An Essay Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose
On Critical Thinking
Existential Empathy, Irony, and Love
No one who lacks critical thinking thinks they lack critical thinking, for it takes critical thinking to realize you lack it. Hence, when it comes to defining critical thinking, we are presented with a paradox. To start, no one reading this paper will think they need to read it, for no one thinks they aren’t familiar with critical thinking, and yet this sense of familiarity is precisely why a person would need to read this paper. There will be readers who can critically think and those who cannot, yet everyone will think they belong in the first camp, for who doesn’t think they exercise critical thinking? And this is precisely why this work is necessary and precisely why it seems unnecessary. Critically thinking is surrounded by irony and paradox.
On second thought, who is even thinking about critical thinking and whether or not they exercise it? Hence, the problem: we listen to plenty of graduation and presidential speeches about the importance of critical thinking, but how many of us actually think about whether or not we can, in fact, critically think? Don’t we actually, without even realizing it, assume that we can and that everyone else (especially with whom we disagree) can’t? We don’t think we think this out of bias, but because we think our positions are well thought out (or at least true), and so those who don’t share our positions must be, by definition, those whose thoughts are not as well thought out as our own (and so, in a sense, not well thought out at all). We can’t truly believe that those who disagree with us are people who can critically think; we must, in some sense, think they aren’t as critical as we are, for if we didn’t, we would share their views. In other words, we cannot truly believe someone who disagrees with us is as critical as us (though we may claim and tell ourselves otherwise), for if we did, we wouldn’t disagree with them: we’d think like them.
We may of course say we think someone with whom we disagree is smart, but there must be a degree to which we don’t mean this; we must be, in some way, lying or not aware of what we are saying. And yet if we are right and what we think is true, there is a sense in which it is true that those who disagree with us aren’t, in a way, as smart as we are (though it is of course possible for an idiot to luckily say a true thing that a genius never realizes). But how can we know this is the case versus just assume this is the case (which is what we naturally do and don’t even realize we do, since we naturally lack critical thought)? And if we naturally don’t critically think (and so naturally think we don’t lack critical thinking), how can we ever come to realize we are not “assuming this to be the case?” We seem stuck.
Since people need critical thinking to know they lack it, it is very possible that people could talk about the need for critical thinking and not have it. Furthermore, it is possible that someone could talk about the tragedy of modern education and about how students today are only interested in knowing what they need to know to pass a test versus what they need to know to live, and yet be one of the very people who contribute to and propagate this devolution. For who thinks they participate in the loss of critical thinking (seeing as it would take critical thinking to know this)? Yet surely someone is responsible, and yet who can truly think they are? And if we are to determine who is responsible for the loss of critical thinking, we would need critical thinking to accomplish this task, and yet everyone, by definition, must believe they are qualified, making determining “who’s who” very difficult. And how are we to know who has critical thinking to know who is capable of identifying who lacks it? We would need critical thinking to make this assessment, which of course we, dear reader, think we possess. We must, for if we have critical thinking, we know you have critical thinking, for we can critically think about how we critically think; but if we lack critical thinking, we don’t have the critical thinking to know we lack it. Hence, everyone reading this paper must think they can critically think. Likewise, no one who hears that the world needs more critical thinking is going to think that they are one of the people who needs to start thinking critically. Those in need aren’t aware of their need.
As I hope is clear to us now, when it comes to critical thinking, our situation is dire, precisely because those who lack critical thinking cannot know it is dire. And yet there is hope, for the realization of the direness of our situation is the beginning of our prevailing over it, for it is the beginning of critical thought. And so, at this point, no one reading this paper is completely incapable of critical thinking. We’ve come a long way, though there’s still a long way to go.
How does one experience a lack of critical thinking? What does it feel like?
Well, it feels like critical thinking, hence the problem.
Generally, how life feels to the critical thinker is identical to how it feels to those who do not critically think. Yes, there are moments in which one who engages in critical thinking, in the act itself, feels that which those who do not critically think do not experience, and we shall explore those “existential moments” later. But primarily, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference, because the difference lies primarily in perspective. There is a difference in what is seen, not in what is felt, and since the one who doesn’t critically think necessarily has the “perspective” that he or she does, how is a person to know if he or she sees differently from others (seeing that no one can occupy other consciousnesses)? As will be discussed, the answer seems to be tied up to whether we have had certain “existential experiences,” but even if the person has, there is always room for doubt (for there is always the possibility of forgetting what one has experienced).
Perspective is tricky. If we are wearing red sunglasses, which we cannot feel and don’t know we’re wearing, we have no reason to believe that things are not in fact red. All evidence suggests and even “proves” that things are red; relative to our scope, “omni-redness” “appears” as an objective fact. Our only hope for overcoming this “objective view” is to realize we are wearing red sunglasses. But why would we ever think this, seeing that we’ve never seen any other color than red? Perhaps someone tells us that the world isn’t red, that we are wearing red sunglasses, but what reason would we have to believe this person? We have never seen evidence to even suggest the possibility that what the person says is true. The very idea of “not seeing red” couldn’t even be communicated to us (meaningfully), because we’ve never seen anything but red: we have never experienced a phenomenon to which the phrase “not red” could meaningfully refer. What the person tells us is incomprehensible: it’s like they speak to us in a language that we don’t know. And yet the person is right, but how could we know?
