The Problem of Skepticism
The claim that nobody can really know anything for sure is nearly universal in the academy today. The view is not only held in the academy but has trickled down to the culture at large. How often do we hear the statement “that’s your perspective”? The notion that everyone has their own perspective, and that each perspective is “true” for each person but not “True” for all people, is an expression of skepticism. Skepticism, popularly held, is often stated as “there are so many views,” or “it’s all a matter of interpretation,” or still yet, “it’s all relative.” Philosophical skepticism is as old as the first philosophers and is the view that knowledge – certainty – is not possible. We especially cannot have certainty about what is True or what is Good. Skepticism is different from a stance of “being skeptical” or desiring more proof or evidence before committing to a belief. Skepticism, when held consistently, leads to nihilism, or the loss of all meaning.
Philosophical skepticism is a strong position which makes universal claims about knowledge, whereas agnosticism is a more individual and private form of skepticism. Agnosticism means “no knowledge” and the term is usually used to indicate that a person does not know what is True or Good. One often hears an agnostic say “I don’t know if God exists or not.” On the other hand, a skeptic will make the stronger claim “no one can know if God exists or not.” There is a religious version of skepticism called fideism. Fideism agrees with the skeptic’s claim that “nobody can really know,” but they see the danger of nihilism that follows from being consistent with the skeptic’s claim. Instead, the fideist says: “nobody can really know, but you’ve just got to believe anyway.” This is the blind leap of faith approach. We cannot really know if God exists or not, but for life to be meaningful we need God, so you’ve just got to believe that there is a God. Both skepticism and fideism share the assumption that we really cannot know.
What happens to our public discourse when the majority of people agree, either implicitly or explicitly, that nobody can really know what is objectively True or Good? We have no shared basis for conversation if all “truths” are merely perspectival and subjective. What happens when the academy – the university – teaches that knowledge is not possible? What happens when all the university students, who become future educators, lawyers, politicians, doctors, parents, etc., either assume, adopt, or propagate (if they don’t actively fight against) the dominant skepticism of the academy? What has happened is that skepticism has crept into every institution of culture as an institutional skepticism.
The problems of skepticism are many, but the most serious is that if we cannot know what is True and Good, then there will be deepening divisions within ourselves, in our families, within and among the institutions of culture, and between cultures within the global context. If there are divisions within a culture without change, then decay and collapse of that culture are inevitable. As we study world history, we can see that cultures and civilizations of the past have collapsed. We are not immune.
Sophistry and Pragmatism
Let us step back from the collapse of civilization for a moment and survey some of the other detriments of skepticism. If knowledge is not possible, then how do we know what to do? How do we live our lives? Often we fall back on an easy pragmatism. We do what works. But what “works” depends upon our goal. Our lesser goals depend upon the goal of all goals – the Good. However, if we cannot know the Good, then how do we order our lesser goals? If we assume skepticism, what is the goal of life? Skepticism says that the goal is relative to the individual, as Protagoras a Sophist has said: “Man is the measure of all things.” Either the Good is based upon reason, and may be known by all reasoners, or the Good is based upon desire – feelings – and is not known by all, but is relative to the individual. If It feels good, is it good? If it feels bad, does that make it bad? We see this attitude of going by feeling being played out in the reality of social media shaming, safe spaces, being offended, and in the hostility of campus protests. Feeling is what leads the day. Robert George, a Princeton professor of Jurisprudence, has said as the Medieval period was an Age of Faith, and the Enlightenment an Age of Reason, today we are living in an Age of Feeling. We use the appeal to pity fallacy – presuming upon one’s disposition to compassion – to get what we desire. Or, we resort to a will to power to obtain the “good life.” If we cannot get our way, perhaps an appeal to fear, such as a threat of a lawsuit, will help in our efforts. The appeal to fear fallacy was used against Socrates in the threat to stop doing philosophy or die. If knowledge is not possible, then we obtain what we want by the power of persuasion or by use of force.
We see the power of persuasion at work in Plato’s Apology in the characters of Meletus, representing the poets, or perhaps in the Hollywood figures of popular culture today; Anytus, and the politicians of both Socrates and our day; and Lycon, representing the orators, the professors and lawyers of our day. Together, these are the Sophists – those who help to propagate skepticism and its resulting pragmatism, which over time becomes institutional skepticism – where skepticism resides in each of the institutions of culture – the educational system, the government, the church, the family, the economic world and the media and social media. The effects of institutional skepticism are nihilism, cynicism, and hopelessness concerning objective Truth and Goodness. It adds to our anxiety and fear. Isn’t that what we are experiencing in an Age of Feeling?
If each person does what is right in their own eyes, then there can be no common ground and no basis for a common life together in the Republic. There is no objective Truth – we cannot know ultimate reality. That is, we cannot know if there is a God or not. There is no objective Good – we cannot know human nature and what is good for human beings and thus what is harmful to human beings. There is no objective Beauty – beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, if the skeptics are right, then there is no basis for Justice or social justice because all is relative to the individual. Man is the measure. What would Socrates say about the skepticism of our day?
