Thursday, February 16, 2006

On Ambivalence Towards Critical Thinking

I am trained in Continental Philosophy. What this means to those unfamiliar with the distinction is that I am still hung up on existential questions. More specifically, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we tell our own stories, how we make sense of our lives, and how we ought to live our lives. Obviously, the last question is a moral one. And, while I am quite familiar with the various moral theories we can use to clarify our moral choices: deontology, utilitarianism, natural rights, virtue ethics . . .etc., at the end of the day, I tend to see most moral decisions as ambigious.

When I teach moral theory to students or critical thinking skills for that matter (how to spot fallacies, construct valid/sound arguments, evaluate evidence), I rarely change a student's perspective on the world, or make that student more empathetic to other peoples' situations. I usually make them smarter at articulating the worldview that they inchoately held before. Hence, smart Catholic students who believe that abortion is absolutely wrong or neo-cons who believe in the doctrine of pre-emptive strike leave my class better able to defend these views. As a teacher, I regularly give my enemies tools to win arguments against less articulate folks who share my basic intuitions about the world.

In a post I wrote last week, my colleague, who is an Analytic Philosopher, responded that: "EVERYONE needs critical thinking . . ." The idea here is that if people use logic and fair rules of argument, then we will make much more headway in our political discussions and come to better reasoned, defensible positions. My sense is that critical thinking doesn't make people better people, it just makes them better at playing the game. In fact, this realization is why I turned away from Analytic Philosophy in the first place. It stopped asking the big questions, which were probably too fuzzy anyway, and went in search for better foundations and better methods of seeking truth. They began to focus more on verifiable methods for evaluating truth claims than asking what is the direction of my life?

My love affair with Continental Philosophy has waned in the years since I became a full-time teacher and scholar. I never really went in for the nauseating jargon of the post-structuralists. I loved the phenomenologists, that is the thinkers who were trying to develop accounts of human experience and human identity. Granted, even their texts leave me a bit cold now. But, what has stuck with me is the insight that we learn much about ourselves through the stories of others. And, frankly, I would rather read people's stories and personal accounts than I would read Heidegger or Husserl.

To clarify, I want to mention a lovely post that I read over at the Happy Feminist on body image yesterday (she always has great personal stories). The further I read, the more deeply I began to identify with her story. I actually poked my head up at one point and said, outloud, "omigod, she is me!" But, of course, I came to my senses. What was happening when I read her description of battling with body image--the pressure on women to conform to certain beauty standards, and her drive for perfection--was that she was giving me a frame, a way of making sense out of disparate and fragmented experiences of my own.

The way I see it, we come into the world and develop certain intuitions about what other people are like or what kind of place home is. We see people as kind, suspicious, or foolish, for example. The more we encounter other people, places, atrocities, or triumphs, our intuitions of the world are either confirmed or challenged. Our experience with the world makes the most impact on our overall worldview. If you learn the important tools of philosophy, like critical thinking, you become better at clarifying to yourself in consistent and defensible ways what your worldview is.

However, what sort of person you are--liberal, giving, compassionate, withholding--has little to do with how rigorous or skilled you are at making arguments.

What gives me the most satisfaction as a teacher, therefore, is helping students develop empathy for others. I often find that the process of making sense of the fragments of our own life is intertwined with coming to understand other people.

What happened when I read the Happy Feminist's post is that she helped me put together a bunch of experiences I had about my own body image issue stuff and helped me see it as part of my intutions that much of my identity has been impacted by sexist practices.

The "Ah-Ha!" moment, when you start to see yourself in another's story is a familiar process to most of us. A writer friend once told me that the more idiosyncratic that she makes her characters, more people identify with the characters. In the particular, in the most intimate features of another's story, we begin to better grasp ourselves. We might also begin to care about others who once seemed so foreign to us, so unrecognizable, until we saw ourselves in their stories.

The latter process can only happen, however, if and only if we are able to really listen to someone else, believe that he or she has something of value to say, and that we might learn more about ourselves by paying attention.

Cross-posted at Majikthise