On critical thinking:
We are all thinking, we just
do not know where we get our information from.
(written in a very close collaboration
with Debbie Dolan)
The question that
this short essay addresses is that of the process of critical thinking and
how it can be built into the methodology of research or/and inquiry. It
can be said that the notion of critical evaluation means an informed evaluation.
But how is this necessity of proceeding on an informed basis to be performed?
The thesis of this short discussion is as follows:
The idea is to change expectations
away from models that aspire to truths, however contextual, and, instead,
to search for means that help to identify prejudices that limit the inquiry.
This is a rather different model than most, as it does not look for verification
of its assumptions but, instead, aims to strengthen the basis in terms of
which new contexts are approached and problems confronted. It is a methodology
that inspires growth rather than seeks to capture reality. There is a difference
between attempts that seek to cage reality and those which work with
2.0 Reflections on the concept of power
(largely based on readings of
The image of the royal court
comes from the cover of Bourdieu's book Language and Symbolic power. Think
of the royal court. What makes the King a King? How is King’s power executed,
mobilised and assured? Why cannot everyone stand up and say that they
are a King and be believed? What makes us act toward the King in a way
that reaffirms his status? Before we elaborate on these questions, let
us explain the concept of symbolic power. The discussion below draws on
the concept of symbolic power in a way that illustrates its delegated nature.
An example of the royal court will be hence used to this purpose.
Symbolic power – is power that is delegated and whose presence is felt
largely when it is refused or when it is resisted i.e. when it has to
compete for truth. Power relationships
are established in the process of such struggles and hence are themselves
not immune to potential challenges. By definition, the concept
of power implies a process where relationships of relevance are established.
Bourdieu and Buchi write on
the concept of symbolic power:
In the Royal Court, King's symbolic power is evident when it no longer is
self-evident: when it is challenged. It then becomes apparent that King's
power lies in the alliances that he manages to accumulate. The objective
of those alliances is always for the King to carry on with the tasks that
fit the position of the King. Among them, protection seems the central purpose.
To challenge the King is to make evident that he rules by delegation and
not by a divine anointment:
Symbolic power is a power which
the person submitting to grants to the person who exercises it,
a credit with which he credits him, a fide, an auctoritas, with
which he entrusts him by placing his trust in him. It is a power which
exists because the person who submits to it believes that it exists. (Bourdieu,
P. Language and Symbolic Power: 192)
Symbolic power refers to a classification system, which
established and outsiders have in common, and which works in favour of
the established. The exercise of symbolic power rests on the existence
of a shared belief. The production of this shared belief is the result
of an immense work (done above all by the state and family), through which
body and mind are formed and attuned to a particular order of domination,
whereby force (Gewalt) and tensions are stored in the bodies of the people
concerned. (Rolf Büchi)
He derives his truly magical power over the
group from faith in the representation that he gives to the group and which
is a representation of the group itself and of its relation relation to other
groups. (Bourdieu, P. Language and Symbolic
If the King manages to manipulate
his alliance in such a way that he can preserve his power basis, he remains
King. His power lies in the power delegated
to him by his subjects (vassals). Without his vassals, he is powerless.
The reliance on the support from his vassals functions as a continuous reminder
of the relative basis of his power. In challenging circumstances, even most
reliable forces may turn out to be least loyal.
At no point is there a possibility
for the king to rest. His alliances are never unconditionally loyal: they
are loyal with a purpose in mind. If the King does not fulfill that purpose, the alliances change.
We can say that the King is as strong as his last test shows him to be.
He needs to be continuously on the look-out for the potential
rivals with the objective of turning conflict into win-win situations.
It has been said that the best war general is one that avoids war.
How is he going to win over new
strong allies? What does he have to do and give up? In all this, the king
needs to reconsider the relationship between the means and the possibilities
that they open up. The relationship is two-way: both shape one another. And,
the King can do everything only when he has everything. Since he may never
know what having everything would involve, the King is always limited and
hence always potentially vulnerable. He needs to manage his vulnerability:
he needs to trade the weaker links for stronger ones. He cannot play games,
he is always exposed to dangers from rivals that threaten him. His goal is not to design tests that may or may not verify
his truth. His goal is to expand his power base in order to approach new
problems from a greater basis of strength.
