence? What procedures could they put in place to make things better? How could you be better? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Leadership competence and incompetence have a scope beyond the military.

Read Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram (also on Audible). How does Boyd’s OODA Loop apply in sports? In driving? In moving through nature and wilderness? In classroom management? In talking to another person?

What of his ideas were right, and what ones wrong? How does OODA relate to what Sherlock Holmes did? What can we do to be better at OODA at work? In parenting? How can we prepare for some situation in which we use OODA? What fundamental ideas come up in being good at both the OODA Loop and military leadership? What fundamental ideas cause someone to be bad at them?

How do you process situations? What can you learn from this? What are your strengths and weaknesses in OODA processing? How can you be better? How do other people process situations? How can you help others be better?

What could you learn from good scientists like Galileo and Newton that would help you in your OODA Loop? What could we learn from the work of JJ Gibson that would help? (His works include The Perception of the Visual World, The Senses Considered as Perceptual SystemsThe Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, and numerous articles. Also you might read articles about his theory.) What could we learn from Rob Gray, a scientist at Arizona State University? (You might read his book How We Learn to Move: A Revolution in the Way We Coach & Practice Sports Skills or listen to his The Perception & Action Podcast.)

The OODA Loop, a way of looking at how we conceptually process direct experience, has a scope beyond aerial dogfights.

Other good books to delve into are The Soul of a Horse by Joe Camp (not on Audible) and Mark Rashid’s books (also on Audible), such as Nature in Horsemanship: Discovering Harmony Through Principles of Aikido or A Good Horse Is Never a Bad Color: Tales of Training through Communication and Trust.

As you see, asking and answering questions helps you drive your thinking.

To expand on the original three questions:

What is the scope of this idea? What is an abstract formulation of it? What are specific instances of it in different fields of thought? What is not within the scope of this idea? What are some specific things that are kinda similar, but not quite there? How are they different?

What are some basic ideas in these thoughts (written or spoken)? What are the fundamentals in the writing or speech? What ideas explain the thoughts? What principles are explicit and what are implicit?

What lessons can we learn from a writing or speech? What do the thoughts mean in human life? What are some analogies to the situation? What life-lessons can we draw?

Thinking in principles pertains to problem-solving and creativity, too.

Want more motivation and more evidence this stuff works? Want another perspective on it? Read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. The book’s descripion on Amazon says:

David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields — especially those that are complex and unpredictable — generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

…The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.

Again, develop at your own pace. Start with what you know, and grow from there. Don’t rush it. Maybe make study groups amongst friends or coworkers. Do some practice on your own, but also get insight from others. With time and training, you’ll get better at it and be able to identify deeper and deeper lessons. This kind of thinking might be hard at first, but eventually it’ll snowball. As the British say “be calm and carry on.”

Michael helps students, teachers, and business professionals in academic subjects and professional fields, and in critical thinking, logic, and root-cause analysis. He has a B.S. in Mathematics, a B.A. in Philosophy, and a Texas Teacher Certificate (Secondary Mathematics), and is a MovNat Certified Level 2 Fitness Trainer. He studies the history and philosophy of physics, tracing out its logical development step by step from ancient times to modern, and has studied some history and philosophy of chemistry and mathematics. He has decades of experience with students in public schools, homeschools, elite private schools; decades of experience studying philosophy and logic; and decades of successful experience teaching logic and thinking skills. He teaches and tutors physics, chemistry, math, SAT/ACT prep, sentence diagramming, philosophy, fitness, logic, critical thinking, root-cause analysis, and epistemology. You may find him at Gold AcademyTotal Human FitnessLinkedIn, and Outschool, and on YouTube @GoldAcademy and @TotalHumanFitness. He also posts nature videos @TrueToNature and nature pictures on Flickr.

(Owl image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl#/media/File:Athene_cuniculariaa.jpg)

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