A Course for Critical Thinking
By Michael Boyle
In light of Dan Kaufman’s recent essay on the humanities, I’d like to sketch out an example of one kind of response, in one small humanities course, to some of the problems that he has identified. Not coincidentally, we are friends and colleagues, teaching in the same department, and so his concerns regarding the challenges facing humanities departments at large state universities like ours are also mine.
A number of years ago, I was assigned to teach the department’s Critical Thinking courses. At the time, the course was taught in a fashion not uncommon in the United States: lots of deduction and in general, a dry and boring class that did not engender much interest. Taking over the course, I decided to essentially redesign the content, having in mind a number of things that Dan K has pointed out, including a desire to make the class relevant to students’ everyday lives and to help them navigate a university system that does little to explain why the humanities are needed, beyond offering some boilerplate regarding moral virtue and good citizenship.
My goal, here, is simply to give an overall description of what I do in the course and why, so as to demonstrate one way of addressing some of the problems Dan highlighted in his essay. This is not intended as a general answer to the issues he raised, nor am I arguing that this approach is necessarily a template applicable to other classes.
The first problem with many critical thinking classes is that there is far too much of an emphasis on deductive logic. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the primary form of reasoning we use in everyday life is induction. Thus, if a critical thinking class is supposed to enable students to apply reason in more productive ways in their own lives, spending too much time on deduction is counterproductive. Secondly, when such content is taught in a dry and uninteresting fashion, it is easy for students to think that knowing how to deduce correctly means that they are now proficient critical thinkers. Students are thus left with a misimpression about what being a critical thinker is; that it is simply a matter of spitting out the right answer, in a disengaged fashion, sometimes known as the “banking model” of learning. Honors students today are especially susceptible to this.
I want to be careful to note, however, that I do cover the basic elements of deduction, although this is a minority of the total course content. The basic use which I see in teaching deduction is the same use that I see, ultimately, for of the rest of the material in the course, and that is for its dispositional effect. Some deduction is useful, insofar as it requires students to pay more attention to how sentences and arguments are structured and interconnected and what follows from what, encouraging the sorts of good habits, overall, that are essential for critical and reflective decision making and observation.
Another major problem with critical thinking courses, as they are typically taught, concerns the introduction of informal fallacies. As with much of deductive logic, it is easy for students to acquire the mistaken impression that identifying such things is a simple and uncomplicated matching exercise, and the result is commonly a depressing, mechanical application of these fallacies in arguments. I try to get my students to see that this is a mistake. After all, the correct application of these fallacies is highly sensitive to context, and some, depending on the circumstances, are not fallacies at all but rather, the opposite — as when I make an appeal to the authority of the car mechanic, when trying to figure out why my car won’t start.
Beyond these brief units on deduction and informal fallacies, the bulk of my course focuses on three topics, covered sequentially: 1) the use and misuse of language; 2) the workings of language, especially as described by the later Wittgenstein and 3) the structure of knowledge, focusing on distinctions between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, in terms of things like fact vs. value and objectivity vs. subjectivity.
The Use and Misuse of Language
The section, on the use and misuse of language, centers especially on the emotive function of language; that is, the use of language to trigger emotional responses. With the demise of the Enlightenment model of rationality, in the wake of developments in social sciences (particularly psychology), which have demonstrated the often tenuous hold that reason has over us and the importance of irrational and often unconscious emotional factors in our behavior, introducing students to this aspect of language is crucial. Crucial for the development of self-awareness of their own vulnerabilities and for becoming more aware of the use of language and other means of communication, whose purpose is to trigger their behavior, via the activation of emotions. Among the materials we cover are selections from Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, Colin McGinn’s Mindfucking, and George Orwell’s 1984, as well as his essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
The work of Bernays lays out clearly the problems of a rational model of human nature, particularly in the modern industrialized world. First, Bernays makes clear that advances in psychology indicate that our reasons for action are often not at all transparent to us. This fundamental diagnosis has survived the decline of Freud’s theories of sexual psychodynamics and is being reinvigorated both by emerging research on the “New Unconscious” (basically backing up Freud’s essential insight with empirical data), as well as the incorporation of irrationality into Behavioral Economics. Aside from this (and even if people were as rational as the democratic myth says that they are), Bernays notes that there are structural limitations to the exercise of reason, given the time constraints on the ordinary person and the vast proliferation of products. Given this, he says, it makes sense for “special pleaders” to tap into “emotional currents” in order to narrow down one’s choices and steer the consumption of products.
