Critical Thinking for Wisdom
Why is critical thinking important?
When I was a classroom teacher I would write this bullet list on the board and work my way down:
- Autonomy and Freedom of Thought
- Personal Empowerment
- Democracy and Civic Duty
- Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom
Let’s talk about number 5 – “philosophy and the search for wisdom”.
I want to talk about the importance of critical thinking for philosophical thinking and the pursuit of “philosophical wisdom”.
What I’m going to say here is probably obvious to anyone who’s studied philosophy for any length of time, but for those who haven’t, I hope this will be helpful in understanding what the study of philosophy is all about.
A Definition of Philosophy
When you look at the word “philosophy”, you see that it has two Greek roots — “philo”, which means love, and “sophia”, which means wisdom.
So philosophy is, literally, the love of wisdom, and a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.
A Definition of Wisdom
But what do we mean by “wisdom”?
It’s a term that doesn’t have a precise meaning, so for the sake of discussion I’m just going to stipulate a meaning that suits our purposes.
Wisdom, I think we can all agree, involves knowledge. But we want to distinguish the knowledge that the wise person has from mere information, or knowledge of empirical facts.
Here’s my slogan definition: To have wisdom is to have KNOWLEDGE of the TRUE and the GOOD. To act wisely is to act on the basis of this knowledge.
This isn’t the only way to define wisdom, but it’s helpful for us because it captures something that’s distinctive about philosophical wisdom, the wisdom associated with philosophical insight or understanding.
Unpacking the Slogan
Let’s unpack this slogan a bit further.
Wisdom involves knowledge of the TRUE. This expression, “the True”, with a capital T, is just a shorthand for reality, the way things actually are, behind the scenes.
Wisdom also involves knowledge of the GOOD, and by that I mean knowledge of what has intrinsic value, and therefore worth pursuing for its own sake. I’m using this as an umbrella term for anything have to do with values and ultimate goals.
So, putting this all together, the wise person
- has knowledge of reality, the way things really are;
- has knowledge of what is ultimately good and valuable; and
- is willing and able to act and make decisions in accordance with this knowledge.
The philosopher is someone who loves and pursues this kind of wisdom.
But we can’t be done yet.
If we just leave it at this, then there are lots of people who would qualify as philosophers who we wouldn’t normally want to place in this category.
Philosophy, as a discipline, is devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, but it’s not the only game in town. There are other professions, other disciplines, other intellectual traditions, that are also in the “wisdom game”, who claim to have wisdom, to have a deep knowledge of the True and the Good.
Other Wisdom Traditions
I’m thinking here specifically of two traditions.
1. Revealed Religion
One is the tradition of Western religion that focuses on REVELATION as the primary means of acquiring wisdom. In this tradition — and here I’m trying to be specific, in the tradition of REVEALED religion — wisdom is given to human beings, revealed to us, through divine acts, like the divinely inspired writing of texts, like the books of the old and new Testament Bibles, or the Koran; or sometimes through visions or personal communication with a divine presence of some kind.
Either way, in the tradition of revealed religion, human beings aren’t responsible for this wisdom. Human beings didn’t work it out for themselves by deliberation and reason — it’s delivered to us.
In this context, we wouldn’t describe this wisdom as philosophical wisdom, as a product of philosophical reflection. We should distinguish this sort of revealed wisdom from the wisdom that might be obtained through philosophical inquiry.
The other wisdom tradition that I’m thinking of is the one we associate with various forms of MYSTICISM.
Now, I’m not comfortable generalizing and lumping all forms of mysticism together, but for our purposes I sort of have to.
I’m talking about those traditions where the goal is some form of enlightenment, an awareness of deep metaphysical truths, and this enlightenment is experienced as a firm of direct intuition or insight, a conscious awareness of a deep, ultimate, transcendent reality.
