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March 6, 2009

critical thinking about "critical thinking"

Here are three interestingly complementary comments. The first is from the moderate-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks:

    This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called "On Thinking Institutionally" by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

    In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. ...

    New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. "In taking delivery," Heclo writes, "institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed."

The second comment is from the influential Yale literary and queer theorist Michael Warner (hardly a moderate conservative, nor a pundit--although he might be a pandit). In a chapter entitled "Uncritical Reading," Warner writes that the standard justification of college-level English is to teach students to be critical readers, ones who aren't fooled by various forms of ideology, emotion, bias or writerly tradecraft.

    Critical reading is the folk ideology of a learned profession, so close to us that we seldom feel the need to explain it. ... Since literary critics tend to think of critical reading as a necessary form of any self-conscious reading, they seldom think of it as the kind of practice that might have--as I think it does have--a history, an intergenetic mix of forms, a discipline. ... The very specific culture of critical reading is not the only normatively or reflexively organized method of reading, to which all others should be assimilated.

Warner ends with a quote from the philosopher Bernard Williams (who, considering his politics as a British social democrat, makes a nice third leg of this stool):

    This ideal [of critical reason] involves an idea of ultimate freedom, according to which I am not entirely free as long as there is any ethically significant aspect of myself that belongs to me simply as a result of the process by which I was contingently formed. If my values are mine simply in virtue of social and psychological processes to which I have been exposed, then (the argument goes) it is as though I had been brainwashed: I cannot be a fully free, rational, and responsible agent.

Williams is skeptical about this ideal of separating the "criticizing self" from "everything that a person contingently is." To put the point in my terms (not his): We can criticize any value. We can always ask, Why? Why should people have freedom of speech? Because they have equal dignity. But why should they have equal dignity? When moral words and phrases have emotional appeal, we can learn to disassociate ourselves from the positive emotions by asking critical questions. That process, carried to its relentless conclusion, leaves nothing.

Thus a good life is not simply a critical one; it also requires appreciation of contingency and solidarity for others. In my opinion, it is right to appreciate the diverse values that people have inherited (for contingent reasons) and to feel solidarity with them despite these differences. In that case, critical thinking and critical reading are not satisfactory goals of education, at any level. Some critical independence is valuable, but there must also be a positive affective dimension.

A separate question is to what extent critical thinking really dominates at institutions like Harvard. My sense is that the faculty report that Brooks quotes is only part of the picture. Universities also powerfully teach respect or even reverence for various institutions and traditions. Indeed, they try to teach students to revere academia itself--not mainly as a venue for critical debate but as a social gatekeeper and arbiter of norms. The fact that "critical reading" takes place in the seminar room helps to justify the institution's major function, which is to bestow membership and recognition on some and not on others.

March 6, 2009 1:16 PM | category: academia , philosophy | Comments


The education of which I took delivery contained both Hume and Aristotle, both Locke and Montesquieu, and indeed, both Nozick and Sandel. Critical reason deserves better than this parody. Brooks takes up the communitarian critique of a kind of fantasy projection of liberalism-as-culture-of-unencumbered-subject, which is not anything I recognize from the Harvard curriculum, where's Sandel's "Justice" course is the single best-attended class.

Though of course some forms of critical thinking do emphasize "personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness" at the expense of any historical rootedness or institutional fidelity, this is far from the canonical pedagogy. At best, this is strand of criticism popularized by Ayn Rand and the Self Help section of the book store. "Traditionally" (i.e. as the humanities have practiced criticality in the last century) critical thinking has taken conceptions of individuality and independence themselves as the proper subject of critical appraisal. Where's the 'reverence for those who came before' in ignoring this rich tradition of post-Kantian critical reason in favor of some pseudo-history that justifies a modern and thoroughly inventive neo-conservative pedagogy?

To further cement my disagreement with your assessment here, Peter, I think you'd have to acknowledge that the humanities have long conveyed a "positive affective dimension" to the practice of critical examination of the history of ideas, not through its exclusive placement in the seminar room but through constant assertion that these methods are available to all, that the original liberal arts as techniques of freedom can be a pedagogy for anyone of any station.

