What is Critical Thinking?

What is critical thinking? How do you conduct philosophy? What does it mean to be a Lacanian cultural theorist, as I claim to be? A while ago I was challenged by a Facebook friend because it seems that I throw names and phrases all too easily. Another day my campus colleagues asked me to enlighten what it means to do a critical thinking. And yet another day another friend asked why I, perhaps unlike most writers in the country, like to drop names and references as to whom I refer my theories to.

Critical thinking for me is not merely looking at things in a way that uncovers hidden oppressions and inner violence, by using the ontologies and methodologies of a certain favorite thinker, as many suggest. Being a Lacanian theorist, therefore, is not merely to look at things the way Lacan does. But it is not also, as yet many others suggest, to build things into something new, to bring new things into realization. What it brings is instead merely a new perspective to look at things that are already familiar to us, and what it brings into realization is the obscene, unpleasant, and sometimes downright disturbing underside of that very familiar thing.

Slavoj Žižek makes an excellent metaphor for critical thinking in one of his introductions to MIT Press’s Short Circuts series [citation needed], which is none other than the name of the series itself. To think critically is to link concepts that are not meant to link together and create a short circuit in the usual mind network of the general public, thereby making it possible to know and speak about things in a new way. The art is not the new theoretical creation itself, but the ingenuity by which old theories are combined — short-circuited — to create these new ones.

To get more specific, my own work is mainly about short-circuiting Lacanian psychoanalysis with posthuman theory. It may be best summed up, to repeat myself, “to question not what, why, or even how we deisre, but where we desire” — which is to say to contextualize desire in embodiment, an experience so fragile today in this age of rapid technological advances, networked knowledge, and disembodied social life.

Obviously, because truth is almost never pleasant, harsh responses and backlashes are only to be expected (I have been accused of being a pervert and an idiot many times). There is a Hegelian-Lacanian lesson I love most, which is that truth is always a dialectical process we create through speech, never a transcendent metaphysical knowledge to which only crazy philosophers have access. Being a Lacanian cultural theorist means that, first and foremost, one must constantly negate the illusion that he knows everything, while maintaining that society itself also understands itself only insofar as the stupid stories it tells about itself.

To put it simply, nobody really understands anything. As Lacan put it, truth has the structure of a fiction. Thus, the philosopher’s job is to create better fiction by challenging its established boundaries, questioning its implicit horizon of understanding. The philosopher the one who ultimately strives to make society suffer less; not become a more normal, healthy, spiritually enlightened society (as there is no such thing), but only to make it suffer less, by guiding it to articulate better truths.

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3 Responses to “What is Critical Thinking?”

  1. Atherton Bartelby Says:

    This was, quite possibly, the most concise exposition of the concept of “critical thinking” that I have read. Excellent piece.

  2. I’m with you (for the most part) until the last past paragraph and a half. Your “suffer less” bit weakens your argument a lot. To make society suffer less is itself a goal that is structurally similar to making a ” normal, healthy, spiritually enlightened society.” I get that you’re lessening suffering through the articulation of better truths, but decreasing suffering and improving truths both require value judgments, which themselves require a means of universalizing judgment (moral or aesthetic).

    Your definition of critical thinking runs into the core problem facing all post(or post-post)modernist thought: Once we’ve reduced things far enough, who gives a fuck? People react this way because we remove their reference points by stating things like “nobody really understands anything.” Most of us are disgusted by those who purposefully skip over these problems because they are uncomfortable with the implications. But, we have to be careful that we don’t skip over them in our efforts to understand them.

    Still, good post.

  3. Bonni Rambatan Says:

    Great comment Zak, and I’m glad you brought this up. Yes, now you can see that I am for universalization and against the usual postmodern multiplicity (no wonder the general postmodern Left don’t like me!). The postmodern critical attitude is problematic as you said, because people don’t give a fuck anymore and all they care about is removing and deconstructing any reference point and any kind of universalism. What I aim for instead is to rebuild things after this point of deconstruction, to go and search for universal values once again, to think up a framework once again, albeit being fully aware that it will be deconstructed in the future.

    The challenge for me is thus not to find a universal theory that will map everything, but to find an effective theory that can be used as a coherent framework for long enough before its next wave of deconstruction. The difference between my notion of less suffering and the general notion of spiritual enlightenment is that less suffering admits its provisional state of truth. Universal? Yes. Ultimate? Never.

    (This also happens to be how I read Hegel — his “universal knowledge,” I claim, already acknowledges its temporary state when read in juxtaposition with his dialectics and phenomenology. Many readers of Hegel call me weird, but hey, he’s the big flashy impossible-to-read guy so I may be right after all, no?)

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