As I was at pains to show in a previous essay, far too many self-defense instructors within the world of the martial arts ignore the contextual considerations that inform every training modality. There is, however, one system that recognizes that—to paraphrase Pindar, the lyric poet quoted by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus—context is king. The […]
Most people, failing to recognize it for the temporal and cultural-specific conceptual construct that it is, confuse the prevailing paradigm of reality, the conventional wisdom, for self-evident reality itself. This is just the way it is and has always been.
And this is because most people do not invest the time and energy, the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, cultivating the intellectual virtues, the mental habits that are sowed during countless hours spent in the pursuit of knowledge.
Nor do most people nurture the moral excellence of courage, the courage to dare—the courage to be, come what may. Courage or fortitude is that trait needed to so much as consider just the very possibility that what the majority has been led to uncritically accept as unmediated reality is nothing of the kind. Courage is all that much more indispensable if one is to engage in the often lonely and painful process of actually exposing the illusions, lies, and flagrant contradictions of the conventional wisdom, for it most emphatically is a lonely road to travel.
Thinking is hard. It is painful, as USMC Lieutenant-Colonel Al Ridenhour, founder of Warrior Flow Combatives and my own Senior-Master instructor stresses.
It is painful in more ways than one. Rather, it is painful in all possible ways that it is possible for a human being to experience pain. Because the human-person is a unity of mind and body—because the mind is infused throughout the body, the latter being “the subconscious mind,” as some neuroscientists refer to it—the development of one’s critical thinking skill set can be as physically laborious as the development of those skills required for the perfection of athleticism in any other activity. Admittedly, critical thinking is not about to leave one saturated in perspiration, huffing and puffing, barely able to pull oneself up from a dojo floor, or burdened with muscle soreness. Yet the mental exhaustion that one experiences upon burning the midnight oil in study is, ultimately, physical exhaustion (just as physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion).
It is labor-intensive. This is also in part due to the fact that for as intelligent or otherwise analytically fit a person may be, if a person’s efforts aim only to strengthen the conventional wisdom, he won’t have to work nearly as diligently as one who is seeking to transcend it. If a person lacks the ability and/or the will to undermine that dominant collective conception of reality, then for however much time he spends thinking (writing, researching, discussing, and debating) about it, he will always and only ever be doing it on relatively flat land, so to speak. Sure, there may be some hills, but scarcely ever any mountains, that he will have to surmount.
The person, though, who dares to challenge the claims made on behalf of the Cave or the Matrix must descend. He must dig his way, as if with a spoon, straight through to the center of the Earth, as it were, so as to seize the roots of the worldview of his peers and upend it.
The figure who embarks upon this enterprise is, quite literally, a revolutionary. He is a revolutionary, though, in the sense in which the likes of Socrates, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Saint Paul, Galileo, and Copernicus were revolutionaries. Just as these great men would no more have thought to deny that there are continuities between dreams and waking reality, neither did they deny that there were continuities between the dream of the worldview from which they sought to liberate their contemporaries and the waking reality into which they sought to deliver them: The former, after all, is based upon the latter—even if it is a gross distortion of it (Lies, or at least the most convincing of lies, always contain some truth, after all).
The point, though, is that the critical thinker is a revolutionary in that he doesn’t seek to reform or conserve the status quo but, rather, to supersede it. There are two ways to do this.
The first is an internal critique. A paradigm (theory, worldview, system, etc.) can endure internal tensions, apparent paradoxes, and/or subtle inconsistencies. It cannot survive fundamental contradictions. If it lacks the theoretical resources to resolve these, then it threatens to implode in upon itself. The critical thinker is one who recognizes these contradictions. This part is easy (for him). What isn’t so easy—what is extraordinarily exasperating—is discovering what a thankless task it is trying to draw others’ attention to the logical chasms in whatever the Narrative happens to be.
It can be at once astonishing and discouraging for the critical thinker to learn that most people, however intelligent or erudite with respect to other subjects they may be, simply but sorely lack the very skills that he can all too easily take for granted. They don’t think, and couldn’t care less about thinking, critically when it comes to the pronouncements of those who they’ve been conditioned to regard as “the Experts.” It’s at this juncture that, for the sake of his own well-being, he must remind himself that critical thinking does indeed consist of skills, habits that, like all habits, must be developed and perfected over time.
Critical thinking, as was noted above, also demands fortitude, for heterodoxy has never been known to receive a warm welcome from the orthodox.
The second way to revolutionize the Zeitgeist is to assume a meta view of it, to force its self-styled guardians (politicians, bureaucrats, media propagandists, corporate CEOs, academics, entertainment celebrities, ministers, doctors, gurus, comprehensively, its “Experts”) to defend the very presuppositions upon which it’s grounded—to reveal, in other words, that it is, from start to finish, a tissue of untruths, an artifact, a construct, a matrix designed to enrich its architects, the Experts, while mesmerizing the masses into thoughtless acquiescence.
This latter course of action is even more formidable than the former, though both require Herculean strength.
Critical thinking is, increasingly, a conspicuous rarity. Neither the overall culture nor the educational system, from kindergarten straight through to college, truly encourage it. Quite the contrary: The rhetorical homage that educators pay to the importance of individuality and free thinking is wildly at odds with the institutional practices that they promote, practices that are patently designed to apologize for whatever the status quo happens to be (The “politicization” of academia is so-called only because academia, to an undoubtedly greater degree than any other cultural institution, reinforces the political-social status quo by supplying it with its intellectual rationalizations).
One need not pursue a formal liberal arts education in order to acquire critical intelligence (in fact, nowadays, a formal liberal arts education, i.e. college, is all but certain to preclude the formation of critical intelligence!). One can, and should, study on one’s own.
A real education makes available to its students those virtues of head and heart that the English schoolmaster and poet William Johnson Cory once identified in his characterization of a liberal arts education. Students, he said, “are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism.” In other words, education exists for the sake of “developing arts and habits.” These are “the habit of attention,” “the art of expression,” “the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position,” “the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts,” “the habit of submitting to censure and refutation,” “the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms,” “the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy,” and “the art of working out what is possible in a given time.”
An education breeds “taste, discrimination” and “mental courage and mental soberness.”
And all of these “arts and habits” develop simultaneously with an ever-dawning “self-knowledge” that would have otherwise been impossible if not for the education delivered (italics added).
Critical thinking skills, then, are not limited simply to mastery of the rules and principles of logic. The critical thinker is not a logic-chopping machine. Rather, the arts and habits that he possesses enable him to empathize with others to a greater degree than would be thinkable had he never acquired these skills in the first place, for between the intellectual and character excellences there is less space than is commonly assumed. It was this insight that Hannah Arendt grasped when, upon observing the capital trial of Adolph Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, she remarked upon his “curious, but quite authentic, inability to think.” This trait, she was quick to note, was by no means peculiar to Eichmann. Rather, it is shared by most people.
Between thinking and morality, she would then argue, there is an intimate relationship: Critical thinking, in supplying the critical thinker with some measure of immunity against irrationality, immunizes him against conforming to the thought(lessness) of the majority—and, with it, the cruelty, bigotry, and other evils to which the herd mentality all too often leads.
So much for this summation of the importance, the benefits and the costs, of the development of critical thinking skills. In the next article, we will examine more closely this subject as it pertains to…the martial arts.