Socrates and the Sophists
Socrates did not buy into the skepticism of his day, which was very similar to our own day. The first philosophers, also known as the pre-Socratics, rejected the traditionalism and fideism of the popular religion centered on the Homeric gods of the Iliad and Odyssey. The first philosophers held that all that exists is one and is material (material monism) and the way we know the material world is through our senses – a view called empiricism. Over time, the philosophers ran into problems: If all is matter is it always changing? Is it always one and permanent so that change is not possible? Are there many diverse particular things, or is there just one indivisible thing? Can our senses perceive the world accurately if everything is always changing, or at least always appears to be changing? Maybe nobody can really know? The skepticism generated by the uncritically held assumptions of the first philosophers gave rise to the Sophists, a group of skeptical-pragmatic rhetoricians. Protagoras, the one who claimed, “man is the measure” was the father of rhetoric – the art of speaking well for the purpose of persuasion because “nobody can really know.”
Plato, the writer of the dialogues, one of the primary ways that we know about Socrates, early philosophy, and the Sophists, often depicts Socrates in dialogue with Sophists or students toying with the idea of hiring a Sophist. In the dialogue Protagoras, Socrates is in deep discussion with Protagoras over the question: “can virtue be taught?” Early in the dialogue, Protagoras tells Socrates that he teaches the art of citizenry to young men including teaching them to be virtuous. Socrates, through the dialogue, proceeds to expose the fact that Protagoras cannot even define what virtue is. Socrates is interested in knowing what things are. He engages with the politicians, asking them “what is justice?”, and with the poets, asking “what is beauty?” He spends nearly 50 years of his life searching for what is. Over time he begins to gain a bad reputation. Sometimes he is labeled a Sophist. He is depicted as a silly figure by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds. He is a curious person that seems to have his head in the clouds. This play is the source of the early slander of which Socrates speaks in the Apology.
Plato wrote at least 35 dialogues with Socrates as a central character. The dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo give us a glimpse of the end of Socrates’ life, after 50 years of doing philosophy in the public sphere. Socrates is indicted by Miletus, a poet, and tried on the accusations of corrupting the youth of Athens and teaching strange gods not sanctioned by the state, or possibly for being an atheist. He is ultimately found guilty by 280 of 500 jurors. His penalty is death, or he could stop doing philosophy. Was Socrates corrupting the youth? If so, he did not believe he was doing so. He says that to harm the youth, he must first harm himself, and no one would knowingly harm himself. Was Socrates an atheist? He tells the story about being commissioned by the god to do philosophy. He thought he was serving the gods and his fellow Athenians by doing philosophy. Furthermore, he said he never denounced the gods. He did denounce the poets’ immoral depiction of the gods. The Apology shows us a Socrates that wants to know, a person who loves wisdom and is searching for those who have knowledge and wisdom to share. It turns out those who appear to be wise use words without meaning and are worse than unwise.
Those in authority, in a position to teach the youth, do not possess knowledge, just the appearance of knowledge. Socrates is not interested in mere appearances and wants to know what is. Was Socrates as a skeptic? Not possible. He said that he was the wisest man, according to the Oracle at Delphi, because he knew that he did not know. But he also knew what knowledge was, and he knew the benefits of having knowledge. He oriented his entire life, and death, towards the goal of obtaining knowledge.
The Theaetetus is a dialogue devoted to defining knowledge and to showing the absurdity of the empiricism and materialism of the first philosophers. Also, Socrates shows the absurdity of the relativism of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things.” Socrates, and his young interlocutor, Theaetetus, a student of a Sophist, attempt to define knowledge. Theaetetus begins with the claim that “knowledge is perception.” Socrates, using his dialogic method, reduces Theaetetus’ claim to absurdity. By the end of the dialogue, the two characters have reformulated the definition of knowledge as true opinion tied down with a logos. “True” is how reality is despite our perceptions. An opinion is a judgment that may either be true or false. We are justified in acting upon true opinions, according to Socrates, but knowledge only comes when our true opinions are backed by a logos, or an account, or reasons. Knowledge is true opinion tied down with reasons or proof. When tied down, true opinions cannot run away from us. We are not likely to forget what we know. This is what Socrates was after, and possession of which would help one live the good life.
How does one obtain knowledge? Socrates thought that we get it through engaging in the activity of philosophy. He was testing Theaetetus to see if he was a potential philosopher. Was Theaetetus a lover of wisdom? We define philosophy regarding its areas and features today, all of which were present throughout Socrates’ discussions in the dialogues. The areas of philosophical study include Epistemology, asking “how do we know?”; Metaphysics: asking “what is real, eternal and True?”; and Ethics, asking “what are our moral obligations, and what is the Good?” The features of philosophy include its area of study – foundational questions and the goal of life; the attitude of the love of wisdom; the method of the critical use of reason and asking what words mean before we accept the truth claims of judgments; applying philosophy to ourselves in the process of self-examination; and the last feature of philosophy is that it is systematic – involving a world and life view of the individual and cultures and civilizations of humanity.