In this case, to obtain a view reality, we must believe in that which our view of reality gives us no reason to believe. At best, the person could explain to us how wearing a particular color of sunglasses would mis-color the world, yet we would have no reason (in experience) to think that we were, in fact, wearing such glasses. Learning this, perhaps it would motivate us to attempt to remove the glasses, which we have no reason to think we wear. Hopefully, in learning that people see the world as if they critically think though they don’t necessarily critically think, we will be motivated to check and see if we are “wearing the glasses.” If we do feel the glasses, it will then be up to us to remember this moment for the rest of our life.
To realize we lack critical thinking, we must believe that which our lack of critical thinking gives us no reason to believe. And the moment we do so, we will have begun to critically think, for we will ask, “Do I critically think?” And upon inquiring this of ourselves (like the one who asks, “Am I wearing red sunglasses?”), though we may not feel differently, the way that we see the world will be forever changed.
So what happens now, now that we’ve asked, “Do I critically think?”
Two questions should be answered:
“Who am I?” (For if we do not know who we are, we cannot know who it is that does or doesn’t critically think, and therefore we must answer this question to know for sure that it is we who, in fact, critically think.)
“What is critical thinking?” (For if we do not know what critical thinking is, even though we know who we are, we do not know in what thinking we engage.)
In what order should these questions be answered (assuming they can be answered at all)?
Well, until we know what critical thinking is, we will lack the ability to determine who we are. And so we must begin with defining critical thinking, and from this will perhaps come the answer to the question “Who am I?”
So, what is critical thinking?
(Before moving on, we should acknowledge the possibility that perhaps we are astray, that perhaps this entire inquiry is a waste of time. For, truth be told, most people don’t think about critical thinking, so any inquiry we have about the topic is destined to fall on few ears. Many cheer for critical thinking, but few actually seek to identify what constitutes it. But doesn’t this very fact highlight the necessity of the inquiry? For does not the very fact that people do not think about critical thinking show that there is a lack of critical thinking (for naturally one who critically thinks would think about critical thinking)? Or perhaps not: we’d need critical thinking to tell, and if we lack it, we cannot tell.)
Critical thinking is unnatural; if it weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be so many speeches about the need for more of it. This is for it is unnatural to be skeptical of oneself; in fact, one’s self seems to be the one thing a person doesn’t have to be skeptical of (for it is the standard by which an individual judges “what one needs to be skeptical of” from “what one doesn’t need to be skeptical of”). In being this standard, the self seems like it doesn’t need to be judged, for it is the standard that makes judgment possible. Furthermore, by what standard could a person judge their self by? And yet it is this “standard” of self that we must be critical of if we are to engage in critical thinking, and yet it seems as if we lack anything within us that could provide a different standard against which we could be critical of our own “standard” of self. This hints at the importance of empathy, others, and dialectics, as will be addressed later on.
The self seems to be the constant and standard by which all else can be questioned, and yet we must be skeptical of ourselves (even though it seems impossible, we lacking a standard by which to judge our “standard” of self). It should be noted that to say “we should be skeptical of ourselves” is not the same as saying “everything we think is false”; in fact, everything a person thinks could be true, and yet that person should still be skeptical of his or her self. A common mistake is to think that one is only to be skeptical of what seems to be false, when in fact we are also to be skeptical of what seems to be true. Skepticism is not the same as disbelief (as expounded on by “The Death of Skepticism” by O.G. Rose): to be skeptical of oneself is not the same as disbelieving everything one thinks (one couldn’t live this way). Rather, to be skeptical is to be in a constant state of questioning “why” one believes what he or she believes: it is to have an “openness” to the possibility of change, redefinition, and nuance, a constant dialectical “checking and balancing” of “whatever is solid” to assure the solidness is justified (even if we can never be entirely sure that it should be solid). This “why” and “openness” are the soil from which critical thinking can sprout.
What is the difference between thinking and critical thinking? If we are to talk about “critical thinking,” there must be simple thinking, yes? Why do we need critical thinking as opposed to thinking? What is it that one does when he or she critically thinks versus when he or she simply thinks that is so advantageous?
To live is to think. We think about eating, going places, what we had for breakfast, what someone is saying, etc. — it would be impossible to go through a day and not think a thought. But is it impossible to go through a day and not critically think? Today, the problem doesn’t seem to be that people don’t think, but that they don’t critically think. To critically think entails being critical of thinking itself: it is to be a “thinking critic,” per se. If I am a movie critic, I am someone who is critical of movies, not so much in a negative sense, but in the sense that I am someone who generates critiques of films. To be a “thinking critic” is to be critical of thinking: it is to think about thinking, versus simply think (in a sense, it is a kind of “meta-think”). Critical thinking is not merely critical of views but the very mechanisms and methods by which views are formed. Critical thinking questions the validity of thinking, how thinking structures the world, how it frames situations, how it interprets situations, how it determines what constitutes evidence, how it makes phenomena “toward” the values and ideas of the observer, etc. — it entails an awareness of “the paradox of judgment,” of the distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” etc., and questions how thinking makes us appear to ourselves and others.
