Critical Thinking, Skepticism and Knowledge

Habib Khondker*

Dubai, January 22, 2015 (Alochonaa):  Skepticism plays a very important role in the theory of knowledge or epistemology; because, most of the epistemological arguments are based on skepticism. Empiricism, to put it simply, is a position when you prove something with empirical data meaning based on observations that are verifiable. I have some doubt about empirical method as the sole method of gaining knowledge. Some – not all – knowledge may come from observable data, events, and findings. This is the position of skepticism. As some people would say there are truths (with small t) and not Truth (with a capital T). Knowledge is skepticism, but organized skepticism. Skepticism cannot be baseless; without foundation skepticism becomes cynicism. It becomes a personal, negative opinion without any basis. Skepticism is healthy, constructive; when it is based on solid logical ground or strong evidence; then it becomes useful. It is a position of moderation. You cannot reject someone’s position completely. One may not know many things, but one knows, at least, something. So we cannot say, ‘s/he does not know anything’. From my experience, a Dhaka University Professor once dismissed Ahmed Sofa in those terms. Even, Badruddin Umar who I quoted in a sociology paper was also questioned. I am not a follower of him; yet I liked his analysis of class structure of Bangladesh. You may have disagreement with that but I found his arguments quite agreeable. But a certain professor had strong views against Umar and his analysis.

When I went to Canada, I found that the professors usually said positive things about each other. I was little surprised by that, because I grew up in a highly skeptical society; skepticism bordering on cynicism where people are not used to praising each other. We easily dismiss others by saying: ‘he does not know anything’. No, everyone knows something. I have to value what is in them that I can make use of rather than dismissing that person’s ideas or views out of hand. Taking a cynical view does not help.

The context of my discussion is not skepticism and cynicism in philosophy or in politics but in academia. Universities around the world now have ‘mission statements’ and ‘vision statements’, which are quite elaborate. But, as far as I know, at Harvard University there is one word ‘VERITAS’ that captures the main objective of the university. The Latin word “veritas” means ‘truth’, suggesting that to seek the truth is the purpose of university. It seems that for Harvard that has been the mission statement, vision statement or the rationale of the university. Universities around the world these days include critical thinking as one of the missions. That became a talking point in the first decades of the 21st Century in the National University of Singapore. I remember taking part in many of the conversations with promoters of critical thinking and to make my point, I gave a talk on reflective thinking. Where I argued that there were limits to critical thinking; “you cannot teach all the students to think critically without considering the context and the consequences”. For example, a business class is not a place for critical thinking. Big corporations want innovative, creative graduates but they do not want someone who would be a critic of corporate capitalism.  I argue that in good conscience I would not teach business students to take critical thinking seriously but with some discretion. So criticism has its limits. It is not a good idea to criticize everything and everywhere. You have to be little diplomatic in order to criticize things in everyday life. Thus reflective thinking may be a better option.

The first time, perhaps, we see the word critique in the title of a book was a book by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). He published the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ in 1781 in response of rationalism as a dominant intellectual and philosophical tradition in the West. Kant argued that there is limit to pure reason thus in some circles Immanuel Kant is considered as the founder of Idealism. It argues, there are human values that we have to accept as given ( “a priori”) and by implication, are above criticisms. Limits to criticism and reason come from Kant. From different languages, the etymology suggests that, criticism means ‘judgment’. Do we really judge when we criticize? We simply take a side. An ideal rendition of criticism may be found in the Bengali word, “somalochona” which may have derived from ‘somo-alochona’. An example of that will force us to say that Dhaka University is not a leading university; on the other hand, there are some faculty members and students of this institution who can compete with anyone anywhere in the world. With some indulgence I would say: we are living examples of that. Many of the diasporic Bangladeshi scholars studied in Dhaka University. Not that I am the best specimen, but we have the likes of Selim Jahan; who is regarded as one of the important economists in the United Nations circles. He is the author of the UNDP Report 2015. So, why should I dismiss an institution that produces fine economists? Why can’t we put some positive, along with negative, statements? When it is ‘Somo-alochona’ why must I take the stand to demolish its institutional reputation? As a student of sociology, not as sort of amateur reader of philosophy, I look at the whole discourse of critiques in social science. While in Dhaka University, as undergrads we studied with great care, Marx and other thinkers. ‘Communist Manifesto’ was the book that we all had to study alongside other Marxist leaning works. Why did we read those books? Because, Marx was regarded as one of the proponents of critical thinking. He criticized not only capitalist society but also capitalist knowledge. And, remember his famous ‘Eleventh Thesis’. Philosophers have interpreted the world; the point is: we have to change it. So, critique has a purpose, critique would lead you to some improvements, some change. It is not simply demolition, or destruction. This Marxist idea inherently inspired ‘Frankfurt School’, also known as Critical School as a philosophical and social scientific tradition. And, it all started in Germany. Interestingly, all these famous ideas are from Kant, Hegel, Heidegger; they are either German or Austrian! And, when this institute was set up in 1923, they were using Marx in a critical way. It was a critique of critique. They were not accepting Marx at face value.