Alliances are managed, i.e. formed
and reshaped, only because the King is prepared
to relinquish his power i.e. his current power
basis. An exchange happens: the king gives in, in
order to gain more. To maintain his strength, the King needs to
look for stronger alliances. For the King to identify which alliances are
weak, and where to give in, the King cannot remain locked in his present
power-basis. In all this process, as the means change, so do the
possibilities that open up.
Even the King knows that that his
alliances, and hence his strength, depend on his ability to manage what to relinquish, when
and why. We can say that his power-basis is informed by his understanding
of its capacities in relation to what he can predict on the basis of his
experiences. But he never knows exactly what he can do it. He is always
vulnerable and the future will always bring with it forces that are unpredicted and, indeed, often unpredictable.
The King therefore cannot fool himself
that reality is as he assumes it to be, as reality can strike in unpredictable
ways and his power-basis can vanish any time. He has to play out his
strengths in ways that do not obscure reality. To do so, he has to affect
the dynamics between his allies and their rivals in ways that open up
for every party possibilities to see more,
and, presumably, see his strength. And seeing
more requires from the King to make everyone feel his strength, his large
His allies then do what the king
does but in their own contexts of interests. They therefore need to identify which of their alliances
are potentially weak, and where to give in. King’s alliances need to work
for him. They cannot be a mere reflection of him. In this way, they bring
with them their own power-bases. To add to the King, i.e. to help him to
see more, they cannot be redundant. Once they believe that they are the King, they are made
redundant: a power struggle happens. A split may occur. New Kings will
emerge with new power-bases.
King’s strength depends on his capacity
to manage threat and danger. This is why the Royal Court is not filled with
all King’s subjects but only with those who are at the top of the power chain:
those whose interests are the closest to his. We also know that the face
of the court changes depending on the ability of those at the top to maintain
their capacity to see more and hence remain
valuable to the King.
It appears from the discussion so
far that the process of delegation of power is very dynamic and depends largely
on the capacity of all involved to manage threats (dangers) which, in their
shape and consequences, are never fully predictable. It is this unpredictability
that is most threatening. It makes alliances unstable and politics such a
The Royal court is less a reflection
of what the King is or has, and more a reflection of how the King manages
one’s alliances to retain one’s power status, in short, how he performs
his coherence/meaning as a King.
In summary, the King gains meaning
only through the other. And the other is meaningful by also referral and
hence through the other. One is not a king because he can point to those
who believe him to be King. King is made by those who need him in the world
where as purposes change, one’s power bases are never secure. The King must
always prove worth the position that he is entrusted. To do this, he must
differentiate between alliances which have the potential to mobilise a greater
power-basis. The unpredictability of the needs of the competitors makes alliance
dynamic. Nothing is stable, power-bases are generated relationally and referentially
i.e. in relation to the purposes that they serve and in terms of the specific
means that shape the way in which these purposes are realised. As said
above, as the means change, so do the possibilities that open up.
3.0 The royal court, alliances and
While the above story may not
seem to add anything new to our knowledge, it was written in order for
us to draw on what we know and to make comparisons with other contexts of
life. Think of power structures as understandings or frames of reference
that give meaning to propositions, or to the King.
From the discussion so far it would
follow that no relationships are obvious. Like the King, they are created in the process of construction which an be thought of as a process
of relating perceptions. This process of relating can be said to have the
- The process of relating is about connecting that which
was not connected before. This implies that the process of understanding
is about making commensurable that which was not before. It would hence
follow that to expand understandings, it is obligatory to look for incommensurabilities
from schemes of perception, models, outside the frame of references that
presented a need for expansion.
- It appears also that in order
to expand, or relate, a need for expansion must emerge.
In other words, a danger is experienced where unless changes are made,
the present frame of references (power basis) is inadequate.
- The need for expansion therefore
emerges as a result of experiencing difficulties
in fulfilling a demand, in accomplishing something that needs to be
accomplished. This need is a purpose that originates the direction for expansion.
- Expansion is directed by the
purpose and by the specific frames of references in terms of which this purpose
is understood and which in turn provide a basis for their further challenge.
- Problems therefore can never
be posited from an impartial point of view. It is exactly 'point of view'
that experiences a challenge and it is exactly points of view in terms of
which new perspectives and 'solutions' emerge.
