By Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.
I recently posted a blog entitled “What does it mean to be a critical thinker?” One of my readers sent a response written from a Social Darwinism point of view. This is the response I wrote to his response. When completed, I thought my response was something I’d like to post, so here it is. Enjoy.
I appreciated your response to my blog. In the two pieces you have written for me, I find it interesting that you seem to default to an evolutionary perspective and especially what is often called “social Darwinism” to analyze social and political issues. Indeed, the whole notion of critical theory certainly shares some common ground with social Darwinism especially when one considers that it was Hegel who inspired not only Darwin but also Marx, two of the primary forces behind social Darwinism and critical theory respectively. Interestingly, Darwin and Marx claimed to have traded metaphysics for materialism but their dependence upon a Hegelian view of development and history makes it difficult to believe that either Darwin or Marx are as fully materialistic as they contended, a slight of hand that seems to veil the very thing they seek to eschew, i.e., metaphysics. To the extent that this is accurate, both perspectives seem to fall short of a critical perspective. Let me explain.
But the secret to critical thinking is found in the ability to listen and open oneself to vulnerability that brings meaningful change. The conviction/passion for one’s perspective along with the courage to risk the vulnerability that comes from admitting one is wrong is the structure of incompleteness and the assurance of diversity.
The heart of our story begins with Plato’s student, Aristotle. Aristotle was frustrated with Plato’s ideals for instead of explaining things, they died the death of a 1000-qualifications, or what came to be known as the one-over-many problem (Third Man Fallacy). To explain the one requires the many, which are then explained by the one. However, Aristotle thought this type of circular thinking was meaningless. Certainly, it is meaningful to talk of one, e.g., one tree, and certainly there are many trees, but the one explains only one tree, not the many. Take for example the Black Oaks that grow around our house. I can speak of one sort of tree, i.e., Black Oaks, but in speaking of the generic “Black Oak,” I say little of the trees around my house (Plato’s problem). If “Black Oak” is to have any meaning, then I must first look to the actual Black Oaks that grow around my house. Here “one” has meaning, but only as “one” is associated with a particular “one” of the many. Still, Aristotle reasoned, after looking at the Black Oak growing in my yard, I can imagine that there are many Black Oaks. Having examined them, I realize they not only share something in common with each other, but they also share something in common with the Pine trees also growing in my yard. They are all trees. Examining Black Oak and pine trees provides greater meaning to the generic term “trees.” As I consider trees, however, I notice they have something in common with the shrubs and flowers growing in my yard; they are all plants. By understanding the trees, shrubs and flowers in my yard, I begin to understand the term “plant.” This could go on forever, but an infinite regress, Aristotle reasoned, is irrational. There has to be an end point, which Aristotle called ϴεός (God). This is not the God of religion. It is a term that Aristotle assigned to the end point of all that is, the uncaused cause/unmoved mover, as he called it. It is this end point that is the end of regression thereby bringing meaning and rationality to all that is, and it does this by bringing purpose to all things. By doing so, Aristotle argued that everything that is is meaningful because it has purpose, a purpose that resides not only in the material world, but the very language we speak, which he called this Λόγος (Logos, word, reason). To be, then, is to have purpose and to understand something’s purpose is to understand that thing.
If “Black Oak” is to have any meaning, then I must first look to the actual Black Oaks that grow around my house. Here “one” has meaning, but only as “one” is associated with a particular “one” of the many. Still, Aristotle reasoned, after looking at the Black Oak growing in my yard, I can imagine that there are many Black Oaks.
Now, while neither Hegel, Marx nor Darwin would lay claim to being Aristotelean, they were never able to escape the metaphysical notion of purpose. The purpose of history, Hegel argued, was Spirit manifest in the nation state; the purpose of history, Marx thought, was the inevitable movement to the overthrow of the Bourgeoise and the establishment of a classless society; the purpose of all living things, Darwin held, was to survive by living off the weak, which would eventually become extinct; and the purpose of society, the social Darwinist might argue, is also survival but the survival of the fittest means the social order that wins is the one who is able to overcome the weakness of those social orders that have failed. In this, a decisive patter is identified, which is the metaphysical premise identified by Aristotle. Reality is meaningful only as it evolves from that which is incomplete towards that which is more complete, that which is less adequate to that which is more adequate. Critical theory can be fit into this scheme as well except that which brings meaning is, much as it is in Marx, the liberation of the weak by overcoming the strong. Implied in this is the idea that society functions only as it should function when it lifts up the marginalized of society by erasing the differences between them and the power brokers who control and organize the social order (liberation theology emphasized this point). A purposeful social order, then, is one that does not allow the oppression of marginalized groups by the establishment of a critical social apparatus that prohibits advantages and disadvantages (think Title IX).
What is the solution to this? I don’t claim to have all the answers of course and in fact, to think that someone should have all the answers is the problem of metaphysics. It is religion. Whatever the answer is, however, it should reside in incompleteness.
