Critical thinking skills form the foundation of a liberal arts education. The value of a college education does not come from the lists of facts that a student will learn over the course of their education – lists of facts can be found on Wikipedia, which costs infinitely less than a bachelor’s degree at a major university. Students come to school to learn not what to think, but how to think; or so goes the popular refrain. But is instruction in “critical thinking skills” really valuable? It might seem obvious that they are. But seemingly-obvious ideas are often the ones most in need of scrutiny. We need to think critically about “critical thinking.”
The problem is that there are at least two distinct ideas about what “critical thinking” amounts to; we may call these rational thinking and radical thinking. Both rational and radical thinkers examine and question the fundamental assumptions of our discourse. But these two groups have very different ideas about the method and the purpose for which this questioning is carried out.
Rationalists about critical thinking believe that the purpose of critical thinking skills is to obtain a more complete, accurate, and unbiased understanding of the world. In short, rationalists are interested in thinking in ways that are likely to result in beliefs that are true. For radicals, on the other hand, critical thinking is essentially a political act, consisting of the rejection of accepted beliefs and norms within society. And today, humanities departments – with the notable exception of philosophy departments – are mostly populated by radical thinkers. Students in these humanities departments are, accordingly, being instructed in ways to justify resistance to various kinds of authority.
The ultimate source of this debate between rationalists and radicals comes from their differing attitudes towards the concept of truth, and the related concepts of knowledge and rationality. Rational thinkers accept a view called Objectivism about Truth, according to which some (even if not all) facts are objectively true, independent of what anyone happens to think about them. Radical thinkers, on the other hand, tend to be Constructivists about Truth. For Constructivists, objective truth is a myth. Nothing is really true; all so-called ‘truth’ is “constructed” at either an individual or social level, and all viewpoints are “equally valid.”
Understanding the debate between Objectivism and Constructivism means getting involved in some tricky issues in metaphysics and epistemology (the studies, respectively, of truth and knowledge), which is why most people (understandably!) never make the effort. But these two views on truth have immediate implications regarding the nature of knowledge, and thus the proper structure and purpose of education. Accordingly, a basic understanding of this distinction is essential to any understanding of what the modern university is, and what its mission can, and should, be.
So let’s take a look at each view and sketch out its implications.
1. Objectivism and Rational Thinking
We begin with Objectivism. Assume for now that the Objectivist is correct, and there is an objective fact of the matter about the way the world is, at least in some respects. This allows the Objectivist to say a number of things about belief. Beliefs represent the world as being a certain way. Accordingly, if the world really is the way the belief represents it to be, that belief is true. If the world is not the way the belief represents it to be, that belief is false. To give a straightforward example: If you believe Donald Trump is the president of the United States, your belief is true. And if I believe that he is not, mine is false.
So if two people disagree on some question, the existence of disagreement does not immediately render all further discussion moot. If this is a question about which there is a matter of fact (like the question of who is president), one person is right, the other is wrong. And perhaps we can figure out which is which; this is what Wikipedia is good for.
If, as the Objectivist says, some beliefs are true and others false, we can investigate how people form their beliefs, and identify methods of belief-formation that are more likely to result in true beliefs. For instance, looking for evidence, and then believing what our evidence supports, is a process that reliably results in the formation of true beliefs. Beliefs formed in this way are rational.
We often form beliefs using methods that are rational, and thereby come to hold beliefs that are true. We represent the world to be a certain way, and we represent the world as being that way because it is that way, and we used the right kinds of methods for figuring out the way the world is. In these cases, our beliefs are more than just mere beliefs. They are knowledge; in particular, knowledge of objective truth.
Rational belief formation, then, is a way of coming to expand our stock of knowledge by utilizing methods that produce true beliefs. For the Objectivist, this is what “critical thinking” consists in: rational thinking. The scientific method is one such rational belief-forming method. Trusting one’s own senses is another rational belief-forming method. Logical and mathematical proof is another. And so on. Instinctively, most people are Objectivists. So this will all sound familiar and obvious. The Objectivist concept of “truth” is the common-sense concept of truth.