Why is critical thinking so easy to lack? It is because so few thoughts appear to us as if they need a critic: virtually all thoughts appear to us as self-evidently thoughtful (by definition), functioning doorknobs, per se (to allude to Heidegger), as “invisible.” And as we don’t naturally notice a doorknob until it doesn’t work, we don’t notice thoughts until they “don’t work,” which tends to be (and probably must be) when we encounter someone who disagrees with us. But, unfortunately, these are not the only times we should be “critical” of our thinking; in fact, often when no one disagrees with us, that is when we need to be especially critical, but this is precisely when our thoughts are “invisible,” making it very hard to be critical of our thinking (for it is hard to know what we should be critical of, it not being apparent or “visible” to us).
And so we have begun to outline a problem: most thoughts are “invisible” to us and those that appear as “un-thoughtful” are those with which we disagree (“the non-functioning doorknobs,” to continue Heidegger’s metaphor). These thoughts enter our minds through (the mouths of) others. And since we don’t agree with them, we are natural critics of them. But this critique of that with which we disagree is not critical thinking, though it seems to be (and so provides an illusion of such), but rather simply thinking. It is natural, instinctive, and arguably tribal, while critical thinking is unnatural.¹
Making the loss of critical thinking probable, what appears as needing critique is that which thinking naturally critiques while simultaneously providing an appearance of critical thinking. And in this act, we engage in thinking that self-deludes us from realizing we lack critical thinking, precisely because when we think about that which we disagree with, it appears to us as an act of critical thinking, for it is critical. At the same time, it does not seem as though we need to be critical of that with which we agree (it is “invisible” to us), and feeling as if we critically think “toward” what we disagree, we will likely leave what we believe undisturbed, when disturbing our beliefs is precisely what we must do to participate in the critical thinking that thinking gives us an appearance of participating in.
Thinking threatens critical thinking. Critical thinking would not be possible without thinking, and yet thinking can stop critical thinking: thinking is the act in which critical thinking could be achieved but is often lost. In other words, thinking is the process through which critical thinking and an “appearance of” critical thinking are achieved simultaneously, and so the process by which “what hides critical thinking” is created. In hiding critical thinking, we stop realizing our need for it, and so it gradually vanishes without us noticing anything. Thinking, in creating what “hides” critical thinking, threatens it, yet without it, critical thinking would be impossible.²
Thinking creates an unopened oyster, per se. The oysters with pearls look the same as those without pearls, and people with unopened oyster shells can believe and tell others that they have countless pearls inside. Imagine now that these shells could never be opened: how could people find out if there are really pearls in there? Like these oysters, we can never see inside thought to be completely sure that thought contains critical substance; at best, there might be certain indications that give us reason to believe in the presence of critical thinking, though it can never be proven for sure. These indications, which are “existential experiences,” will be expounded upon shortly.
Critical thinking entails thinking, but thinking doesn’t necessarily entail critical thinking. Basically, critical thinking entails one thinking about what ones thinks is true as false and what one thinks is false as true, while thinking entails one simply thinking about what one thinks is false as false and what is true as true. The first is unnatural; the second, natural. To return to an earlier image: to critically think is to wear red glasses while considering that “the world isn’t red” (which hints at the legitimacy of thinking of “critical thinking” as “dialectical thinking”), while to think is to wear red glasses and only consider that “the world is red.” In either situation, “red glasses” must be worn (as we, as humans, innately wear “glasses” of partiality, biases, preset ideas, subjectivities, etc. — all unavoidable), but in critical thinking, there is a possibility of freedom and “awakening” (from ideology, preset ideas, etc.).
And yet, in critical thinking, one must participate in a kind of absurdity, for in looking through red glasses, the person has no reason to think “the world isn’t red” (likewise, a person has no reason to think that what he or she thinks is true is false, precisely because the person thinks it is true). The only reason a person would practically consider such a possibility is by encountering “others”: that which, outside of oneself, presents the possibility of “not seeing red.” This hints at the necessity of empathy (not to be confused with sympathy) and the role of others in critical thought, as will be discussed.
We never know what we don’t know: if we don’t know the neighbors are supposed to visit tonight, we don’t even know we don’t know the neighbors are supposed to visit tonight. If the world is multicolored and we are wearing red glasses, we can’t know that we don’t know the world is actually multicolored; hence, we can’t be motivated to “take off our glasses,” for we can’t know what it is we should be motivated to know.³ Once we become aware that we don’t know something, we know that we don’t know and that there is something to know, and therefore we have the opportunity to learn and change. But when do we so “step outside of ourselves?” It can’t be due to something within us, for we are entirely stuck in “the bubble of ourselves,” per se. To gain knowledge of what we don’t know, we must encounter that which makes us think about things which we don’t normally think about. In other words, to realize there is “that which we don’t know we don’t know,” we must move beyond our assumptions and what is normal for us. Considering this, without others and empathy, we can never be surprised; we can never be alerted to the fact that we don’t know we don’t know. And arguably if we can’t be surprised, we can’t critically think.⁴
Now, to go further, to truly think critically, one must not simply aim to think in terms of possibility but in actualities. In other words, one isn’t to think simply that they are “possibly wrong,” but that they “are wrong,” fully and empathetically. This is very difficult if not an impossible ideal, for it is hard enough to “know thyself,” let alone to “know other selves” (and therefore to adopt other perspectives for the sake of critical thinking). Yet if one considers what they believe as “possibly false” versus “completely false,” though one is closer to critical thinking, one is not engaged fully in critical thought (a mistake which seems common). If one thinks they are “possible wearing red glasses” versus “I am wearing red glasses,” the person is less likely to remove them and completely consider the other side. Furthermore, they will be less likely to act in such a way that will allow them to see the world fully and in color (see “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose for examples of why). For the person knows he or she is thinking in terms of possibility: “being wrong” isn’t completely real to the person (and please don’t mistake me as saying we should always think of ourselves as “being wrong” — we couldn’t function that way). It is when a person “dives” completely into another mode that the person engages in true, critical thinking. Afterwards, the person can step back into his or her own shoes and now critically think about a more complete view of reality.
