I was standing in line chatting with some people when the topic of fish came up. “You know that they have made the category so broad that either everything can be called a fish, or nothing can. They’ve stopped using it.” The thinking was that they were trying to come up with things that unified the idea of ‘fishness’ in order to classify them, but the factors named were either so broad that nearly nothing was excluded or were so narrow that almost everything was.
Something very similar was said about the fuzzy definition of pornography: I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.
While it sounded plausible at the time, I admit that it seemed a little … ahem… fishy after the fact. When I went in search of citations, I found some lively debate by many amateurs. Interestingly enough, there is some ongoing taxonomy debate regarding what can and can’t be regarded as a fish.
This is one of the reasons why I am careful when I use the words “always” and “never” with a student. It makes their life harder when they have to change their perceptions again. One of the things I do say frequently is that there are almost always exceptions, but they depend on the context of the situation. “Hard rules” will change when the situation changes. And there is almost always more than one way to look at a math problem. Or aquatic life… or erotic photography for that matter.
Hmmm…. “I know it when I see it” can look like a pretty good definition. But critical thinking isn’t just about thinking about categories and definitions, it is thinking about broader context. At its core, critical thinking is thinking about your quality of thoughts. Which means that you can NEVER settle on a hard definition. It all depends on context. Whether it be how to solve an algebra problem, or figure out how to deal with complex numbers, or even what counts as a fish. Or what qualifies as porn.
Experts know when conventional definitions don’t work, they need to reexamine the questions. Those are the questions that are interesting, and worth asking.
Stay curious. And don’t be afraid of asking questions about what qualifies as a fish. Or porn. Fish-porn is too weird for my taste, but I won’t judge you.