- The source
of the need for expansion therefore has a basis in
practice i.e. in the form of resistance that is experienced when trying to accomplish
thinking is not as about proving
one's point i.e. it is not about acquiring power (which is
always symbolic) to meet or challenge the resistance encountered. Rather,
it is about encouraging dialogue
and therefore about mobilising powers in order to resist power (i.e. ourselves).
- It is in this process of
mobilising that resistance is experienced, differences emerge, and
the demand for a reflection upon the bases of one's beliefs/practices is
- The process of expansion involves
a shift in the frames of references in terms of which the problem was first
perceived. New perspective emerge and hence new possibilities.
- The richer the basis in terms
of which challenges are perceived by learners, the richer (or a more considered) the
basis of references in terms of which problems will be understood and acted
upon. Critical thinking therefore is not a matter of the criteria applied
(this would imply a process whose outcome is determined prior to the inquiry
itself) but of the breadth of the concerns taken into account.
- When assessing practices,
be it those of educational practices or other, it is therefore necessary
to evaluate the impact of the process
employed from a perspective of a multitude of points of view that it affected.
In practical terms,
this would imply a shift away from talking about life (i.e. essay type of things) toward an attempt to affect
life. Critical thinking, unless it is oriented toward
affecting life, it has little to draw upon in order to examine its power-basis
- In all this, the learning process can be seen as
a continual power struggle against oneself, one's own assumptions and beliefs.
While asumptions are necessary, they are turned into ideology when they are
given status greater than that of an assumption which is subject to further
therefore cannot be seen as a peaceful process where everyone adds to everyone
else. In fact, it is a very confronting process where one's identity is at
stake and where one's whole sets of beliefs are endangered.
Critical thinking would therefore
imply a process where commensurability or, indeed, incommensurability (alliances
i.e. how things appear to be and how they fit together) are not taken as
self-evident but where they are questioned. For this to happen, incommensurabilities
should be sought out as a source of potential insights which have been ignored
and which help to expand perspectives on the questions at hand (cf. Calhoun,
C. 1995, Critical Social Theory: 70-91). Critical would therefore
imply searching for truths which compete with those already assumed.
By questioning one’s assumptions,
ways of seeing are explored that so far seemed either foreign, “unarticulated”
(Latour) and/or unintegrated. As a result of this confrontation of discourses
or schemes of perception, problems are reframed in terms of the links that,
as a result, open new possibilities and new perspectives on the original
In this framework, problems are incommensurable perceptions. One cannot solve
problem as such. One can change the perspective in terms of which problems are perceived as problems by
reflecting upon its reference contexts.
4.0 Reflections upon the frames of references and the
goal of their expanding
the process of critical thinking, it is necessary
to create conditions which help to encounter resistance and, as a result,
confront one's frames of reference. As a result, one engages in a dialogue
with other perspectives, and seeks to explore opportunities that appear
more considered and more enabling.
(a) Relationships therefore
are created with a specific purpose in mind and in terms of the specific
means that were mobilised. No power-basis is independent of the King
that creates it and calls upon it. Commensurability is constructed, it
is not inherent to any structures.
(b) Relationships are all created
with the purpose of acquisition of a greater power-basis: i.e. with the
purpose of acquisition of more history that we accumulate and which, in
turn, functions as the frame of references for the demands (or ends, purposes)
upon which we act.
(c) The greater the reference basis,
the greater the power-basis in terms of which action is evaluated.
(d) In order to acquire a greater
basis, more history must be accumulated.
(e) History is accumulated when
the past (i.e. the present power-basis, stability) is endangered.
(f) Expansion happens only when
stability is challenged and when, as a result, perspectives are changed.
(g) Challenge comes form competing
truths i.e. from schemes of perceptions, other contexts of life that are
incommensurable with the current models (structures) applied.
(h) To expand one’s frame of references
and, as a result, to act on an informed basis, it is therefore imperative
to proceed in ways that enable us to approach our problems from a bigger
picture. To construct a bigger picture, in the task of coping with the demands
of reality, new perspectives must be engaged and new understandings (alliances)
must be created. Only then we can ensure that we do not approach problems
within the mindset that generated them.
(i) To think critically therefore
is to relinquish the stronghold on the truths that one holds, look for
new possibilities that may emerge once different kinds of perception, different
understandings, are consulted. This is a never-ending process as with more
understandings, the problems change and more exploration is required.
