Should We Stop Using the Term ‘Critical Thinking’?

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For a long time, when I saw the term critical thinking, I would nod approvingly. Who doesn’t want to sharpen their analytical thought, give their mind a keener edge? In fact, I would have said that our society suffers mainly from a lack of critical thinking, a lack of logical thought.

Of course, logical thinking is an excellent practice, and one that we’d like to see grow and prosper in our society. But the term critical thinking seems to imply something about the nature of logical thought: that it is always critical, in the sense that it is always critiquing, always “tearing something down,” rather than building something up.

I started asking these questions as I learned more about Critical Theory, perhaps more popularly recognized by its offshoot Critical Race Theory. Critical Theory was unleashed by the Marxist operatives of the so-called Frankfurt School, who came from Germany to U.S. shores in the 1930s as part of a general Marxist infiltration of American institutions.

Critical Theory seeks to destroy the foundations of Western civilization by scrutinizing and calling into question all of its cherished institutions: family, government, education, religion,  morality, and even truth itself. The theorists of the Frankfurt School paired the suspicious surgical questioning of Sigmund Freud with the power-obsession and revolutionary spirit of Karl Marx. They trained their students to question everything in order to demolish traditional culture and replace it with the “emancipation” of Critical Theory.

My contention is that phrases like critical thinking were popularized, at least in part, by the growth of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. The concepts have become linked (even though they are not identical). And there’s some evidence to back up this claim.

According to Google Books Ngram Viewer—a tool that allows you to look at the use of words over time by searching through a huge collection of texts—the term critical thinking came into prominence right about the same time as the arrival of Critical Theory (1930s). The charts below show the growth of the term Critical Theory (top) and that of critical thinking (bottom) over time:

The charts line up very closely. As Critical Theory grew in popularity and prominence, starting around 1920, the term critical thinking increased in usage as well. At the very least, this apparent coincidence deserves further investigation. I am not saying that the Frankfurt School coined the term critical thinking (John Dewey was the first to use it, actually), but I believe it has been hijacked by Critical Theorists to such an extent that it is no longer meaningful. James Lindsay, an expert on neo-Marxism, says that the Critical Theorists have intentionally taken advantage of the similarity between the two terms, and so, at this point, I’m not sure the terms are entirely separable.

In the realm of literature, which is the one I know best, critical thinking often means ferreting out hidden and unsavory meanings within a text, revealing the structures of power and injustice concealed within a work of art, using the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” to borrow a term from philosopher Paul Ricoeur. This spirit of critique dominates today’s mainstream literary theory.

We have inherited this attitude of suspicion and skepticism from modern thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In her book on the study of literature titled The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski comments:

These thinkers instantiate a new suspicion of motives—of the ubiquity of deception and self-deception. Rather than being conveyed in words, truth lies beneath, behind, or to the side of these words, encrypted in what cannot be said. … Apparent meaning and actual meaning fail to coincide.

Felski and like-minded literature scholars argue that this “suspicious” view of texts is far too narrow and unnecessarily harsh and that we need to move past it. As an alternative to critique, Felski suggests that “rather than looking behind the text—for its hidden causes, determining conditions, and noxious motives—we might place ourselves in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.”

One step toward the recovery of a healthy attitude toward literature, art, culture, and thinking itself is to use the right words. Words matter. When we use a certain term, we give validity to the ideas and assumptions behind that term. If we use the term critical thinking, for example, we risk implying that any serious intellectual activity necessitates the critique of things heretofore taken for granted: the goodness and beauty of art, the value of the family, and the richness of traditional philosophy.

In the great philosophical tradition of the West, prior to the modernist takeover, thinking was not about criticizing, breaking down and revealing the faults and failures of what exists—at least not chiefly or exclusively. Rather, it was about coming to understand the beauty and wonder of all that is. Its premise was that thinking should raise up society, not tear it down.

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