Critical Thinking: Roger Kimball Is Against It

Catholic conservative Roger Kimball is editor of The New Criterion, which is a great journal. I read it. I like it.

But sometimes Kimball comes a little unhinged. He often seems, for example, to regret that the Enlightenment ever happened at all. And at his blog, he has come out in opposition to critical thinking.

Seriously. He finds the idea dubious:

It seems obvious that ‘critical thinking’ (I employ the quotation marks because the activity in question is neither critical nor, in any robust sense of the word, thinking) is a descendant or re-enactment of the Enlightenment imperative ‘Dare to Know!’ In this sense, it is a precursor or adjunct of that ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur invoked when discussing the intellectual and moral demolition carried out by thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. It would be hard to exaggerate the corrosive nature of these assaults. Often, indeed, what we encounter is less a hermeneutics of suspicion than a hermeneutics of contempt. The contempt expresses itself partly in a repudiation of the customary, the conventional, the habitual, partly in the cult of innovation and originality. Think, for example, of John Stuart Mill’s famous plea on behalf of moral, social, and intellectual ‘experiments in living’. Part of what makes that phrase so obnoxious is Mill’s effort to dignify his project of moral revolution with the prestige of science—as if, for example, his creepy relationship with the married Harriet Taylor was somehow equivalent to Michael Faraday’s experiments with electro-magnetisim. You see the same thing at work today when young hedonists in search of oblivion explain that they are ‘experimenting’ with drugs.

It’s an amusing paragraph, but also, of course, a straw man (or, perhaps more accurately, a fright mask). Are those who promote critical thinking really just luring conservatives into a trap by which they will be drawn into irreligion, left politics, sexual licence, and LSD?

And what is critical thinking, anyway? Since Kimball doesn’t define his object of scorn, I’ll offer my own definition: Critical thinking is the attempt to get at the truth of a matter objectively (not under the undue influences of hastiness, hope, or fear).

Crisp and clean. And such a definition, of course, necessarily excludes Kimball’s straw man/fright mask (that critical thinking is an endeavor designed to bring one to very particular and evil conclusions and life choices). Critical thinking is not the left’s version of Christian apologetics–a motivated enterprise. It’s actually neutral–but it also happens to cast unfavorable light on religious and conservative apologetics.

And that’s Kimball’s real problem with it.

Critical thinking exposes emperors as naked. It doesn’t start with any end in mind–save the truth. It is not reason put into the service of a foregone conclusion, but forgone conclusions brought under the scrutiny of reason. This is all that critical thinking really is–the attempt to keep a critical eye on where your thinking, in sleepy mode, has led you.

Kimball would prefer conservatives stay in sleepy mode. He doesn’t want them to look too closely at what they are in the habit of believing. To discourage this dangerous behavior, critical thinking qua critical thinking has to be straw manned and Medusa’d.

Contrast Kimball with George Orwell. Here’s Orwell on critical thinking: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” (London’s Tribune, “In Front of Your Nose,” March 22, 1946). No resort to habit here. Critical thinking requires struggle because time pressures, distractions, impatience, hopes, and fears fog reason.

And it’s rare for such factors to correlate with the best answers. And so Orwell writes in the same article:

In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.

Put another way, we are in the habit of letting fear and hope lead our reason, and we’d be right more often if we didn’t do this. How different Orwell’s advice to effort in thought is from Kimball’s advice to rest in inherited habits of thought.

Another alternative to Kimball is Oedipus. At the beginning of Sophocles’ play, Oedipus seeks but one thing, to learn the truth of a matter: What’s causing the plague in Thebes? He pursues the answer with energy and bravery, but in the end Oedipus also functions as a warning: if you’re going to stay for the answer, don’t pluck out your eyes when that answer comes.

That’s critical thinking. The determination not to pluck out your eyes. And that’s the determination Kimball means to undermine. He’s justifying cowardice for conservatives; to stay comfy with the sleepy habits of confirmation bias.

Kimball, as an enemy of critical thinking, recalls for me David Hume’s little essay, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” (1741), in which Hume writes that fear and hope cloud judgment in different ways, the former leading to Catholicism (superstition), the latter to Protestantism (enthusiasm):

The mind of man is subject to certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding either from the unhappy situation of private or public affairs, from ill health, from a gloomy and melancholy disposition, or from the concurrence of all these circumstances. In such a state of mind, infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents; and where real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits. As these enemies are entirely invisible and unknown, the methods taken to appease them are equally unaccountable, and consist in ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices, presents, or in any practice, however absurd or frivolous, which either folly or knavery recommends to a blind and terrified credulity. Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of SUPERSTITION.

But the mind of man is also subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from a bold and confidence disposition. In such a state of mind, the imagination swells with great, but confused conceptions, […] In a little time, the inspired person comes to regard himself as a distinguished favorite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: Human reason and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: And the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed incursions of the spirit, and to inspiration from above. Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of ENTHUSIASM.

