I was browsing through the Guardians’ interactive blog page, ‘Comment is Free‘, earlier today and there was an interesting article on the parallels between the current anti-Muslim reactions in the West and earlier reactions to Jewish communities at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. As part of that article there was mention of the 1894 attack on the Greenwich Observatory, just across the road from us here at Greenwich University. Some further browsing connected me with Mike Davis’ article on the car bomb and the useful reminder of a historical perspective being necessary and vital in any attempt to develop critical thought about the world around us. (Mike Davis is speaking in London later this month as part of an interesting series of talks being run by the ICA called ‘The new left: then and now’).
I’ve been arguing to my first year ‘Introduction to philosophy’ students that one of the key tasks philosophy can achieve is a degree of empowerment via critical thought. The very concept of knowledge (classically distinguished as ‘episteme’ or science as opposed to ‘doxa’ or opinion) is used to establish a certain power relation. The claims of knowledge are more powerful than those of opinion, so goes the argument. In one sense, of course, this seems incontrovertible – ‘that which we know to be true’ is always to be accepted before ‘that which might or might not be true’ but which, in any case, we do not yet ‘know to be true’. The role of truth for most of society, inevitably depends not on truth itself but on this connection of truth and knowledge. A known truth has a power. The ability to develop a critical skill, a critical thought, rests primarily on the development of an ability to question how we know what we know. This, after all, is Plato’s argument in the model of ‘the divided line’ – the knowledge that knows how it is known is superior even to the knowledge that is incontrovertibly true, such as mathematical, deductive knowledge. For Plato, such knowledge that knows itself is ‘dialectic’ or understanding (noesis) and comes above mere rational thought (dianoia).
In the abstract, of course, this Platonic model might seem persuasive, perhaps even vaguely interesting, but not radical. It has, however, radical implications. To begin with, as I suggested in last weeks lecture, the response to claims to knowwledge that are presented to us as incontrovertible are best responded to with a certain sense of humour – the person who is trying to persuade us of their knowledge claims without allowing that knowledge claim to be investigated or questioned is in effect presenting us with something humorous in that it’s quite simply nothing better than a joke. If the very essence of critical thought is to allow knowledge claims to be investigated in order to know how we know them, then in general a knowledge claim should present itself with caution and openness. There may be something – unless the knowledge claimer is always claiming omniscience – that they have failed to understand about the very process buy which they came to their knowledge claim. Knowledge claims that cannot be questioned refuse to allow themselves to be investigated, refuse to allow knowledge of the knowledge claim – and as such are both humorous but also dangerous since they harbour some other motive, usually one of imposing their power on us. Why should I believe that? What happens if I believe that? Who benefits if I believe that? These are all practical applications of critical rational thought.
In history we can often find clues, such as those suggested above, that indicate either ignorance or deliberate falsehood. Facts and situations are presented as ‘new’, the current crisis is always ‘nothing like the past’, some new event makes the world ‘a more dangerous place than it’s been before’ – and yet this sort of rhetoric fails to indicate that it has appeared before, that it is not the first time a moral panic has arisen about ‘terrorism’ and political violence, nor the first time it has been associated with a particular religion or community.
In general I like to use a rule of thumb, which is that something I want to believe is the most likely to be the thing that derails my critical rational thought. To be critical is first of all to be aware that the power that others find in knowledge claims is a power I also find. This implies that I can be seduced by my own desires to believe something. It is too easy to accept one argument against another simply because it is easier. The philosopher, it must be remembered, is not someone who merely tries to find the truth but someone who has a passion for the truth and as was suggested by Nietzsche, this passion might itself lead to error, albeit perhaps a useful error. The passionate is associated with the body, with something unthinking, uncritical and so the very notion of a passion for truth should alert us to the fact that there is something difficult, perhaps almost paradoxical, in this approach that brings benefits only through a skillful, artful, nuanced capacity to live with this passion. Such skill can be cultivated precisely through the kind of self-critical aspect that is central to the idea that the highest form of knowledge is that which knows how it knows and in consequence knows at least some of the limits of its own knowledge.
powered by performancing firefox