2. Constructivism and Radical Thinking
Now let’s presume that Constructivism is correct; nothing is really true, and what we call ‘truth’ is just a matter of personal or social construction. If this is so, then all the preceding considerations about truth, knowledge, and rationality will need to be completely revised, or discarded altogether.
If nothing is really true, it doesn’t make sense to talk about beliefs as being true or false. What’s true for one person might not be true for another person. Thus, when two people disagree, there’s no objective fact of the matter about who is right and who is wrong. Both are right, in their own ways, and no perspective is any more “valid” than any other.
One of the clearest ways to see the distinction between Objectivism and Constructivism is to reflect on the phrase “true for X,” as in “What’s true for one person might not be true for everyone.” Objectivists never speak this way. For an Objectivist, belief may well vary from person to person, but truth itself does not. Objectivists think that talking about a claim being true-for-so-and-so is confused and misleading, since this way of speaking conflates truth and belief, which are completely different things. For the Constructivist, on the other hand, truth is a personal or social construct. Accordingly, we can only talk about what is true according to one viewpoint or another. Claims are never simply true, they are only ever true-for-so-and-so.
If, as the Constructivist says, “true” is just the label we give to beliefs we accept, then it’s not really correct to say that some beliefs are true and others are false. It’s all just a matter of perspective. If there’s no objective truth for our beliefs to match, then there is no such thing as a method that reliably yields true beliefs. Accordingly, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about rational belief. Similarly, if knowledge is a kind of rationally-formed true belief, we need to discard or substantially revise our conception of knowledge.
How should our conception of knowledge be revised? There are a number of potential answers to be given here, but none have been more influential than the views of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose works are taught as foundational texts in many humanities departments. According to Foucault, what counts as “true,” and thus what counts as “knowledge” and “rationality” are all socially constructed. Thus, “truth” and “knowledge” are just reflections of social conditioning.
This is not a benign social conditioning. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault depicts the formation of beliefs as an imposition of “power” on the very souls of individuals, as these individuals are conditioned (in positively Orwellian fashion) to echo the dominant attitudes in society. There is no truth. There is no knowledge. There is just the imposition of power, which destroys the self.
Foucault’s views are much more radical than they may seem on their face. As a Constructivist, Foucault believes that all knowledge is just power, with no independent truth to back it up. Thus, his thesis does not just apply to discussions about morality or justice (where these claims can seem the most plausible), but in all areas of human discourse. For a Foucauldian radical thinker, the scientific method is not a rational belief-forming process by which one might discover an objective truth about the world. It is a regimentation of belief by power, which is both dominating and destructive. There is no fundamental difference between scientific inquiry and irrational superstition, no fundamental difference between the belief that disease is caused by germs and the belief that disease is caused by evil spirits. “Rationality” is a myth, as is “truth.” If you think your scientifically-held beliefs are more “true” than superstition, this is just because you have been so dominated by the prevalent paradigm of belief and “knowledge” that you cannot see your own domination, and in fact have become an agent of domination yourself. The term used for this state of thorough domination of belief is hegemony.
So what, then, of “critical thinking?” For a Radical, critical thinking involves the examination of fundamental assumptions – not with an eye to evaluate their truth, but with an eye to recognizing them as the impositions of power. Thus, “critical thinking” is not “rational thinking.” It is a form of political thinking, which aims to use discourse to affect political change by challenging the beliefs that have been used to justify various social power structures. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of rational thinking, since radicals believe that labeling a belief as true or false is essentially an abusive exercise of power. How could it be anything else, if nothing is really true or false? Radicals reject beliefs that are considered “rational,” in order to reject dominant epistemic paradigms and overthrow hegemony.