Granted, it takes considering a possibility to step into another worldview, but one must “leave behind” that possibility once they are in the other’s person’s shoes best the person can. This is because a person, relative to that person’s self, doesn’t naturally think of his or her self as “possibly right,” but “as right” (as likewise others think about themselves). Hence to be truly empathetic, a person must consider others as they consider themselves: “as right” versus “possibly right.” This isn’t to say that they are right (relative to truth and/or “the case”), but that to critically think, one must engage in an “existential empathy” that is incredibly unnatural and uncomfortable.⁵ All the same, it is necessary to fully submerge oneself in what one doesn’t agree with, for to think of others as “possibly right” versus “as right” is to think of what others think through our own lens and framework, while to think of others “as right” is to put on their lens through which they understand the world and their position. To think of another “as right” is an “out-of-body experience,” per se, while to think of one’s self as “possibly right’ is a “partially out-of-body experience.” The existential anxiety this act causes is nearly unbearable, but at least its presence can help us know when we’re engaging in critical thought, hence helping us escape the circle in which we can’t know we don’t critically think without critical thought.⁶
A person will probably move in steps from “possibly wrong’ to “as wrong” (considering the intensity of the existential anxiety, which we all must be considerate of), as one goes partially out-of-body before the person is fully out-of-body, but it is important that people not give up. “All in empathy” is incredibly difficult but necessary to seek and practice critical thinking. People must forget themselves; they must die to themselves. They must be who they cannot be; they must be who they are not. And of course this is an impossible ideal, meaning full critical thinking is impossible, and yet this is an impossibility we must attempt to achieve. Not all failures are tragic or total.
Empathy plays a critical role in critical thinking; without it, it seems only thinking would be possible. It is perhaps not by chance that a society that lacks critical thinking also lacks empathy. One could perhaps go so far as to say that critical thinking is empathy, but we will resist that claim, at least for now. Presently, empathy is related far too much with sympathy and emotions, when empathy is also an intellectual undertaking: it entails not simply putting on someone’s emotions, but also their worldview (which entail emotions but not simply being emotional); we need emotional intelligence. Considering the anxiety this can cause, it takes a strong will to empathize fully, yet we often ironically consider those “strong willed” are those who lack the will strong enough to empathize. But who thinks they don’t empathize? As no one thinks they lack critical thinking, so no one thinks they lack the will strong enough to fully step into another person’s shoes. Considering this, couldn’t we be one of those self-deluded individuals? How could we tell if we weren’t?
Well, we can’t ever be entirely certain, but there is a useful and reliable sign: existential pain. It’s a person’s natural check and balance, but only we can know if we are experiencing it; we can’t know if it’s occurring for others. A fact which might cause us anxiety.
When it comes to defining critical thinking from thinking, phenomenologically exploring how we experience it will help us clarify the subject. Because we cannot realize our lack of critical thinking through thinking, we need experiences, experiences it seems only others can provide us with (given that we are empathetic). We noted earlier that a lack of critical thinking feels like critical thinking and that those who possess it experience the world the same way as do those who lack it, but we’ve also pointed out that there are “existential moments” that help differentiate critical thinking from thinking. Life feels the same for everyone (and this is mostly the case because even people who engage in critical thinking are mostly, during their day-to-day activities, engaged in thinking), but there are moments and feelings that “give us reason to believe” in the presence of critical thought (an “emotional intelligence,” if you will), moments that confirm a person sees the world differently than others (even though the person cannot occupy the minds of others to know for sure such is the case). And yet these are moments humans rather forget and naturally avoid.
Critical thinking is challenging, while thinking is normal. It’s hard to consider what one believes to be true as “possibly false,” let alone “as false.” And because it is hard, the majority avoids it (by definition) and settles with thinking. It is agonizing for a Christian to read a New Age Atheist, as it is hard for Liberals to consider sound arguments of Conservatives (and vice-versa). It is painful because it is painful to be (possibly) wrong. This isn’t to say that people aren’t willing to be wrong so much as it is to say that people, upon encountering the possibility of being wrong, naturally back away, as people naturally avoid what they perceive as dangerous (even if they’re not necessarily afraid). And critical thinking is hard because the brain has already wired itself and solidified itself as holding certain worldviews: to question those positions is disorienting and destabilizing, and risks a foundation, which replacing is incredibly difficult; one’s very biology seems wired against the act.
