Essential Characteristics of Critical Thinking in Humanities
We, the students of humanities, are aware that critical thinking and inquire are essential for our discipline. But what does it really mean? How do we understand and exercise critical thinking? The readings in this class taught me that critical thinking is learn best from real life experiences of people who have struggled and fought for freedom and liberation of the mind. In the writings of Levi, Haffner, Sartre, Woolf, and Delillo we see the recurring theme of struggle for freedom and liberation of humanity's mental world. Whether it is for struggle against patriarchy, or whether it is against Nazi tyranny or likewise against rampant consumerism, the authors continuously discuss or allude to the absolute importance of critically engaging with what is going on around us. In this paper, I plan to discuss these authors as critical thinkers by using a list of characteristics necessary for critical thinking from the page of the Manchester University Faculty of Humanities Study Skills Website.
Critical thinkers are honest with themselves. This is absolutely essential for critical thinking. Without being honest with oneself, one cannot point at hypocrisies of anyone. Without honesty, it is impossible to see one's weaknesses and vices as a human being. Critical thinking is more about self-reflection -- critiquing oneself, one's nation, one's culture, the society, etc. -- than about demonstrating an ability to critique others. As critical thinkers, we must be honest with ourselves and appreciate an outside criticism. Sebastian Haffner is brutally honest with himself. Throughout the book, he not only condemns the Nazi party and its collaborators but also those who ridicule the Nazis but do not do anything to stop it -- which, it may be argued, is an indirect criticism directed at himself, too. Haffner also critiques German national character, faulting it for the rise of Nazism on the one hand and for the appeasement of it by those who disagree with Nazism on the other.
Primo Levi is another author who exercises honesty in all of his analysis. Most importantly, Levi is honest about the nature of humanity. Levi discusses the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz to raise disturbing questions about the human capacity for evil. Too often, people tend to blame the Nazi atrocities on Hitler alone or on the peculiarity of the Nazi ideology. But is that really so? Reading Levi makes it hard to answer this question in the affirmative. One of Levi's main arguments is that humans are capable of doing good and committing evil but the tendency to each of these actions are often shaped by historical events and our social environment. Germany in the 1930s was not a country of Nazis only; it was a country which led the Western world in sciences and humanities, produced works of fine arts and numerous Nobel Prize winners. His account is a reminder to those of us who have become complacent, uncritically assuming that we will always be different from the Nazis, but not realizing that without honest self-reflection we may also delve deeply into the inhumanity of the sorts the Nazis are known for.
Critical thinkers resist manipulation. Manipulation and propaganda are the two essential tools that tyrannies and oppressive ideologies, regimes, and groups use to stifle independent and critical thinking. It is therefore essential that critical thinkers resist manipulation. This characteristic can easily be observed in all of the readings we have had. Virginia Woolf resists manipulation by men and the larger patriarchal society whose assumptions have been internalized by many women as well. The patriarchal society tries to manipulate the mind -- both males' and females' -- into thinking that things are they way they should be. They try to block any exercise of critical thinking. Woolf resists this by asking hard questions. She rejects the idea of male superiority by arguing that women can achieve the same by having their "own room" -- the one that provides the same level of freedom and resources that men traditionally enjoy.
Haffner resists manipulation by the Nazis. He is German, an Aryan, and a law clerk under Nazi Germany. The lawyers did not necessarily agree with the Nazi ideology but the party bureaucracy employed many tools to co-opt jurists into the party line. The party leaders provided new interpretations of the law to convince lawyers of the rightfulness of Nazism. But Haffner resists the manipulation despite the complexity and power of the propaganda. He resists it even though many people around him have succumbed to Nazi manipulation. Levi also resists manipulation. He sees some of the Jewish people in the concentration camp losing control of their mind and humanity. Given the conditions they were in, anyone in the camp could come to a conclusion that resistance was futile; that the best way to survival lay in cooperation with the Nazis. Levi goes through a lot of soul searching but resists the manipulation by the Nazi tyranny.
Critical thinkers overcome confusion. Confusion is an essential component in all of the writings. Invoking the specter of confusion is necessary to make someone use his or her critical thinking. Confusion makes the status quo seductive. Confusion may also lead to laziness, unwillingness to work on changing something. The only way to clear things out in confusion is to use brain. In Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, nausea is partly the result of confusion. Roquentin feels nausea when he cannot figure out what is important and what needs to be done. He overcomes the confusion by understanding the significance of the present and of the existence. Existence is, of course, contingent and he finds "nothingness" in existence. Roquentin overcomes his confusion by finding a purpose of reality in "nothingness."
Confusion is a recurring subject for Levi and Haffman as well. Ordinary people join the Nazi party, appease the butchers, watch and do nothing, lose their humanity, and victims aid perpetrators in a state of confusion. The task of a critical thinker is to sort things out, remove the smoke, uncover the hidden and the unconscious, and find the objective reality. Both Haffman and Levi discuss how they struggled for finding the reality through an objective thinking. Don DeLillo addresses the question of confusion by critiquing rampant consumerism. The metaphor of "white noise" is an allusion to confusion. It is a nuisance one does not really realize what it really is and cannot escape from. In a state of confusion, people think they worship in the Church but in reality have turned the supermarket into a church. Delillo confronts these issues in an attempt to overcome confusion.
Critical thinkers ask questions. Critiquing is impossible without asking questions. It is important to note that it is essential to ask the right questions to exercise critical thinking properly. Are Germans an anomaly or is the German nation culpable? (Haffner) Is the humanity capable of another Holocaust? (Levi) Why do people live in the past? (Sartre) Why does the society assume that the role of a woman is secondary to man's? (Woolf) Why in the first day of college the spectacle of new college students showcases personal computers, stereos, hair dryers rather than tools of physical survival? (DeLillo). These are some of the questions these authors ask. The right questions are the hard questions, the questions that force us to reflect, think, and look for beneath the surface to find an objective reality.
Freedom and independent thinking weakens in a society when people stop asking the right questions. Asking the right questions sometimes involves violating the established taboos. Woolf raises questions about lesbianism as well. It was certainly a taboo subject in Britain at the time she wrote her novel. But the purpose was to bring awareness to the fact that sometimes women fell in love with each other. Woolf also asks questions about differences in college in terms of providing better education and granting access to better resources to men. Levi asks hard questions about the humanity to force us to reflect upon not about the Nazis but about us, our nation, our government, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. DeLillo asks hard questions about modernity. What is modernity doing to the environment? Think about the obscenity of consumerism. What is left of humanities when we religiously indulge ourselves in materialist benefits with little regard to the health of the planet and to the sanctity of human relationships? These questions are raised by DeLillo to make us reflect upon the other side of modernity. DeLillo asks these questions about modernity because we have accustomed to believe that modernity is a positive word, associated with progress and development. We think it is cool to be modern. Is it?
Critical thinkers base judgments on evidence. This is also a crucial component of critical thinking. Ignoring the lack of evidence is lazy thinking. Critical thinking requires that there is evidence to back up one's claim. One cannot simply state that the past does not exist. Sartre critiques people whose mentality is stuck…