Socrates contrasts the philosopher with the Sophist in Theaetetus 155c-d. He says the philosopher is a free man who always has time to converse in peace and at his leisure. He goes through a discussion, passing from one argument to another, no matter how long it may take until he attains Truth. The Sophist, probably a lawyer in this example, is always talking against time and is hurried by the clock. He does not have the time or opportunity to discuss or enlarge upon a subject that he chooses. He must confine himself to a set schedule of points. He is a “slave disputing about a fellow-slave before a master sitting in judgment” (172e). The philosopher is a free man in pursuit of knowing the Truth. The Sophist is a slave to his busy schedule, presumably in pursuit of some pragmatic goal, perhaps making money. The philosopher is free because he has been set free by knowing the Truth. He is set free from falsehood and misdirected goals. The Sophist is enslaved by his passions.
Philosophy requires a love of wisdom. This love is characterized by Socrates in the Symposium as eros. Eros is passion. It is what inspires a lover to pursue the beloved. To obtain wisdom, one must love wisdom with a passion that inspires pursuit. Socrates made the love of wisdom his first love. He loved it so much that he was willing to lose his physical life over giving up philosophy. One cannot passionately pursue what one does not love. The content of Socrates love can be seen in his quest to know the True, the Good, the Beautiful, and the Just. Finally, we see that Socrates teaches that philosophy, when done in private life, leads one to the good life (Crito 48 b4-5) and that public philosophy leads to the common good for the State (Republic). Philosophy is necessary for knowing the Good and the common good.
What Can We Learn From Socrates in our Time of Skeptical Crisis?
Through studying the form and content of Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom, we can learn valuable skills and arguments for countering the problem of skepticism in our day. In the area of Epistemology, we can know that empiricism (all knowledge is through the senses) leads to skepticism (we cannot really know). We learn from Socrates that knowledge is true belief with a logos (reason/ account), and that reason is our means for knowing. The use of reason is the alternative to empiricism. We learn that knowledge is possible, desirable, and attainable by using reason. We do not have to be stuck in skepticism, fideism, or agnosticism. Knowledge is gained by grasping meaning (giving definitions to words), by making judgments and providing proof for judgments. Proof is often by reductio ad absurdum in the dialogues, a method of showing what is true by the elimination of what is false because it leads to absurd and meaningless conclusions. Socrates is the master of the reductio, and we can learn much by studying his example and method. Knowledge is gained by fostering a sense of wonder at “what is” and eros in passionately pursuing the Truth. Knowledge is gained by engaging one another in the Socratic Method and exchanging logoi (reasons). Lastly, we can take courage from Socrates that Sophists can and should be silenced through reason. But we should be cautious. Silencing Sophists could cost us our lives, or livelihood.
In the area of Metaphysics, we learn from the Theaetetus that materialism as a description of reality is fatally flawed. As is Protagoras’ “flux doctrine” – that all is change and nothing is permanent. Rather, we learn in that same dialogue, that something must be eternal and permanent and that something non-material must exist. But we must be guarded here: though Socrates is a master of the reductio in addressing his interlocutors, he often fails to provide an argument for positive beliefs and sometimes resorts to mythos – imaginative stories – rather than logos to explain the non-material permanent Forms (see Timaeus, Phaedo, and Republic for some of these myths). We must use the Socratic Method to test even Socrates’ claims, especially regarding the Forms. Failure to know what is eternal/ real leads to skepticism. This is true for the Sophists, and it is true for us. Can you know what is real? Do you know?
In the area of Ethics, we learn from Socrates that knowledge of what is True leads to knowledge of the Good. Knowledge of the True is based on “what is,” or the nature of things. Knowledge of what a man is, knowledge of human nature, leads to knowledge of what is Good for each human and for all humans. The Good is the source of unity in ourselves and the source of community with others who possess the Good. Do you know the Good?
Lastly, what are some virtues that we can learn from Socrates as a means to the good life? The use of reason should lead the emotions and will, which when in balance, leads to a harmonious life. We learn in the Republic that the human soul is like a chariot. The driver of the chariot is reason, which needs the virtue of wisdom to control the other aspects of our soul. The driver, our reason, must control two contending horses. One horse, the appetites, he controls through the virtue of temperance. The second horse, the spirited will, is controlled using the virtue of courage. When the driver and the two horses are all striving together harmoniously towards the Good, we find the just man. Let reason be your guide. In an Age of Feeling, the appetitive horse is liable to take over creating an imbalance in our soul.
Another virtue we learn from Socrates is love. Love seeks the Good for oneself, for our neighbor, fellow citizens, and especially for and with our friends. Friendship is the highest relationship we can achieve because friends share a mutual love for the Good. We should cultivate the virtue of wonder at “what is,” following Socrates’ lead. We ought to be open to the Truth and teachable of Truth. We should actively and regularly engage in self-examination, asking ourselves “do I know what is True, Good, Beautiful, and Just?” Remember: the unexamined life is not worth living. To be taught the Truth requires the virtue of humility, knowing that we do not yet know as we ought to. Remember the source of Socrates’ wisdom? To find knowledge and to avoid skepticism, we will need to learn patience in dialogue. Sometimes the pursuit of the True requires much discussion. Much discussion requires much patience. Imagine the patience Socrates must have had after 50 years of discussion. We must create time in our busy, distracted, and frenetic lives to be leisurely and free to think and talk – face to face – with concentration. We can be sure Socrates would not have his smartphone out during philosophical pursuits. Would he have a smartphone? Would he engage in social media?
