Monday, July 19, 2004

On Critical Thought and Political Taste

In my neverending quest for the development of a theory of political taste, I've been thinking about the issue of critical thought in politics recently. First a clarification:

'Critical thought' or 'critical thinking' doesn't necessarily have anything to do with criticizing; the two words are similar, but not that similar. The 'critical' in 'critical thought' is much closer to what is meant by 'criticism' in 'literary criticism' or 'art criticism'. That is, it indicates a particular sort of good judgment excercised in reasoning about things. In other words, it is closely related to the early modern notion of 'Taste'.

This point is relevant for political thought, because a quick trip around the political bloggers of the blogosphere, or a quick look at pundits of all persuasions, shows that there are a lot of intelligent people who think that criticism of someone's position is, simply in and of itself, an exercise of critical thinking. This, of course, is blatantly false. As I try to teach my students, Mere opposition is one of the least significant, and least rational, uses of reason. Even when it is dressed up with a bit of wit and humor it is not, on its own, a particularly rational activity. Where criticism or opposition does become rational is when it is bolstered by a genuine self-criticism, or self-critique. The reason is that it is only through self-criticism that we can develop the consistency, objectivity, and insight of our criticisms. It is self-critique that checks to see if the objection we're making is consistent with our own principles; it is self-critique that checks to see if we are blinded by any ignorance or prejudice of our own; it is self-critique that judges whether we are actually being relevant, or just knocking down a straw man; it is self-critique that examines whether we are recognizing distinctions between the important and the unimportant, the essential and the unessential. Everything genuinely rational about criticism arises solely when it is combined with self-critique. Being (reasonably) self-critical is the heart of what it is to engage in critical thinking. (It should be noted that by 'self-critique' is meant not pathological self-criticism, but the sort of self-criticism in which we engage when we are genuinely trying to improve ourselves.)

This, I suggest, is precisely one of the major points about Taste in the early modern sense. This is why theories of Taste often appeal either to the perspective of the impartial (i.e., unbiased) spectator, or to the development of an increasingly consistent and general set of maxims, or both; that is, these are methods of self-critique, by which one holds oneself to relevance, consistency, and fairmindedness. By putting oneself temporarily in the perspective of a spectator not biased to your own position, you help yourself to see both your weaknesses and your opponents' strengths, and so to come to a better understanding of the entire issue. Likewise with trying to articulate better and better general rules.

There is another aspect to artistic Taste that sheds light on critical thought in politics and the closely associated notion of political taste. Taste is the complement of Genius; one of the things developing our Taste enables us to do is appreciate other people's genius and taste. This is important in politics because there is such a thing as political genius; and it is immensely hard to spot. If you think that you would have been able, out of sheer native talent, to recognize that (e.g.) Lincoln was a political genius, you almost certainly are overrating yourself. Lincoln did not go around with a halo, and he certainly did not look, as he does in the Lincoln Memorial, like a sage and immortal deity surveying the world from a throne. If you would have been able to recognize his genius, it would have been either a lucky guess or a conclusion of extremely difficult critical thought. Even the Gettysburg Address, which is one of those rare political classics of enduring political genius and taste (and in less than 300 words, which is rarer still in politics!), received mixed reviews. But it is possible, through critical thought, to refine one's evaluations of political works and persons; and, indeed, people have been refining their views on Lincoln since Lincoln's day. Any other political genius could be substituted for Lincoln. Similar things can be said for whatever's the opposite of political genius (bungling?). But in all these cases, the correctness of the evaluation presupposes genuine self-critique. This is a point in which we tend to be rather deficient.

There's a brief article by Keith Burgess-Jackson, called "How to Argue" that should be required reading before anyone talks about politics at all (he is unabashedly conservative in just about every sense of the term - as can be seen by his blog AnalPhilosopher - so be forewarned if you're of a different persuasion; but whatever one's political persuasions, his article is dead on when it comes to the nature of argument).

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