Hello, my name is John Smithin and I am the Executive Co-Director of the Aurora Philosophy Institute (API) here in Aurora, Ontario, Canada. With me today is someone who is not in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, namely Henry Chausovsky, Vice President, Central America, of the API. Before we start I should say that this video will shortly be up on the API YouTube channel so if you are seeing it there please do Subscribe, Make Comments, and (hopefully) Like it. We need your support to grow the channel.
I think you are in Costa Rica right now, Henry? Welcome.
Thanks John. Yes, I am in Costa Rica (or wherever).
So, Henry, what I would like to talk about today is critical thinking, critical realism, and so on – basically anything with the word critical in the title.
To give some background, a couple of months ago our API colleague Ronen Grunberg gave a very interesting talk about the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, which is up on our YouTube channel. Later on, Ronen and I recorded a dialogue on one specific aspect of the original presentation, which was the extent to which McLuhan could be described as a realist philosopher.
This is a very interesting question because, of course, McLuhan was a Catholic convert and presumably accepted the official Church doctrine of Thomism. Moreover, he was a colleague, at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, of two very famous Catholic philosophers, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, who were definitely ‘Metaphysical Realists’ in the Thomist tradition. On the other hand, during the original discussion, another API colleague also mentioned that McLuhan was appreciative of the work of another University of Toronto Catholic philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, a self-proclaimed ‘Critical Realist’.
So, regardless of which side McLuhan eventually came down on, this does raise the whole question of the difference between a ‘Metaphysical Realist’ and ‘Critical Realist’ and, beyond that, the actual meaning of the term critical itself.
I think that you were also part of that original discussion, and moreover later contributed to the comments threads on both of the YouTube discussions. What was your take on the whole thing?
Well, there is some relevance to McLuhan - who was a media theorist - as, for example, in his famous phrase ‘The medium is the message’. What I was saying is that it is somewhat ironic that although intellectuals often ‘pontificate’ (if I can use that term – it is quite precise) a great deal about media influence and the importance of critical thinking, they very rarely seem to apply critical thinking to the media narrative itself. What is the reason for this exception? In recent years, particularly, the narrative of the mainstream media, or MSM, seems just to be accepted without question by most people, and perhaps above all by the so-called intellectuals and professors.
When we are presented with such statements as‘ … Media helps us to discover the world … media has a potential to enlighten us …’ a critical response is immediately triggered by the immateriality of this premise. Then we have to ask ourselves: ‘What is media?, what drives its statements?’, and also question the underlying reason. Something that is so vulnerable to abusecan be used to change our cognition to the desired outputs and respective behaviours. To put it simply, its message can only be trusted by employing critical thinking.
I believe that the capacity for critical thinking is a natural trait, but that it requires a great effort to develop, practice, and eventually acquire knowledge. Ideally, the schools should help to develop or nurture this capacity. However today, and for several generations past, they have not been doing so. There is an obvious reason for that but I will not go there now. In my opinion, philosophy is a tool to perfect what is given to you. But, this tool must be used, it needs to be put into practice. It is not just a rightly-shaped way of thinking but needs to become a way of life. I cannot imagine a philosopher who doesn’t question things, the rules, the norms, and the conventional wisdom.
That makes me think that different people use the term ‘critical’ in different ways. I can think of at least three different usages in philosophy:
1. The first (and this seemsto me to be especially true in academia) is that the term critical may be used simply to signal that one’s theory is ‘progressive’, or leans to the left. For example, ‘critical theory’ itself, which I believe was originally associated with the Frankfurt School? And, another example, that is very much discussed at the present time, is ‘critical race theory’ (CRT).
2. Secondly, the traditional sense of the word critical,as you have just done. This just means reflection, thinking things out, concept formation, and so on. Asyou also say, and I agree, this is the essence of philosophy. Even though he was a died-in-the wool metaphysical realist the aforementioned Jacques Maritain used the term critical in this sense, which is correct–but, given the sad state of philosophy by the time of the mid-twentieth century,it ironically caused a lot of confusion at the time.
3. The third sense of the term critical is to mean someone who accepts the so-called ‘critique of knowledge’. This was the underlying project of so-called ‘modern’ philosophy, starting with ‘Cartesian doubt’ in the seventeenth century,through Locke, Hume, Kant and onwards. Kant’s book wasliterally calledA Critique of Pure Reason. The idea here is really a deepskepticism that ‘knowledge’ in the traditional sense is achievable at all. Kant, for example, thought that space and time themselves are not real but just categories of the mind. Also, that it is impossible actually to gain any knowledge of the ‘thing in itself’ (as Kant called it) because we can only observe it from a particular point of view, the human point of view. My own personal opinion is that this line of argument is not at all convincing. In fact, it is very weak, because it ignores the difference between the intellect and the senses, and the very act of concept formation itself. However, supposing one accepts this notion of the critique of knowledge, and also wants to establish that there is an external reality,and that there are beings when exist independently of our consciousness. Then one must become a ‘critical realist’- however contradictory that notion may seem to be at first sight.
I agree with you that to be critical requires very much more than simply being ‘progressive’, and accepting the standard narrative about such things. In fact, it is the opposite of that. It is the opposite of simply conforming, or ‘going along to get along’.
Critical thinking, by way of contrast, does require effort, and those who possess this trait never refrain from utilizing it. I would like to think that both of us do that! However, those who lack this ability of mind need enormous effort to develop it – if is possible at all.
As to the ‘critique of knowledge’, I do tend to agree with the premise that there is no absolute knowledge. In my view, the idea of the ‘Critique of Knowledge’ defines the Socratic approach to philosophy.
In a way,it does make sense to refer to Socrates here, because Socrates was really Plato, of course (that is, it was Plato who actually wrote the Socratic dialogues). And I would argue that Plato was the Godfather, or Precursor, of the later modernist ‘Critique’ – cf.the ‘Parable of the Cave’. But, aren’t the dialogues just an attempt to arrive at knowledge, however difficult that may be, by conversation. Do they imply that is impossible, in principle, eventually to know?
Many times the conclusion in the dialogues seems to be that we simply ‘do not know’. I think it is fair to say that the implication is that absolute knowledge cannot be obtained. However, since we don’t have other means except relying on our limited cognitive and sensual capacities, we often have to assume the plausibility of our knowledge to protect us from insanity. Nietzsche in his Beyond Good and Evilcontinuously stresses doubt as a foundation of the philosophical approach to life. In his Thus Spoke Zarathustrathe disciples are requested not to become his blind followers but put his ideas to the test, and cultivate their critical thinking. DE OMNIBUS DUBITNATUM proclaims Nietzsche (everything must be doubted) which agrees with Soren Kierkegaard. To come to a rational and plausible state, we question things and ideas, analyze and collect the facts, and use logic and what we call common sense by applying REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM (reduce to the point of absurdity) – this is the method used to prove the falsity of a premise and demonstrate that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory.
In any event, it seems that we have now identified the precise difference between ‘Metaphysical Realism’per se – what my former student D’Ansi Mendoza called realism per totamviam (realism all the way) – and ‘Critical Realism’. In their recent book The Realist TurnRasmussen & Den Uyl put it this way;
‘Metaphysical Realism involves both an ontological and epistemological thesis, namely – that there beings that exist and are what they apart from our cognition of them – andthat we can know both the existence and nature of these beings’
There is also a quote from Gilson’s Le Realismemethodiquewhich I like;
‘ … the attempt to construct a critical realism is self-contradictory, like the idea of a squared circle.’
I think that the ontological and epistemological aspects can be separated. I share the concept of metaphysical realism in the senseof admitting that there are things and beings that exist apart of our cognition, but disagree that we can know both the existence and nature of these beings (as you mentioned). Since our methods of cognition are limited, we can’t claim this type of knowledge without a reasonable doubt. The main weakness of metaphysical realism is that if objects exist independent of our mind, then how can we obtain knowledge of them? This is an epistemological problem.
Yes, I tend to support a ‘critical’ realism approach – there is a reality surely, of some kind, out there, but we are too ambitious if we think we can ever access all of it. I don’t really know which side McLuhan came down on.
I think that realists do accept that itis difficult to obtain knowledge, that it takes a great effort, and so on, but again the real question, it seems to me, is whether or not it is possible in principle to acquire. The modernists seemed always to be raising doubts about the whole enterprise itself, thus undermining, in some way, the efficacy of the human mind. Another quote from Gilson, for example, is along the lines of ‘an idealist thinks but a realist knows’ (I can’t remember now which came first – my mind is limited apparently!)
Well thanks Henry, it was ‘really’ interesting talking to you, as always. We’ll do this again.