Underneath the obvious critical situation of the economy and the environment, isn't the world today actually suffering from a crisis in knowing and thinking? Bombarded with more information than ever: advertising, political, religious, social, online commandments of all kinds, giving advice on anything and everything, we are at the mercy of a surfeit of uncritical knowledge1. So much so that it's not uncommon for people not to know what to think or who to believe anymore. Here I have in mind, for example, events with a global impact, from the ongoing world financial crises, to the latest US presidential election, in which both parties spent an unprecedented amount of money to run in today's apparently necessary propaganda-like advertisement race. This trend of information overload is only going to get faster and heavier. What does this mean in terms of the intentions of Krishnamurti schools? Critical thinking, I want to argue, is an art—not just a skill— that is essential to impart to our students. One that I want to suggest is in alignment with the 'questioning mind' that Krishnaji sought to bring about. This essay explains what critical thinking is generally thought of as; offers a new working definition of it; and explores what it can mean to thinkcritically in the context of a K school.
In the last decade or so there has been an increasing focus in many schools and universities around the world for students to develop their critical thinking as one of the most valuable lessons of their schooling. Yet in spite of this, and the fact that the phrase 'critical thinking skills' has become an international buzzword, it is debatable what criticality really is2.
It's important to question whether conventional wisdom3 of what it means to think critically is enough to tackle the critical times we live in. I want to offer that it's dangerously limiting to reduce critical thinking to the application of skills, as is typically done. Indeed, all variations of conceptions of critical thinking as a skill I have come across involve an application by an observer who tends to see him or herself as more or less morally superior from the observed4. This leads to aberrations in the ways critical thinking is both practised and assessed; from the presumptuous implementation of it by certain academics to its being included in multiple-choice tests.
Skills are important, of course, but if thinking does not become critical of itself in their application, the 'skilled' thinker fails to appreciate the whole complexity of the context beyond the limited field of what is immediately known and accessible to thinking. Indeed, what about the epistemic assumptions of a given context, of the skills themselves, and those of the 'critical thinker'? What of the urgent need to challenge conditioning, power relations with their normative commandments, and corruption?
The expectations behind the study skills and essay writing class I teach that serves as an inspiration for this article are quite demanding, especially at an existential level, because the topic cannot be kept at an arm's length. Students are expected to face themselves, experience their limits and grow beyond them as a result. This is within the framework that if students are allowed to learn in a critical way about what they are interested in, that will help facilitate finding out what they love in the face of their fears of learning. My second assumption is that if they so discover what they love to do, then the rest will follow in a way that may not be the typical path, but that, as a result of not conforming, will be empowering, innovative and socially responsive. This is in part why discovering what one loves to do is a core intention of Brockwood5 and, I imagine, of other K schools as well.
By being encouraged to be self-reflective about their subjects, students— this includes the teacher—engage with their learning in a way that they are led to concretely appreciate that 'to know is not enough'. This is true in two interrelated ways, namely, students explore distinctions and connections between outer knowledge of the world and inner knowledge of themselves. One of the central goals is for them to see that in both cases knowledge is constructed and must therefore be critiqued as such.
In this light, I want to suggest that critical thinking needs to be reconceived as both reflective and reflexive. 'Reflective' in the sense of deep thought about something, and 'reflexive' in the dictionary meaning of the term as taking account of oneself. This includes seeing the effects that one's thinking has both within and outside oneself. These two kinds of looking within are very connected because reflection is necessary for reflexivity, and the latter in turn enhances the quality of one's reflections. As such, criticality must not only be practised within a given field of inquiry, as is typically the case when it's present at all, but about it too. If not, a classic unjust hierarchy is created: critical thinking becomes dangerously distant from its object of study.
Interdisciplinary research in critical theory, critical pedagogies and theories of moral development, together with K's own insights on the limits of thought and knowledge all seem to point, albeit in different ways, to a reflective praxis of critical thinking. Because to know is not enough, in this course students learn to do so both within and about their field(s) of study, thereby taking reflections to the reflexivelevel.
