D.P. Marshall Vs. Fatuity
Though I myself blog about both academic and commercial topics, I very rarely discuss the work of others, save for the occasional link. But in this case I am making an exception, as fellow blogger D. P. Marshall has asked me to reply to his two part series on the lack of critical thinking in modern society. Before I start though, I would like to give you all a sense of where both of us Daniels are coming from in our positions on this topic.
Daniel Paul Marshall is an expatriate living in South Korea, hailing from the West Midlands of England. A very gifted writer of both prose and poetry, he also built (by himself) a café and guesthouse on the island of Jeju where he lives with his wife. His philosophical influences are Thomas Nagel, Albert Camus, and George Santayana. In my own research for my various degrees I have exhaustively studied Zen Buddhism and Japanese art culture (i.e. their combined influence on American culture in the 1950s), focusing especially on the ensuing art of free jazz. Thus, my approach to any criticism or writing comes from this training at least subconsciously, if not directly (Dogen Zenji, Junichiro Tanizaki, Shozo Shimamoto, Kenko Yoshida, and others).
In his essays Marshall lays out a major criticism of our current educational system: society, in general, is not trained to objectively think about things before they decide what to think about an issue, they just judge stuff without any reasonable thought put into why. This is due to the economic aspects, because thinking objectively (a.k.a. critically) about things is not necessary for modern workers and their mundane jobs. If your company succeeds, and the government gets their taxes then all is good in the world. And whenever someone actually does think critically about an issue, then that analysis is easily shot down with the idea that every is entitles to their own opinion, like one person’s random thoughts on the stock market are the same as someone else’s in depth study of economic trends. This is completely unacceptable to Marshall, and bothers him deeply. As he sees it, a diallelus, a problem requiring justification (which then can lead to another argument which requires further justification), is the foundation for critical thought.
Marshall then explains just what he means by criticism: the variety found in literary criticism, as humans use literary devices all the time in our understanding and expression of Life itself. This is where he takes what I think is a slight turn from his original argument, a slight turn towards the ditch rather than the road. We do indeed use literary devices in our lives, but there needs to be a distinction made between literature and communication. For example, one almost invariable (in my experience) communicates with much less effectiveness having learnt Japanese in university for example than one who has gained the (exact) equivalent level of communication (verbs, nouns, etc.) by spending the equivalent amount of time with Osakan housewives.
This is due to the subject matter. Whereas the Canadian college student must learn how to say “As for me…” in college to pass a standardized test, Osakan housewife Japanese is by its very nature communicative of information vital to the circle of her friends who must live it’s effects and possible complications: the Canadian college student living in Japan for one year must learn when to say what via negative grammar and body language. Via negative grammatical form for example, the Osaka housewife will ask a guest if their feet are cold, the common implied request given for one to please put their socks on before entering an area with tatami mats.
(Note: it is also not taught or learnt through literary forms that my own name (sh-NAY) must be mispronounced (shoe-ney) in Japan in order to be polite, as it is correctly pronounced like a strident command to die: “shii-ney”).
Marshall corrects this emphasis later though with a return to the idea of one’ critical faculties, wherein learning to communicate resides. He also rightfully brings us to the idea of “shaming”, the (often misused) idea of morally policing society: judging instantly on gut feeling rather than thinking about the context and ramifications of such action, as in the case of Justine Sacco who was fired for a misunderstood Tweet about AIDS and racial discrimination.
Once again this becomes another slight wobble on Marshall’s road. Understanding thought then as a literary “technique” will not necessarily inculcate wisdom, no matter how intelligent one is. I have seen this phenomenon often in universities, wherein distinguished professors make extremely baffling personal choices which would make their ability to think critically about their academic suspect seem suspect as well: joining socially pernicious cults, destroying marriages through questionable behaviour and so on.
Marshall corrects himself again then with a renewed focus on ideology: the negative moral policing that provokes rather than engages people. Quoting Northrop Frye, he reminds us that to argue with an ideologue is to “lose”, as you can only counter an (unreasonable) ideologue with a counter ideology: soft for soft, hard for hard. This unfortunate position, as Marshall demonstrates with various issues around discrimination against Muslims in the U.K., illustrates both the solution and genesis of the problem.
Ultimately we arrive at Marshall’s closing argument: that it is difficult for people to think, as they confused over it is to really criticize something: not subjective resistance, but pure objective observation. To be wrong is not to be shamed, but to grow. But Marshall’s final point is the third wobble: critical thinking is a device for regulating society’s behaviour: for keeping an informed eye on ourselves.
There is more to human thought than purely objective and subjective thought. It is not polar, but rather a continuum or a dialectic, when subjective concepts of social responsibility are held by the individual. The key is Marshall’s use of the word “regulate”: which carries an implicit morality. Who is it who can’t think, and who will be in charge of regulating them? An educated public? There can be no unified “informed” public by its very definition without an utopian educational system. Without the negatives provided in Marshall’s posts, the results will be improving the common denominator in society’s equal, elevating the average person, the sin qua non for the need. I doubt this is Marshall’s intended implication. But if we are using literary devices as our basis, then the “regulation of the status quo” is relevant.