In addition to the external time constraints and internal psychological limitations of the consumer, Bernays believed that advertising was also important for the maintenance of a healthy balance between supply and demand, especially given the vastly superior capacity of industrial technology to produce enormous amounts of goods. Advertising in terms of brand development and recognition was already in place by 1900, driven in part by the developments in continuous-processing technology whereby factories produced enormous amounts of goods which needed a corresponding demand. Bernays took these developments and argued for advertising not on the basis of simple repetition of brand names, but on the conscious manipulation of the emotions of the consumer, a more effective way to both increase and produce demand for goods.
Colin McGinn’s Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation, published in 2014, is a self-conscious successor to Harry Frankfurt’s 2009 On Bullshit. McGinn identifies two broad uses of the term ‘mindfucking’: one is benign, signaling the acquisition of a new perspective on things (he thinks philosophy a paradigm example), while the other is negative, indicating the manipulation, via the emotions, of an individual. McGinn, invoking an unstated Kantian ethical framework of dignity tied to rationality, argues that mindfucking in its negative sense is fundamentally immoral and that the vulgarity of the term is indicative of the action. The connotation of involuntary penetration and domination is made explicit, as McGinn outlines how both the liar and the bullshitter of Frankfurt’s book operate at a cognitive level that does not require access to the emotions. The mindfucker, by contrast, is more dangerous and more adept, since his actions employ more “psychological machinery” and entail the victim not only believing something untrue, but also being fully engaged with the falsehood emotionally.
An additional element present in mindfucking but not, per se, in lying or bullshitting, is that the victim helps the aggressor, insofar as one is made vulnerable via one’s own emotions. McGinn puts this delicately: “This is not to blame the victim; it is merely to point out that he plays a non-trivial causal role in his own demise.” Acknowledging that “[w]e are all…more or less comprehensively mindfucked, from womb to tomb…,” McGinn is nevertheless hopeful, since he believes that multiple instances of the phenomenon in competition with one another can cancel much of their effect. Although it is made very clear in class that economically speaking, advertising involving the manipulation of emotions is useful and perhaps even necessary, given our modern models of business and the practical reasons adduced by Bernays, students are typically troubled by McGinn’s moral analysis, particularly when we then apply the same insights to children’s advertising in the US, which was deregulated in 1980.
The two works by Orwell touch on, respectively, the idea that language can directly impact thought by removing words from circulation and the less extreme notion that language and thought can at least mutually influence each other, in either a negative or positive feedback spiral. The first is illustrated by a conversation, described in Chapter 5 of 1984, while the second is discussed in “Politics and the English Language.”
In the 1984 selection, the main action takes place in a canteen in England, now known as “Airstrip One,” which is part of a political super-state called “Oceania,” run by a totalitarian party (Ingsoc), modelled on Stalin’s USSR. In this futuristic (as of the publication date, 1949) society, English (Oldspeak) is being transformed into a more “modern” dialect, called “Newspeak.” In its tenth edition, Newspeak is being revised for its 11th version, a parody of the great 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The conversation in the canteen is between the novel’s main character, Winston Smith, and one of the top bureaucrats working on this 11th edition, Syme. Syme’s description of Newspeak indicates that it is essentially designed as a soft form of lobotomization, illustrated by Ingsoc’s motto (War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength) and by notions like doublethink (holding two contrary ideas in one’s mind simultaneously), both of which attack fundamental logical laws, like the Principle of Excluded Middle. Syme goes on to describe how the vast majority of the populace are subhuman and worthy of no consideration anyway. Toward the end of the chapter Winston describes a character I have dubbed “The Man With the Eyeless Face,” the description for which Orwell borrows directly from his own “Politics and the English Language” essay, published two years earlier in 1947. The character is someone else in the canteen spouting Ingsoc propaganda, as if on autopilot, with no evidence that any higher critical faculties are engaged. In effect, he is an example of someone lobotomized by way of the destruction of language.
In his “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell bookends the piece by describing the feedback spiral between language and thought, comparing the negative spiral to the case of a drunkard who, for reasons of misfortune, begins to drink and then, because the drink causes more misfortune, ends up drinking all the more. Highlighting a variety of compositional sins that render language opaque, Orwell is especially keen (given that the kind of language he is focused on is political) to push back against pseudo-scientific language in favor of shorter, clearer wordings with concrete imagery. As an example, he takes a famous passage from the Authorized Version’s translation of Ecclesiastes and reworks it using the sort of multisyllabic, quasi-technical speech he opposes, noting that the latter lacks both the precision and clarity of imagery contained in the original Jacobean text.