We should note that, while radical thinking is a form of political thinking, there is nothing essentially liberal or conservative about radical thinking (or rational thinking, for that matter). Radical thinking is typically associated with leftist political thought, but as Lee McIntyre observed in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, conservatives have begun to use radical thought as a way of promoting conservative political ends. “We ought not believe in climate change; that’s just the kind of thing that the liberal elite wants us to believe in, because it lets them take more control of the economy” is an instance of a radical pattern of reasoning, just as much as “We ought not believe in evolutionary psychology; that’s just a way to give cover to the idea that women aren’t as smart as men.”
For the record, I am not taking any stance here about whether the claims of climate scientists or evolutionary psychologists are true. These are simply examples of reasoning processes which are indifferent to the truth of the claims in question. Indeed, only Rationalists concern themselves with the question of whether claims like “Human attitudes are the result of natural selection in such a way that men and women might be biologically predisposed to think differently” accurately represent the world. Radicals judge claims like this (and, indeed, all claims) on the basis of their political implications. For the Radical, there is no objective truth against which these claims may be judged; what is true for one person might not be true for another; “truth” is an imposition of power. Given this, a political standard is the only honest way in which a belief should be judged.
Nonetheless, although radical thinking can come in both conservative and liberal forms, the liberal form is much more likely to be taught on college campuses, given the well-known leftward political inclinations of most academics. Thus, the most common forms of radical thinking identify “power” with viewpoints common among relatively-affluent, straight, white males, and teach opposition to these viewpoints as a way of ensuring a more equitable distribution of power.
It is also worth noting that not all humanities professors are radical thinkers. Again, philosophy departments are typically (though not always) populated by rationalists, and it would be a gross overgeneralization to claim that every humanities department in every university is a bastion of radical thought. But radicals are much more likely to be found in the humanities or social sciences than in philosophy, math, or the hard sciences. A student who rejects the scientific method wholesale, as a form of thought control and imperialism, is unlikely to make it far as a physicist. But that same view is likely to receive high marks if a student advances it in a Critical Theory course.
This, of course, puts the lie to the idea that there is one set of skills – “critical thinking skills” – that students learn in the course of their education. College is, indeed, about teaching students not what to think but how to think. But students will receive very different training in how to think depending on which department they find themselves in.
What I have just described represents two ends of a spectrum of views on critical thinking. Many professors attempt some blending of these two approaches to critical thinking – a bit of iconoclasm mixed in with their science, with equal weight given to both logical and political considerations. But because the radical perspective is supported so strongly by Constructivism, and the rationalist perspective supported so strongly by Objectivism, professors’ views tend to be located closer to the extremes than to the murky middle ground. This is a good thing. We should all recognize the implications of our views, and, in the interests of consistency, follow our commitments to their natural conclusions.
But this, of course, just pushes the problem back a step. In order to say which is the more valuable set of critical thinking skills, we must take sides in the debate between Objectivists and Constructivists. If there is an objective truth, we should be trying to find it. If there is not, a political stance is as good as any to take toward our discourse.
3. The Argument for Constructivism
Thus far, I have tried to state both the rational and radical perspectives in a fair and neutral way. Now, I’ll abandon my neutrality: Objectivism is the correct view on truth. The main argument for Constuctivism is incredibly weak, and Constructivism itself is either incoherent or self-undermining.
The arguments given in this section and the next closely follow those laid out in Paul Boghossian’s wonderful Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. For those who find this discussion interesting (either because they agree or disagree with the arguments to follow), I cannot recommend Boghossian’s book more strongly. I also recommend Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong by Timothy Williamson, a more recent treatment of these issues written to be accessible to a wide audience.
First, we’ll see what the main argument for Constructivism is, and why it is so weak. The main argument for Constructivism proceeds by appeal to the contingent features of the way we use language. Every language is different, and comes with its own stock of concepts that simultaneously determine and limit the expressive power of that language. Recall the old saw that Inuit tribes have many different words for snow. The reason for this is obvious: cultures that develop in snowy climates have needs to distinguish between many different types of snow, and so their language evolved in such a way as to reflect that need. Thus, the way that we use language, and the concepts that we deploy in thinking about the world, are shaped by the contingent circumstances in which our society has developed.
