One of the units of my 10th grade English class at Oak Grove School is ‘critical thinking.’ Traditionally, in U.S. education, critical thinking has focussed on the abuse of logical argument. The ancient Greeks formalized argument into premises and conclusion, and exhaustively explored the various ways conclusions are illogically drawn from premises. Though contemporary education has added illustrative examples from our modern cultural speciality, corporate advertizing, we typically repeat classical Greek syllogistic analysis — perhaps with an added look at common fallacies — for critical thinking.

But given the wealth of information coming out of 20th century linguistic analysis, general semantics, phenomenology, and philosophy of language — not to mention Krishnamurti’s insights into thinking and language — we ought to be able to go much more deeply into the exploration of thought. And we ought to be able to create a curriculum of critical thinking worthy of the importance of the subject matter.

What follows are my own particular musings on thought and language, some of which I incorporate into my English classes. I experiment constantly, deepening here, lessening here, because the make-up of my classes varies and because it is a new curriculum for me also.

Critical thinking for the classroom

Critical thinking is simply thinking clearly or correctly. We would not need to learn to think critically if we automatically thought clearly — but we don’t. So we are assuming that thinking can be unclear or distorted.

In order to improve our thinking, we need to make it tangible so that we can actually work on it. One way to do this (I don’t really know of any other) is to assume that thinking is language-based. So, then what is language? The kind of language that is involved in thinking is dialogue (or monologue) consisting of normal declarative sentences.

Normal declarative sentences are direct, simple ways of focusing on something in our world and then commenting on it. When we look at a sentence as consisting of a subject and a predicate, we see the subject as what we are focusing on and the predicate as what we are saying about it. The word predicate comes from Latin and means ‘to proclaim or comment’.

Look at the following sentences and notice the subject and predicate as focus and comment:

  1. I like Rashel.
  2. Cats are lazy.
  3. The universe started with a big bang.
  4. Thinking is language-based.
  5. Look at that cool tattoo!

(I teach grammar from this viewpoint: parts of a sentence come from focus/comment, and the parts of speech all align with either focus/subject or comment/predicate—thus attempting to give a larger meaning to an otherwise droll subject.)

If you don’t connect thinking with using language and, specifically, using predication, then it is difficult to monitor it for clarity or distortion. And we can notice errors in using language by seeing problems with the focus or with the comment. For example, sometimes the sentence or statement is false to the facts it points to because it points to a focus (or subject) that doesn’t exist. At other times a false sentence makes an inaccurate comment on a state of affairs. Look at the following sentences for these kinds of mistakes:

  1. Bigfoot left that footprint.
  2. Snow is normally black.
  3. The Green Party supports big corporations.
  4. Angels exist.
  5. Black holes exist.

Sometimes sentences oversimplify. For example, predication or comment is sometimes used to classify things (Foxes are mammals). And classification concerns only one level of comment: foxes, in terms of their biological classification as animals, are mammals. But foxes are other things besides mammals. They can be looked at from different perspectives and are thus multi-faceted. Thus to equate the essence of a fox with being a mammal is to oversimplify. Often we are aware that we are assuming a certain perspective when we make these kinds 22 of statements; often we are not. Look at the following sentences for oversimplification:

  1. Marx was a communist.
  2. George Bush is a Republican.
  3. I’m a loser.
  4. I’m a winner.
  5. He’s brilliant.

As you are probably aware, there is something else going on in these sentences. Often, the perspective that is singled out for focus in a statement is a‘loaded’ one. The predicates in the preceding statements contain politically oremotionally loaded words, intensifying the one perspective — further suggestingit is the essence of the subject. (And of course language doesn’t assume total responsibility for the distortion. Only in cultures preoccupied with politics and economics and self-aggrandizement would these linguistic distortions have meaning.)

To oversimplify is thus often to violate the fact of perspective. We can look at and think about things from many perspectives. When we look into just one perspective on something and don’t allow that thing to be its other sides—or to outgrow that perspective—we are oversimplifying it and oversimplifying ourselves. We are responding in a one-dimensional way. One common way humans oversimplify and abuse language is to fixate on opinions and images that they create.

