Criticalness as a substitute for thought

A supervisee triumphantly points out that Freud’s tripartite theory is crazy since it raises the issue of three little homunculi running around in the brain, or that Davanloo’s focus on unconscious guilt shows he is just a secret moralist telling people what they should do. Then I ask the student to consider another possibility: what if Freud and Davanloo had already thought of those issues?

Instead of taking pot shots based on supposed mistakes in their writings, what if these seeming contradictions were ways thinkers try to get us to think more deeply about the human condition? How do we understand conflicts? How do we understand the role guilt in human suffering through the ages?

God knows we get a thrill when we can criticize one of the great thinkers in our field (especially if they are dead). But wouldn’t our intellectual life be more interesting and fruitful if we also looked for the truth in what they say? Wouldn’t our lives as students and teachers be richer if we could find inspiration in their writings?

We pride ourselves on being critical, as if the smarter you are the more critical you are. No one fools you! But this can be a tragic misuse of a mind. As Idries Shah once said, it’s like taking a screwdriver and sharpening it into an awl. Once useful for many things, now the tool is good for only one thing: poking holes.

Poking holes in others, tearing them down, and devaluing them can provide the gratifications of narcissism. But the ability to tear down others merely means that no dialogue or learning is possible. All the interlocutors have been killed off.

Showing where others are wrong prevents us from learning where they may have been right. Dismissing others for having failed to accomplish what they set out to do in a book prevents us from seeing the questions they raised that are still open, awaiting our hard work.

If we give in to the temptation of becoming a culture where we devalue the thoughts of others, we run the risk of becoming a bunch of demolition teams instead of architects. Why be proud of tearing down buildings if we never build our own cathedrals of thought?

If critical thinking devolves to being mere “unmaskers”, we close ourselves off from the truths others have grasped, however partial, and the possible meanings that could give direction to our own lives. As “unmaskers” we can find fellowship with other “debunkers” where we enjoy tearing down and dismissing others for not doing ISTDP, psychoanalysis, or CBT.

But then what are we creating? A culture of intolerance that destroys rather than creates meaning.

When inquiry becomes reduced to exposing others’ mistakes, we become detached observers rather than co-participants in the search for truth and meaning. We stand outside the act of inquiry rather than accept the mess and hard work of continued experiments in search of the truth.

Obviously, we need to think critically. But when critical thinking is debased into chronic disbelief, our intellectual community becomes impoverished. Chronic disbelief is not a sign of intelligence but a refusal to use one’s intelligence in the service of creativity. Creative work as therapists requires enormous commitment of time, effort, and emotional courage. We have to become absorbed in the great works of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and literature. When we are reduced to poking holes, we lose our capacity to receive wisdom from thinkers of the ages. We refuse to engage in the transgenerational transmission of culture. Our disbelief kills off our cultural heritage.

Critical thinking does not involve just criticism but reception of the other: dialogue. It requires our openness to alien forms of thought and perception. When we study the arts and literature we hope to overcome, even if just temporarily, our biases and blindness. Can we understand the world from another person’s point of view whether it is Freud’s, Davanloo’s, Beck’s, or Rumi’s? This is not a matter of just learning some facts about other theorists. It’s about becoming open to our own potentials and possibilities.

Critical thinking is essential. Yet, when reflexive, it becomes merely a defense against being receptive to the other, whether a person, a theory, or a work of art. For when we are receptive a catastrophe occurs: we change. We risk seeing that a different theory may not be ridiculous, but a possible way of understanding the world and oneself. We risk personal transformation and shedding an old identity that no longer fits.

That’s why psychotherapy training, and perhaps training of any sort, must not limit itself to the ability to criticize some other theory or theorist. It must help us become open to other thinkers, open to new forms of interpersonal engagement, open to new ways of being with others. Remember the root of education: edu-care, to lead forth. Through openness to new learning, the new you is led forth out of the old you. We don’t know who you will become. But as teachers we look forward to finding out!








One response to “Criticalness as a substitute for thought”

  1. Albert Avatar

    Thanks Jon, a much needed piece.

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