The Critical Thinking Left
We tend to think of the methods and attitudes of critical thinking as politically neutral. We suppose that critical thinking doesn’t discriminate; any appeal to tradition or authority is subject to critical challenge, regardless of what tradition or whose authority is in question. Nevertheless, there is a faction within the critical thinking “movement” that does have some affinity with left-wing politics. I call this faction the “critical thinking left,” to distinguish its theoretical slant from its political commitments.* Its prevalence among educational reformers helps explain the Texas GOP’s doubts about the teaching of critical thinking.
Identifying Assumptions; Imagining Alternatives
Critical thinkers universally acknowledge the importance of identifying and challenging assumptions, and of imagining and exploring alternatives. Clearly, assumption-hunting has an important role to play, and I include it as one of the “effective thinking” component skills. To uncover the characteristic methodological biases of the critical thinking left, it will be instructive to briefly consider the context in which these activities arise – that of argument analysis and appraisal.
In effective thinking, we usually start with a statement or claim that is plausible or prima facie likely to be true (but it could be any statement). Then we look for reasons or “premises” that provide a sound basis for accepting that claim. In so doing, we put together an argument for the claim. In the best case scenario, the cited reasons constitute a full basis for accepting it. In so doing, we establish a presumption in its favor. If a good argument on behalf of the established presumption is available, then those who wish to challenge the claim in question now have a burden of proof to bear. It is not enough to merely posit the conceivability of an alternative to establish its tenability – we need good evidence and argumentation for that alternative.
However, we often find that the cited reasons seem incomplete. Additional statements would also have to be true if the argument were to hold. These additional statements that would have to be true are the assumptions of the argument. If we can find assumptions that are acceptable for the purposes of the argument, we consider those assumptions validated. They strengthen the overall argument.
If, on the other hand, the assumptions are problematic and would weaken the overall argument, we have a couple of options: (a) we can try to put together a different argument for the same claim, or (b) we can follow the lead of the problematic assumption toward an alternative (potentially wholly incompatible) claim. From the perspective of argument analysis, finding either a questionable assumption or a problematic logical consequence suggest the same kind of response. Both are compelling reasons for revisiting the argument that gives rise to them, and altering that argument.
Considerations Supporting the Critical Thinking Left
Argument analysis and appraisal provide the methodological framework from which the techniques of identifying assumptions and exploring alternatives derive their significance as techniques of effective thinking. The critical thinking left typically disregards this framework. Instead, it places primary emphasis on identifying and challenging “the assumptions that underlie the ideas, beliefs, values, and actions that we (and others) take for granted.” (Stephen D. Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers (1987), 7).
If the framework of argument analysis and appraisal is dropped, a premature rush towards alternative-seeking seems almost inevitable. And that is often what happens. Indeed, the seeking of alternatives functions as a maxim for the critical thinking left. Why so? Drawing from the ideas of Marxian dialectic and postmodernism, the critical thinking left might cite any of the following considerations:
- Ideas, beliefs and values are formed within a personal context, and everyone’s personal contexts differ. Those personal contexts are themselves embedded within, and therefore relative to, social and cultural contexts. Our routine judgments and interpretations of events around us are often shaped by unidentified and uncritically assimilated assumptions deriving from those contexts. Since the socio-cultural context into which we are born and raised is essentially an accident, a person’s ideas, beliefs and values reflect little else but the contingent circumstances in which we find ourselves. This undermines any presumed justification we have for being attached to our beliefs. We need to engage different contexts in order to see our own assumptions clearly.
- It is important to legitimize marginalized voices, regardless of how implausible the views they express might initially seem. Often these voices speak from a different context, and if we took the time to understand that context, we might learn to appreciate their contribution. So again, the alternative standpoint that a marginalized voice expresses is something we need to entertain.
- Our own socio-cultural context may be oppressive; we might be the ones with the marginalized standpoint, and we might not even realize it! Engaging with alternatives might provide us with the sort of insights that lead to what Habermas called “emancipatory learning.” Alternative-seeking is a potential catalyst for our liberation, and surely that justifies giving it top billing among critical thinking methods.
- Admitting the contextual nature of our beliefs encourages skepticism. If we should call our own beliefs and values into question, we will need to engage with others in order to get alternative perspectives, even as we must view those alternatives with the same skepticism as we must view our own perspectives.
- The very idea of presumption is problematic, because it does not expose what factors may have resulted in the triumph of its associated narrative. If the presumption is connected to the dominance of irrelevant factors (e.g., interests of the ruling class), then there is no good basis for accepting it. One might just as well suppose that its opposite is closer to the truth!