In our day, the “Age of Feeling” – of being offended or sparing our words for fear of giving offense – we must put on the virtue of courage. We need the courage to ask the hard questions and to accept difficult conclusions. Doing philosophy can be quite uncomfortable. We need the courage to work through the discomfort, and we need perseverance when comfort is slow in coming. Nothing good comes easily, and the Good, though easy to know, does not come to us easily. The pursuit of knowledge is hard work. What is the payoff? Was it worth it Socrates? The rewards of knowing what is True is peace and joy in growing in the Good. The Good is the source of meaning and all fulfillment in life. It’s what the Greeks called eudaimonia – flourishing. Peace and joy in knowing is the opposite of the anxiety and fear that we feel in the meaninglessness of skepticism. How does the Good make you feel? Happy. If you knew the good, would you be happy? Are you happy? If “yes” then why? If “no” then why? In this way, we begin the pursuit of the good life through self-examination, the application of philosophy.
Critical thinking is a virtue that we recognize as supremely necessary as we are inundated with greater amounts of information. We want our university graduates to be independent and critical thinkers. The words “critical thinking” seem to be on the lips of many in the field of education. What do we mean by “critical thinking?” To adopt the virtue and pass it on to the next generation, we must be very clear about what critical thinking is, and what it is not.
Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, a book about the nature of being, begins with a discussion of the laws of thought. The laws of thought are also the laws of being. These laws are the law of identity, which states that a is a; the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and the law of excluded middle, which states that something is either a or non-a. These laws deserve a more detailed treatment in a future post, but these laws need mention here because they are necessary for all thought. If a statement violates a law of thought, then it is meaningless and cannot be true. The laws of thought are the cornerstone of critical thinking.
What is the activity of thinking? In his Organon, Aristotle defined three aspects of thinking, which are logically ordered from more basic to less basic. The most basic, and perhaps most important, level of thinking is forming concepts. We form concepts, according to Aristotle, when we grasp the essential nature of a thing. Grasping the essential nature of a thing requires understanding what a thing is. It involves understanding what is an essential feature and what are accidental features of a thing. When we grasp a concept, we express it with words, terms, or symbols that allow for communication of concepts with others. Words are either meaningful, or they lack meaning. Meaning is the category for evaluating concepts. Meaning is prior to truth, and without understanding the meaning of the words we use with one another, we cannot agree on whether what we say is true or not.
We may make errors in falsely identifying what a thing is. We may fail to understand the words that others use to communicate concepts to us. Critical thinking begins at the level of concept formation and concept communication. Often, we must ask one another “what do you mean?” when discussing. For example, two people may say that “God is love” but have very different understandings of the concept “God” and “love.” This level of critical thinking requires that we carefully define our terms, and seek agreement on our definitions. If we fail to find agreement here, the next level of thinking will result in an inability to understand one another, and frustration in communication.
Following concept formation in the act of thinking is making judgments. A judgment is not a bad thing. It is an unavoidable activity. Every time we are engaged in thinking or saying “x is y” we are making a judgment. For example, “the horse is brown,” “tomorrow is Thursday,” “God is love,” and “the marker is blue” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false. If we do not first know the meaning of the concepts being used in a judgment, such as “God” and “love,” then we cannot know whether a judgment is either true or false. Pausing for clarification and understanding is what it means to say that meaning is more basic or is logically prior to, truth. Critical thinking involves understanding the meaning of the terms used in a judgment, but it also involves assessing the truth claim being made in a judgment, since judgments are either true or false. We should note that some judgments are neither true nor false, but are matters of taste, such as the claim “ice cream is better than pie.” To think critically, one must also be skilled at identifying those judgments that are neither true nor false.
Judgments that are either true or false ought to be supported by giving an account. Plato says in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief “tied down” with an account. The word for “account” that Plato uses is logos, which is translated as “reason.” Knowledge is true belief supported by reason. In the Theaetetus, Socrates demonstrates by example what it is to support a judgment by reason. He does this by asking for and giving arguments for the judgments that he and his interlocutors make. Theaetetus begins the dialogue by making the judgment that knowledge is perception. “Knowledge is perception” is a judgment that is either true or false. In effect, Socrates asks young Theaetetus to “prove it.”
Proving a judgment requires an argument. An argument uses premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (a judgment). One of the most famous arguments goes like this:
Major Premise: All men are mortal
Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Arguments may be tested (this is the function of the discipline of Logic) for validity and soundness. The validity of an argument is a way to test the form of an argument. Some argument forms are invalid and thus cannot possibly support the conclusion. Soundness of an argument is a way to test the form and truth content of an argument. If an argument is valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. A necessary truth is equivalent to knowledge. It is a true belief with an account.
Some people will object that we cannot prove everything, or that necessary truths are rare and do not prove much. To respond to the first objection, it is true that not all judgments will need support by an argument. Determining which judgments do, and which do not require an argument is a crucial role for critical thinking because it requires that we have the ability to identify assumptions. Philosophical assumptions and judgments require support using an account, proof, or an argument. Non-philosophical assumptions and judgments may require some other kind of support or evidence. If I claim that “saturated fat is healthy,” I would be more likely to prove my point by providing empirical data than a syllogism. Critical thinking requires us to be able to identify different kinds of assumptions, which require different kinds of support, evidence, or account, and then supplying the proof when necessary.