In other words, Hume is suggesting that two ways to bring the boat of reason into the mouth of irrational sea monsters (like Catholic superstition and Protestant enthusiasm) is to let fear and hope lead it.

Put another way, the boat of critical thinking rides between Scylla and Charybdis–Scylla being fear and Charybdis hope. In Greek myth, Scylla and Charybdis are sea monsters situated to either side of the Strait of Messina (between the Italian mainland and Sicily). If one goes too far to the left or right, the sailor finds himself consumed.

Here’s Johann Heinrich Fussli’s depiction of the sea monsters (via Wikipedia Commons). That would be Roger Kimball with his ass exposed.

File:Johann Heinrich Füssli 054.jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Critical Thinking: Roger Kimball Is Against It

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Sometimes an admirable idea in the hands of mean people becomes a contemptible thing, it becomes the hermeneutics of contempt.

    That is what mean people do, they refashion things in their own image, perverting the original until it becomes a parody of the good it once was.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I get it. You’re referring to me. But your argument, curiously, is similar to the complaint made recently in The Atlantic by an English professor about the way new literature students read literature: instead of approaching the text to see the other, and what’s demonstrably there, they approach the text to see themselves, thus (in your phrase) “perverting the original.”

      But like Occam’s razor, this sort of observation can cut in a lot of different ways. Isn’t it arguable, for example, that theists make God and nature in their own image–a phrase you also used above? Isn’t the admonition to absent oneself of hopes and fears in reasoning universal?

      –Santi

      • Peter Smith says:

        Santi, no, I am not referring to you. I am deeply sorry I gave you that impression. I certainly have no reason to think that of you. Quite the opposite, I enjoy your writing and respect your intellect.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Isn’t it arguable, for example, that theists make God and nature in their own image
        Yes, that is quite true. In fact it is inevitable.
        In my allegory of the Scientist and the Formicarium I pointed out that the ant-philosopher could not describe the Scientist because nothing in his experience, concepts, language and categories allowed for such a description. That is the problem we face when describing God. We must necessarily make do with the language, concepts and categories available to us, inadequate as they are. We try to describe the indescribable by using the language of metaphor and allegory. The use of anthropomorphisms makes the concept approachable to ordinary people. Paul Tillich’s phrase, ‘the ground of being’, would be incomprehensible to my working class neighbours.

        The problem arises when metaphors and allegory are mistaken for a concrete description of actual reality. This is the mistake that fundamentalist Christians make.

      • Peter Smith says:

        I like the phrase sapere aude, often translated as ‘dare to know’. It contains two important ideas. 1) there is a truth that can be known, 2) that we should try to discern that truth. It is curiosity in search of truth. The truth is the judge, not the observer.

        Now, if we turn to so-called ‘critical thinking’, the word ‘critical’ in it means to seek out errors. That is a substantial difference in tone. The observer comes to a matter already prejudiced by the belief that there are errors to be found. He is no longer trying to find the truth, he is trying to find the errors. The observer has set himself up as the judge, the truth is no longer the judge. Finding the errors is not the same thing as finding the truth for the simple reason that the truth is a much larger thing. It can be a nuanced thing, difficult to grasp, whose appearance varies as you change context and viewpoint. Finding the errors will not reveal this.

        Thus the critical thinker comes to a matter with a judgemental bias. This bias taps into his pre-existing prejudices. Worse than that, the practice of so-called ‘critical thinking’ appeals to the petty hubris of the pseudo-intelligentsia. There is a selection effect that draws in judgemental people with a high opinion of their own intellect. They tend to be people who love the schadenfreude of celebrating other people’s errors. Their gleeful derision can be so shrill that it drowns out their own thought processes. Their rigid certainty blinds them to the nuances of life.

        A little example will illustrate the difference. The ‘critical thinker’ will denounce Christmas as a pagan festival smuggled into a superstitious religion to celebrate the birth of a mythological figure linked to an imaginary deity. Having ‘revealed’ the many errors he will high-five his fellow atheists with delight and enjoy the discomfiture of the Christians. He found a catalogue of errors that neatly confirmed his metaphysical prejudices, giving him a warm glow of superiority and the satisfaction of humiliating Christians. That is how ‘critical thinking’ is practiced today. This thinking can be seen right across the Internet.

        Is this curiosity in search of truth? No, it is prejudice in search of confirmation, motivated by base emotion. Smuggling in that little word ‘critical’ changes everything.

        Curiosity in search of truth come to the matter in an open way. It consciously sets aside what might be prejudices. It is open to the possibility that the truth may be unexpected or surprising, even unwelcome. It searches through the problem domain, seeking understanding, not condemnation. It recognises the possibility that truth can be coloured by context and milieu. It is aware of the dangers of presentism. It understands the role of allegory and metaphor, recognising how they change over time. Curiosity in search of truth enjoys the search and thrills to the discoveries of new insights. It does not seek out victims to humiliate. It seeks to inform and persuade with cogent reasoning, sound insights and sympathetic understanding.

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