- If the “genealogy” of a presumption cannot be established, neither can any imagined alternative be saddled with the burden of proof. There is no basis, therefore, for delaying the introduction of alternatives until after we have appraised the argument on behalf of a presumption.
- One can find some element of truth (based on personal experience) in either of two (dialectically) opposed statements, and it is only through the process of exploring those differing claims, accommodating alternatives, and revising our beliefs, can we discover an underlying commonality upon which we can agree. So if obtaining agreement or consensus is the goal, it is better to get the various alternatives on the table to begin with.
The Risks of Premature Alternative-Seeking
The value of seeing both sides of an argument is not in dispute here. We are not logically omniscient; we can make errors of inference. We can fail to consider relevant information that counts against our position. That is reason enough to explore alternatives. My concern is that an educator who has adopted and internalized a “leftist” conception of critical thinking will impart a distorted understanding of it to her learners.
Here are some of the risks that are engendered by this method:
- While our beliefs and values are formed within our personal, social and cultural contexts, that does not imply those beliefs and values cannot be justified using the evidential resources available to us within those contexts. Of course, it may be the case that, once we subject our ideas to adequate scrutiny, we find that we can no longer be rationally committed to them. But the opposite can also happen: we may discover a plethora of reasons why we were right all along. The philosophical bottom line: The contextual nature of knowledge and justification does not imply epistemological relativism.
- The discovery of problematic assumptions may encourage premature rejection of an otherwise entirely defensible claim. The focus can shift from finding different assumptions that support the claim by means of a different path of argumentation, to premature consideration of incompatible claims.
- Alternative-seeking is presented to the learner as a maxim with no independent motivation. The learner will therefore fail to gain an adequate appreciation that alternative-seeking is a rational response to the discovery of a problematic assumption that is itself discovered in the context of argument analysis.
- Facilitators of critical thinking may unwittingly (or intentionally!) guide a discussion in a way that promotes certain alternatives. As a result of facilitator “leading” or learning group “norming,” a learning cohort might be encouraged to entertain implausible alternatives and ignore more tenable ones. If the subject matter up for discussion is social, political, or ethical, there exists the potential for much mischief.
- As a consequence, the group’s participants may unconsciously accept the tenability of the alternative assumption, one that is implausible or even demonstrably false. A false assertion can acquire a degree of tenability to the extent that it is taken seriously, even for the sake of discussion. Repeated exposure to an idea can by itself increase its sense of plausibility.
- Premature abandonment of a presumption can invert the burden of proof, so that during the exploration of the imagined alternatives, the initial presumption acquires a burden of proof it never deserved, and there is an illicit transfer of presumption to the imagined alternative.
- Without rational reasons for prematurely abandoning an existing presumption, the only alternative is to advert to non-rational means, like appeals to emotion or intimidation – behaviors that are antithetical to critical thinking.
Premature exploration of alternatives risks neglecting an investigation of whether the assumptions that are uncovered initially are themselves legitimate. I would argue that the first tasks are not related to “challenging assumptions,” but to seek out arguments to support them. If there are strong arguments available in support of an uncovered assumption, then the postulation of alternatives becomes, at best, an academic exercise. If the analysis of arguments is neglected, that devalues perhaps the most significant tool that a critical thinker can acquire.
One common example of “assumptions” are the various institutions of Western societies – capitalism, the rule of law, limited government, freedom of the press, free trade, etc. If the imagination and exploration of “alternatives” is a prime directive of critical thinking educators, is there any wonder that the critical thinking “left” is concerned with exploring democratic socialism, economic central planning, ‘fair’ trade, etc.?
On the other hand, suppose these assumptions can be validated by rigorous argumentation. Suppose there are good reasons for accepting them. What didactic value could be derived from conducting an exploration of alternatives? If the proponents say that an assumption is tenable and they can back it up with good reasons, does that not preempt the need for looking at alternatives? The consideration of alternatives is only well-motivated when the case for accepting the assumptions is demonstrably shaky. Whether the evidence is scant or the arguments unconvincing (or both), making those determinations ought to precede canvassing alternatives.
*For the sake of completeness, I should at least mention the critical thinking “right,” i.e., those who advocate deductivism. This is the view that, of all the tools of thinking, formal deductive logic (FDL) reigns supreme. All other tools and techniques of critical thinking, informal logic, argumentation analysis and assessment, are judged by their relationship to the formal tools and techniques used to construct proofs and establish inference validity in a logistic system. A discussion of the risks to effective thinking that are entailed by the premise of deductivism must wait for another time. Despite those risks, there is certainly much of value in the study of formal languages, their semantics, and their rules of inference, and I concede that understanding them can only add to one’s ability to think effectively.