The Goal and Means of Critical Thinking
Why do we so highly value critical thinking? What is the goal of thinking critically? It seems pretty clear that the goal of critical thinking is to reject what is false and to arrive at what is true. The truth is the goal of critical thinking. We want the judgments that we accept to accord with reality. Also, we want to grow in our understanding of what is true. If Aristotle is correct, then all men by nature desire to know. Critical thinking is the means by which we come to know.
How is critical thinking a means to attain knowledge? We have to begin with self-knowledge. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is a failure of self-knowledge. It is to go through life with little to no reflection upon who we are, and what makes for a good life. The unexamined life is a life lived according to unexamined assumptions, or what we often call biases. The most basic assumptions we carry with us are our philosophical assumptions. We may have picked up these assumptions from our upbringing, our culture, our education, our religion, etc.. Our philosophical assumptions are the uncritically examined answers that we provide to the following questions: How do I know things? What is ultimately real? And what is the good life? We have all answered these questions. Answers to these questions are what stir our emotions and drive us to action. Poor assumptions lead to unruly emotions and bad actions. Critical thinking begins with self-examination about our answers to these basic philosophical questions. Why do we believe as we do? What reasons, proof, or evidence do we have for believing as we do? Have I ever considered alternatives to what I believe? What reasons, proof, or evidence is there for alternative positions? Going beyond self-examination, can I thoughtfully articulate my beliefs and reasons with my parents, peers, or professors? Critical thinking begins with self-examination regarding our philosophical assumptions.
Beyond our assumptions, critical thinking enables us to identify and analyze philosophical assumptions and biases all around us in the media, online, in what our fellow human beings say. Every time we speak, we speak from a philosophical position. Anytime anyone speaks, they speak from a philosophical position. Are those positions well founded and supported by reason? Are they true? Critical thinking helps us to identify assumptions and then test those assumptions for meaning, or rational consistency. We start with concepts, are they meaningful? Then we examine judgments made, are they true? If they are true, we should be able to support them with a sound argument. Critical thinking is essential for meaningful human communication in pursuit of the truth.
Several virtues and attitudes accompany critical thinking in pursuit of truth. To find the truth, one must look for it. The attitude of seeking for truth, what Socrates attributes to “wonder,” is necessary for obtaining the truth. The truth may be hidden; it may need searching out, like a rare hidden treasure, it requires digging and dedication. But the truth is much more valuable than gold. So, if we are willing to work hard for gold, we must be all the more willing to work hard for truth and the wisdom that results from knowing the truth.
Critical thinking requires humility. Socrates, when told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, did not accept the judgment. First, he asked, “I wonder what the oracle means?” Then he set out to show that someone else was wiser than he. When he could not find one wiser, he realized that his wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. Humility rests in our knowledge that we don’t know as we should, that our understanding is limited, and that as finite beings we will always be growing either in truth or falsehood. Let us hope that we are engaged in critical thinking and growing in understanding in the truth. This growth may require grace, a gift that we don’t always talk about in philosophy, but a gift about which Socrates knew. He attributed his philosophical pursuit to a calling from the god. Grace is a gift from outside of ourselves, either from the Divine or from our fellow human beings that helps us to grow. As social beings, we are meant to live in a community. The community is meant to help us to achieve the good life. Grace is for this purpose.
Critical thinking requires courage. It’s hard to examine oneself. It is difficult to subject one’s views to others who may not extend the gift of grace and may instead criticize. Self-examination is uncomfortable. Courage, the willingness to move forward in the face of difficult challenges, is necessary for thinking critically about one’s presuppositions. But, courage is also needed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in every area of life, for the whole of one’s life.
Having spent some time discussing thinking, we should address the “critical” part of critical thinking. To think critically is to be engaged in rational analysis. It begins first with understanding what a statement means. We then analyze arguments presented in support of the statement given. In addition to this, we must recognize that truth is not piecemeal but fits into a system of truth. To think critically is also to think systematically. How do the truths that I hold, that I have rational support for, fit together coherently? If the foundational beliefs in our system of beliefs are faulty, the structure that we build upon those foundational beliefs will be unsupported. Critical thinking helps us to lay a strong foundation, to analyze the supports and pillars, to construct a strong and beautiful house from which to live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.
Critical thinking enables us to reject what lacks meaning by means of reason. We cannot discern what is meaningful or meaningless based on emotion, prejudice, pragmatism, tradition, ideology, what goes by the name of science but is not science, and what goes by the name of reason but is not reason. Emotion, will, and experience may be aspects of human life, but they are not critical thinking, nor can they substitute for the pursuit of meaning and truth.
Critical Thinking and Assumptions
Knowing the truth would be relatively easy if we would seek after truth and we could recognize assumptions in ourselves and others. Recognizing assumptions requires training, practice, and the lifelong habit of self-examination. We must get into the habit of asking ourselves “what do I think about x?” and “why do I think that about x?” Self-examination is hindered by our not seeking after truth, and by our thinking that we are doing okay. We are self-deceived about our seeking to know. Who in their right mind says “I do not want to know what is true.” We all like to think that we are interested in the truth, but if we were, wouldn’t there be a lot more people who were producing sound arguments for the judgments that they make? In addition to self-deception, we tend to justify ourselves. We have other goals besides knowing the truth that motivates our communication and action. Perhaps our motivations are pleasure or power. We justify what we do with rationalizations rather than reason. Rationalization is just another word for self-justification. Self-examination would help us to cut through our lack of knowledge and the excuses we make for ourselves for not knowing.