Opposed to the uses of clichés, because they numb one’s engagement with the matter at hand, Orwell compares political speech to a dummy that has words exiting his mouth but whose brain is disconnected from any original thought — this is the initial version of the Man With the Eyeless Face seen later in 1984. Moreover, meaning itself is often obscured in politics by the pernicious employment of euphemisms, whose employment re: the emotions is almost the inverse of the language used in advertising. In the latter, our emotions are tapped in order to create or expand desire; with political euphemisms, the emotions are lulled to sleep by vague speech which only obliquely indicates its denotation. Students understand this point immediately, when we apply it to the recent discussions in the United States of torture described as “enhanced interrogation.” At the end of the piece, Orwell argues that his purpose is not simply negative, but to argue for the positive feedback spiral. When we demand more clarity in our speech, our thoughts will be correspondingly clearer, which will then produce even more improved speech. This positive process, Orwell believed, was essential if democracy was to survive and flourish.
The Workings of Language
The second part of the course is an in-depth discussion of how language works, having as its centerpiece the work of the Later Wittgenstein, paired with selections from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Part of the purpose of this section is not only to discuss how language works, but also to have students gain a better appreciation for rules as expressions of agreements that are embedded in practices, which constitute what Wittgenstein calls a “Form of Life.” These agreements make up what Wittgenstein will call a “language game,” where ‘game’ is meant in the sense that the rules are determined like the rules in a game — by you and me. When seen in this way, rules cease being the often unchanging, static entities that today’s youngsters, buried in regulations up to their ears from pre-school on, often think they are.
In terms of rules embedded in practices, it is important for students to also appreciate Wittgenstein’s distinction, laid out in the Philosophical Investigations, between rule-following described as a sort of action/reaction behavior and rule-following in its fullest sense, what it means to actually follow a rule. The former description simply describes rule-following behavior in a stripped-down, causal way, as if one was describing the action of a circus animal. Humans, of course, are not circus-animals, so our rule-following is something more. Namely, it is exhibiting a practice by becoming party to an agreement (which is all rules are – repeated instances of agreement) that is part of a community. In this sense, all learning and education is a sort of process of initiation into the repeated agreements we call rules.
There is also the rule-following paradox highlighted by Wittgenstein, wherein he points out that future iterations of rule-governed behavior may diverge from those in the past. If a child learns the rule “+2”, and he writes down a series of numbers such that I am confident he knows the rule (i.e., has been successfully initiated into the agreements and hence practice of the community), how do I know he will continue this way on some future occasion? And how do I myself know how to go on? How do I know that the interpretation of the rule will be the same, that the meaning will be what I think it is? The solution, following John McDowell and Stanley Cavell, is that both we and the child know how to go on and how to interpret future occasions of the rule because we are members of a community that indicates what the correct interpretation of the rule (and any rule) is, via the public agreements to which we are parties.
The sense of vertigo, as McDowell calls it, that such a picture of rules and language use induces, is also present in Wittgenstein’s famous “Beetle in the Box” thought experiment, whereby he asks us to imagine language as if all of us were using the word beetle and all of us had a box but only we ourselves knew if there was a beetle, and no one else could look inside. Just like I cannot look inside anyone else’s head to see if what I think they are referring to or understand me as saying is really there, I can’t look inside anyone else’s box to see if there is really a beetle inside. The meaning of the word is thus not something communicated mind to mind via language, but rather refers to the use of the word, as per public agreement.
The upshot of this is to demonstrate that a private language is impossible, because meanings refer to public usage, not inner beetles that we can’t see. Even our private thoughts are really just applications of public agreements. The rule-following paradox is not designed to unsettle us, in terms of creating uncertainty as to whether we or others will go on in the same way in the future. It is to make us realize that the fact that we do go on unproblematically has to do with the public agreements governing meaning that are embedded in practices and which are part of our Form of Life. It is because we are part of a community with others that we have confidence we are communicating at all and that all of us know how to go on. Rules are not, as McDowell reminds us, magical rails which we dutifully follow. This is simply a “consoling myth.” We are responsible for meaning, for rules, and for the agreements of which they are a reflection.
The final Wittgenstein material introduced to my students is taken from his last work, On Certainty. Here, the idea of hinge propositions is introduced, the idea that there are many propositions/beliefs which we hold about the world, most of which we are largely unaware of, because they are simply assumed and part and parcel of our understanding of how the world works. For example, I believe that the earth has existed for a long time and that I did not pop into existence a few minutes ago. I am typically not even conscious of such a belief, although if pressed I would of course agree. These unspoken beliefs are the core of one’s understanding of the world, the hinges on which, if the rest of language is like a door, the door itself turns. This is why Wittgenstein argues that our beliefs are ultimately groundless, in the sense that our hinge propositions are axiomatic — taken for granted — and are thus not subject to proof, since they make all the rest of our system of knowlege possible.
