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.

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