A common misconception is that philosophy is about answers and that philosophers, particularly the self-proclaimed ones, have these answers. Philosophy in a truer sense is, however, more about asking the right questions.
Voltaire famously said that it is 'better to judge a man by his questions rather than his answers', and it wouldn’t be silly to think that Voltaire might have been referring to a man who was so good at asking questions that he had a whole way of asking questions named after him: the amazeballs Greek philosopher, and the man who inspired my cat’s name - Socrates.
Much of what follows are things that I learned from a weekend workshop organised by the Human-Etisk Forbund (I do nothing else with my weekends but take advantage of their excellent offerings, it seems) on how to think critically and ask the right questions. The two-day seminar was run by two professional philosophers and Morten Fasvold and Øyvind Olsholt , and Hans Christian Nes, who has a teaching backgrounds, but runs philosophy variants of the HEF confirmation courses.
I’ve tried to summarise the whole weekend into a series of theoretical and practical bits of advice. This first post is based more on the theoretical side of critical thinking, with the practical tips to follow in a separate post.
Whilst the course was primarily aimed at holding philosophical discussions with confirmants, who are typically 14 or 15, I think it has significant transference value and should be useful to anyone who enjoys thinking critically, either alone or in groups.
What is critical thinking?
It might be easier if we think about what it isn’t. Critical thinking is not the same as:
- Criticising: Criticising is finding fault in something, whereas critical thinking involves some of this, but is about more than just picking holes; it’s about looking down the holes and learning from the things you find.
- Armchair philosophising: There is a great deal of philosophical thinking involved, but critical thinking is something that pertains to all aspects of our everyday, practical lives.
- Cynicism: The conflation of cynicism, which is characterised by a pervasive negative attitude, and skepticism, which is based on critical thinking, is a perennially frustrating problem. A good critical thinker and skeptic is not de facto a cynic out to prove all the idiots wrong, but rather approaches all situations with an open and positive frame of mind and appraises them according to their rational and scientific merits.
- Trying to win a debate: The purpose of a philosophical discussion based on critical thinking is not to win, but to learn. I’ve often met this problem at skeptics meetings, where people seemed to be hell-bent on proving their smarts, show how much nerdier they are than everyone else or basically trying to win at science, rather than actually trying to listen, learn and collaboratively develop your understanding. I myself am not immune to this, by the way, though I am making steps to catch myself doing it, not least by going to and writing about workshops like these.
The difference between debate and discussion
- Fighting and winning
- Not listening, but waiting to speak
- Self-centred and assertive
- Developing your own and others’ thinking
- Emphasis on listening, to yourself and others
Questions to ask before asking a question
American inventor Charles Kettering suggested that a ‘problem well stated is a problem half solved’, meaning that a lot of hard work has to be done before you even know what you’re actually trying to answer. Fasthold suggested that before posing a question, particularly during a group discussion, it was important to ask yourself the following questions in order get the most out of it:
- Why am I asking this question?
- Do I have an answer to my own question already? (Stops you asking rhetorical questions, or being that annoying person who disguises an opinion as a question.)
- What kind of answer am I expecting to my question? (For the purposes of a philosophical discussion, this relates to how ‘productive’ the answer is: does it develop the discussion further?)
Key stages in thinking critically:
1. Clarification stage
- What am I actually talking about?
- What do I really think?
- What are the implications of this?
2. Reasoning stage
- What reasons do I have for thinking what I do?
3. Critiquing stage
- Is there something wrong with my thinking that I haven’t yet thought about?
- Are there alternative ways to think about it?
The critiquing stage is where there is development and insight. The first two stages, whilst no less important, are there more-or-less to set context.
Some simple ground rules for discussions:
- The group must formulate assumptions and limitations together.
- People are allowed to disagree: disagreement is a good thing.
- People are allowed to change their minds: changing your mind in light of new, convincing ideas is a good thing.
- Avoid ad hominim arguments: discuss the qualities of the idea or comment, not the qualities of person that made the comment.