Opinions are really beliefs (collections of sentences) that we form— usually from whim or tradition or to fit in somewhere—and are not worth very much in terms of truth. If we subject these initial opinions to testing or reasoning or education, they then become ‘educated guesses’ rather than mere opinion. Rather than cling to opinions as if they are some unchangeable possession, we would use thought more clearly if we relaxed our hold on opinions and in fact wanted to prove them wrong or right, get to the bottom of them. Why cling to something most likely untrue?

Images are one-dimensional ‘opinions’ of others or ourselves. (I teach my classes about ‘heuristics’, ways of organizing information for understanding or memorizing, and tell them that my definitions are just convenient ways of looking at things and not ‘dictionary’ definitions.) We sometimes hold on to self-images and judge ourselves from these single perspectives. We hold on so tight that we fail to see other sides, or allow this one side to change. ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I’m out of it’ or ‘I can’t do anything right, ’ etc.— are typical images that are only statements about ourselves on one dimension from one person. We think these things, i.e., say these sentences to ourselves, over and over, holding onto them as if they were treasures. (Here is a good place to bring in some of Krishnamurti’s explorations of images, and to talk about the relationship of images to self.)

One such relationship of images to self is each of our biographies. One of our strong senses of self is the series of past images that make up our life history. It is easy to show the students how disjointed, selective, created, arbitrary, political (supporting a hidden agenda), and linguistic this ‘history’ really is. This can help loosen the essentiality of one’s historical ‘self.’ (This analysis can then be widened to history — and historiography — in general.)

Naïve realism in life

As we begin to see the linguistification of experience—the labels and verbal images that make up our biological and historical and everyday experience—we might become aware that we actually live in a world of labels. Philosophers have traditionally called this view of a world of labels or things naïve realism, but rarely have the extent or implications of naïve realism been noticed. Yet this might well be the most insidious and dangerous reification of language/thought in human life—certainly an important issue to include in critical thinking.

The grammars of languages show us the dimensions of naïve realism. On this level, things exist in the world and those things (including events) have parts, and these parts have qualities. Trees have leaves and leaves are green. Even the parts have further parts (leaves have veins), and the qualities have qualities (the leaves are dark green). Wholes and parts and qualities move and change and stand in relation to other things.

On a functional level, it is beneficial to see our food as separate from the rest of our environment, our skin as the defended boundary of our body, moving vehicles as potentially lethal objects, etc. But this is only one level of function. On other, equally important levels, we need to see nature’s bounty not as our potential diet but as fellow living species, or as aesthetically bountiful environment. Skin is as much a connector as separator—in some important ways we don’t want the skin to keep material out or in: we need it to absorb energy and expel wastes, for instance.

In that we are so functionally connected to our environment, the naïve realist image that one is only an independent thing is certainly dysfunctional on 24 those levels. One might argue that the subtle levels of material transference are not perceivable but merely theoretical and hence not as real as the naïve realist experience. But this is not true. We do experience sun on our skin, we do feel gravity work with us as we move, we do sense the kinship among life forms, we do feel our lover and self as one.

Not only do we experience different boundaries between us and our environment, but we also perceive boundary shift in our surroundings. Sometimes the stark border of an object gives way to a connecting pattern, as when branches in sunlight form a unified gestalt of form, colour, and energy; or when the sky, ocean, and hills form a unity of setting. We ordinarily notice the roots of a tree disappear into the ground, but don’t we also see the branches touch the sky? We see ants run along the path, but don’t we also see them recycle the dead and form part of the chain of being?

Sometimes change does not happen in ‘stages’ over ‘time, ’ but rather in the continuous, twisting, bulging present. Often ‘things’ don’t stand in relation to each other, but rather a single ecology contains interacting aspects. We can actually feel this, as when a highly trained athletic team moves in unity. Colours run into colours (visual boundaries are colour changes), disparate sounds harmonize or fall into polyphony, sensations exist in the world rather than in our bodies, thoughts belong to groups of us at a time, well-being is in the environment—boundaries arise and cease, merge and shift.

