Diogenes and Socrates

Last night I went to a party filled with grad students and recent graduates who are just starting the contract academic staff run around.  Inevitably, the conversation turned to the bleak economic climate in which we find ourselves and the positively desperate position of most humanities departments these days as we are pushed again and again to justify our own existence.  What is the purpose of the study of philosophy?  What does the study of history give to the world?  Why should anyone bother to study literature?
Not this Academy

Obviously there are a lot of interrelated problems here – from the growing lack of discipline specific objects of study (a philosopher may study Shakespeare as much as a literary theorist can turn to Husserl), to the reactionary resistance of the academy to any change to its organizational status quo – but one thing that repeatedly comes up in conversations of this sort is some variation on the refrain, “We teach critical thinking skills.”
Don’t get me wrong.  In what follows, I don’t mean to side with the perceived others who doubt the value of the continued existence of the humanities or even argue that we should move to a more quantitative rubric against which to measure the humanities.  Though it is theoretically possible to count up the economic value & impact of, say, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it is deeply reductionist to do so.  No, in what follows, I want to point to the difficulty of using the concept of “critical thinking skills” to justify our own existence as humanists[1].
“Critical thinking skills” is a notoriously slippery term to define, which I think is one of the reasons why it is brought out first in conversations of this sort.  It seems to refer to a set of skills that anyone who participates in the conversation feels that they have and that they can impart to others.  Exactly what those skills comprise can be unique to each individual participant in the conversation, unless the term is interrogated, which, often, it is not.  One person may see numeracy as a critical thinking skill whereas another may see situating an object of study within a larger discursive frame as a critical thinking skill.  Without going into the meaning of the term for each individual, the term becomes at best a cipher for what those individual participants in the conversation see as the fundamental value of their discipline.  At worst, when two people or groups have radically different individual definitions of “critical thinking skills,” the term becomes a buzz phrase bandied about that makes it seem as though knowledge is being created, yet the very ambiguity of the term denies that possibility.
So then, what are they?  These “critical thinking skills” that we supposedly teach as humanists?  And not only do we teach them, but in order to use them to justify our own disciplinary existence, we must teach them better than others.  Well, they can’t be things like numeracy, because clearly accounting, mathematics, engineering, logic and other disciplines teach those skills far better than we do.  After all, there are many humanists I know who have problems even doing basic long division.  I’m one of them.  Clearly, that isn’t what we mean when we say “critical thinking skills.”

One of the things that we do as humanists is to situate our objects of study within a discursive framework, showing how the figure and the ground interact to produce an object of knowledge.  We teach our students to “think big” and to look at an object of study – a work of art, a play, a text, a statue, what have you – in terms of its ideological, political, historical, etc. situation and situatedness.  We look at the big pictures and in doing so have to be self reflexive regarding our own disciplinary attitudes towards the objects of study and the methods of study.  We resist any totalizing model of our methodologies or objects of study because that totalizing model reifies us, the humanist, into an unchanging object.  Our resistance is itself a form of humility because it makes every statement about the situatedness of the object of study a conditional statement.  If we use these terms and we apply these methods, then we get this result.  But we can always use other terms of analysis, other methodologies, other objects of study.  Our terms are only bound by our imaginations.  Indeed, if this is what we do as humanists (and in a blog post I am necessarily giving what can only be a thumbnail sketch of this position), then what we do is we resist.

The Scientific Method in a Nutshell
Part of the problem of this model is that it sounds remarkably close to the scientific method insofar as the scientific method presumes that any model of the universe, though it may be presented as a totalizing explanation, can only be at best a limited guess based on the available evidence.  There is a built-in humility to the scientific method that requires scientists to always append their statements with a silent, “but I could be – and probably am – wrong.  At least, I’m certainly incomplete.”  Humanists likewise present our statements on our objects of study, where we situate Love’s Labours Lost for instance within the discourse of genre and irony, with an inherent resistance to the very terms that we are using to describe the objects.  (“Genre” and “irony” are both inherently fraught as terms of literary analysis, to the point that many scholars would love to abandon them altogether.)  It isn’t quite the same as the scientific method, but every humanist must silently append each statement of knowledge with, “but it can also be otherwise.”

Didn’t think I’d bring him in, did you?

Another objection to the model of the humanities as a form of self-reflexive analysis on our own disciplinary methods and models is that it is not unique to the humanities.  Physicists do it.  Theologians do it.  If you want to do well in business, you are expected not to simply follow the methodologies laid out for you by the past, but to innovate through reflection on your discipline.  Richard Branson would still be poor if he hadn’t essentially built a better mousetrap.  We are not the only ones who are self reflexive.
So if what we teach when we say we teach “critical thinking skills” comes out on the one hand as humility and on the other hand as self-reflexive analysis of the terms of our discipline, then there really isn’t much that we do that is different from anyone else.  I haven’t yet dealt with the other major term in my thumbnail definition of what it is humanities does, however – “resistance.”

Croix de Lorriane

By “resistance,” I don’t think that necessarily implies the model of speaking truth back to power.  Though some people might actually hold the view that humanists are indeed in the vanguard of resisting the hegemonic oppressions of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, etc., I think that that view is largely precluded by the very fact that those who hold the view have the opportunity to speak their view in the first place.  That is, if they can speak the truth back to power, they must themselves hold some power to begin with, in order to speak.  The academy, despite all of the cuts in recent decades, holds an incredibly privileged position in our culture and to say that we are somehow without power or that we are not a part of the mechanisms of power and oppression is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, lunacy.
No, by “resistance” I think that it makes more sense to point to the place of the academy as a part of a democratic state.  Thank you, Hannah McGregor for pointing this out.  That is, if the critical thinking skills that the humanities teach are “resistance” in some form or another, it is a form of resistance that is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic state.  We teach rational beings the skills to approach texts (be they Shakespearean plays or newscasts from Fox) with not only curiosity but a bit of scepticism and cynicism.  Not the cynicism of Diogenes, mind you; more the scepticism of Socrates.