March 7, 2009 3:42 PM | Comments (4) | posted by anotherpanacea

There were some huge generalizations in Brooks' piece, and I repeated them without complicating them. One important complication is that moral and political philosophy treats critical reason as a problematic concept. It's pretty standard for students of political philosophy to read Sandel's critique of the unencumbered self, or Bernard Williams (whom I quoted here), or even Nietszche. (Beyond Good and Evil, 207: "However gratefully one may welcome the OBJECTIVE spirit--and who has not been sick to death of all subjectivity and its confounded IPSISIMOSITY!--in the end, however, one must learn caution even with regard to one's gratitude, and put a stop to the exaggeration with which the unselfing and depersonalizing of the spirit has recently been celebrated, as if it were the goal in itself, as if it were salvation and glorification.")

But political philosophy is pretty marginal in the overall curriculum--not at Harvard, where Sandel is popular, but at most institutions. And at the risk of overgeneralizing again, I think Warner is right that the cultivation of critical distance and independence has been the main task of literary studies for 40 years.

Warner, however, is not the only recent critic of that tendency. See also Amanda Anderson.

March 7, 2009 5:58 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Peter Levine

Perhaps it's true that education in literature has this character, but as you've presented it, it sounds more like the early writing education that uses this kind of 'write what you think/feel' prompt to practice techniques in rhetoric and composition. Fish and Rorty are not representative of the field, where certain standard critiques of class, race, sex, and colonial power are often the starting points for understanding texts, while both seem to feel that this is a mistake of some sort.

Maybe I am confusing pedagogy and scholarship here: it's been a while since I've been in an English Literature classroom. However, I'll need to do some more research before I'm convinced. I'll look up Anderson's work: the post you link has whet my appetite. Thanks!

March 8, 2009 7:29 PM | Comments (4) | posted by anotherpanacea

"Critical thinking" is one of those catch phrase like "social justice" whose use often diminishes meaning. Often critical reading, or theory, as taught in liberal arts colleges, becomes simply critical OF certain targets, or of Truth.

from http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/2913906.html

Peter Berkowitz reviewing a THEORY'S EMPIRE addresses the contradictions.

"The contradictions of Theory, however, don’t end with the simultaneous rejection of the authority of reason and morality and the affirmation of an extreme progressive political agenda. Proponents also claim that all readers already and inevitably engage in Theory while themselves engaging in a relentless effort through their scholarship, classroom teaching, publications, and hiring and promotion decisions to bring into the fold — or banish — nonconformists and unbelievers. Proponents of Theory proclaim that all is in flux and everything is up for grabs, and at the same time they treat that proclamation as an article of faith too self-evident or well-established to question. And they argue that texts cannot create or convey a stable meaning — to believe the contrary is to commit the sin of “essentialism” — while maintaining that the history of the West is essentially a history of oppression, suppression, and repression and that the classics of the West reliably exhibit the sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia."

Berkowitz ends recounting this OATH from Wayne Booth's essay in the book.

"Those professors can make a good start in healing themselves by reading Wayne Booth’s wonderful “Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist,” with which Theory’s Empire concludes. And then they should solemnly dedicate themselves to its principal ordinances:

1. I will publish nothing, favorable or unfavorable, about books or articles I have not read through at least once. (By “publish” I mean any writing or speaking that “makes public,” including term papers, theses, course lectures, and conference papers.)

2. I will try to publish nothing about any book or article until I have understood it, which is to say, until I have reason to think that I can give an account of it that the author himself will recognize as just.

3. I will take no critic’s word, when he discusses other critics, unless he can convince me that he has abided by the first two ordinances. I will assume, until a critic proves otherwise, that what he says against the playing style of other critics is useful, at best, as a clue to his own game. I will be almost as suspicious when he presents a “neutral” summary and even when he praises.

4. I will not undertake any project that by its very nature requires me to violate Ordinances i–iii.

5. I will not judge my own inevitable violations of the first four ordinances more leniently than those I find in other critics.

The collective embrace of such ordinances would doubtless restore sanity to the discipline. But in its final lines, Booth’s Hippocratic Oath provides the individual scholar no exemption or excuse in the event of the discipline’s failure to right itself: “We could achieve all this, as a profession. But I will not allow my own practice to depend on the remote hope that we will.”

March 8, 2009 11:22 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Scott D

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