The best books to become a better critical thinker

Who am I?

I’m a Boston-based educational researcher and consultant specializing in critical-thinking education and technology-enabled learning.  My 2013 Degree of Freedom One-Year-BA project on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which involved taking 32 online college classes in just twelve months, was featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.  That work led to my first book for MIT Press, and an Inaugural fellowship at HarvardX, the organization at Harvard responsible for MOOC development.  I am also the author of two books on critical thinking and work with educators on how to improve critical-thinking education for students at all grade levels.

I wrote...

Critical Thinking

By Jonathan Haber,

Book cover of Critical Thinking

What is my book about?

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential twenty-first century skill, the key to success in school and work. Given our propensity to believe fake news, draw incorrect conclusions, and make decisions based on emotion rather than reason, it might even be said that critical thinking is vital to the survival of a democratic society. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, I explain how the concept of critical thinking emerged, how it has been defined, and how critical thinking skills can be taught and assessed. This book offers a guide for teachers, students, and aspiring critical thinkers everywhere, including advice for educational leaders and policy makers on how to make the teaching and learning of critical thinking an educational priority and practical reality.

The books I picked & why

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How We Think

By John Dewey,

Book cover of How We Think

Why this book?

Where did the concept originate that there is a form of thinking, distinct from knowledge and wisdom, unique enough to be called “critical.” As it turns out, “critical thinking” has its origin point in this 1910 book by America’s most famous philosopher of education, John Dewey. In How We Think, Dewey identifies the kind of thinking – which he calls “reflective thinking” – required for citizens in a democracy to properly make decisions and perform their civic responsibilities. He also talks about how the development of reflective thinking skills (today called “critical thinking skills”) can be incorporated into the education process. If you are interested in improving your own thinking or teaching others to reason more effectively, John Dewey’s How We Think is Ground Zero for any critical-thinking project.  

The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

By Anthony Gottlieb,

Book cover of The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

Why this book?

While critical thinking is not synonymous with philosophy, philosophical principles like logic and epistemology play a huge role in thinking systematically and productively. If you’re interested in how these new and revolutionary ways of thinking were born, I highly recommend this 2003 tour of the history of early Western philosophy, from Ancient Greece through the Medieval Age, by former Executive Editor of the Economist Anthony Gottlieb. If that book leaves you hungry for more, Gottlieb’s second title the series, The Dream of Enlightenment, continues the story of Western philosophy through the start of the modern era.  

What Philosophy Can Do

By Gary Gutting,

Book cover of What Philosophy Can Do

Why this book?

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting sadly passed away right before COVID, but not before writing countless articles, many of them on the New York Times philosophy website The Stone, showing practical uses of the philosophical tradition. Many of his thoughts are collected in his 2015 book What Philosophy Can Do which includes chapters on how philosophical practices can help us better argue about politics and religion, better understand the power, nature (and limitations) of science, and how to think about education and art. Gutting’s thoughtful and insightful writing provides practical ways to navigate a contentious age using tools that have been helping people argue about and even solve difficult problems for over two thousand years. For anyone laboring under the delusion that philosophy is an exercise in abstraction, suitable for the classroom and research symposium, but little else, What Philosophy Can Do will cure you of that stereotype.

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion

By Jay Heinrichs,

Book cover of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion

Why this book?

Why would I include a book on rhetoric right after a set of recommendations of titles covering philosophy, given the two-thousand-year rivalry between those two ancient disciplines? In contrast to other people who teach critical thinking, I place great value on persuasive communications, commonly referred to as rhetoric, given the need to see through the rhetoric of others when analyzing their arguments, and the ability of persuasive language to turn valid and sound arguments into unstoppable ones. In his recently updated bestseller Thank You for Arguing, author Jay Heinrich lays out a powerful case for why effective argumentation can bring people together to solve problems, providing potential offramps from today’s polarized, destructive pseudo-debates. Heinrich’s book is accessible and entertaining, drawing from pop culture and his own life experiences, alongside the wisdom of Aristotle and other great thinkers from history, to demonstrate how to productively argue out our disagreements, rather than destructively fight over them.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman,

Book cover of Thinking, Fast and Slow

Why this book?

Human psychology and the makeup of our brains play an enormous role in how (and even whether) we reason, to the point where years of training in logic and other critical-thinking skills still cannot prevent our reasoning from being overwhelmed by emotion and bias. Fortunately, Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow vividly demonstrates the flaws our brains are heir to, outlining a host of shortcuts our mental processes take (called heuristics) that can lead to error. Since understanding our limitations is the first step towards controlling for them, Kahneman’s book is essential reading for anyone trying to improve the quality of their own thinking as well as help others develop their critical-reasoning skills.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in philosophy, decision making, and thinking?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, decision making, and thinking.

Philosophy Explore 326 books about philosophy
Decision Making Explore 42 books about decision making
Thinking Explore 34 books about thinking

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Ultralearning, Stumbling on Happiness, and Difficult Conversations if you like this list.