Non satis scire: 'to know is not enough'. I first engaged with Hampshire College's motto about 12 years ago when I applied to Hampshire to do my undergraduate degree. Founding trustee, Winthrop S Dakin came up with it in 1968 just before the inception of the college in 1970. The dictum's early interpretation was that one must not only know but also do and act. By bringing it into the context of a Krishnamurti school I intentionally depart somewhat from its traditional meaning, displacing it into a more critical reading and thus seeking to enhance it. Before turning to that, however, let us first briefly become familiar with how the motto has been officially interpreted and re-interpreted over the years.6
Charles Longsworth, second President of Hampshire College, recently quoted the poet Emily Dickinson in relation to the maxim at the new President's inauguration in April 2012: 'Wonder—is not precisely Knowing. And not precisely Knowing not.' President Ralph J Hexter extended the meaning of non satis scire on the occasion of his inauguration in 2005 when during his address he brilliantly deconstructed it: 'Within the logic of non satis scire, the ultimate insufficiency of knowledge is the necessity of doubt. ... I might propose reversing the words of the motto, reordering them into satis non scire ... : "it is sufficient not to know." It is an old saw that the beginning of wisdom is ignorance. Awareness of the insufficiency of our knowledge is what sets in motion our search for answers. What we know rests, in the end, on the foundation of our most basic uncertainties and questions. It is uncertainty and doubt that test each and every hypothesis; without those tests, they would have no validity ...'
In 2012, for the inauguration of President Jonathan Lash, whose event was entitled, Educating for Change: Critical Thinking in a Critical Time, US Vice-President Al Gore referred to the dictum in question as '... the slogan ... "to know is not enough" could not be more appropriate to the time we now are living in. I want to challenge you to breathe life into that phrase. We know about the injustice in the world and we know that it's not enough to simply know about it.' Shortly after, during his address President Lash pointed out the importance of 'not [being] satisfied to acquire knowledge, but determined to use it'.
As we've started to see, simply to believe in what one thinks is problematic because it lacks wisdom and indeed criticality. And yet, while being the obverse, isn't it also true that to disavow what one actually knows is equally unwise? Importantly, psychoanalysis, and its notion of fetishistic disavowal7, adds a critical twist to knowing not being enough. One of the reasons we can be unmoved to act based on what we know is because we don't really believe it. That is, the observer and the observed are split. This is another side of 'to know is not enough'. Indeed, in the grips of such fetishistic split we also lose touch with facing the reality of what we know. We must, therefore, not only learn to question uncritical thinking's acceptance of knowledge, but as such, we must challenge belief's double register: believing blindly and disbelieving unthinkingly.
The importance of doubt, of 'not-knowing', of self-criticality, in critical thinking, should therefore not be underestimated. K too puts forth the essential notion of doubting everything, including not only knowledge but its active double agent: our own thinking. This questioning specifically includes scepticism towards the knowledge one has of oneself because it affects all other knowledge. For when thinking imagines it knows—imagining at the same time him or herself as an individual who knows—all it sees is the projection of itself. It's not listening or learning but reducing the spontaneity of life to identification. At that point, the image is uncritically taken for more than it is. When I think I know, all I am able to sense is actually just a hermetic extension of my old thinking repeating itself. I am similarly reductive with myself. For instead of realizing that by labelling I am boxing myself in further in uncritical thought, strangely I think the label maker is not responsible for the label. This is partly what K means by 'the observer is the observed': that at the moment of observing my image-making, I am that identification. At this critical point of realization, K teaches, I stop identifying with knowledge and thought; and here starts a process of learning which is an emptying of the mind of what is false. Staying in that state of being, though, is at issue.
Despite the brief glimpses of insight we all may experience from time to time, Krishnamurti comments on the humbling state of affairs of finding oneself back in the illusion of thinking one knows, or in wanting to know absolutely. This typically manifests itself in wanting to know how to get to that state of insight. But for K there is no how. Indeed, to know [how] is not enough. There is only what is and the facing of it or lack thereof. All labels are subterfuges for not looking.