With empathy, we can “enter” into another and not only see the world through their eyes and system, but we can also “look back” and see ourselves and our system through the eyes of another. In this way, we can try to see our own “culture” in the same way we see “other cultures” not our own, and so it is possible for us to perform a “Sartrean Gaze” on ourselves, which can help us be more objective, escape bubbles, and see ourselves in a more “revealing” and useful light. To paraphrase, Sartre makes the example of a man peeping through a keyhole at a girl changing, when suddenly the man hears something and turns around to see a friend catching him in the act. He instantly feels shame (and doesn’t question the existence of that other mind), like he is “there” (existing) precisely in the act of feeling trapped (because some “I (am)” must be present to so feel trapped). In this way, Sartre suggests “the gaze” has an important function of confirming ourselves, the existence of others, and making us be much more objective about ourselves (which suggests a use of Pluralism more generally).
From experience, we may all understand the role of “the gaze” in making us realize the holes and “uncomfortable” aspects of our beliefs — when we as a Conservative give our Liberal friend our favorite book; when we as a Christian find a hard skeptic next to us in church; when people find books on our shelf that suggest we hold strange beliefs — suddenly we begin caveating, softening the hard edges of our views, toning down our rhetoric, and so on. The very fact we do this does not mean our views are wrong or that we’re fakes; instead, it’s just a natural part of being human, and in fact help us be more honest, open, and objective. However, if thanks to critical thinking and empathy we could perform a “Sartrean Gaze” on ourselves, even when we were alone, this would help us think clearer and more critically all the time, not just when we’re confronted. If we wait to critically analyze ourselves until we’re under pressure, we may analyze ourselves poorly and even blow up (as suggested in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose).
Critical thinking is existential, and this is precisely why we avoid it and precisely why we need it.⁷ And yet because thinking presents itself as critical (as already discussed), humans can rationalize their avoidance of critical thinking and its existential ramifications (all while continuing to believe they critical think, lacking critical thought to realize otherwise). But why do we need to face the existential challenge anyway? Perhaps we’re better off avoiding it. If so, we’re better off without critical thinking (so all the societal emphasis on its need should end), as we’re also better off without empathy. But are we really better off in a world where people never try to “put themselves in another person’s shoes?” Where people never consider the fallibility of what they think?
In that world, civil discourse would be meaningless, for people would never change. It would be a world in which people didn’t try to understand one another, where people never saw where others came from, and where living together would be difficult if not impossible. We wouldn’t learn from one another, for we wouldn’t see reason to learn (already being right and knowing what we need to know). In such a world, if there were problems and the majority were against what would solve those problems, those problems would never be solved: the only problems that would be solved would be those the majority agreed needed solving. The mob would rule; there would be no rational argument and debate, only power. And where there was only power, there would be totalitarianism (whether it be of one or many), an environment where the majority and minority live together not by choice, but by force.
A people who don’t face the existential pain brought about by critical thinking are a people who set themselves up for slavery, a world where totalitarianism would be the trajectory and norm. To be free, we must hurt.
So who are we? Are we a people who are free or are we a people who are setting ourselves up for totalitarianism? Having explored critical thinking, we can address the inquiry “Who am I?” The answer is different for each individual, but I think there is still a universal experience through which all individuals must go in order to discover that answer, and that experience is the existential anxiety caused by critical thinking and full empathy. Heidegger noted the importance of death in determining one’s identity and/or “story”; however, it is not simply the death of one’s bodily life that must be faced but also the death of one’s rationality. One cannot consider their life as a whole without considering its ending; likewise, one cannot consider their view of the world as a complete “case” until they consider where it ceases to apply. Ideally, “cases” continue to expand and synthesize into itself short-comings, incomplete ideas, etc. (or perhaps be overturned for a better “case”), but where a person does not dare consider the “end” of their thinking, a person will not expand their view of the world. As humans must face their fear of death, they must also face their fear of being wrong, and the best way to face that fear is to empathize.
It’s where one rationality encounters another that its falsity can be considered, as it is where life ceases that it can consider itself a (whole) “life.” It is by empathizing with others that one can see his or her own rationality as a whole, in the same way that in considering one’s death a person can see his or her life as a sum-total (to allude to Heidegger). Therefore, empathy is necessary for a complete worldview. And with a complete worldview, one has achieved a sense of the setting in which their self is placed, without which an identity will be incomplete. There is no such thing as a self that is not in a world, and so any view of the self that doesn’t entail a view of the world is an abstraction. We are not selves in vacuums, but people in worlds, worlds in which we don’t simply observe, but feel, experience, absorb, and more. Thinking, as opposed to critical thinking, may give us some knowledge of ourselves, but it cannot give us a complete picture, lacking a grasp of the world (and/or worldview) in which we dwell.
Thinking treats people as what worlds revolve around, while critical thinking treats people like they live in worlds: where there is no critical thinking, we forget the worlds in which we dwell. We make a Cartesian mistake: we forget that we are not simply minds but people. Why is this mistake so common? It seems that it’s because avoiding the mistake necessitates the existential anxiety of thinking of oneself as wrong. But unless we take on this pain, we cannot achieve a complete self, critical thinking, or empathy.