The methods for obtaining this state of awareness don’t involve, primarily, rational argumentation, but rather various forms of disciplined practice, like meditation, or other ways of getting your mind to transcend the rational ego, so that your mind becomes suitably receptive.
The wisdom that comes out of this tradition should be distinguished from the wisdom that is a product of philosophical reflection.
What exactly is the secret sauce that makes for philosophical wisdom? In a nutshell, the secret sauce is RATIONAL ARGUMENTATION.
In philosophy, the primary means by which wisdom is acquired is through rational argumentation, which is an inherently public and social activity.
Someone offers reasons for holding a belief. These reasons are presented in some public way, through speech or writing, so that anyone could, in principle, examine them and assess them. Objections are raised, replies are offered, and so on, and the dialogue evolves over time.
This is the tradition that begins with the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, that flourishes with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is the tradition that continues into the Medieval era with Augustine and Anselm and Aquinas and many others. This is the tradition associated with the writings of philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, and so on, up to the present day.
There may not be much that all these philosophers agree upon, but argumentation is central to their methodology. Logic and argumentation are basic tools that philosophers use to construct and evaluate their views.
Critical Thinking and Wisdom
So, having said all that, let’s get back to our main question, which is “What is the relationship of critical thinking to the pursuit of philosophical wisdom?”.
The answer, of course, is that it’s CENTRAL to the pursuit of philosophical wisdom.
Logic and argumentation are key components of critical thinking. It’s like asking “what is the role of mathematics in the practice of physics?”.
The answer is “everything”, its foundational! Mathematics is the language through which the claims of physical theories are expressed.
Logic, argumentation and critical thinking are to philosophy what mathematics is to physics. If you’re ignorant of the former than you simply can’t understand what’s going on in the latter, much less contribute to it.
So, if you have any interest in reading or understanding what philosophers have written and said about the big questions, then you’ll need to acquire some basic critical thinking skills.
And if you want to think critically and independently about the big questions for yourself, it’s unavoidable.
I want to offer a few disclaimers and qualifications, since I know from experience that the claims I make here invite critical responses from certain people.
1. Nothing that I’ve said here implies sharp boundaries between philosophy, religion and mysticism.
In each of these you’ll find overlap and interpenetration.
There are philosophical traditions in every branch of Western religion that focus on argumentation.
There are philosophical traditions in every branch of Eastern religion.
There are also mystical traditions within every branch of Western religion.
And there are plenty of philosophers within the Western tradition that have been influenced by various forms of revealed religion or mysticism.
2. Nothing I’ve said here implies that the philosophical approach to wisdom is superior to the religious or the mystical, or that the philosophical approach is incompatible with revealed religion or mysticism.
That may or may not be true, but I’m just saying that nothing I’ve said here entails a position on this one way or another.
3. Nothing that I’ve said here implies any particular philosophical position on any particular question (as far as I can tell).
In particular, it doesn’t rule out various forms of skepticism.
It may be that the rational pursuit of wisdom leads us to conclude that our knowledge of the True and the Good is extremely limited, that we can’t know the True and the Good with any certainty.
But that too would be a kind of wisdom, wouldn’t it? The wisdom of knowing that you don’t know, and maybe can’t know?
This kind of thinking has a long and venerable pedigree in philosophy too. But there’s no need to prejudge such questions.
4. Nothing I’ve said here implies that all philosophers have the same views about the role and importance of logic and argumentation in philosophy.
There are some philosophical traditions that want to problematize logic itself, and some that view the goal of philosophy as something quite different from the search for wisdom in any traditional sense of that word.
But I don’t think the existence of these sorts of philosophical traditions undermines much of what I’ve said here.
Philosophers who hold these critical positions typically don’t go around saying that they came to them through some mystical insight or by the revealed word of God.
They hold these positions because they’ve thought about them, they’ve subjected them to rational scrutiny, and they try to convince others through rational discourse of one form or another.
In this respect we’re all playing on the same field, if not always arriving at the same conclusions.