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Posts Tagged ‘Jonah Lehrer’

Many of us teach service courses called “Critical Thinking” in our colleges and universities.  Exactly what ‘critical thinking’ means, however, is and has been the source of much vexation.  Reading this blog post by neuroscience researcher and popularizer Jonah Lehrer put me in mind of a discussion I’ve sometimes heard bits and pieces of in this context: on whether and how critical thinking bears any relation to creative thinking.

Broadly speaking I’d suppose that most people understand critical thinking as a br0adly analytical enterprise.  Whether one is extracting an argument for evaluation, analyzing a discussion according to pragma-dialectic rules or critiquing a speech according to rhetorical canons of interpretation, the effort seems to be one in which the task is to “look underneath” the surface phenomenon of the linguistic artifact (the argument or dialogue as it is found “naturally”, in its own discursive “habitat”, say) to structural, prescriptive, and other such properties.   Creative thinking seems less to be about analyzing images or bits of text, and more about the realization of hitherto un-thought-of possibilities that arise from them, or perhaps about the ability to associate freely between different sorts of families of word or image.

It would be easy to pigeonhole critical thinking and creative thinking into wholly different mindsets by saying that critical thinking is about analysis and creative thinking is about expression, but I think this would be misleading.  Critical thinkers learn to prize clarity of expression and to be clear when the occasion requires it.  Creative thinkers also engage in analysis, for example, in the visual analysis of whether a composition or a choice of color is apt given what the artist is trying to express.  Despite the apparent differences, I’m inclined to think that creative and critical thinking aren’t wholly disparate.  Important to both, for example, is the ability to resist framing problems and other dynamics that artificially close off avenues of interpretation or understanding.  Both, I think, also require the development of character traits like intellectual independence. Certainly neither is possible without a good deal of open-mindedness. Freedom of thought and expression seems essential for developing both sets of skills too.

This is not to say that we can collapse the two.  I don’t think we can or should.  I do think, however, that it might be interesting from a pedagogical point of view to consider what critical thinking would look like if taught from a creative perspective, and vice versa.  What kind of classroom environment would best combine both?  What skills, ideally, would the student leave such a class with that he or she doesn’t leave a critical thinking class with now?

Though I am here thinking mostly of pedagogical concerns, I can’t help but wonder if thinking along these lines might not be helpful in sorting out the relationship between rhetoric and argumentation too.

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A while ago I posted a short entry here entitled Nice Argument. I’ll Believe You When You Have a Story.  That post linked to a post about the endowment effect on Dan Ariely’s blog in behavioral economics.  In that post I wondered if something like the endowment effect (the increased perception of value that comes from association with a personal narrative) might not do some explanatory work in argumentation theory, perhaps in terms of explaining why people hold and argue for the positions that they do, or why people can be resistant to changing their minds even when presented with evidence that should do so, etc..

Here now is another entry along those lines, this time by the redoubtable popularizer of all things brain science, Jonah Lehrer.  In a recent entry on his blog Lehrer goes so far as to say that in order to be effective argumentation–especially moral argumentation–ought to be aimed at exciting the emotional systems in the brain; that argumentation that appeals to rational considerations simply won’t get the job done when it comes to morality.  Let’s see now, if he’s right then moral argument is effective when it appeals to our sentiments, but is idle when it appeals to reason.  Seems like I’ve heard that one somewhere before…I wonder if Lehrer can do a Scottish accent.

What is interesting here for argumentation theorists in these developments coming out of the social and now the hard sciences are (1) that emotions apparently play a much larger role in reasoning, and by extension in effective argumentation than has traditionally been thought and (2) that arguments or not, narratives have what increasingly looks like a proven power to convince that in some cases can exceed rational appeals.  (Of course to some in rhetoric that won’t seem like news, however, considering that this observation is coming from the hard sciences I’d wager that even the toughest rhetorician may find something to smile about there). Though obviously related, these two points each have a significance of their own. The first point is in some ways a vindication of the more nuanced view taken by most argumentation theorists of what were traditionally seen the “emotion-based” fallacies (e.g. ad misericordiam, etc.). The second point certainly seems like wind in the sails of those who favor the notion that narratives can be arguments.

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