Diogenes the Cynic
In pairing the two classical philosophers, I am actually recalling Plato’s own description of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”  Socrates in his dialogues taught people not to simply accept the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors, but to think on their own.  His questioning of his interlocutors was skeptical but never nihilistic.  He always produced new methods of knowing and objects of knowledge through his interrogation of traditionally held ideas.  On the other hand, Diogenes utterly rejected the traditions and beliefs of those around him as at best fallen and at worst perverse.  Though none of his writings survive, the image of Diogenes in his barrel is an indication of his particular mode of resistance.  He utterly rejected the mores of his culture, whereas Socrates interrogated those mores and, in doing so, taught people to think.


Critical thinking skills indeed.
So I think that most of us would prefer to think of what we do as humanists as falling into the shadow of Socrates rather than Diogenes.  We want to think of ourselves as teaching resistant forms of thought that nourish the democratic state, because, after all, democracy only runs well when the forms of resistance are explicit but contained.  I think also that one of the reasons why we would prefer to associate ourselves with Socrates rather than Diogenes is that Socrates is a martyr for rational thought and the model of humanities as a form of resistance positions the self as a rational being.  Socrates died for reason and we see ourselves as rational, resisting beings within a democratic state.
You can probably already see where I am going with this.
We’re not rational.  Indeed, by arguing that we are rational, and that is what makes humanities worthwhile, we are doing exactly what we said that we didn’t do in that thumbnail sketch I offered off of the top – we are reifying ourselves and presenting a hegemonic view of the self-in-inquiry.  You could call this, I guess, an ontological objection to the idea of “critical thinking skills” as resistance.
Further, Socrates was put to death in a democratic state.  Diogenes wasn’t.  I don’t know many academics in the western world who have been publicly put to death by their state for teaching “critical thinking skills.”  Obviously the simple equation between the two periods is a bit facetious, but it is a telling analogy.  That is, to say that we are providing models for and mechanisms of resistance through the humanities, then either we mustn’t be doing a very good job of it because no form of resistance has resulted in such drastic oppression as Socrates met with, or our democracy can accommodate a great deal more resistance than Athenian democracy and we aren’t providing it with the amount of resistance it needs to be a properly functioning democracy.  Either way, the problem lies not in the stars but in ourselves.  The academy is not the centre of resistance and the vanguard of revolutionary change that I think many humanists think of it as.  Indeed, by the time something gets into the academy, or the academy gets a hold of an idea, it dies or is on its way to death.  We’re preservationists, not revolutionaries.  We’re Diogenes – a civic nuisance who clips coins and makes obscene comments in the agora – not Socrates – who corrupts the youth of Athens by teaching them to question the gods.  One can easily argue that the analogy does not hold because what we have is a democratic system unlike what they had in Athens; that our system accommodates more freedom of thought and expression than was available in Athens.  The problem here is that teaching people new modes of thought ceases to be resistance if our culture can accommodate these new modes of thinking without blinking.  Indeed, the freedom of thought and expression, which is necessary for modern democracy, which provides for resistance to that same freedom, can only be resisted by an attempt to curtail freedom of thought and expression.  Either you must argue that we do not have true freedom of thought, in which case our democracy is similar to Athenian democracy, and our work is genuinely resistant, but for some reason no one is being killed for that resistance (which is internally incoherent), or you must argue that we do have true freedom of thought, that our democracy is dissimilar to Athenian democracy and our work is not genuinely resistant.
Resisting who?  Resisting what? 

Not the darling of humanists

If “critical thinking skills” DO mean “resistance” in some form or another, and we genuinely want to teach people these much vaunted skills, we need to ask ourselves what forms of resistance actually matter. (I’m looking at you, Wikileaks.)  If it was really all about resistance in the academy, I would find a lot more people in the hallowed halls who approve of Sarah Palin, who think that the Holocaust was all a bunch of hooey[2] and who want to suggest that gravity works by suction[3].  They aren’t in the academy.  Humanities scholars tend to speak with one voice.  If “critical thinking skills” were another way of point to “resistance,” then where are the conservatives?  Where are the people arguing for the increased hegemony of white, North American, heterosexual males?  They aren’t here.  And again we fail at self-reflexive study.

I guess one of the things that I am trying to say is that I don’t think that an appeal to democracy is going to help us to understand what it is we mean when we try to justify the existence of the humanities.  
Again, it isn’t that I don’t believe that the humanities should exist.  I am an early modern drama scholar – I love what I do and I want to keep doing it.  Nor is it that I think that what we do has no value.  If I didn’t think it had value, I wouldn’t be doing it.  Rather, I think that the simple minded appeal to “critical thinking skills” as a way to justify our own existence is deeply problematic.  If we are to convince people outside of the academy that what we do has value, then we have to approach the issue without using catch phrases and buzzwords that simply make us feel better for having chosen a career in which others don’t see the value.  
We’re not raging against the dying of the light.  
We’re not übermensch.  
We’re not Socrates.
At best, I’m Diogenes screaming “Fuck” in the middle of the agora.  It may get me a stern talking to by the police, but I don’t think anyone will accuse me of being at the vanguard of decisive social change.

[1] A term I loathe, but which, for the sake of argument, I use to mean anyone who is engaged in a humanities discipline (i.e. Philosophy, Literature, Arts).

[2] Just to be clear: The Holocaust happened, no matter what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thinks.

[3] Gravity doesn’t suck.  Just ask Newton.

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