But this means that the way we think about the world is shaped by our contingent social circumstances. Our modes of conceiving and reasoning about the world are inherently structured by our use of language, and different cultures have developed very different languages in response to different social pressures. And it is absurd to suggest that there is one “correct language;” the establishment of a certain kind of language is entirely a matter of social convention, and nothing else. Thus, it follows that there is no way of thinking of the world that is better than any other. All views of the world are equally valid. There is no objective truth.
So goes the case for Constructivism. And this argument may seem compelling at first blush. But look at the structure of the argument. It begins with premises about our language and our concepts, and ends with incredibly ambitious conclusions about the nature of reality itself. But the language we use to describe the world is not the same thing as reality itself. Noting this, one might think that this argument makes an unwarranted leap somewhere. It does.
To see this, consider again the concept of “snow.” Some cultures have developed languages that have different words for picking out different types of snow. We only have one word – “snow” – because there was no need for us to make the kinds of fine distinctions between different kinds of snow that were useful in other cultures. And cultures in tropical climates will likely not possess any words for snow. But just because some cultures have words for snow and others do not, that does not mean that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not snow exists. This is just a reflection of the fact that there is no snow in the tropics. But once you get closer to the poles, snow is everywhere; that’s the way the world is.
The ways in which we talk and think about snow vary from culture to culture. But what does not vary is what kinds of snow there are. In general, our different concepts furnish us with different ways of thinking about the world. But the fact remains unchanged that our beliefs are true if and only if the world is as we believe it to be. Our ways of thinking vary very much from culture to culture. But the world itself does not vary. The world is as it is. No set of representational concepts is inherently superior to any other. But, no matter what concepts we use, there will always be some ways of representing the world that match reality (and are, therefore, true), and some ways of representing the world that do not (and are, therefore, false).
The fact that our ways of using language vary from culture to culture and from person to person tells us nothing about whether or not there is an objective reality. The main argument for Constructivism rests on a mistake: it conflates our ways of describing the world with the way the world is, independent of our descriptions of it.
4. The Argument Against Constructivism
We have just seen that the main argument for Constructivism is flawed. But there is an even bigger problem for Constructivism: the view is incoherent. Remember, Constructivism says that no claim whatsoever is objectively true; the so-called “truth” of every claim is just a social construction. But what about Constructivism itself? Is Constructivism true, objectively? Here, we face a dilemma. If Constructivism is objectively true, then there is at least one objectively true claim: Constructivism itself. So Constructivism’s truth would prove its own falsity. And if Constructivism is false, then that settles that! Thus, Constructivism is self-undermining.
This is an old problem, and the Constructivist’s response to it is unsurprising: he will just deny that Constructivism is either true or false. Constructivism might be true for some people but not true for others – just as anything else is.
But this response is incoherent. To see why, let’s begin by considering some (purportedly) true claim, like “snow is white.” We’ll give this claim a name:
Claim 1: Snow is white.
Now, is Claim 1 true? For the Constructivist the answer is: No. Or, at least, not objectively true. Claim 1 is true only relative to Claim-1-friendly ways of thinking about the world. But relative to other ways of thinking about the world, Claim 1 won’t be true. That’s an important and interesting claim that the Constructivist is making! So let’s give it a name, as well.
Claim 2: Claim 1 is not objectively true or objectively false. It is only true relative to frameworks that are friendly to Claim 1, but it is not true relative to frameworks that are unfriendly to Claim 1.
If Claim 1 is a socially-constructed claim, you can’t really understand what it means to say that Claim 1 is true unless you understand what it means for socially-constructed claims like Claim 1 to be true. In other words, you can’t really understand Claim 1 unless you understand Claim 2.