My problem with this is that the metaphysical residue, if you will, too often bestows privilege on one group while ignoring possibly beneficial contributions by others. When one perspective is pitted against others so that one must win and the others lose, then the resulting impasse could certainly define the social order the United State and many other parts of the world are experiencing right now. Both Hegel and Marx sought to mitigate this zero-sum game scenario dialectically. The dialectical method pits opposites against each other so that rather than one win and one lose, both lose and both win through a compromise strategy that results in something unique. The proletariat is pitted against the bourgeoisie not so that the proletariat can win but so that the society created is devoid of class and therefore lacks such distinctions. The bourgeoisie wins while losing as does the proletariat and because of the fundamental nature of the dialectical process, neither the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat continue to exist. While this may seem desirable on the face of things, a careful analysis would reveal that such a scenario is actually the dominance of the one, which eschews diversity, or in the parlance of postmodernist and postcolonial thought, it results in totalizing discourse (fascism, autocracy, etc.) We are back to Plato, for someone must define what is a good classless society and this again dies the death of 1000 qualifications.
What is the solution to this? I don’t claim to have all the answers of course and in fact, to think that someone should have all the answers is the problem of metaphysics. It is religion. Whatever the answer is, however, it should reside in incompleteness. This is not to say that one should not have the courage of their convictions. Being passionate about one’s thoughts is important if diversity is to exist. But the secret to critical thinking is found in the ability to listen and open oneself to vulnerability that brings meaningful change (I use to teach my ethics students that the beginning of ethical discourse was found in the simple statement: “Gee, I’m sorry. Maybe I was wrong.”). The conviction/passion for one’s perspective along with the courage to risk the vulnerability that comes from admitting one is wrong is the structure of incompleteness and the assurance of diversity.
In this vein, the academy, which includes hard and soft sciences, the humanities and the arts, finds many challenges based upon the inadequacies of Western thought, which becomes even more glaring starting with at least the 1600s. One of the tremendous barriers, highlighted by Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, is the notion of “self,” which seems to be a formidable barrier preventing the sciences as well as the humanities from imagining life in more holistic and organic ways. Consequently, at least two perspectives have challenged western individualism from a scientific perspective—Darwinism and System’s Theory—and philosophically, Kant (constructivism), Hegel (the dialectic of history and reason), Marx (socialism) and Nietzsche (nihilism) along with postmodernism has challenged the individualism of the arts and humanities. The result is a search for shared meaning grounded in an aesthetics that defies metaphysics yet finds understanding and knowledge in the transcendental imagination that lies in the margins beyond individualism.
It is in the margins beyond individualism that the ideals esteemed by the West—e.g., truth, knowledge, goodness, justice, etc.—are discovered and a moral, social and scientific compass is found. While these virtues are by necessity contextualized and hence situated, the aesthetic that grounds them invites playfulness between schools, which brings a necessity to the incompleteness that is critical thinking, an incompleteness that motivates exploration and deconstructs the singularity underlying totalizing thought. Hence if we are to embrace a critical mindset, we do so by purging western thought of its metaphysical traits, transcending the preeminence of the one/self, embracing incompleteness and realizing that purpose is a human-centered notion bestowed of meaning rather than being something grounded in the nature of things. It is through the association of human beings that science, the humanities, political structures and social orders come into being. The world that results is the world as we imagine it, and the reason and knowledge structure of that world is the narrative of collective imagination of human beings, nothing less and certainly nothing more. Accepting the imaginative narrative of human thought as reality, then, is critical thinking.
Critical thought and by extrapolation, critical theory is a threat to any categorical/normative system, e.g., theology, metaphysics, political theory, and even the fundamental assumptions of positivistic science. That is why the political right is so threatened by and opposes so passionately any group or individual that embraces critical thinking and/or critical theory. If they were to accept it, they would be forced to call into question the very ideals they esteem and hold to be fundamental. Likewise, dogmatic religious mindsets hold critical thinking/theory to be anathema. When I was at the Nazarene Theological Seminary, I helped organize a women’s group that drew upon critical theory to define their place within the church. We were called every term they considered negative and evil, e.g., communists, terrorists, homosexuals, etc., but the group had a marked impact on that institution and forced change in the way the Nazarenes understood women in ministry. Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, evoked the ire of normative science because he dared to think critically about science and the scientific method. Categorical thinking does not seek self-reflection, is incapable of vulnerability and opposes systemic change at all costs. That is why they oppose critical thought; that is why they seek the demise of anyone or any groups that embrace critical theory.
In my way of thinking, however, if the Academy is to maintain an open and free examination of our world and if democracy, freedom, and morality are to have a chance, critical theory should be embraced and practiced. Or gee, am I wrong? The quest for understanding, openness and knowledge continues. Thank God!