It is painful to consider one’s self as having “a worldview” versus “the truth” (though this doesn’t mean one’s worldview isn’t true). Naturally, people do not think of their view of the world as “a worldview”: they think of it as “true”; its everyone else who has the “worldview.” Of course, if we ask people directly, they will act as if they know they have a worldview, but most don’t, in their bones, feel as if they hold something that is just as subjective and “possibly true” as what others hold (it’s unnatural, and the idea “practically” rises and falls away): people feel as if what they believe, to some degree, is different. But everyone has a worldview, even those who have the truth (through it) (and this is unsettling); those who fail to realize they have a worldview (which requires “the death of their rationality”) will fail to realize they are selves-in-the-world. There is no such thing as a self, only a self-in-the-world, and people who don’t think of themselves as “with worldviews” will not think of themselves as “a self-in-the-world”; rather, we will think of ourselves as “a self-in-the-truth.” And perhaps we are “a self-in-the-truth-in-the-world,” but we aren’t “a self-in-the-truth”: a world is present.
If we forget the world, we forget the context in which we are situated and defined, along with the context in which our worldview is grounded; consequently, we cannot be who we fully “are” (which we avoid in avoiding the existential anxiety of critical thinking and empathy). We must die to ourselves in order to be ourselves.⁸
At the beginning of this paper, we discussed how no one can know they lack critical thinking without critical thinking, and that no one reading this paper will think they need to read it. The hope has been that by providing a definition and an outline of the characteristics, Existentialism, and phenomenology of critical thinking, individuals can realize, for themselves, what they lack and what they need to do to make up for that lack. None of us can know who has critical thinking and who doesn’t: we’re all locked out of that certainty. However, at least when it comes to ourselves, we can recognize if we have undergone the existential anxiety described in this work, and by doing so, “have reason to believe” that we possess critical thinking. Furthermore, by determining the definition of critical thinking and what the experiences of it are like, we can leave individuals up to determine “the case” for themselves. Once we accept the reality that those who lack critical thinking cannot know that they lack critical thinking, we have opened ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing an anxiety that will give us “reason to believe” we possess critical thinking, even though it’s presence can never be completely proven (and this very fact may cause more anxiety that gives us further confirmation).
That said, at the end of the day, none of us critically think as much as we should: the true, critical thinker — like the master of empathy — is an ideal all of us can do more work to be more like. And to add a relevant digression, it should also be noted that a person can still be a genius even if the person doesn’t critically think: a person who never considers the fallibility of his or her worldview is still capable of inventing something like a laptop. A genius isn’t necessarily someone who critically thinks, as someone who fails miserably in school isn’t necessarily someone who’s incapable of critical thought. Ultimately, grades and “genius” do not necessarily provide us with any sense of the presence or lack of critical thinking: uncertainty is inescapable.
Before drawing this paper to a close, there is a final point that should be considered: the relation of love and critical thought. Since critical thinking entails empathy, a willingness to humbly acknowledge fallibility, and a profound consideration of others, there is a sense in which to think critically is to love. It may seem strange to associate love with something that causes “existential anxiety,” but I think it is our society’s failure to identity love with the difficult that has resulted in a profound conflation of “love,” “like,” and other ideas, as expounded on in “On Love” by O.G. Rose. I would not go so far as to say critical thinking is love (though I could be swayed), but I would claim true love necessitates critical thinking. For what is the difference between an “(idea of) love” and “true love?” Truth. How is truth determined? Well, critical thinking seems important. Likewise, what is the difference between our “(idea of) someone’s self” and “someone’s true self?” Truth. How do you determine truth? Critical thinking. Without critical thinking, we can only love our ideas of people, never them. An age confused about love is probably therefore an age confused about critical thought.
Furthermore, critical thinking shares characteristics similar to love. As love is painful, demanding, and especially meaningful when things are hard, critical thinking is the same, and so it seems that it’s best if both are avoided. And yet, without love, none of us would stay committed to our loved ones during times when we don’t like them, as without critical thinking, none of us could learn how to live with people different from ourselves. Love, though seemingly best avoided, makes it possible for us to achieve a sense of authenticity, joy, and truth that we could never achieve otherwise. Likewise, if we only thought and never critically thought, we could never move a self “toward” a self-in-the-world, and so never obtain a sense of reality from abstraction. And as love is a problem-solver, so is critical thinking, and where there are no problems, there is no critical thought, only thought. In a perfect world, there would be no need for critical thinking, only thinking, as there would be no need for love, only liking. And as love endeavors to eliminate problems, so does critical thought, and so, like love, critical thought endeavors to create a place where critical thought is unnecessary.
Critical thinking is like and seems to require love, for the only way to really think like another and fully grasp their worldview (however much that might be possible) would be to know them, and it is questionable how much we can know someone we do not love. Love opens avenues of knowing, and it seems self-evident that we can never know and understand the person we hate as well as the person we love. The people who will help us critically think best are likely those we disagree with strongest, but it is precisely these people with whom it is most difficult to be empathetic. To critically think, we must love our enemies.
Love is hard, dialectical, paradoxical, and love risks if not requires pain. Similarly, if we critically think, it will cause us pain. It hurts, requires us to attack our deeply held beliefs, to critically examine our axioms, to avoid simple answers, and so on. As depths of love are tied to levels of vulnerability — and it’s painful to be vulnerable — so depths of thought are similarly connected to vulnerability. As the presence of love is tied to the presence of vulnerability, so there can be a correlation between the presence of true thought and pain. There is no birth without labor.