Self-examination would be easier if we recognized that some things are clear to reason. When the truth is clear, and we do not see it, we should repent. Repentance is a change in mind, thinking, or direction. If we are going down the wrong path, we should turn around and show the results in our way of thinking and living. Being self-aware of our tendency to be deceived about our interest in seeking the truth will help us in a forward moving direction. Engaging in dialogue with others with the goal of understanding ourselves and others will help us to overcome self-justification in the pursuit of philosophical justification (i.e., knowledge).
The Ethics of Critical Thinking
Aristotle tells us that we are rational, political, animals. With this nature comes moral responsibility. We are responsible for the use of reason to the fullest. Failure in the use of reason to the fullest is dehumanizing and destructive to ourselves and directly leads to the harm of others. It leads to intellectual stupor and societal decay.
We are political beings. We live in society and have moral obligations to one another. We are a society of rational beings and participation in, or separation from society is predicated on our use or non-use of reason. We are morally obligated to one another to give an account for what we say and what we do because what we say and do affects us all. Also, we are morally accountable for upholding the dignity and responsibility of every rational being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc..
We are animals. We have bodies and sensations. We are embodied rational beings, but we are not merely animals. We have sensations, but we do not merely have sensations. Our rationality is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is what makes us different and what gives human dignity. To reduce human beings to mere animals is to dehumanize. Reason is to rule over our animality or our senses. We cannot deny the demands, needs, and joys of the body, but we can rule over them. This rule requires critical thinking.
Rational political animals require critical thinking to rule over our physical nature, to thrive in human society and to have a thriving society, and to achieve what is good for all human beings – knowing the truth. Knowing the truth results in happiness and a fulfilling life. Therefore, critical thinking is a means to the highest end. It is our most valuable tool. Let us encourage one another in the virtue of critical thinking in pursuit of what is true and good.
To sum up: Critical thinking begins with using reason to identify the meaning of the words that we use, assess the truth of judgments that we make, and to prove the judgments that we make with arguments. We cannot substitute critical thinking with emotion or bypass it for pragmatic reasons. The goal of critical thinking is knowledge of the truth. Knowing the truth is a communal activity. Therefore, critical thinking is for the good of the individual and the common good.
Retrieving what is of forgotten value from the history of philosophy will require much intellectual work. The goal of this work is to obtain knowledge of the Truth. In order to know the Truth, we must pursue the Truth. But in order to pursue the Truth we must believe that knowing the Truth is possible. Seeking to know requires hope that achieving the goal of knowledge is possible. If knowing the Truth is an impossible goal, then seeking after Truth is futile, and philosophy becomes merely pragmatic.
In Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus — a dialogue about knowledge — Socrates says to his young interlocutor, Theaetetus, that a sense of wonder is the mark of a philosopher (155c). He says this just after the young Theaetetus ponders some puzzling results of the Sophist, Protagoras’ view that all is becoming and is in flux. Theaetetus’ head is spinning as he sets to wondering about what it could mean to say that all is becoming. Wonder begins with seeking to find an answer, expecting that an answer may be found, however difficult. Wonder is connected to curiosity, our desire to know. It is what drives science and philosophy, and almost all that advances humanity in a forward direction. Wonder is an aspect of our humanity, our rationality. We are born with a sense of wonder, but it seems that our sense of wonder may be dulled or quashed by our unexamined assumptions. Socrates sees potential in young Theaetetus for his sense of wonder and willingness to invest the work necessary for pursuing the Truth of the matter at hand.
Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder at the meaning of things. Socrates and Theaetetus, in their pursuit of a definition of knowledge, wonder at the nature of things, the meaning of things. Wonder includes pondering the meaning of words and of being. These conversation partners don’t just wonder about anything, they are pursuing the nature of fundamental things, the nature of ultimate reality. The pursuit of the definition of knowledge is intimately related to the nature of ultimate reality. They wonder, “what does that mean?” in the give and take of the conversation. They wonder “what is it?”. They wonder “is that possible?” when responses are presented. They reject what is not possible as meaningless and hold on to what is necessary as meaningful.
What are some things we can learn about the nature of philosophy from the exchange between Socrates and Theaetetus? 1) Doing philosophy originates in our sense of wonder. It requires a kind of seeking. 2) Philosophy consists in pursuing the meaning of statements (“what does that mean?”) and the Truth, or nature of things (“what is x?”). 3) Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge of the Truth. 4) Philosophy relies upon conversation and community in process of dialogue. This community includes philosophers of the past as well as those of the present.
So what? Why is a sense of wonder important for Retrieval Philosophy? In order to do philosophy as Socrates intended, then we need to retrieve a sense of wonder both personally and corporately. Are we actively pursuing what is True? If not, is it because we have accepted the pervasive notion that knowledge of Truth is not possible? Should we put that pervasive assumption to the Socratic test and ask what does it mean to say that Truth is not possible, and why is Truth not possible? If pursuit of the Truth is not possible, then what becomes of the activity of doing philosophy? Are the alternatives of skepticism, fideism, or pragmatism capable of sustaining a senses of wonder?
