Knowing how

Stanley Fish, attempting to praise the skill of thinking critically:

Taking as an example the concept of IQ, William Haboush says that while a scientist will use it, a humanist “will ask what does it mean? Is it one thing or many? Who made up the questions used in measuring it.” This, then, is critical thinking – the analytic probing of formulas, precepts and pieces of received wisdom that too often go unexamined and unchallenged. This skill, Warren Call claims, is taught in humanities courses where students “analyze ideas, differing viewpoints, justifications, opinions and accounts” and, in the process, learn how to “construct a logical assessment . . . and defend their conclusions with facts and lucid argument.”

That certainly sounds like a skill worth having, and I agree that it can be acquired in courses where literary texts, philosophical arguments and historical evens are being scrutinized with an eye to seeing what lies beneath (or to the side of) their surfaces. But it also can be, and is, acquired elsewhere. Right now millions of TV viewers are acquiring it when they watch Chris Matthews or George Will or Cokie Roberts analyze the current political moment and say things like, “It would be wrong to draw any long run conclusion from Hilary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire because in other states the voting population is unlikely to be 57 percent female and 97 percent white,” or “If we are to understand the immigration debate, we must go back the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” or “Homelessness is not a single problem, but a nest of problems that cannot be solved piecemeal."

Fish's example refutes itself.  Nevertheless, while it's probably true that one can acquire critical thinking skills by imitating critical thinkers, it would be wrong to confuse the practical aquisition of these skills with an understanding of their nature, origin, and limits.  A musician who has learned by ear may sound good, but she or he won't have the same level of mastery as one who has also studied musical theory.

4 thoughts on “Knowing how”

  1. Isn’t rumored that Pavarotti did not know how to read musical notes? And he was pretty good. 🙂
    The assumption that knowledge and action are not two separate spheres is one endorsed by pragmatism. I think in that context, Fish’s argument might have some validity.

  2. The ratings driven, politically charged punditry of Chris Matthews and George Will is Fish’s model for critical thinking? The archetype we should all emulate, and the only education we need in such matters?

    Hmm. This explains a lot.

  3. Dear BN–

    Thanks for the comment. I think Pavarotti–reading music or not–was a classically trained musician.

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