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On critical thinking:
We are all thinking, we just do not know where we get our information from.

Ania Lian
(written in a very close collaboration with Debbie Dolan)

1.0 Introduction

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 reality.
2.0 Reflections on the concept of power (largely based on readings of Bourdieu)
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:

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)

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:
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 Power: 192)
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 power bases.

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 complex affair. 

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 critical thinking
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 following features:

- 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 things.

- Critical 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 triggered.

- 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 (or impact).

- 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 challenge.

- Learning 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 problem.

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

To instigate 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 practices.

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, 1991). 

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 we:
(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 create tension. 
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 is to:
(a) acquire the means to reduce tensions
(b) acquire legitimation (delegated power) from the sources that refused it before. 
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. 

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 that  

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 a result.

Ania Lian, 2003


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