If you get beyond the labelling mind—labelling based on culturally significant functional distinctions—the world is much less orderly, much less partitioned, much less familiar. The world becomes ordered organically, perceptually, dynamically. It has life instead of nomenclature. And it can only be perceived; it cannot be thought. Often we never even look at this environment; we only note functional landmarks—labels—that we steer towards or around. This is not experiencing our surroundings, our lives; this is functioning.

Naïve realism is the reification that hides the nature of language from us. Being conditioned from infancy on, into a system of consciousness where the nomenclaturism of naïve realism establishes named categories of ‘things’ in the world, gives us little vantage from which to see the basic error of this tradition— the fact that this division of reality into linguistic categories is language-bound and often neglects or even cuts across perceptual boundaries. Naïve realism is a knowledge perspective and shouldn’t be the only or perhaps even major contact with reality.

In attempting to relativize or contextualize naïve realism, we can’t simply ignore the objects in the world. But one can begin to notice the boundaries of objects and processes and how these are mostly conceptualized (and usually from only one point of view: e.g. skin keeps everything out versus skin is permeable and exchanging). And one can see the interrelatedness— interdependency, even inter-identityness—of things and how this undermines the absolute independence of the entities in naïve realism.

It’s not that many of the fundamental relationships of naïve realism don’t serve us, it’s that by always treating self-contained parts of the world in a conventionally functional way we miss the function of their interrelatedness and the beauty and magnificence of their bare presence. Naïve realism organizes our world for a certain purpose, but we pay a price—and that price is the flattening, distancing, oversimplifying, and alienating of our environment. So without giving up the functional uses of this consciousness, we can just notice its limitations and begin to re-glimpse the brilliant world its lessening grip exposes.

Thus, deconditioning ourselves from language—the heart of critical thinking—involves both an awareness of the constraints of naïve realism (and labels, images, psychological thought) and an awareness of the non-linguistic sensory world. To see how language hides that world, we need to understand language and begin to experience that world itself. But simply trying to look at our world without the screen of naïve realism may at this point be impossible. Perhaps there are human endeavours that can come to our aid. I think pictorial art and poetry are two such areas.

Art and poetry point to the non-linguistic world

I don’t think we know which came first, language or art. But it does seem there is an obvious connection between the two. Because art often depicts realities that are either totally ordinary (as in basket patterns) or totally unusual, it seems to be pointing toward the everyday—which we may be missing in our functional oblivion—or the rarely seen, because it lies behind our language. Art might just be the first human antidote to the spell of language.

For a start, we could see if art has any relationship to language and the world language conceals. Art history labels periods of art with supposedly descriptive tags. These tags are rather interesting. When we look at any period of‘realist’ art, for example, what realism means is naïve realism. The art is aboutrecognizable things in normally perceived settings. But I wouldn’t say the art 26was visually ‘accurate’ (as realism is often defined) because the perspectives, selection of content, and often posed relationships are anything but accurate— or even possible.

Similarly, art that deviates from ‘realism’ is labeled as distorted: impressionistic, expressionistic, romantic, abstract, etc. Since realism is not so realistic (as in ‘accurate’), perhaps its adversaries are realistic in less obvious ways. Take impressionism. The French impressionist landscapes are not naïvely realistic. The content is much too organic, unified, boundaryless. The scenes have a patterned, textured look, and somehow you can sense the nature in them far more than in ‘realistic’ landscapes. You can directly sense their world, even when your mind tells you it is unrealistic.

So the pictorial arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.) can be seen as glimpses of reality behind the naïve realism of our linguistic world. ‘Modern’ art, abstract expressionism, is the most recent pointing to that reality. Only, modern artists purposely eliminate recognizable content so that we can only focus on color, line, texture, pattern, shape, etc. And why do that? Perhaps for the same reason the Impressionists dulled the sharp, separative edges of ‘reality’: to point to aspects of reality we don’t normally notice, or that we need to notice.

If pictorial art is an antidote, intended or not, for the abstract delusions of language, then where does linguistic art, literature, stand? Let’s take poetry as the easiest example. Poetry can be looked at in many different ways. It is older and more prolific than even painting and probably has served many purposes over the millennia. But one purpose it has served is that of penetrating through the linguistic veil. And it is perhaps ironic that it should use words to penetrate words. As with pictorial art, certain kinds of poetry point to distinctions in the world, distinctions that run counter to linguistic labels and boundaries:

Heatwaves in the air—

Nameless insects

Fly whitely.