There are a number of areas in which Lewis Carroll’s work helps to illuminate Wittgenstein’s ideas. The whole business of rules and what they are is a constant theme throughout, partly because of Alice’s difficulties with induction and with applying and remembering the rules of the primary world, but also because there are games within the story whose rules seem nonexistent or arbitrary. In addition, there are significant conversations that touch on the problem of private language, in which characters try to invent the meanings of words by themselves, which is impossible, for the reasons already discussed but also because, as Wittgenstein points out, one’s memory cannot be a criterion for correctness on pain of an infinite regress of memories. The Cheshire Cat, in the first book, and Humpty-Dumpty, in the second, try to do this.
A practical application of all this material from Wittgenstein is then given, by introducing the students to the ordinary understanding and public conception of the Fifth Amendment’s provision against self-incrimination, and the actual understanding and conception of this right by the judiciary. The amendment, contrary to what 99% of Americans believe, is as much for the protection of the innocent as the guilty. The invocation of such a right at trial, however, has exactly the opposite effect on the jury, given that they don’t understand this. The prosecutor knows, which is why he or she is happy for you to recite it in the usual fashion all day long, each time telegraphing to the jury that you are in reality the guilty party. Thus, we have an example of differing agreements resulting in different practices and language games, with often dire consequences for defendants.
The Structure of Knowledge
The last section of the course deals with the various divisions of knowledge at the university, focusing in particular on the humanities, natural sciences, and the social sciences. A central theme of this third section is the Two Cultures Debate, the 150 year-old quarrel between the sciences and the humanities. A number of different thinkers and works are discussed, from both philosophy and the humanities in general, including C. P. Snow (who coined the phrase “The Two Cultures” in the 1950’s), Lionel Trilling, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Nagel, and Norton Juster. Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is an American children’s book, published in 1961. It is particularly useful, since the entire book is about the quarrel of the humanities with the sciences, told via a classic quest narrative.
The purpose of the third section is to get students to pay more attention to the courses they take and in particular, the sorts of questions asked by the various disciplines of which the courses are a part. Which fields of study deal with facts and which with Ends and why? Which fields of study focus on the objective, external world and which investigate subjective experience? Why are questions of fact as well as of value important? This approach to understanding what they are doing in college is designed not only to help students comprehend the constituent divisions of knowledge at the university, but to give them a better idea of what they will be doing in the various courses required for general education. The hope is to empower them to make more informed decisions about future coursework and degree trajectories.
Snow’s work, published in 1959, railed against the humanities-heavy curriculum of the Oxbridge of his day, and excoriated the humanities, while praising the sciences (particularly applied science) and the Industrial Revolution. According to Snow, the humanities had been out to lunch during the Industrial Revolution, pining for a Luddite paradise, they had ignored the Industrial Revolution, and the antipathy toward science made humanities people the equivalent of Stone Age men, when discussing modern science and technology.
The heart of Snow’s argument lies in his attempt to bridge the fact/value distinction, by arguing that science contains within it a positive, forward-looking moral core (“scientists have the future in their bones”) that aims for the betterment of humanity, simply in virtue of what it does. The humanities make poor value judgements, while science has a positive vision of the future that is inherent to it. And since applied science is the foundation of the Industrial Revolution, the key to alleviating global poverty, and essential to bridging the Cold War divide (by virtue of science being a sort of universal language), it should take the lead both politically and in terms of Britain’s curriculum.
Notwithstanding the obvious philosophical difficulties of bridging the fact/value divide, basic errors in terms of literature’s alleged non- engagement with the Industrial Revolution (a point made by Trilling in detail), and the simplistic approach to politics, there are a number of positive things regarding Snow’s work. First is his emphasis on the importance of science, especially in light of the Industrial Revolution, which he correctly notes is the most significant global change in human life, since the domestication of plants and animals. In light of this, his plea for a greater knowledge of science will be readily endorsed by both Leavis and Trilling. Furthermore, in his analysis of the alleviation of poverty in the third world, he makes a prescient prediction regarding the next few decades. In particular, he sharply criticizes racist attitudes towards less developed, non-white nations, warning the West that industrialization and technological knowledge has no color barrier and that the speed of industrialization historically accelerates, as global industrialization progresses. The third world will soon be knocking on the doors of the first, so we had best get our educational house in order, which for Snow means more science.