Retrieval Philosophy questions the assumptions of popular and philosophical skepticism in pursuit of knowledge of the Truth in the same way that Socrates questions the skepticism of his day. Skepticism is the position that knowledge of what is True is not possible for us, that ultimate reality is unknowable, that there are no answers to questions of ultimate reality. Philosophy begins with wonder. Let us wonder about the meaning of skepticism and ask whether reality is such that it is unknowable. If we answer in the negative, then there is nothing further to wonder about. If we answer in the affirmative, then the whole of reality stands open before us. Retrieval Philosophy begins with a renewal of a sense of wonder and a seeking after the Truth.
Retrieval Philosophy is the study of the history of philosophy as a means to addressing contemporary philosophical problems. Retrieval philosophy (Ret PHI) uses the history of philosophy to bring concepts and figures from the philosophical past into dialogue with philosophical problems of the present.
Ret PHI is a movement within the discipline of philosophy. It is a move “back to the sources” (ad fontes). It is a call to return to classical philosophy, with the advantage of a rational presuppositional approach to critical analysis of basic assumptions. A rational presuppositional approach relies upon the critical use of reason to test concepts, judgments, and arguments for rational consistency, rejecting that which lacks meaning and retaining that which is meaningful. The rational presuppositional approach seeks to establish what is logically more basic prior to engaging with what is logically less basic in a step by step, systematic way. For example: Epistemology is logically prior to metaphysics, and metaphysics is logically prior to ethics. Ret PHI seeks to use the history of philosophy in a challenge and response method with the goal of removing the accumulated rubble of bad philosophy and rebuilding the foundations of the discipline of philosophy.
Ret PHI benefits from developments in analytic and continental strains of philosophy, with a critical eye to both past errors and contemporary assumptions. Yet, Ret PHI is post-analytic and post-deconstruction philosophy. It takes the critique of both traditions seriously, and promotes what is of value from both traditions, yet is not paralyzed by the skepticism of each tradition. Ret PHI is not mere genealogy, but is similar to genealogy. The method is to trace concepts or thinkers historically, and show their strengths and weaknesses. The method should get to the root of assumptions, uproot what is meaningless and false, and chart a course for what is meaningful and true.
Ret PHI seeks to avoid a naive reading of texts, which calls for careful and close interpretation and analysis of the text. Ret PHI also seeks to get to the root of philosophical problems and address them in such a way that does not allow for regrowth of the same problems later. Ret PHI is in essence a way of reading the history of ideas with the goal of rejecting meaningless, and thus false, positions and retrieving from the broad philosophical tradition what is true, good, beautiful, and just. It is a critical examination of received assumptions, a test for the meaning of those assumptions, a rejection of what is meaningless and a preserving of what is meaningful from the history of philosophy.
Ret PHI does not tacitly accept the assumptions of contemporary philosophy, which includes naturalism, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. Ret PHI retrieves key arguments against these assumptions from the history of philosophy, providing contemporary philosophical discussions with historic counterexamples. Ret PHI is a platform within the discipline of philosophy from which to move the discipline forward and to explore alternative avenues such as retrieval rationalism, retrieval philosophical theism, and retrieval natural moral law.
It is a longstanding critique that analytic philosophy has not sufficiently recognized or engaged with the history of philosophy. It views itself as “objective” and ahistorical. Analytic philosophy has not sufficiently addressed its own problematic historical assumptions and position of power within the academy. This has been a consistent critique from continental thinkers. Continental deconstruction has been keen to point out the history of power dynamics within the history of what passes for “knowledge,” but deconstruction has not left any positive philosophy in the wake of its destructive forces. The discipline of philosophy, the foundational discipline of the academy, is in crisis. We are now post-reason, post-analytical, and post-postmodern. The only way forward from this moment of crisis within the discipline appears to be a reckoning with the past. This reckoning includes a critical analysis of the assumptions that led to the crisis, and a retrieval of what is classic in classical philosophy.
Retrieval philosophy is a way forward. The desire is not to return to mere tradition, Ret PHI is a “critical retrieval.” It is not a mere return, it is getting something back having dealt with the challenges that led to its being rejected and forgotten in the first place. Ad fontes, philosophers!
The primary philosophical problem that has sustained my attention over the years has been reason and public discourse. I am convinced that a renewed civil public discourse is not only possible, but is necessary. I wrote about the crisis of contemporary discourse in my dissertation, and to set up the project of Retrieval Philosophy, I would like to quote at length from the introduction (publication forthcoming):
Currently, the West is experiencing the results of unreason and the lack of a shared public discourse. Western Civilization seems to be in a crisis of legitimacy in the face of a plurality of competing belief systems within a new level of global interaction. There is a push by some for global unity, but on what basis? The process of secularization has resulted in the celebration of pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism on one hand, and the privatization and minimization of national, cultural, and religious particularity on the other. Politically correct (PC) language has been used as a means to navigate our diversities, and has become the fallback language of the public sphere. But politically correct language does not provide any content. Rather, PC is a negative guide in what ought not be said because what is said may be deemed insensitive. PC is the language of tolerance in the face of difference. Social justice has become the fallback ethics of a public that lacks a shared set of values. And since there is no shared source of authority — cultural, religious, traditional, or otherwise — there is no common ground for public discourse. What we currently see in the public sphere are expressions of emotional outrage or the imposition of a will to power, often by protests that verge on civil unrest by the populace or by legal fiat by the elite. Words are emptied of meaning, and we experience the phenomenon of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”1 Instead of engaging in the rational exchange of arguments to explain what one means, ad hominem attacks are often used to defend oneself or to oppose those with whom one disagrees.
