Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Critical Thinking and Blind Intelligence

I have real concerns about the ability of traditional, Western critical thinking heuristics to be sufficient for negotiating the rhizome, any rhizome.

My primary issue is that all of the CT heuristics that I've found in my research are limited to one mind: mine or yours, but not to both. Critical thinking seems to be a function of the solitary mind as it contemplates and analyzes the separate universe. Most of the scholars I've read so far tacitly assume that critical thinking is a set of operations performed by a discrete subject, the Knower, upon discrete objects, the Known, buying into what Edgar Morin calls the "paradigm of simplification." Morin says that Descartes created this paradigm by "disjoining the thinking subject … and the thing being thought of" (On Complexity, 3). This paradigm of simple thought has "dominated the adventure of Western thought since the seventeenth century" and "has without doubt allowed for very great progress in scientific knowledge and in philosophical reflection" (3); yet, according to Morin, it has led us to a blind intelligence that "destroys unities and totalities" … that "isolates all objects from their environment" … and that "cannot conceive of the inseparable link between the observer and the observed" (4). Simple thought has created a pathology of knowing that is taking a "cruel toll on human phenomena" (5), and as Morin concludes about this "mutilating, one-dimensional vision:"
The inability to conceive of the complexity of anthroposocial reality, both in its micro dimension (the individual being), and in its macro dimension (the planetary collectivity of humanity), has led us to infinite tragedies. … Political strategy requires complex knowing, because strategy plays itself out by working with and against uncertainty, chance, the multiple play of interactions and retroactions (feedback loops). (5)
I like little metaphors when I'm trying to think through an idea, and to my mind, this mode of thought is akin to dissecting a frog, a live frog. If I am skillful enough with my scalpel—my analytical reason—I can neatly divide the frog into its constituent parts, reducing it to a collection of discrete, identifiable, and classifiable parts that will, in fact, help me understand the way the parts fit together and function in frogs, but along the way, of course, I've killed the frog, and I have no skill in putting it back together. This putting back together is not a trivial issue (certainly not for the frog). Moreover, the clean, hierarchical, explicit order that I imposed upon the frog's parts is not only useless for trying to reassemble the spaghetti-mess harmony that had been the living frog, but the hierarchical structure appears to work against reassembly.

This reminds me that for Deleuze & Guattari hierarchical thinking is a type of overcoding of reality that attempts to force all the relevant points of an object into neat little rows, each point occupying one, and only one, neat little place. As D& G note: "A rhizome or multiplicity [such as a frog, or a universe] never allows itself to be overcoded, never has available a supplementary dimension over and above its number of lines, that is, over and above the multiplicity of numbers attached to those lines" (9). I see critical thinking as an overcoding, in this sense, as blind intelligence. Intelligence, yes. Blind, yes. Therefore, of limited use for approaching rhizomatic reality.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Critical Thinking: A Definition

I've started thinking much about critical thinking in preparation for a series of workshops that we are doing at my school, so of course, I asked myself what critical thinking has to do with life in the rhizome. As is almost always the case, I'm finding connections, but then, isn't that what the rhizome is all about? The very first characteristic of the rhizome as described by DnG is: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be (7).

The first connection that I want to explore is the role of critical thinking in cartography and decalcomania, the two mapping heuristics that DnG discuss. I think that these have been the two most difficult principles of rhizomatics for me. Perhaps critical thinking will give me a way to wrap my head around these concepts.

Let me start with a definition of critical thinking, not such a trivial task, as I have found out. Critical thinking tends to be one of those catch-all terms that everyone uses, nodding to each other in presumed agreement, while meaning slightly or totally different things. To my mind, critical thinking is a cluster of mental heuristics that increase my chances of reasonably and scientifically observing some slice of the world and deciding what to do or to believe about what I observe. Critical thinking helps me more skillfully respond to my world. What are these mental heuristics? I've found several lists, but the 1990 Delphi Report from the American Philosophical Association (Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction) provides perhaps as solid a starting point as we are likely to get. The Executive Summary of APA's Delphi Report says:

  • We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair- minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

They later list 6 primary skills with sub-skills:
Critical Thinking Skills
  • Categorization
  • Decoding Significance
  • Clarifying Meaning
  • Examining Ideas
  • Identifying Arguments
  • Analyzing Arguments
  • Assessing Claims
  • Assessing Arguments
  • Querying Evidence
  • Conjecturing Alternatives
  • Drawing Conclusions
  • Stating Results
  • Justifying Procedures
  • Presenting Arguments
  • Self-examination
  • Self-correction
This is a fairly workable list and grouping, but a tighter grouping is provided by Sohindar Sachdev in the book Critical Thinking Through Technology in Science and Mathematics Education (2001). Sachdev groups 19 different critical thinking skills into three categories:

  1. Interpretive Reasoning - "the cognitive processes by which we begin to understand the information that has been remembered or observed."
  2. Strategic Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we develop the conclusion provided by interpretive reasoning."
  3. Adaptive Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we extend the knowledge beyond the criteria established by strategic reasoning."

Of course, I immediately see ways that I differ from these definitions. I start my critical thinking with observation, which neither of these definitions seem to do. To my mind, observation is an interpretive act, and if you are not observing in some systematic, critical way, then you are likely to see or not see most anything. But I don't choose to quibble about this just now. I think the above definitions of critical thinking form a useful starting point for my thinking about critical thinking, so I'm willing to see how far this boat will row.

In short, then, critical thinking is one way that I increase my chances for coming to know my world and positioning myself within it. If I think with some skill and grace, then I will better align with the world and make my way through it. As I mentioned in my previous post about the work of becoming an individual, "you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome." Critical thinking is one of the ways that we position, realign, connect, and reconnect ourselves with the world. It can be a fine way. It is the academic way, the path of Western intellectualism and science. Is it a rhizomatic way? I have my suspicions, but more on that later.