Critical thought is unneeded in a perfect world, and since it endeavors to give rise to a perfect world, critical thought is ironic: its purpose is to arrive where it dies (into thinking). The purpose of critical thought is to erase the need for critical thought. And like love, critical thought requires fearlessness, for it takes courage to undergo existential anxiety. But until we face it, we will be unable to love or to critically think fully. If we do not love, we should be weary: we perhaps lack critical thinking and the capacity to be aware of that lack, as we might be unaware of our lack of love. But if we love (meaningfully), we can be confident we can think critically (for we will undoubtedly face the existential anxiety which leads to the examined life). So, let us critically think: love will come. And let us love: critical thinking will follow.
¹Yes, one can be critical of what one disagrees, but not in a clear, definable sense. In this act, “thinking” and “critical thinking” cannot be defined apart: they are like two rivers that meet and run together, becoming indistinguishable. The rivers are still two but not in any clear or definable sense.
²This logic is similar to how Heidegger discussed “being” as (both) hiding/unveiling “Being” (via “thought about being”): thought is the act of “being” in which “Being” is both hidden and yet revealed. In other words, the human is in which “Being” hides/unveils Itself in “being”: the human is a “walking contradiction.”
2.1Perhaps a formula to describe this situation:
XTrue appears like XFalse. Therefore, if XF is achieved, it will appear as XT (and vice-versa). Consequently, it is possible for XF to be replaced by XT and none notice, as it is possible that XT be called XF and none notice.
X is the process through which XTrue and XFalse are achieved.
Church is the process through which ChurchTrue and ChurchFalse are achieved.
Academics is the process through which AcademicsTrue and AcademicsFalse are achieved.
Thinking is the process through which thinkingTrue (critical thinking) and thinkingFalse are achieved.
2.2Thinking is the process in which one creates appearances of critical thinking “against that” which one disagrees with, appearances which can then blind a person to his or her lack of (critical) thinking (while simultaneously “pointing to” the possibility of critical thinking).
2.3Thinking is harder than we think, because thought structure reality “toward” us in such a way that “hides” its difficulty. The swallow overlays the deep; both are water.
³This hints at why humans are so (naturally) prone to fall victim to propaganda (and bad ideology), for within propaganda, humans can’t know that they don’t know they are within propaganda, and nothing within “the bubble” can give them reason to believe such to be the case.
⁴In an age where surprises are limited and people seem to know everything, critical thinking may be impossible.
⁵It can be argued that people are not even thinking about the possibility of themselves being right, let alone thinking of others as right. This is possible, and it does not bode well for our critical thinking.
⁶Realizing critical thinking is so painful, do note that someone who brags about critically thinking is probably not someone who does it (there’s a suspicious lack of “fear and trembling”).
⁷Pain is necessary for critical thinking, but in a society that thinks that pain is never good, there won’t be critical thinking.
⁸And where people do not “die to themselves,” there will be thinking but not critical thinking. Where there is thinking, there will be “an idea of self,” but not a self-in-the-world; in other words, there will be a false self but not a true self. And as thinking hides behind an appearance of critical thinking (a lack of critical thinking), so a false self hides behind an appearance of a self, a lack of a self. Without critical thinking, as we cannot realize we lack critical thinking, we can’t realize we lack a true self. The loss is total.
1. The reality that we cannot know we don’t know unless we know should create an existential tension within us that always motivates us to learn, question, and think (against “the current” of mere thinking, the nature of which is to settle, stop, and freeze).
2. In a sense, critical thinking is “being wrong” versus “being right” (as Heideggerian terms): it is a mode of being that regularly questions its sense of “grounded-ness” in actuality.
3. As no one thinks they don’t critically think, no judge thinks that they do what they “believe is right” rather than follow the law. All thinkers, like all judges, think they are authentic; likewise, all interpreters of a book (like the Bible), think they interpret correctly. Otherwise, they wouldn’t think, judge, and/or interpret the way they think, judge, and/or interpret. Eyes blind.
4. We stop searching for truth when we feel like we know it — for then there is no reason to keep searching — and, generally, we always feel like we know the truth.
5. Democracy is likely to turn against necessary and tragic compromise in a society where there is no meaningful distinction between “thinking” and “critical thinking,” for compromise can only be viewed as a failure of rationality (on one side or the other) versus that which must be accepted in the space between rationalities based on different axioms.
6. What has been said about critical thinking can also be said generally about objectivity. To know we lack objectivity, we would have to have objectivity; hence, if we lack objectivity, we must think have it. Furthermore, as we experience our thinking as “critical thinking,” nobody experiences their subjectivity as “subjective”: they experience it as “objective” (and everyone else’s as “subjective”). The experience of subjectivity is “as objective” necessarily, for otherwise we wouldn’t think what we think — and if we think we think “subjectivity,” we experience it as “objectivity true” that we are subjective, which is what we think. Hence, when it comes to “getting behind” our subjectivity, as with thinking, we find ourselves faced with paradox and irony. But the road to objectivity is the road to critical thinking, a road we must think we travel.
7. As the number of times a person is correct increases, so perhaps decreases the probability that the person will (continue to) critically think.
