Socrates, considered as the founder of western philosophy, is also known to have created this vague yet so fundamental concept: critical thinking. Using Socrates, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Popper, I will argue in this article that his concept is evermore needed in an age where views are increasingly entrenched, and why a healthy dose of critical thinking could help reverse this worrying trend.
Socrates is often perceived as the first philosopher of the western world. Through his process of “elenchus” (Socratic examination), he would critically examine and deconstruct someone’s claim to knowledge. In order to do that, he would rethink the person’s assumptions, question their foundations and reveal their weaknesses. He challenged anyone’s beliefs, demonstrating that anybody’s claim to knowledge was and should be questioned. In doing so, he also criticised the values of his own city, rejecting the idea that consensus is sufficient to elaborate an argument. As H.M. Hare states: “For what above all got philosophy started was Socrates’ and Plato’s insistence that the right opinion is not enough”. Instead, he believed any propositions should be critically examined through your own ability to reason (“logos”), enabling you to detach yourself from your surrounding environment. Through self-criticism, you could establish a more nuanced and less essentialist view of the world, hence improving your argument.
Yet, an invitation for critical-thinking does not mean an invitation for full skepticism. Many skeptics criticised Socrates famous quote “The only thing that I know, is that I know nothing” for claiming he knew that he didn’t know. But this criticism is too extreme, the purpose of critical-thinking is in part to improve the status quo, not reject its existence. There is a nuanced ground to be found, between questioning all assumptions and recognizing some truths. Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism” can help us in finding that nuanced answer. According to his theory, any claims to knowledge should be “rationally criticised” and be subjected to tests which may falsify them. In other words, criticism of a theory, not support, is what renders it more “true”. The more you criticise a claim to knowledge the better it is: if, despite your criticisms, the theory holds, then it means you are closer to a form of objective truth. Karl Popper’s theory also helps in this era of “Fake News”, where people conflate conspiracy theories with “critical-thinking”. The mistake conspirationists make is in creating theories based on information that might prove them right. Instead of criticising their theories, they are trying to confirm them. As Karl Popper rightfully demonstrated, this is against the spirit of critical thinking.
But Karl Popper was lucky to live in an area where criticising theories and norms was not only accepted, but encouraged. Socrates wasn’t as lucky. He was executed in 399B.C. for “corrupting the young” with his supposedly “immoral” views.
Yet, to contrast critical-thinking and morality is a grave mistake. Both are essential to one another. Hannah Arendt proved it in her infamous book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of Evil”. In 1962, Heinrich Eichmann - one of the major organisers of the Holocaust - was being tried in Israel. Hannah Arendt went to some of the trials audiences expecting to see, as many others did, evil incarnate. A man that was responsible for killing millions of individuals had to be. Yet, she was surprised to find a man that was not only normal, but actually fairly banal. She was not alone, of the 6 psychologists sent to review Eichmann, none found a trace of mental illness, and believed he was fairly average psychologically. The question now was, how could a normal man - at least initially - commit such horrible crimes? Her conclusions: he didn’t think outside of his system. The totalitarian regime that Eichmann and many other Germans had been under for many years, now had rendered individuals unable to think for themselves. They couldn’t undergo an exercise of critical-thinking; for them, truth was to be found in Adolf Hitler. As she beautifully states:
“Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale the likes of which one had never seen before.”
For Arendt, thinking outside of the prism Nazism created, was what many Europeans lacked during the war. The Nazis had created an isolating bubble of information that shifted many’s very notion of reality and of what could be accepted. Their ideology was based on idioms that, if followed to their logical conclusion, justified such horrors. Her solution was to engage in true thinking, which she saw as being a solitary exercise, a moment where you try to detach yourself from your environment, and critically assess whether whatever your doing is right or wrong. In effect, she demonstrated two important ideas:
1) morality does not have to be a product of societal conditioning, but also depended on your faculty to reason and critically think. Ultimately, in an era of total moral collapse, it was critical thinking that could provide a feeble yet crucial ethical compass.
2) Logical reasoning is not to be conflated with critical-thinking. Blind loyalty to logic was what led the Nazis to commit such horrible crimes. But what they forgot to do was to question their logic! On the other hand, critical-thinking is willing to recognise the flaw in its line of reasoning, and able to shift the idiom from which it analyses the world if need be.
So what’s to conclude from these three great authors of critical-thinking? Well, using critical thinking, I think they respond to some of the potent issues of our time: increasingly entrenched views, fake news, and moral confusion. All could be addressed by this crucial concept, critical-thinking, which I define to be: A solitary exercise in which you try to breakdown your own assumptions and challenge your own theories in order to detach yourself from your environment and the information bubble you may involuntarily find yourself in. It can be initiated by engaging with other individuals and theories, but it should ultimately be moment of solitary thinking, a discussion between you and yourself. Critical-thinking has, as a finite objective, that of polishing your thoughts and arguments on an issue, rendering it more nuanced. Indeed, reality is never unitary and holistic, it is always multifarious and complex. Consider Socrates to examine your own arguments, contemplate its assumptions, and appreciate its limits. Consider Karl Popper to criticise your theories and any other theories you could see on internet, by looking for counter-evidence that may prove it wrong, but recognise the existence of some sort of objective truth. Consider Hannah Arendt to critically examine the morality of your actions, to detach yourself from your information bubble, and see the “other side”.
We live in an era of increasing ideological gaps, where each sides buries itself in a cocoon of “like minded” individuals through the usage of personalised feeds, the creation of safe spaces, and other forms of dangerous developments. If these great thinkers have taught us anything, it is that we should do exactly the contrary, we should engage with outside opinions; instead of trying to confirm our own views, we should aim at challenging and criticising them. This is why critical-thinking is so important today, and why promoting it is one of my personal objectives. As Socrates stated himself, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”.
This article was written by Marc Le Chevallier.