I want to ask whether criticality, as self-negation, is precisely the very stopping of image projections needed. What if thinking, in becoming critical of itself, realizes the danger of its identificatory movement? Can thought see itself in the mirror? Is there then another modality of knowledge and thought that is not an identifying but a facing? To be sure there is still thought but there may not be a thinker. This is perhaps controversial, because the words 'thought' and 'knowledge' tend to be more or less explicitly banned in the K world. But I want to suggest that thought is not the enemy; it's identification with thought and knowledge that is the danger. The mechanical and uncritical tendencies of thought are due to identification—and not thinking per se.
To answer our questions K comes to the rescue:
So it is important to understand who is the enquirer. We have gone into that a little bit, we said, still thought. Now can thought examine itself? Can you? Can thought look at itself? Go on sir. That is, we explained the other day, and bearing in mind that explanations are not the fact, the word is not the thing ... we are enquiring whether thought can look at itself. Can you be aware when thought arises? Of course one can. But who is the entity that is being aware of thought arising? ... It is still thought. Is this clear? You see we have divided thought into the thinker and thought8.
I want to argue that if thinking is to be critical it must in its reflections practise a kind of reflexion that leads it to let go of the identity of the thinker. It's a sort of reflexivity, therefore, that is more of a forgetting than a heightened sense of self. At the same time, reflexive thinking does not take place in a vacuum, and, as such, it is vulnerable to identificatory re-conditioning. What is needed is a critical access to the state of consciousness prior to the explicit reflexes of the ego, even as we must recognize that even an implicit space within consciousness is not necessarily pure. Indeed, it's because consciousness contains deep-seated fear and anxiety that affect reflexivity that it must be critiqued, while also acknowledging that the sort of critical thinking we need in order to do so is one without a thinker9.
What we are exploring is the possibility for a kind of thinking without a thinker.11 Wittgenstein seems to be after something similar when, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he writes, '[t]here is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.'12 Some may say we still have to reconcile this with the fact that K warns 'the thinker is the thought'12 and that therefore thought is the thinker too. It's clear that the thinker needs thoughts to exist but I want to suggest that the opposite is not necessarily true; namely, the identifying thinker needs uncritical thoughts, but critical thinking as such does not need a thinker.
Practically speaking, how can all this manifest itself in classes in a K school? When it comes to outer knowledge, 'to know is not enough' materializes in students realizing for themselves that to learn content knowledge without knowing how to apply it is not enough. This may take them out of their comfort zone because learning is not about memorizing anymore. Some healthy fear here, as in an experience of the unknown, may be induced. In terms of inner knowledge the related point students explore is that to know something psychologically, say one's fear in learning, does not suffice to make one change. The point is for them to understand this existentially. This happens when they are guided to critically engage with that fear.
Instructionally, students can be taught the kinds of study skills necessary to be a successful, free, lifelong learner. Many go through school without ever having been taught how to study, how their brain processes information, why it remembers certain things and forgets others. Students should learn how to do mind mapping in order to organize their thinking and learn the art of asking meaningful questions so that they make the material theirs. And perhaps the most important skill of all: writing critically.
We can assist students with the kinds of writing they need for their exams (analytical and argumentative). Students learn how to structure an effective essay: how to write an outline, an introduction, a conclusion, and clear paragraphs. Writing is the challenge where many of the things they learn come together and where their reflexive thinking comes to fruition. It's a great medium to learn the art of critical thinking. It would be a mistake, however, for students who are attempting to be critical, to see themselves as fundamentally separate from the object of their critique. As we saw, it's not just a matter of applying a skill. Critical thinking is instead the art of reflectively being critical of both the object and the thinker.
In this way, students not only become methodical about their studies, alleviating a lot of the anxiety associated with studying, but they learn how to establish meaningful, constructive, critical connections. Classes are interactive and students bring the homework they want to work on, for which they get individualized help and attention. They like coming to a placewhere the atmosphere is studious.
