A Short Piece Inspired by “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose

Critical People Aren’t Critical Thinkers

Just because we’re critical of something doesn’t mean we’re critically thinking about it.

Photo by Lou Levit

It’s unfortunate we decided to run with the phrase “critical thinking”: we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and confusion had we stuck with “deep thinking” or “dynamic thinking.” Instead, we strapped ourselves to a language that suggests we’re profound and insightful if we’re insulting; as a result, someone who criticizes something seems to be someone “who knows what they’re talking about.” This puts a lot of social capital in the hands of people who are hard to please, and I think Charlie Munger is right: “Show me the incentives and I will show you the outcome.In a world where “critical thinking” is associated with “criticizing,” it’s smart to be difficult.

Episode #28: Critical People Aren’t Critical Thinkers

If I criticize the government for its tax policy, have I really thought about taxes? I’ve thought about it enough to criticize it, sure, but do I know with what I would replace the tax system? Have I considered all the tradeoffs of one system versus the other, all the pros and cons? Am I really so sure that I could do better? Well, the beauty is, I don’t have to consider all that to be a “critical thinker” in the world today: all I have to do is deconstruct. Now, I think Derrida himself understood deconstruction must always lead to reconstruction, but I’m afraid we didn’t get that memo: we think “deconstruction” is all we need to do to prove our intelligence and increase our social standings. And wanting to stay “smart” in the eyes of others, we never transition to “acceptance” and “construction,” and so nothing new is ever established, only pondered.

It takes a second or two to kick down a sandcastle, but it can take hours to build an elaborate one. If society doesn’t make it clear that building a sandcastle is a true act of “deep thinking,” but instead puts all the social capital and honor on the side of kicking the sandcastle down, then it shouldn’t surprise us if we see a lot of destroyed sandcastles (and a lot fewer new ones). I mean, why bother? Building a nice sandcastle can be hard, and if no one honors us for it, beyond intrinsic valuation, why do it? And why do it especially if all the honor is going to the people who kick the castles down effortlessly? Seems irrational, especially considering how existentially difficult creation can prove to be.

Now, there’s something to be said about “being critical” in the sense that we shouldn’t just “take things as they present themselves.” By “critical,” what is generally meant is “be skeptical” and “don’t just assume that what you believe is true is in fact true.” And that’s good advice, but it’s erroneous to assume that “surfaces” can’t be true or that “givens” must be false. Unfortunately, “critical thinking” biases us to assume that we cease being intelligent once we accept things or consider something “good.” We’re incentivized to always be critical, even if what’s “presented” to us is best, because an intelligent person is “a critical thinker.” If we ever accept “how things are,” we’ve stopped being critical, which suggests we’ve been fooled.

The language of “critical thinking” has confused us — how much better off would we have been at we stuck with something like “dynamic thinking” instead. A “dynamic thinker” will sometimes accept the status quo, will sometimes reject it, and is also always open to new possibilities. Sometimes, being “heterodox” and thinking “outside the box” and against institutions is wrong — it’s sometimes best to accept the authorities. And yet “critical thinking” is a metaphor that makes it out to be the case that we can’t accept such an outcome: the metaphoric language is far too one-sided in favor of us always being “against.”

Alluding to Sontag and Deleuze, metaphors “capture” us more than we realize, and I fear we have indeed been captured by the language of “critical thinking.” We need language that suggests thinking is not merely a responsive act, but also active and creative. “Constructive feedback” suggests we only construct when we are “responding” to something that someone else made, which places the burden to create on others and off of us. If we are the ones giving “feedback,” we are the ones who need to be pleased: we don’t need to take any risks or “stick our neck out there.” In fact, the smart one is the judge: our metaphoric language of “intelligence” favors those who “critique,” while the creative is left with only connotations of being a fool.

“Critical thinking” suggests that intelligent people attack more than build, and the language for being intelligent is more negative than affirming. Yes, we give “constructive criticism,” but, again, note how the use of the term “constructive” is in the context of “criticism.” This suggests we only construct when we are “building” on what others have done. It is never smart to take the first step: we should let others wage those battles, and then let us use their sweat and blood to affirm our intelligence over theirs. You see, in the majority of cases, whenever the language of “constructive” is used in the context of intelligence, it’s negated by the next clause in the phrase. We don’t commonly discuss “constructive thinking” or “constructive analysis,” and this likely shapes us subconsciously.

Only adding to the problem, we associate “certainty” with “being informed,” and so when we feel certain in our criticism, we feel all the more intelligent and discerning in it. Furthermore, if we feel certain about “x,” we tend to assume that we must have done the work to be justified in believing x: we ad hoc a lifetime of work that was never done. On the other hand, there is little certainty in “creative thought”: it is full of doubt and anxiety, but it is “creative thought” that makes the world. If people associate “certainty” with thinking, creative acts will dissipate.

Finally, we tend to associate “critical thinking” with “critical care,” with fatalism and emergencies. We believe that if we are thinking about something dire, we must be “critically thinking,” because we are “thinking about something that is critical.” But I can think foolishly about something that matters, and if I’m “just critical” in a “critical situation” — as I’ll likely think I should be — I’ll probably make it worse. Critical situations don’t need critical thinking, but usually creative thinking, but we’ve mostly “bracketed that thinking out” and reserved it for “creatives” and “entrepreneurs.” As a result, we critique and set ourselves up for nothing new.

What are some better phrases than “critical thinker?” Well, as Davood Gozli suggested, “contrarian thinker” is certainly an improvement metaphorically over “critical thinker,” for that language suggests “investment” and “risk,” which means we must do more than just “say something critical.” “A thought critic” is a phrase I also like, for it removes “critical” but keeps the “critique” element. We need “thought critics,” who I associate with “movie critics” in the paper “On Critical Thinking,” but it is not necessarily the case that “a person being critical” is “a person being a thought critic.” Unfortunately, as already argued, the metaphoric language of “critical” contributes to this conflation, which absolves us the responsibility to “do the work of thinking,” because we can be thought of as “doing that work” just by being negative. In this way, the social incentives are problematic.

Associating perceptiveness with criticizing, we’ve created a society that is overly-deconstructive and eager not to be creative but judgmental: furthermore, we tend to only start thinking when there’s no time to think. Metaphors aren’t destinies, but they do shape our futures, and what kind of future awaits a people who don’t think it’s intelligent to shape?

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