Here, one of Japan’s leading Haiku poets (Buson) is crossing the sense lines. He is pointing to the heat on this spring day by seeing the flying insects themselve sas heatwaves, insects that are flying whitely.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would be he of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did the sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Here Wordsworth is also personifying, but instead of giving life and familiarity to nature as the Japanese are wont to do, he is giving life to a city! He’s asking us to see one of the large centres of the industrial revolution as the most sublime thing in creation. He himself has been able to drop the popular image of London and to look upon it in the morning sun as it really is at that moment. The houses, those bastions of incessant and raucous activity, themselves seem asleep. And ‘all that mighty heart’—the living bodies that belong to those houses—is lying still. ‘Mighty heart, ’ the generalized singular, not ‘all those people’ or ‘all those hearts’ but the living city as a whole, the life force as one sleeping giant—that is what he is pointing to. This is not a vision of naïve realism.

At the Shore

This morning

wind that light-limbed dancer was all 

over the sky while

ocean slapped up against                                        

the shore’s black-beaked rocks                                                        

row after row of waves

humped and fringed and exactly        

different from each other and                

above them one white gull                        

whirled slant and fast then                                

dipped its wings turned                                        

in a soft and descending decision its

leafy feet touched        

pale water just beyond                

breakage of waves it settled                        

shook itself opened                                

its spoony beak cranked                                       

like a pump. Listen!

Here is the white and silky trumpet of nothing.        

Here is the beautiful Nothing, body of happy,                 

meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.

In this poem by Mary Oliver (West Wind), she has run her sentences together, omitted most punctuation between phrases, clauses, appositives, and eliminated many usual prepositions—all creating a non-ordinary flow. It is one continuous litany, no seams (hence no grammar), of a singular event on the ocean. An event not any more significant than any other event, but completely representative at that. But the litany ends in surprise: behind all the hubbub and fanfare lies our old friend nothingness. There is nothing behind this raucous life: no great purpose, no subtle plan, no cosmic necessity. Only a brief veneer of heart-shaking wildfire—the ‘on’ stage—alternating with, or perhaps backgrounded by, the‘off’ status of eternity.

The rhythm, the drive, the images, the spaces—poetic tools to penetrate the linguistic delusions of permanence, self-importance, happiness-withoutsuffering, form-without-void, on-without-off. We have to use revolutionary discourse, upsetting sentences, disconcerting grammar, novel usage, extraordinary words—to knock down the wall of naïve realism and linguistic tradition.

Poetry can be language pointed toward life in the world, toward the systematically hidden secrets, toward the dynamism and metamorphosis of all form. Like all language, it is comment and not direct experience. But it is comment that can point us to the real world, force us to open our eyes and to open our hearts. Naïve realism and normal thought really point back toward us, to our minds’ creations, to our egos’ needs, to a world we want to happen for our greatest security.

And it is the illusion of security—that something can be permanent, that self can be completely protected, even that self will last forever—that fastens us to language habits that create a mental world of permanent, static, selfcontained, preservable, manageable, predictable things, rather than to language springing from the real truths of life.

Thus the insightful use of pictorial art and poetry that cuts through naïve realism and a deeper understanding of thought are the flip sides of a new approach to critical thinking. Yet these are only tools, and it is ultimately the understanding of the purpose of new tool use that guarantees their success. Critical thinking is a luxurious pursuit if it only means a defence against propaganda or advertizing. But as our deepest exploration into the place of language (and thought) in our world, it takes on profound significance.It is then no longer a topic confined to philosophers of language or professional linguists, but one that should be a part of every school’s curriculum.

Critical thinking, as Krishnamurti knew only too well, should not be about clever logical games but rather about the process most constrictive to human freedom. Language is what makes us human, but it is also what makes us sick humans. Before our sickness further maims the planet, perhaps even destroyingour own species, it would behove us to take critical thinking most seriously.