Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

If this course has been at all successful for you then two things will have happened:

  1. You will have some greater degree of understanding of the intellectual world, of what the dream of the Western modes of philosophy, science, mathematics and related inquiries are attempting to achieve, and what some of the fundamental assumptions are.
  2. You will have some working sense of some of the most basic and fundamental concrete skills of thinking and of working with ideas in a critical manner.

However, unless you came into this course already fairly sophisticated in these areas, or unless you are simply exceptionally gifted intellectually, then you are now much more aware and some what skilled, but still in need of a great deal of training at the skill level and a great deal of intellectual exploration at the theoretical level.

Where to go and how to proceed were you to wish to go forward: that is the question here.

First in the area of skills. The best approach here would seem to be ACTION. Do critical thinking. Do it as much and as often as you can. Do it with people who are similarly motivated and skilled, even MORE skilled than you to motivate you to grow. It would be similar advice one would give for learning to play chess or basketball.

If one is going to follow this course of action via university course work, then I would recommend courses in the sciences that emphasize the DOING of some science rather than learning about it. Mathematics is another wonderful tool for practical work in critical thinking. Within the philosophy department we offer a few courses which are particularly aimed at having the student engaged in DOING critical thinking, not just learning about it. One of these which deals with everyday problems we all face is: Contemporary Moral Problems. That course focuses on controversial issues in our moral life: things like abortion, pornography, world hunger, capital punishment and other such topics.

In the area of theoretical understanding, coming to know more ABOUT critical thinking and science, I think the philosophy department offers a number of useful courses here. Philosophy of Science is one, another is Epistemology (the theory of knowledge itself). Our two sequence courses in the history of philosophy also bring to the attention of the student the historical shifts in western attitudes and arguments toward the pursuit of knowledge.

Outside the formal atmosphere of academic course work it is not easy. We live in a world which tends to be notoriously non-critical. One student did point out in the course of this summer term that there is often a serious concern for critically well thought out arguments within the business world. This is one area where one may be motivated, even pushed or forced into critical thinking to achieve one's goals. This latter course tends to have the ability to create the SKILLS at some higher level, but to dull the edge of the general theory. There are so many assumptions made which are not deal with critically in the business world -- the entire notion of the profit motive, for example -- that even as one learns some critical skills at one level, one is subtly pressured into some quite non-critical attitudes and live styles at another.

In every day life the situation is even harder. There are certainly situations we all get into in which people will think with us about serious issues. The question is how critical is this thinking and how much is critical thinking really desired, sought and appreciated? Such times come up in regard to controversial issues like some I mentioned above: capital punishment, abortion, immigation policies, welfare and so on. However, much of the discussion of such disagreements in the public world is NOTORIOUSLY non-critical and can often become angry shouting matches of insipid pretenses of arguments with little serious critical support behind them.

It seems an obvious fact of human existence that people tend not to be very critical about some of the most important matters that face them, but simply imitate. Imitate their elders, their friends, their locality, their nation, their gender, their race and so on. To actually grasp issues on their own and deal with them with critical rigor is certainly the rare exception, not the norm.

So where does one go if not the academic world? It's hard and would take discipline and care. But if those qualities were present, then in a big city like ours such circles and people can be found. They take a bit of effort and seriousness of purpose to find, but the circles and activities are out there. I think of Dave Hilditch's Café Philo sessions, which are non-academic gatherings of people who want to talk about issues with some critical rigor. There are great books discussion clubs and other such groups which meet to talk about issues with some discipline and knowledge base and not just at the emotive and non-critical level of so much public discourse.

In the end it comes to down to the person. Whether an introduction to critical thinking (or even several follow-ups) will ever lead very far depends in great measure on some of the things James talked about in his essay: what are the live issues in one's life and will intellectual seriousness of purpose be one such life goal? In fact it isn't for many people. I'm not sure one can FORCE it on one's self, but the disciplined attempt to force oneself into it by increasing skills and placing oneself in the environment and with others who have demonstrated a general tendency in this direction can often go a long way toward making such options live in one's life. However, there are no guarantees.

I'll happily discuss the issue as you would direct.

Bob Corbett

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu