Friday, February 17, 2012

Immanuel Kant and Learning Critical Thinking

Immanuel Kant not only believed that people should learn to think for themselves he also believed that the way philosophy was taught determined whether students learned to think for themselves or only learned how to memorize a philosophical system.  He distinguished between philosophy that was taught in the scholastic sense and philosophy was that was taught in the cosmopolitan sense.  He wrote:  “one must differentiate between two types of learning:  there are minute [grüblerisch] sciences, which are useless for human beings, and formerly there were philosophers, whose whole science consisted in exceeding each other in ingeniousness, these were called Scholastici; their art was science for the university [Schule], but no enlightenment for everyday life could be acquired through this.  He could be a great man, but only for the university, without giving the world some use for his knowledge” (Starke, Menschenkunde, p. 1).  The scholastic philosopher was exacting, minute and pedantic in his teaching methods.
Students who studied with scholastic philosophers imitated their professors and memorized the philosophical system.  Kant argued this was philosophy based on historical knowledge (cognitio ex datis) rather than philosophy based on rational knowledge (cognitio ex pirincipiis) because the philosophy was simply memorized.  He gave the example of Christian Wolff’s and said: “Wolff was a speculative…philosopher…he was actually not a philosopher at all, but rather a great artificer [Vernunftkünstler], like many others still are, for the intellectual curiosity of human beings” (Philosophische Enzyklopädie, XXIX, 8).  Immanuel Kant maintained that: “Anyone, therefore, who has learned (in the strict sense of that term) a system of philosophy, such as that of Wolff, although they may have all its principles, explanations, and proofs, together with the formal divisions of the whole body of doctrine, in their heads, and, so to speak, at their fingertips, have no more than a complete historical knowledge of the Wolffian philosophy” (Critique of Pure Reason, B 864). 
Immanuel Kant went onto say that students who learned philosophy in this way were often very clever in the use of concepts but their loquaciousness was also “blinder than any other self-conceit and as incurable as ignorance” (Nachricht II, 305).   They had merely memorized the concepts and system and were imitating the philosophy but not thinking for themselves.  They sounded impressive and could talk the good talk but they were not able to do philosophy for themselves.  These students did not gain insight into the philosophy but were merely learned [Gelehrt].
Instead Kant thought it was important for students not just to learn philosophy, but to learn how to philosophize and learn how to think (Nachricht, II, 306).  And he regarded his cosmopolitan philosophy as a good example of disciplines that taught students to think for themselves.  So he taught physical geography and anthropology to introduce students to thinking methodically.  The physical geography lectures demanded that a student think in terms of effective causality whereas the anthropology lectures required that students think through final causality.  Effective causality was the kind of causality we use in the natural sciences whereas final causality is the kind of causality we use in the human sciences.  Effective causality demands that the cause precede the effect, whereas final causality requires that the final cause comes after the effect.   For example, an earthquake causes a tsunami in the first instance, but wanting to live in a house causes us to build a house in the second case.  Both types of causality create a nexus that can be thought through systematically.
These two disciplines taught students to think methodologically and the disciplines made it impossible to just memorize philosophy.   Students were able to take the method and then apply it to their everyday lives in new and unexpected ways.  Students could identify natural causes in their experience, but they could also learn to evaluate their lives in terms of purposes and final causes.  Both disciplines required reflection whether on the world or on themselves and hence resisted mere imitation.  So Immanuel Kant not only believed in critical thinking, he taught it to his students at Königsberg University.

If you would like to know more about this in Immanuel Kant, please read chapter 6 of my book at Amazon:  Kant’s Pragmatic Anthropology.  Or at Abebooks:  Kant’s Pragmatic Anthropology.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Immanuel Kant and Critical Thinking

Immanuel Kant articulated his primary position on critical thinking in his essay "What is Enlightenment?"  In there he defines enlightenment as "man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity" and he defines immaturity as "the inability to use one's reason without the guidance from another."  What he means by this is that critical thinking is thinking for oneself and so he affirms the Latin term "Sapere Aude!" which means to have the courage to use one's own understanding.

Kant thinks that people are lazy and do not want to use their understanding and do not want to think for themselves.  They prefer to let others think for them.  So they pay their doctor to give them a diet or prescription.  They let their pastor serve as their conscience.  They let books do their thinking for them.  What their doctor or pastor says is right and cannot be questioned.  Books must be right because, after all, they are in print and so their authority is impeccable.  We not only believe that we are ignorant in comparison to those who have expertise that we do not have, but we simply are not willing to question them or let what they say come into question using our own reason.  We don't want to think for ourselves.  We want to be told what to do and what to think.

The remedy for this is not to quit going to a doctor, or to church, and to stop reading, but rather to question the authority of one's doctor and pastor and books.  One should seek alternative explanations and directions.  One should consider the alternatives and weigh them with what the doctor, pastor or book says.  One can always get a second opinion.  One should always consider the opposite position.  And this is what scholars do. 

The private use of reason does not necessarily have to be free.  For instance, if you are a pastor you have to follow certain beliefs in order to fulfill your role as a pastor.  Otherwise by definition you are not following what is required by the position.   A pastor who calls the Apostle's Creed into question is not a Christian.  Likewise, it is right to follow the orders in a military context.  One should not question the orders and think for oneself when in a situation of war.  One has to follow what is prescribed.  This is the private use of one's reason.

However, the public use of one's reason needs to be free.  This is needed by scholars.  The primary symbol for thinking for oneself is the scholar in an academic situation.  The scholar needs to be free to question received authority and think through the matter for herself.  For instance, it was the received tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch of the Old Testament.  Scholars who questioned that and began to see reasons why that was not possible suffered ostracism when they challenged that position.  it was not until the 20th century that scholars could research and hold a position contrary to that tradition without losing their jobs.  But even today, students are often forced to memorize their professors' positions and are not allowed or encouraged to think things through themselves.  They are forced to exchange their prejudices for their professors' prejudices instead of being allowed to challenge both opinions.  In an academic situation scholars and students should be encouraged to push the envelope and challenge received beliefs so that truth can emerge.

Although Kant is right that the private use of reason restricts thinking for oneself, it is not true that pastors and soldiers and patients don't need to think for themselves.  Pastors will meet circumstances and issues that are not dealt with in the bible or the tradition.  Soldiers still need to think how best to carry out the orders given to them.  Patients may need to trust the expertise of their doctors but they should also seek a second opinion or research the issue on the internet for themselves.  So everyone needs to be like a scholar in some sense.  We all need to see ourselves in the pursuit of the truth.  So good critical thinking is necessary for everyone in every circumstance in life, not just for the scholar.