8. To allude to “The Death of Skepticism” by O.G. Rose, which relates to “On Critical Thinking,” people can feel that “because they are skeptical of us doing x, that means we should not do x”: if people are skeptical that we need to be skeptical about x (which tends to mimic “the social script”), they feel we should accept x. And yet if we are skeptical about x, that means there is reason to investigate x, not to disregard it. Similarly, if someone is skeptical about our skepticism about x, that means they should investigate our skepticism, not discount it and demand an acceptance of x. In this way, skepticism can be used as a tool to corral people into accepting something by “being skeptical of skepticism,” which though involves the problematic conflation of skepticism with disbelief, is used in a way to motivate conformity.
9. As with objectivity, if we are only critical about x, then we are more of a thinker than a critical thinker, but the fact that we are critical about x will hide this reality from us, seeing as we have evidence (to ourselves) that we do indeed critically think. And since no one can critically think about everything, we are all only thinkers, at our best when we try to be what we can never be.
10. The more intellectual we are, the more we have reason to think we don’t need to be critical of our thinking: the more we are rational to not critically think. Strangely, unless we define “being rational and intelligent” as “being a critical thinker” (which runs the risk of conflating the categories of “thinking” and “critical thinking”), the lower our intelligence, the more we have reason to be critical of our thinking. The rationality of engaging in critical thinking correlates negatively with intelligence, suggesting that we need to expand our understanding of what constitutes “being smart.”
11. Since we naturally think critically about what we don’t agree with, we all provide ourselves with plenty of evidence that we are critical thinkers.
12. Perhaps we can think of “the self-inflicted Sartrean Gaze” as a surgeon removing our eye from our head and turning it around to gaze at us — horrifying.
13. A genius isn’t necessarily going to be someone talented at critical thinking, no more than a master at emotional intelligence is necessarily going to be mathematically gifted. Likewise, a deep, critical thinker — say an older farmer who has learned from experience how often self-deception is at play — isn’t necessarily going to have read Aristotle.
14. Critical thinking will bring to our attention the possibility that not everything is within human comprehensibility and that we can only be intelligent about what we (can) think about. If I didn’t know Mars existed and I was Einstein, I couldn’t use my intelligence in regard to Mars, and in a sense, relative to the subject of Mars, I would be a fool. If Hayek is correct, on big enough of a scale, there is eventually a point where it is impossible for even geniuses to know the first, second, etc. order effects of an education policy, a tax break, and so on, then the policies must be like a planet Einstein doesn’t and/or can’t know exists.
15. Like empathy, perhaps belief in God can also be a way for people perform a “Sartrean Gaze” on themselves.
16. A few months after my first draft, I discovered Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. Schulz asks the question “How does it feel to be wrong?” and notes that “It feels like being right” (though realizes “we are wrong,” when we are forced to encounter the reality directly, feels terrible). Furthermore, Schulz points that if we want to learn how to think like we should, we should learn how to be comfortable with being wrong.
As first noted in “Assuming the Best’ by O.G. Rose and in line with Schulz’s thought, I cannot think of anything I am wrong about, because if I thought I was wrong, I wouldn’t think the way I did. To think is to think we are right: if we think of something “as wrong,” we think we are right to think of it “as wrong.” Empathy and “assuming the best” help an individual escape this paradox, as does “critical thinking,” for to think critically is to critique the way “thought” structures reality “toward” the thinker. But even then, the paradox is hard to escape.
16.1 Education reform has been a consist theme of my work, and I think Schulz offers further reason for why: school teaches us that being wrong is to be stupid and/or a failure, and so trains us to never be wrong (or think of ourselves as such). However, since being wrong is inevitable (and considering this possibility necessary for “critical thinking”), school actually teaches us to avoid ever wondering if we are wrong, for that way, we never have to give up the appearance, to ourselves and others, that we are always right (and so never stupid and/or a failure). School teaches us to deal with being wrong by always being right, but since that isn’t possible, we learn to conceal our faults. Indirectly, hence, school teaches us to never introspect and to never be creative, both of which require the willingness to fail. On this note, if “The Creative Concord” by O.G. Rose is correct and without creativity the economy will collapse, school contributes to the shrinking of the artifex and self-destruction of the socioeconomic order.
Further in line with the thought of Schulz, school also teaches us to think of everyone who disagrees with as wrong, since school has taught us to think of ourselves as always right. Furthermore, school teaches us that people who are wrong are either stupid (unable to think), ignorant (able to think but unaware), or evil (aware of the truth but unwilling to believe it), and this is deadly in a Pluralistic Age. This way of thinking sets us all up to think of ourselves as superior to others and to think of others as in need of our help. When everyone is trying to save each other though, living together becomes difficult.
I believe school teaches us this because of grading (in fact, it may be impossible to grade and not teach these kinds of dangerous ways of thinking). Until schools though stop having the pressure upon them to help sort out who’s going to college (and which college: a prestigious one or not), I fear schools will never reform in a manner that teaches us to critically thinking and to be creative. Furthermore, until colleges cease to be the method by which society determines who gets which jobs, schools will continue to be a threat — in threatening artifexianism — to Capitalism and our globalized world. A way, I believe, schools can be reformed can be found in “Innovating Credentials” by O.G. Rose.
Photography: Frozen Glory Photography.