The Underlying Philosophy of Critical Thinking and the implication for Literature

As far as it goes, it seems obvious to me that the basic assumption of critical analysis is to think that things are deliberate. “Deliberate” implies that they were done with the intended outcomes, and by extension, are a product of craft, rather than chance in whatever form. Moreover, it implies that with rigour and energy, you can improve. And improving is something humans are pretty drawn to.

So, critical thinking is therefore naturally very concerned with imperfections. This thing is not perfect because of the following problems: blah, blah, blah. The basic difficulty is in making an assessment of what “perfection” you’re aiming for. Something may be quite perfect in one way, but fail utterly in another. Your common, or garden, claw hammer is pretty much the most optimal tool for putting in nails, but performs sub-optimally for putting in screws. Generally in the arts we adopt empirical measures: our instinctive and emotional reactions. These are then post-rationalized, and flaws are highlighted.

As presented then, the idea is that you find flaws and work at eliminating them. And often in criticism, because of your subjective standard, this can mean in fact applying the reverse process of justifying neglecting the error from your analysis, rather than being able to remove it. To cite one of my favourite examples of this, let’s have a quick recap of the duel between Inigo and Westley: the two meet, and exchange pleasantries. Each displays tremendous skill, and the main reversals in the fight are caused by the “I’m not left handed” revelation.

It is, without a doubt in my mind, the finest duel I have seen in a movie. I have ascribed to it the “rank” of “perfection.” And any close study I undertake is now required to vindicate the many numerous flaws you could potentially find in it if your emotional reaction was less intense. Does Inigo’s terrible Spanish accent impact you? Do you find the actual fencing a bit lacklustre? And if so, in order to persuade you to my assessment (of perfection), I need to address these points.

By far the easiest way of doing this is to essentially refute the error as having an impact. You argue that the setup of the fight creates the necessary imaginative flavour, such that the actual physical mechanics are not terribly noticeable. You smooth things over. I think people are most fond of this approach where there are natural grey areas. I have half an entire book dedicated to demonstrating the unity and comprehensibility of Hamlet, for example. Which is clearly not the case.

The opposing strategy is to instead seek out these points of difficulty and identify these as having an almost meta-textual significant: that they actually further imbue meaning into the work beyond the scope of something that was merely perfect. Here you say that the duel is deliberately poor, because it further highlights the burlesque nature of the movie, underlining the irony of it’s historic-fantasy appearance.

The beauty of The Princess Bride to me is that I think both of these opposing analysis techniques are rewarding. It is both an example and a parody of the fantasy.

I have often thought though, that often we are called upon to make an analysis with an assumed model of perfection that is itself not held up to scrutiny. Our whole intellectual approach to the work is therefore automatically predicated along certain lines. And especially so if we are essentially assuming that whichever work we’re analysing is perfect. I don’t wish to devote a large amount of time to demonstrating why I think this is inherent in the way literature is approached in universities… but as I have already alluded to, it is because if near-perfection is assumed, we appear to be closer to having reached perfection after our endeavours.

It is that kind of pre-figuring that can mean you end up missing that a claw hammer is perfect for nails, because you have in your mind a screw. For me, in my studies, the greatest missed opportunity was Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift. The entire critical-thinking power of the course was devoted to understanding its satiric power, while its more straightforward appeal as an adventure story was left completely untouched. I think it works well in both modes, and I think both the critical modes I outline above deliver rich veins of thought about it.

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15 Responses to The Underlying Philosophy of Critical Thinking and the implication for Literature

  1. esarge says:

    You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

    … there is never any analysis of why something is considered bad, good or excellent – at least not in a way that is usable in improving it.

    i.e. the reviewer will often explain some deep meaning, or simply state it was good (or whatever) but there is no underlying model with which to a priori evaluate the work in order to fix defects before presenting it to the public.

    i.e. you, Mash, could evaluate a design for a retaining wall and show that it meets certain attributes and therefore is good. There is an underlying model with which to evaluate a retaining wall.

    But no such thing exists for artistic endeavours yet humans can (generally) universally agree which plays, music, books are great.

    For example, I have enough musical training to be able explain most of what is going on in any given piece of music. I can talk about key and time signatures, word painting, rhythm, etc for pages.

    But I couldn’t explain to you that magical thing that makes a melody and harmony get inside your head and provide some meaning to you.

    • Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

      Are you just talking about subjectivity? Personally, I don’t need to go further than acknowledging that to satisfy myself regarding the dilemma you outline.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Well – no. Subjectivity does not explain why, for example, Christina Aguilera is more popular than the Swedish jazz singer, Silje Nergaard.

        If subjectivity were the answer then all tracks would be equally popular because it would be essentially random which track a given person might like.

      • Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Oh I see. Well I think a good reviewer will give reasons for his/her like or dislike of a work, and if they don’t give reasons, it’s not a good review.

      • eloieli says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        You could also argue that the presence or absence of external factors to create liking of something influence opinion without reference to the content of the material.