But is Claim 2 true? For the Constructivist the answer is: No! Or, at least, not objectively true. Claim 2 is true only relative to Claim-2-friendly ways of thinking about the world. But relative to other ways of thinking about the world, Claim 2 won’t be true. The same things we said about Claim 1, we also need to say about Claim 2, since, for the Constructivist, all claims are only “true” relative to some social construction or another. These are all interesting and important insights into the nature of Constructivism. So let’s give this claim a name as well:
Claim 3: Claim 2 is not objectively true or objectively false. It is only true relative to frameworks that are friendly to Claim 2, but it is not true relative to frameworks that are unfriendly to Claim 2.
Now is Claim 3 true? For the Constructivist, the answer is: No! Or, at least, not objectively true…
You can see where this is going. We’ll need a Claim 4 about the frameworks that make Claim 3 true, and then a Claim 5 about the frameworks that make Claim 4 true, and so on to infinity. This is a problem, since these higher-numbered claims are supposed to explain the lower-numbered claims. You don’t really get claims like Claim 1 until you understand Claim 2. And you don’t really get claims like Claim 2 until you understand claims like Claim 3. And so on. Ultimately, Constructivism has no way of explaining itself. Any attempt to explain Constructivism in Constructivist terms throws us into a bottomless mire of frameworks-about-frameworks-about-frameworks.
Of course, some kinds of claims are socially-constructed. Whether or not a certain piece of paper counts as money is, for instance, a social construction. And we can explain what we mean by this; we clarify claims like “such-and-such a piece of paper is money” by appealing to a certain socially-constructed framework, as when we say “that piece of paper is currency according to the social conventions of contemporary America.” In doing so, we are making a claim about the social conventions of contemporary America – and this claim is objectively true. It describes what our social conventions really are. More generally, we explain claims that are true only relative to social frameworks by making objectively true claims about social frameworks. So, if we are not allowed, at any point, to make an objectively true claim, all language will be ultimately unintelligible. This is Boghossian’s coup-de-grace against Constructivism.
To sum up: If the Constructivist holds that even claims-about-other-claims (like Claim 2, Claim 3, etc.) are only true relative to some framework or another, he will become caught in an infinite regress of claims about frameworks, and the view falls into incoherence. If, on the other hand, claims-about-other-claims can be either objectively true or objectively false, then we are entitled to ask whether Constructivism itself is objectively true or objectively false. And since it is self-contradictory to say that Constructivism is objectively true, we must hold that it is objectively false. Therefore, we should reject Constructivism.
These arguments regarding our use of language and our representations of reality are, admittedly, rather abstract. But just recall: on the face of things, Objectivism is by far the more plausible of the two views. No one denies that beliefs and attitudes vary from person to person. But the idea that reality itself similarly varies from person to person is not at all intuitive. We are owed some argument in favor of this counter-intuitive idea. But the arguments in favor of it are bad, and there is good reason to think that this idea is ultimately incoherent.
So we are left with this: There is an objective fact of the matter about a number of things. This objective reality is distinct from our beliefs, and our beliefs aim to accurately reflect this objective reality. Given this, we can, perhaps, identify the thought processes that lead us to have objectively true beliefs for the right kinds of reasons – and these are the rational thought processes. And, sometimes, we will have beliefs that are true because they were formed rationally; these beliefs are knowledge of objective reality.
The whole rationalist package comes back.
Of course, this leaves unanswered a whole host of questions about how we can identify rational thought processes and what counts as evidence in favor of what. But these are precisely the questions that constitute the starting point for inquiry in epistemology. So I won’t try to answer them here.
A certain willingness to embrace iconoclasm and to question even our most sacred beliefs is absolutely valuable. The Constructivist’s reminders that many of our beliefs are the product of social convention and not reasoned deliberation are incredibly valuable as well. And we should also take seriously the Constructivist’s call to take minority viewpoints more seriously, if only because this gives us a wider range of beliefs that we can evaluate for their potential truth. But our tendency to let our beliefs conform to dominant social expectations is a bad thing because conformity can make us insensitive to the truth. We should criticize our basic beliefs and assumptions, and perhaps reject some of them – but only when it is rational to do so.