As in a laboratory, the focus is not on lectures, although there can be some targeted ones at times of need. But the point is to reduce those and guide students to become engaged learners, putting more responsibility for learning on them. To a certain degree the role of the teacher changes, to become more of a facilitator than an all-knowing authority. This allows for richer interdisciplinary work to happen, especially through the peer-to-peer work that is promoted with this approach.
In conclusion, the focus of such a class is clearly more on learning than on exams. The rationale is two-fold. To be a support for exam classes, both psychologically and academically, and also to show students that when these are integrated, learning is made more exciting because it brings together the inner and the outer. At that point, taking an exam is a good option, but by no means the only one. What matters first is that the learner becomes critically engaged with learning through a critique of the thinker and his or her thoughts. After all, it goes to the heart of what Krishnamurti wanted for his schools, and, at least based on my experience, it makes for good teaching practice too.
- A more or less imposed knowledge that, if not challenged passes as Truth—something to be accepted and followed—rather than something constructed that must be deconstructed and meaningfully re-appropriated.
- Butler, Judith. "What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault's Virtue." In The Judith Butler Reader, edited by Sara Salih. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
Brookfield, Stephen D. The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching. Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw-Hill Education, 2005.
Burbules, Nicholas C., and Rupert Berk. "Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits." In Critical Theories in Education: Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics, edited by Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, 45-65. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Claris, Lionel, and Donna Riley. "Situation Critical: Critical theory and critical thinking in engineering education." In Engineering Studies. Boston: Routledge, 2012.
Foucault, Michel. "What is Critique?" In The Political, edited by David Ingram. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991.
Kincheloe, Joe. L. "Making Critical Thinking Critical." In Perspectives in Critical Thinking, edited by Danny Weil and Holly Kathleen Anderson, 23- 40. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
King, Patricia M., and Karen Strohm Kitchener. Developing reflective judgment: understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.
King, Patricia M., and Karen Strohm Kitchener. "The Reflective Judgment Model: Twenty Years of Research on Epistemic Cognition." In Personal Epistemology: The Psychology of Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing, edited by Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, 37-61. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
King, Patricia M., and Karen Strohm Kitchener. "Reflective Judgment: Theory and Research on the Development of Epistemic Assumptions Through Adulthood." Educational Psychologist 39, no. 1 (2004): 5-18.
- Paul, Richard, and Linda Elder. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking-Concepts and Tools. Third ed. Dillon Beach: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2003.
- See also my discussion of identification with knowledge in:
Claris, Lionel. "Partial and Total Insight: Constructivism and Krishnamurti's Pedagogy." In Journal of the Krishnamurti Schools. Chennai: Krishnamurti Foundation India, Issue No 15, January 2011. http://journal.kfionline.org/article.php?issue=1 5&article=9
- "To discover one's own talent and what right livelihood means" www.brockwood.org.uk/intentions.html
- Hampshire College's online digital archive together with my own. I want to thank Ralph J. Hexter, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Davis, for having kindly provided me with a copy of his 2005 inauguration speech as President of Hampshire College.
- Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012.
- Krishnamurti, J. First Public Question & Answer Meeting at Rajghat, 28th November 1981. (accessed at www.jkrishnamurti.org/)
- If we had the space here we would go into the notion of 'pre-reflective consciousness' in the philosophies of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Zizek's critique of it, especially in his latest book "Less Than Nothing" (2012) in which he argues instead for a 'pre-transcendental gap/rupture'. See also particularly:
Butler, Judith. "The Strategies of Pre-reflective Choice: Existential Desire in Being and Nothingness." In Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. "Phenomenological Approaches to Self- Consciousness." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/selfconsciousness- phenomenological/ (2010).
- See also Slavoj Zizek's discussion of "thoughts without a thinker" in his comparison of psychoanalysis and Buddhism in:
Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012.
- Proposition 5.631 in:
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus. New York: Routledge, 2001.
- Krishnamurti, J. Third Public Talk at Rajghat, 30th November 1969. (accessed at www.jkrishnamurti.org/)