        For example Aguilera is more popular than Nergaard becuse she has millions of dollars of marketing behind her.

      • mashugenah says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Or, less cynically, cultural factors.

      • eloieli says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Isn’t marketing a cultural factor?

        😛

      • eloieli says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Err, that was me.

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

      but there is no underlying model with which to a priori evaluate the work in order to fix defects before presenting it to the public.

      There sort of is, and sort of isn’t. For the ancient and traditional genres, such as Tragedy, you tend to find that at some major junctions there has been a distinctive “school” to which contemporaneous authors belong. Examples would be neo-classicism, romaticism, etc.

      These are built around the idea that works with certain characteristics and motifs will be better than others. neo-classicism is based around the ideas that things should be essentially traditional, that it should embody skill and learning, that society was more important than the individual, and I think there was a strong emphasis on a kind of structural tidiness in a work. So, you can look at a work and ask a series of questions, and judge from those whether a work will work in that paradigm.

      For this reason, despite his obvious skill and power, Shakespeare was not regarded highly by most neo-classical critics: the was untidy, and generally had a baudy and lower-class (i.e. uncivilized) aspect to his plays. Some critics were extraordinarily critical of Shakespeare on this basis (i.e. without actually looking in detail at the plays, instead using a general set of principals to deride the work as you say, a priori.)

      But, alas, the main problem is that there is wide disagreement on which system is best. And basically for every critical system that you can use, there will be works whose emotional power and success cannot be explained within that framework… Which leads us into the wilderness of post-modernity, where basically the main critical thought is “we just don’t know.”

      • esarge says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Except that the models you describe merely give the rules for a certain genre – which is not necessarily the same thing as a generic model of quality.

        However, art often lives in the exceptions.

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

      could evaluate a design for a retaining wall and show that it meets certain attributes and therefore is good.

      For very simple structures, this is true. But once you get beyond a certain level of complexity, we have only various opposing models to use to predict results, not a large number of empirical results. For example, I recently did a report on a 20 storey apartment block, trying to determine what its likely performance in an earthquake would be like. So the first question is: just what kind of earthquake?

      Well, in 1963, an earthquake was modelled as a load on the building that would cause an equivalent deflection of the building to that expected in an earthquake. Which becomes a rather circular problem, because if you have a flexible building, it will move a long way while a stiff building won’t. But the load to cause the flexible building to move will be much less. So what you potentially end up with is that as you make the building stronger, you cause the equivalent load t o be bigger and your building is no longer strong enough. But in the 60s we just took that in our stride and made a whole bunch of approximations that meant it eventually worked out.

      But now, an earthquake isn’t thought of in that way so much as inducing a succession of failures in a building. So you design the building to have one bit of a certain strength, then the next most critical bit to have a bit more strength, and so on into the ground.

      Now, when an earthquake comes, some buildings of each type will stand up, and we hope that our current conception of things is better than in the past… but it’s far from clear that our models will end up reflecting reality. There are numerous examples of a too-complex design missing something that a simpler design would just have swamped with strength. My favourite example is the single-pier roadways in Kobe, which were not destroyed by the main earthquake, but a long-period pulse travelling orthogonal to the main shaking. A simpler design, where the piers were just made as strong as practical, would almost certainly have resulted in their survival.

      • esarge says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Indeed – however the improvements in your models would presumably happen because of testing against reality. i.e. examining the results of real earthquakes would allow the models to be checked.

        There is a reasonably objective measure of artistic worth – how many people in a given population like it.

        There is, afaik, no model that attempts to predict against that measure.

      • mashugenah says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        Not necessarily so… there are what are called “story grammars”, where someone has taken a look at popular story motifs and just listed them in an appropriate order. This is how you get the pretty manufactured modern rom-com where someone just selects a bunch of desirable story motifs and voila: guaranteed minimum box-office take. All you need to ensure that you get a profit is make sure your stars aren’t too expensive.

        But you’re right that we can’t use mathematical tools to run computer simulations of these well-known factors. The only tool useful for that is a well-honed human mind. Which may or may not be reliable.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        There is a reasonably objective measure of artistic worth – how many people in a given population like it.

        This is not necessarily the case.

        In their day Bogart’s movies were extremely popular. Now they are less popular. Does this mean they have gotten worse?

        No.

        It simply means that society has changed. What people are given to like has changed.

        Why seek an objective measure at all? Why not critically assess works based on the corpus of current societal subjectivity? To look for an objective meaure of artistic value is to imply some kind of universal norm for art.

        I am a huge advocate that there is a reality out there, and there is objective truth (*no matter how subjectively we access it) however I am not convinced that there are fundamental notions of art that would allow for objectivity.

        Although I can come up with an interesting argument for artistic truth and objectivity based on the existence of the Christian God ^_^

        What was tremendously popular in classical times (pottery paintings) are not at all popular now.

      • eloieli says:

        Re: You know what often mystifies me about artistic criticism?

        As was that

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