Snow’s British critic, F. R. Leavis, went after him, in part, for his impoverished conception of Ends, which reduce the question of human flourishing to the lowest common denominator of material prosperity. This is the key ingredient in his counter-argument, regarding the importance of the humanities. Trilling, Leavis’ American counterpart, after sharply criticizing Snow’s mistaken view of literature’s response to the Industrial Revolution, turns the tables on the question of who exactly is out of touch. He reminds Snow that his picture of science taking the lead is naïve, since science only gets done once the political will is in place. And politics is itself an arena in which ends battle for supremacy. And in terms of Ends, there is no resource richer than the humanities.
The Lewis and Nagel readings are introduced to remind students that the subjective world that we often encounter, via the humanities, is just as important in terms of human experience as the objective world of science. Moreover, as both Lewis and Nagel argue, our current conceptions of objective explanations make it clear that a full description of subjective experiences eludes the objective net of scientific explanation.
Lewis, in his 1945 essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” remarks that the most sophisticated external description of a young man in love (an objective description or what Lewis called “looking-at”), comes nowhere near explaining what the young man is actually experiencing (subjective experience or “looking- along”). Moreover, Lewis also notes that all instances of looking-at presuppose looking-along, since even an objective observation is made while having a subjective experience. Both looking-at and looking-along are required, if we are to have a full understanding of the world.
Thomas Nagel’s famous 1973 article “What is it like to be a bat?” makes some similar points, although in terms of the problem of consciousness. Pointing out that consciousness is a phenomena that is presumably shared by other animals, he then asks if we can give a full, objective explanation of what it is like to be a bat, an animal he chooses to prevent the reader from cheating, by making an analogical analysis. That is, the bat uses sonar and so we won’t be able to simply say that his consciousness is sort of like ours but simpler, as we might with a cat or dog.
Simply mimicking a bat’s behavior is a non-starter, since that gets us no closer to what it feels like to be a bat. In addition, there is a larger problem touched on more than once by Nagel, which concerns a fundamental difficulty of explaining subjectivity objectively. Objective explanations involve a sort of 360 degree, omnidirectional view of a phenomenon, whereas subjectivity is unidirectional and unique to the individual. Moreover, the closer we get to an objective explanation, the further away we are from the very phenomenon we are trying to explain. Nagel hypothesizes that this may ultimately be a structural limitation on human beings such that subjectivity is a phenomenon we know but which we cannot fully explain in terms of an objective explanation.
Juster’s novel is an attempt to answer one basic question that causes a crisis for the protagonist, a young boy named Milo: why should I bother with knowledge and learning at all? Propelled on a journey to The Lands Beyond and picking up quest mates along the way, Milo’s journey is like a modern student’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with the entire quest full of characters and locations representing aspects of or obstacles to knowledge. His quest is to reunite the lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis (the Humanities and the Sciences), via the rescue of two princesses, Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. They are stepsisters of Azaz the Unabridged and The Mathemagician, two brothers, whose territories encompass the old kingdom of Wisdom. A recurring theme of the story is that both lands exhibit various signs of disorder, a disorder which will be rectified, once the princesses are rescued and the lands reunited.
One of the most powerful scenes in the book comes toward the end, when Milo wearily sits with the two sisters. He apologizes for all the mistakes that he has made, and they console him, each one giving him important advice. Sweet Reason, paragon of the sciences and of matters of fact, tells Milo not to fret over his mistakes, but to profit from them, by realizing why he made them. Sweet Rhyme, paragon of the humanities and of questions concerning Ends, also has some advice for the young hero. She tells him that what her sister advises is important, but that it is also crucial to know what one learns something for, the End of knowing something and more generally, of learning itself.
This, then is a brief overview of selected materials, concepts, and themes which we cover in my Critical Thinking class, an introductory freshman- level general education course. Students are introduced to the use and abuse of language, the structure and mechanisms of language and rules, as seen through the work of the Later Wittgenstein, and the framework of knowledge itself, in terms of unpacking important distinctions amongst the disciplines, whose courses they are taking. It is my hope (a hope that has been confirmed in student evaluations, e-mail correspondence, and cards and letters) that such a course provides a bit of clarity to students in their university education, supplies them with tools for more effective critical thought in their engagement with everyday life, and begins to shed some light on why both the humanities and the sciences are their patrimony and essential for their own self-understanding as human beings.