(j) We may say therefore that problems
are mindsets that limit the inquiry, they are ‘solutions that do not work’.
As a result, critical thinking is about reframing those mindset (or solutions)
and in a way that provides a frame of reference that is able to provide
richer basis for approaching future problems.
5.0 Insights as to the processes
necessary to critical thinking
… concepts can be understood
only through their limits (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984 : 264)
Context: History is symbolic
powers at play. History therefore is a collection of symbolic powers at
play i.e. working together and resisting each other. A play therefore involves
intentions and their strategic manipulations. We can say therefore that
history is politics at play, and so is culture. Culture therefore refers
to history collected and played out in terms of the interests or purposes
that form its symbolic structures. These form Bourdieuan habitus, durable
There will always be a tension in
politics i.e. between what one wants and what one can do as we do not have
access to all means to do everything (and therefore we would not know what
everything would involve). Politics is about managing resistance: giving in,
in order to gain more. It is about acquisition of the power-base. Giving in,
in order to lose is bad politics. It would seem though that it is the politics
that is most often played. The hegemony of institutions over the interests
of individuals is a testimony to this statement (cf. Saul, 1997, Bourdieu,
To understand better the process
by which critical thinking is enabled, the following points may shed some
light on the issue:
1. Problems are resistance
that is met as a result of tensions in our understandings, or conceptualisations,
of reality as we experience it. The experience of resistance shows that
(a) lack the means to
overcome it in order to fulfill our intentions;
(b) lack the symbolic power
or delegated power (legitimation) in regrad to the means in terms of which
we carry out our goals.
2. If you do not have the
means to manage the resistance, you do not understand it and its sources.
Hence you do not have the means to name it, to name the source(s) that
3. The understanding of
the sources of tension that create your experience of resistance cannot
therefore be assumed prior to the task of their exploration and successful
management. Even then, your understanding of the sources is only in terms
of how you succeeded to manage it rather than in terms of their likely cause.
Your management is hence forward looking: it looks toward fulfilling your
intention and blocking resistance rather than about seeking truth.
4. Hence to understand
resistance is to overcome it: to manage it better, to obtain legitimation
where previously its lack was experienced. Legitimation and lack of tension
does not imply that you got to the truth of things. It only means that
tensions are not visible.
5. To solve a problem therefore
Teaching critical thinking is about providing
conditions that help learners experience resistance, i.e. experience and explore the sources of their conceptual
limits. This can be done only in contexts where students’ intentions meet
resistance i.e. are challenged. The taking of this challenge on the part
of students cannot be translated into the requirement to reiterate someone
else’s limits. Otherwise the whole thing is pointless and learners learn
nothing about the sources of tension but instead they uncritically approach
someone else’s success. The process of critical thinking is exactly about
being able to see more rather than the same.
(a) acquire the means
to reduce tensions
(b) acquire legitimation
(delegated power) from the sources that refused it before.
We may conclude that critical thinking
is about expanding the perspectives in trems of which we formulate the
questions that we ask. It is a very important point as our questions are
only a reflection of the specific points of view that we happen to bridge
and bring together in a form of a yet another position. Our positions therefore should never
be seen as standpoints from which we judge, or evaluate, but as perspective
to confront against other perspectives (that already are accumulations of
many other views) and thereby to include in a dialogue.
In all this process, it follows
that at stake in the process of critical inquiry is not to propduce answers
but to produce increasingly more challenging and therefore increasingly more encompassing questions. It is these questions
and therefore reinforce the standpoint
that generated the original question. Instead, it is to explore these perspectives
(to reflect upon them) in ways that create a stronger, more informed basis
for generating new question (to move forward on a stronger basis) i.e.
questions that are able to be more encompassing, more informed and hence
generated from a perspective of a bigger picture.
Thus, in spite of general expectations,
our critical thinking on the concept of the method of the inquiry suggests
that it is not answers that we seek but an informed basis for formulating
new questions. In the process, it
is not solutions as such that are formed but a wider, richer, more informed reference framework that helps
to open up possibilities that were previously hidden by the prejudices
in terms of which original questions/problems were experienced and hence
approached. A critical research would imply a methodology that enables such
Ania Lian, 2003