On a personal level Marshall also seems to be driving at (or at least I get the sense of), the removal of ignorance from those who seem to be permanently ignorant and quite proud of it. This is a kind of “Literary Nihilism” common in both Marshall’s essays and his poetry: the irredeemability of the willfully ignorant. No matter how much we “regulate” society’s behaviour, no matter how informed the eye we keep trained on ourselves, these irreparable intellects will move unchecked in our halls and public forums.
I blame this on the 19th century poet/artist William Blake. Born in the 18th century and dying in the 19th, Blake was the connective tissue between two aesthetic worlds, the Enlightenment and Romantic eras: a son of both and yet not either. Blake was eventually hailed as genius by later generations, but in his own thought of as a reasonably skilled madman. Whereas Enlightenment art was essentially performance of ideal methods (the execution of proper techniques), Romantic art was the expression of artistic identity, the relation of the artist to the work. Blake, though not given his due as such, inhabited a unique position between the two. Blake’s art was the expression of identity through individual imagination (Romantic) with lines as the ideal aspects of the artwork (Enlightenment). Blake was a transitional figure, and as such I see Marshall as his community’s Enlightenment essay man of the rational, the ordered, seeking the consonant utopias of form and structure in thought (while working as the literate Romantic who when not sullenly tilting at idiots, writes imaginative poems of variety and dissonance).
Blake conceived of a variety of perfections, and Marshall sees himself failing at satisfying his own. But if Blake, unbeknownst to his detractors, redefined literary world’s relationship between the poem and the poet, then maybe Marshall will succeed at reestablishing and reforming his eagerly sought thoughts and thinkers in his desired milieu; darkness be damned, with any luck the diallelon will return to our hearts and minds like a lost language: existence ceasing to be, as Santayana said, a “mad and lamentable experiment”. I am still not sure D. P. Marshall can be convinced otherwise.
But I doubt I am correct in my assumption (for a limited time). Marshall still carries the banner of philosopher Thomas Nagel, one of his influences. If we paraphrase Nagelian phenomenology, put simply, if we put aside scientific assumptions about how others think and what is right for them to think, while also requiring we put our own “objective experiences” aside for the moment (how it “feels” to be right), we cease being right, and move to a state of merely having a set of correct facts in our head. This is a different state of being than “being right (emphasis on “being).
I think this is the way forward (here comes the Zen). We cease to “be right” and connect with Marshall’s target society over the facts qua collective betterment. As we cannot control others, we can promote fact as for us all, facts as impersonal objects. As such truth is not insulting or threatening to one ensconced in falsehood. I specifically use the word “ensconced” as belief feels warm, while facts can make one feel cold, unsafe and unprotected: abandoned by their former womb. Marshall need not apply his literary nihilism here. There is no Self to be monitored.
Thus ceases the sound of one mind napping.
Upon further reflection, I think I have now read Daniel Paul Marshall meaning of “critical thinking” on terms closer to his own. Though literary critique is the angle from which he moves through his essays, maybe it is the idea that within critical thinking lies an inherent “critique”. I hint at this in the essay above, but never fully grasped its wider implications and effects.
For me it is being critiqued which is so vital to becoming good at music, and especially thinking. Any diallelus, a few “feet” in, dies with most of what passes for “thought” these days. But being forced to confront the death of our dailleli is nourishing not diminishing. Maybe we need to teach that critique/critical thinking are two sides of a coin that will save our collective lives from the ills and ignorances of society. Of course, I can say that as I have had the LUXURY of a very long term education, which many have zero access to. But if people find ways to be critiqued they can then save thousands of dollars in tuition fees and living expenses: avoid at least a few of the negative aspects of standardized schooling.
My career as a musician rests on a foundation of constant critique in both a personal and commercial manner by those around me. The best critique necessarily evoke critical thought: objective analysis of the matter at hand; problem solving rather than ad hominem attacks. But even if there is ad hominem intention (personal attack), it can still be taken in as a possible area of reform, and the cycle of ignorance ends at least 50%, what we can manage on our own part. With this in mind, D. P. Marshall’s ideas are clearly much needed reforms in today’s educational system.
Maybe then we can move towards Karl Jasper’s vision for us and himself:
“The ascent of philosophical life is the ascent of the individual man. He must accomplish it as an individual in communication and cannot shift responsibility to others. We achieve this ascent in the historically concrete elective acts of our life, not by electing any so-called world view (weltanschauung) laid down in propositions.”
“Let us not heap up philosophical possessions, but apprehend philosophical thought as movement and seek to deepen it…Let each of us as an individual immerse himself in his own historicity, in his origin, in what he has done; let him possess himself of what he was, of what he has become, and of what has been given to him.”