How to be Virtuous When Critiquing

In the academy there exists a large ethos of criticism of other academics, including those long lost. It is a necessary thing to do most of the time, especially in philosophy. I’ve even been critical of certain thinkers here on my site, most notably (and rather recently) of Descartes. Yet, there needs to be a proper attitude when approaching others, and certainly a method of approach. I will briefly focus on both of those here.

Attitude: We are all desiring knowers, whether we want to admit that or not. None of us have “arrived.” That is to say, no one has reached a point of enlightenment in which one can put the feet up in prolonged relaxation. In a sense, we are all the escaped prisoner in Plato’s “Cave,” leaving the realm of ignorance and pursuing knowledge. Part of humanity is to discover more, and it is special feature that humans have.

Yet, as we grow in knowledge, it ought be coupled by a strong dose of humility. This is pertinent on two fronts. (1) We need to be especially humble when we critique the works of others, most notably when that “other” is someone more known and respected (whether dead or alive). This is most important for students. In the academy, students often have the tendency to show off, to prove their supposed superior knowledge. Get a grip. You might be onto something profound, but recognize your place; you aren’t Aristotle just yet. (2) Humility is needed when one is opposed. Inasmuch as we all are critical of others, know that others will be critical of your work. That’s part of the ethos. When wrong, admit it! It’s okay! If you’re stumped, ask for clarification or report back after doing more research. In one of my first academic conferences that I presented at, I tried to bluff some answers in response to questions that were asked of my project. I bullshitted someone (not meaning to be crass, see H. Frankfurt’s, On Bullshit). What did it get me? I might have saved face (which in reality I didn’t), but I lost the opportunity to engage authentically with the questioner and I unjustly thwarted off something that might have been profound. Sadly, I disrespected that individual with my behavior.

Approach:

1. Read primary sources. I cannot stress this enough. If you want to be critical of someone, read their work! Don’t just read an interpretation of their work, i.e., a secondary source. I can’t tell you how little this is done. I once ran into someone trying to completely dismiss Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Some critical marks being directed at Marx’s work seemed off. As respectfully as I could, I asked the him if he had ever read The Communist Manifesto.

Cricket.

He hadn’t. After some dialog, he saw my point in why he needed to read Marx himself. Note, I’m not defending the claims Marx purports. Yet if we are to be critical of him and his work, we ought to have the respect to read him directly.

2. Know the bias of secondary sources. Wait, thinkers have a bias? Yes. Everyone does, despite trying to be objective. What I mean by bias is that everyone has a framework, or worldview. The way each person engages and critiques others will be, in some manner, shaped by the worldview one possesses. That worldview needs to be noticed because it is from that frame of reference which the author will be addressing the thought or person in question. That is not to say that this framework distorts the interpretation in any large way, but it needs to be recognized for you, as the reader, to engage it.

3. Read secondary sources on both sides of the debate. Maybe there isn’t a debate, per se. What I mean is that the breadth of research ought to be wide. I can’t tell you how many times as a student that I read aspects of postmodern thought through the lens of only those critical of postmodernism. That is not to say that those critical do not deserve to be read. Read them! But read also those to embrace postmodernism. Why are they wrong? Where is their mistake? Perhaps even ask if they have something valuable to bring to the table! Be fair, not one-sided.

4. Present material fairly. Many times we resort to name calling. It may not always be so blatantly ad hominem either. I’ve been called an “ignoramus” several times simply because I do not agree with the other person. Despite tiptoeing the line of ad hominem, most times it is untrue. Recently, I saw several evangelicals publicize Ayn Rand’s harsh words and names directed at C.S. Lewis. From my recollection, in her notes Rand called Lewis a “bastard,” and a “pickpocketer of concepts.” While I admittedly do not revere Lewis as much as the common evangelical, Rand’s tone, attitude, and disrespect are uncalled for. What I found humorous, though, was the reaction from some evangelicals toward Rand. One called her something along the lines of a blemish to the field of philosophy. Another called her a hack. How, exactly, is this any different than what Rand originally did to Lewis? I see little distinction.

One final point. If you think you have the correct position on something, present it with kindness and gentleness. I’ve been in debates and intense Q&As in academic presentations. Intensity does not entail meanness. By intense I mean deeply thoughtful. Sadly, however, I see those who think they have the correct position (or interpretation), on a subject and communicate it viciously, whether intentionally or not. This is prominent on online threads. Sadly, it is a reason I’ve had to enforce a comment filter on my site. Most are kind, but a few can be nasty.

Let us all together practice being intellectually virtuous.

NOTE: From now until August, posts will be seldom and sporadic. On Sunday, I travel to Minnesota to attend/present at the International Kierkegaard Conference at St. Olaf College. I only have ten days “vacation” days at the beginning of July, at which point I’ll largely be working on a chapter for a forthcoming philosophy book. Most of July, however, I’ll be at St. Olaf for a research fellowship.

5 thoughts on “How to be Virtuous When Critiquing

  1. efmooney says:

    Kierkegaard speaks of “Love, that lenient interpreter” — You can think of ‘generous criticism’ as writing about whomever in order to bring out what’s best and worth preserving and passing on in a thinker. Philosophers usually don’t think that way, but unmasking or finding errors is less important, overall, than giving the reader the object of your love and a sense of what elicits your love in it. (This is a minority opinion, but . . . )

    1. michaeldstark says:

      Professor Mooney,

      Thank you for your words and honored you stumbled across my site.I completely agree with you. I actually just finished reading your introduction to Piety’s translation of Repetition. I’m using that translation it as part of my research at the Hong Library thus summer.

      Best,
      MDS

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