Thomas Szasz has named the phenomenon of emptying words of meaning “semanticide.” He says: “To concepts like suicide, homicide, and genocide, we should add ‘semanticide’ — the murder of language. The deliberate (or quasi-deliberate) misuse of language through hidden metaphor and professional mystification breaks the basic contract between people, namely the tacit agreement on the proper use of words.”2 The murder of language has a history, and is rooted in an earlier murder of reason (logicide). This dissertation will chart the root of semanticide in the West. Yet, semanticide is not a new phenomenon, nor is it only a Western phenomenon. Chinese Confucian philosophy recognizes the danger of semanticide and proffers its cure in “the rectification of names.” Confucian philosopher Hsun Tsu (310 – 238 BCE) says the following with regard to the rectification of names:
“…When sage-kings instituted names, the names were fixed actualities distinguished. The sage-kings’ principles were carried out and their wills understood. Then the people were carefully led and united. Therefore, the practice of splitting terms and arbitrarily creating names to confuse correct names, thus causing much doubt in people’s minds and bringing about much litigation, was called great wickedness. It was a crime, like private manufacturing of credentials and measurements, and therefore the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names. Hence the people were honest. Being honest, they were easily employed. Being easily employed, they achieved results. Since the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names, they singlemindedly followed the law and carefully obeyed orders. In this way, the traces of their accomplishments spread. The spreading of traces and the achievement of results are the highest point of good government. This is the result of careful abiding by the conventional meaning of names.
Now the sage-kings are dead and the guarding of names has become lax, strange terms have arisen, and names and actualities have been confused. As the standard of right and wrong is not clear, even the guardians of law and the teachers of natural principles are in a state of confusion.”3
Semanticide is the murder of language through the misuse of names, either intentionally, or through becoming “lax” in guarding the meaning of names. It involves the confusion of words, and what those words represent. Semanticide fails to identify and distinguish the “fixed actualities” that names represent. It leads to disunity, confusion, and doubt (skepticism); lawsuits (will to power); wickedness, fraud, and dishonesty (distrust); unemployment, disobedience to law, and bad government. Semanticide has a cure. The cure is the rectification of names: identifying actualities and calling them by the correct name. Yet the cure must go deep. It must go to the heart of the most fundamental discipline in the academy. The cure must begin with the discipline of philosophy. The sages charged with “the guarding of names” in the West — the philosophers — are often the very people who have promoted and propagated semanticide in our day. Some in the academy are currently proclaiming the death of philosophy. Philosophy, which once stood as the foundation of Western Civilization, is dead. What then becomes of Western Civilization? What becomes of our common culture, traditions, and language? What becomes of the West in the face of globalization, multiculturalism, and secularization? What will be the source of unity for humankind in this context? What will determine whether we have named things aright? Will a political person or body determine the proper names of things?
… We will ask the question “what is reason?” And we will engage the question “how may reason be a shared source of authority for all human beings?” Minimally, reason is the laws of thought.4 Furthermore, we will ask “how can we use reason as common ground in a global, multicultural, secular context?” The means of exploring reason and public discourse is through the discipline of philosophy, and more specifically by examining a previous period of philosophical crisis similar to our own. The problem and diagnosis of semanticide goes to the question of reason in itself, reason’s application to being, and its expression in the proper use of words to express being. Reason and being have been the two fundamental concepts in the history of philosophy, and the denial of reason and being are at the root of semanticide today.
The contemporary crisis of public discourse has a history. There is also a solution to this crisis in the history of philosophy. To address the crisis and to find the solution to the problem of contemporary public discourse through a close grappling with the history of philosophy is an example of the method of Retrieval Philosophy. Yet, the crisis of public discourse also has roots in the very discipline of philosophy. Thus, Retrieval Philosophy also involves a method for disciplinary self-examination. Retrieval philosophy seeks to expose assumptions of contemporary philosophical schools, which are historically rooted, and which contribute to contemporary philosophical problems, the crisis of public discourse being one such example. To sum up: Retrieval Philosophy engages in the history of philosophy to address contemporary philosophical problems. These problems often have roots in the discipline of philosophy, thus Retrieval Philosophy serves also as a means of disciplinary self-examination.
1 See Scherer, Michael. “Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine, March 22, 2017. http://time.com/4710614/donaldtrumpfbisurveillancehouseintelligencecommittee/ Accessed 3/31/2017.
2 Szasz, Thomas. The Second Sin. (New York: Anchor Press, 1973), 2223.
3 Chan, Wing Tsit (translator). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 124.