The Death Of Critical Thinking And The Need To Modernize Philosophy
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Politics and Activism

The Death Of Critical Thinking And The Need To Modernize Philosophy

A call for diversification in mainstream philosophy.

The Death Of Critical Thinking And The Need To Modernize Philosophy

“Today's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy. Philosophy as traditionally practiced may be a dead genre. This is the age of the internet in which we are constantly flooded by information in fragments. Each person at the computer is embarked on a quest for and fabrication of his or her identity. The web mimics human neurology, and it is fundamentally altering young people's brains. The web, for good or ill, is instantaneous. Philosophy belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry.”

- Camille Paglia, Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia

Great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Kant and others continue to shape our culture in subtle ways even today, but largely missing from historical philosophies are the voices of the oppressed, of the “other.” The distinct lack of diverse perspectives in entrenched philosophies and current cultural norms seems to be a leading cause of much of the world’s societal tensions. Outdated traditions and stereotypes are perpetuated as a result of this lack of diversity and the pervasiveness of the often single-minded explanations of morality and justice. So skewed are even our own perceptions of the great thinkers of our past and their way of learning, that we tend to presume that philosophy must be dead in the modern era; its school already fully fledged out.

But perhaps the reason for the supposed decline in philosophy in the modern era is the shifting state of consciousness from a gendered, Western-dominated society to a more globalized society hungry for liberation. It’s not that people have grown less desirous of answers or less capable of systematic deduction. Rather, the time is ripe for the many neglected and oppressed perceptions of human history to break their bondage and claim their just role in shaping societal values and culture. No longer does society allow history to be written by the elite few whom monopolize the educational system to keep the vast majority in an ignorant state of herd-like stupor. For too long there has been an imbalance – socially, yes. Economically, yes. But this imbalance runs deeper than that; the fostered dualism of our minds has nearly cemented an imbalanced ideology that transforms and evolves into our most precious laws – moral, social and political.

It’s true that many of our history’s thinkers did advocate for pluralistic ideology and minority perspectives, but these individuals were always seen as radicals or revolutionaries, never as proponents of common sense. With education no longer denied to the masses, we have the power to nurture the perceptions missing from our history books; to write in the many voices written out. Although education, prima facie, seems to be expanding, there is one major skill that still needs further emphasis in public school curriculum in the United States: critical thinking. For society to move beyond this philosophical stagnation, we must both 1) overcome entrenched dualistic thinking and the “us versus them” mentality that has historically promoted superiority, and 2) rewrite academia to underscore independent reasoning so that more individuals can participate in philosophical deduction. As a result, the silent voices of our past will no longer be silent and may contribute to the balancing of public perception that has denied the “other” for too long. The flame of philosophical understanding has not diminished, it has simply gotten what it can from the historically dominant classes and desires now the steady fuel of a more balanced and liberated influence.

Balancing Dualism

Every mode of thinking, even dualism, has its advantages and expediencies. It is when one conception becomes entrenched and repressive that tensions manifest. Dualistic thinking, viewing the self as something separate from the external world, both justifies and encourages exploitative ideology. Alan Watts explains this specific state of dualism well: “The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that ‘I myself’ is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which ‘confronts’ an ‘external’ world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange.” The human species sees itself as superior to other species and nature, as well as within its own strata. Naturally, an “us versus them” mentality follows from this mode of thinking. Rather than consider ways to live with each other and with our environment, we view the world through the competitive lens of alienation: as something to be conquered.

This mode of thinking was necessary in our early history, when surviving in the harsh wilderness posed unique challenges. Over time, dualism and its consequence of superiority seemed natural. Under these conditions, such human monstrosities as colonialism and the concept of “white man’s burden” flourished in practice and theory. Much of these patriarchal philosophies are still present today, particularly in the West, developing from the narrow scope of this dualism. Dualism may allow us to learn about the other, but its excessive emphasis on differences prevents the inclusiveness necessary for the social aspect of human nature to flourish. Further, it suggests a particular notion of “right” and “wrong” from the confines of what is advantageous to the individual rather than the system as a whole. Only when inclusiveness and holism prevail can philosophical diversity expand to the level requisite to balk modern cultural norms and stereotypes. This modernization of the school of philosophy is necessary if it is to flourish in a globalized world.

Denying the standardized mindset

Philosophical engagement appears to be in decline not because of its lack of importance in shaping modern culture, but because society emphasizes a standardized mode of thinking – thus making philosophy in practice more difficult for the laymen. This fact seems most evident when considering the state of public schools in the U.S. Our culture is highly competitive, and as a result, we are increasingly obsessed with assessment analysis and comparison. The way we categorize and determine the success of a school is based on what sort of results the students produce on standardized tests. While measuring outcomes can be integral in improvement, the tests’ format is designed to measure a narrow variety of skills that may overlook unique and new ways of thinking. Instead of teaching students to think for themselves and to think of new ideas, we primarily teach fill-in-the-answer and multiple-choice knowledge. This description, in my experience, is most accurate in terms of the public school system, where students are really only encouraged to think critically if placed in “honors” or “advanced” classes. Separating the “smart kids” from other students prevents essential inter-intellectual exchange while fostering a sense of elitism. It is in human nature, however, to cultivate reasoning skills. So separation seems counterintuitive to our nature.

To assume some individuals as reasonably inept is to see entrenched superiority in action: The denial of critical thinking to some groups and not to others perpetuates a monopoly not of education, per se, but of reason, ration and systematic deduction. This subtly forces a division of labor by encouraging ignorance and inability in some, and autonomy and ambition in others. With labor and ideology divided and oppressed, the exchange of ideas, too, becomes gendered and imbalanced. Society evolves as a direct result of this exchange, however, and intentionally putting obstacles in the way of mass critical thinking places cultural norms and change in the hands of those few privileged with access and support. Ergo, while on the surface education is expanding, the quality of said education is stagnant and standardized. Philosophy, which flourishes under conditions of intellectual autonomy, appears to be in decline as a result of a cultural shift emphasizing standardized modes of thinking that perpetuate educational inequality.

Shedding passivity

All of this is not to say that there haven’t been any influential philosophers from traditionally “other” groups. Mary Wollstonecraft, Sarah Margaret Fuller, W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass are a few such philosophers who combated oppressive stigmas. But the fact of the matter is that these individuals are typically less recognized than their White-male counterparts. With a clear lack of diversity in philosophical precedence, individuals find it difficult to relate to and engage with the school of philosophy. Modern philosophy must emphasize these “minority” perspectives to better incorporate balanced customs and norms, and we must better provide an equitable platform for this needed exchange of ideas. Where some see the internet as fragmenting and skewing information, I see the availability of such an array of information and opinions as a unique opportunity at intellectual collectivism, an opportunity to use critical thinking skills. Gone is the time where we can only learn from textbooks written by the elite few. The time has come to share liberated, independent thinking so that we may write and interpret our own history for ourselves. The time has come for the school of philosophy to evolve beyond precedence, to incorporate the many perspectives neglected throughout its history. Philosophy is not dead, but our ability to think critically is being killed by our attachment to dualistic notions of separation and superiority. In an increasingly globalized world, philosophy must shed its passive nature and move toward an active future of inclusion if it is to flourish once again.

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