Volume 135 Number 1
  • ISSN: 0040-7518
  • E-ISSN: 2352-1163



How can historians of the humanities do justice to the complexities of their subject while at the same time contributing to current debate about the future of the humanities? This essay argues that a history of critical thinking, focused on the characteristics of a ‘critical thinker’, may meet both requirements. Drawing on case studies from the nineteenth century to the present, it shows that critical thinking has taken a variety of forms, each of which places different demands on the self. In most cases critical thinking requires not only skills or virtues but also normative attitudes (identifications, dissociations) and a certain ‘transformative capacity’. If such conceptual distinctions help historians understand what critical thinking meant in the past, they are equally applicable to the twenty-first century. This article suggests that historians of the humanities may enrich current debate by showing that the tendency to reduce critical thinking to a set of easily learnable skills fits uneasily into the history of critical thinking. Moreover, if historical research shows that critical thinking has always been a contested ideal, historians may ask what politics or visions of the future are being supported or suppressed today by contemporary models of critical thinking.


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