There has been much debate in the field of philosophy and cognitive psychology around whether the process of critical thinking is better described as cyclical or linear in nature. Both perspectives have merit and researchers have presented compelling evidence and theories to support each view. The reality is that critical thinking likely incorporates elements of both linear and cyclical processes to varying degrees depending on the context and individual thinker.

The view that critical thinking is best described as a linear process stems from a traditional model of rational cognition that imagines thinking as following a step-by-step progression from initiation of a problem to its logical solution. According to this view, upon encountering an issue or claim, one would go through a fixed sequence of stages such as defining the problem, gathering relevant information, analyzing and evaluating that information rationally, generating potential solutions, and reaching a justifiable conclusion. The elements of linear critical thinking are often depicted visually as discrete boxes connected by arrows to signify a start and finish point with discrete transitions in between.

Proponents of the linear view point to research in cognitive psychology demonstrating that complex problem-solving and reasoning does seem to involve discrete mental stages or schemas that the brain progresses through systematically. fMRI studies tracking brain activity reveal distinct neural pathways lighting up in succession as subjects work through standard logic puzzles or word problems. Teaching critical thinking as a linear step-wise process provides students with a straightforward framework and encourages them to be thorough and comprehensive in their approach. Defining thinking as linear also aligns well with traditional philosophical models of reason as a faculty for deductive logic and arriving at demonstrable truths.


Critics of the linear perspective argue that it presents an overly simplistic and incomplete picture of how human cognition actually operates in realistic contexts. They note that cognitive processes are not always so discrete and modular as linear stage models imply. Importantly, real-world issues are often ill-defined, contain uncertainties and ambiguities, involve integrated social and emotional dimensions, and have solutions that require creative adaptability rather than strict adherence to predetermined steps.

From this perspective, critical thinking is better understood as a cyclical process involving continuous refinement and reformulation. According to the cyclical view, thinking about a problem entails repeatedly reconsidering and re-evaluating earlier stages based on ongoing analysis rather than a one-directional progression. New information uncovered later may necessitate redefining or revising the problem statement, gathering additional research, re-analyzing from different angles, iteratively adjusting potential answers, and cycling back for reconsideration rather than settling on a single definitive conclusion.


Empirical research in areas like design thinking, problem-finding, and wicked problem-solving provides support for conceptualizing critical thought as cyclical. Studies of experts tackling complex real-world issues like public policy or medical diagnosis find that their approach typically involves continually reframing understandings and views rather than lockstep linear processes. Neuroscience also indicates the brain engages in iterative and recursive interactions between modules rather than strictly serial processing. Perception and cognition are now understood as dynamic systems operating through feedback loops versus rigid phases.

So in reality, the processes of critical thinking likely involve characteristics of both linear and cyclical models depending on contextual factors like the type of issue, availability of information, and cognitive capabilities of the individual. Simple, well-defined logistical reasoning may plausibly occur linearly while ill-structured problems benefit from an approach combining linear stages with cyclic reconsideration. Teaching frameworks should present critical thinking not as strictly one or the other but emphasize both progression and reflection, definition as well as reformulation, stepwise as well as iterative aspects of rational and creative cognition. An integrated hybrid model allows for flexibility to suit thinking across diverse academic and real-world situations.


Considering the totality of philosophical theories and empirical research, it is most accurate to view critical thinking neither as purely linear nor solely cyclical but rather as a dynamic process exhibiting traits of both paradigms. A balanced conceptualization that combines systematic stages with continual re-evaluation encourages comprehensive and effective thought for addressing complex issues while also cultivating the adaptive expertise required for novel challenges. Though the styles may feel intuitively distinct, human cognition blends orderly reason with iterative reshape – critical thinking flows and circles foremost to higher understanding.

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