5. How to Think
The debate between Constructivism and Objectivism is an academic one, but because Constructivists teach radical thinking and Objectivists teach rational thinking, this debate is at the center of what higher education is and should be. Radical thinking should not enjoy the pride of place that it does in the humanities. This is for three reasons.
First, as we’ve just seen, radical thinking is justified by an appeal to Constructivism. But because Constructivism is a seriously flawed theory of truth, the intellectual foundations of radical thought are undermined. We simply have no good reason to be radical thinkers.
Second, if we strip away the talk of cultural frameworks and epistemic hegemony, radical thinking is revealed to be little more than the practice of believing whatever will best support one’s political opinions. But this is not the kind of thing that people need to be trained to do. Psychologists call this kind of thinking “motivated reasoning,” and it lies at the root of partisan animosity and close-mindedness. Radical thinking is the art of fitting one’s beliefs to one’s political opinions, rather than forming political opinions on the basis of the best available evidence about the way the world is. Society would benefit from less of this kind of thinking, not more.
And third, universities are supposed to promote knowledge. And, as we’ve seen, knowledge is true belief that is arrived at through rational thought. Even if radical thinkers endorse beliefs that turn out to be true, those beliefs will not count as knowledge, since beliefs formed in ways that are wholly insensitive to the truth can at best be true by accident, and accidentally-true beliefs are not knowledge. Thus, rational thinking is the only way to come to have knowledge. This is why radical thinking has no place in an institution that is tasked with promoting knowledge.
The goal of a higher education is – and should be – to give students a better understanding of the world as it actually is. Teachers who wrongly think that there is no way that the world actually is are uniquely ill-suited to achieve this overarching goal of higher education. Radical thinkers warn their students away from the truth, because they don’t believe that there is any truth out there to be discovered, and so treat exhortations to finding true belief through rational thought with a deep suspicion. And they pass this suspicion of truth – this “fear of knowledge,” to use Boghossian’s phrase – to their students. Students come to college to learn how to think – and they are being taught the wrong ways to think.
I have encountered students who object to the teaching of formal logic, since they are deeply skeptical about the basic process of labeling propositions as true or false. I have encountered students who have told me, confidently, that they “know all about the way reality is constructed by language.” I have encountered professors who speak dismissively of “so-called rationalists,” and teach their students that the arguments of the great philosophers don’t matter; what matters is the “power” that these philosophers represent and which their arguments either weaken or reinforce. And I’ve watched in horror as a classroom full of impressionable undergraduates nod thoughtfully, and write in their notes “Arguments and reasoning don’t matter. Power is all that matters.”
But of course arguments matter. Of course rational thinking matters. There is a fact of the matter about many things, and we should be trying to figure out what the fact of the matter is. This is how we come to have a more complete and realistic conception of the world. That anyone would teach students otherwise is a tragedy and a crime against knowledge. The value of a liberal arts education does lie in its capacity for teaching students how to think critically. But if the critical thinking skills that students are being taught are nothing more than radical thinking skills, a humanities education is less than worthless. Those who teach radical thinking do great harm to the intellectual development of their students.
I wrote this a year ago and tried to get it published. No dice. The problem was not, I think, that the piece was bad. I just didn’t know how to get things published in popular media at the time. I still don’t know how to do that. But now I have a blog.
Honestly, I think this holds up scarily well. I mention in the second section of the piece that radical thinking is not essentially left-wing, and that there are hints of a right-wing manifestations of radical thinking. Well, that right-wing manifestation of radical thinking came roaring into prominence in the last year. The ideology of Bannon and the alt-right is nothing more than radical thinking on the right. Both Foucault and Bannon view social norms as a kind of horrific thought-control that need to be transgressed, they just have very different ideas about what the relevant oppressive norms are. Both sides in the political melee have abandoned reason for madness in the name of abstract political aims. This needs to change, and the change needs to start in universities. The humanities need to be held to account.