These people involved with the Institute for Social Science, also known as Frankfurt School or Critical School, accepted Marx but accepted him critically. (They) criticized capitalism, Stalinist socialism and incorporated Freudian psychoanalysis in their discussions. And, a happy coincidence was, that timed with the discovery of ‘Early Marx’. The youthful writings of Marx, which were unknown were discovered only in the1930s. These writings of Karl Marx were known as Economic and Philosophical manuscripts. ‘German Ideology’ is one of the early manuscripts that remained hidden, buried, un-translated, unknown to English speaking intellectual community until 1930s. So that was the context when they used all that. So, it was, kind of young Marx criticizing the matured, economistic Marx. That was one of the staples of the critical school.

Sociology as a discipline emerged with the writings of Saint-Simon and August Comte. Later on, people looked at sociology as a conservative response to social change. Why conservative? Because, 18th century was quite a radical era. The 18th century was marked by two major revolutions (American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789). Americans actually supported the French revolution, ironically. So, French revolution, it can be said with hindsight, gave birth to radical, critical and progressive thinking. Sociology was considered as the nineteenth century response to radicalism that marked a turn to conservatism, which held that one must value social order and respect institutions, we have to respect culture; these were the standard August Comte’s vision of social science. Progress should be orderly. The writings of Marx came as an anti-thesis. Many found in Marx’s writings a critic of the taken-for-granted image of society. The message was, so to speak, “don’t accept society as is and let’s see how we can change society for better through revolution; how we can change it; how we can change the structures.” This left a very strong influence in sociology but sociology as it developed in the West was known as a conservative discipline. That is why, after the socialist revolution in China in 1949, the leaders of China banned sociology. At that time, one of the most important sociologists was Fei Xiaotong, who became a demographer. The other sociologists simply left the country. Many years ago, I wrote something on this subject (sociology in Asia, sociology outside in West and so on) and I traced that information. It was very happy coincidence that, I was a student of the University of Pittsburgh, which played a leading role in reopening sociology in China following Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms in the post-Mao era. Because, one of the sociologists, C. K. Yang, who ran away from China, ended up at the University of Pittsburgh. C. K. Yang and his fellow émigré sociologists went back to China to restart sociology. The point is, in a progressive country sociology was prohibited. Why? Because, they considered sociology as a bourgeoisie discipline, and as a conservative discipline.

These images of sociology changed in the late 1960s, and the early 1970s. This was the time when critical sociology became very popular. In American sociology, interestingly, there was a long-standing tradition of critical sociology; which people did not take into account. It was in USA there were some extremely interesting and critical ideas but these ideas were not taken seriously. American sociology since 1940s was heavily dominated by Talcott Persons and his students. Parsonian sociology was the dominant discourse in American sociology. So, all the critique, all the critical sociology remained buried, remained hidden. In 1939, Robert Lynd, wrote a book titled Knowledge for What? And, that reflected the Marx’s ‘Eleventh Thesis’ that scientists have interpreted the world, the point is how to change it. This was the subtext of ‘Knowledge for What?’ Is knowledge for keeping the society as it is? It was a critique. Robert Lynd raised many critical questions. It is interesting that Lynd earned his PhD from Columbia University. The next critical sociologist I found in American sociology was C. Wright Mills who was a faculty member at Columbia University. He wrote several books and those were very critical of American political and social system. ‘Military Industrial Complex’ was an apt phrase used by President Eisenhower to describe the American political system. It was perhaps derived from C. Wright Mills. Surprisingly, Columbia University archive did not hold the writings of Mills (I discovered that when I looked for it at the Columbia University archive). They accepted C. Wright Mills, they tolerated him, but they did not value him enough to have his writings in their archive. C. Wright Mills was never made a full professor (Jiri, a retired Columbia University professor once told me). Columbia University is a kind of mainstream American University, yet that university has produced Robert Lynd and kept C. Wright Mills, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak on the Faculty at various points in time. So, if you are a critic that does not mean that people completely neglect you. You can have a position in a respectable university like Columbia University provided your critiques are critique, not aimed at destroying somebody or attacking someone at a personal level. C. Wright Mills criticized Talcott Parsons. Another famous sociologist Alvin Gouldner criticized Talcott Parsons, yet Gouldner wrote the obituary of Parsons. This is what criticism is all about in a truly intellectual context. Criticism does not mean that you attack someone by saying that he does not know anything. That is not the right spirit of critique.

In American sociology, we find a huge influence of historical sociology that incorporated elements of critical thinking. The point of critique is that you accept a theory or idea provisionally and you criticize (not demolish) it that leads to the change of paradigm, the change of dominant view. So, Parsonian sociology gave a way to kind of neo-Marxist critical historical and empirical sociology in the 1970s onwards.

There is a very important role of criticism in knowledge production. The idea of knowledge as ‘organized skepticism’ comes from Robert Merton, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, who was a student of Talcott Parsons at Harvard. Merton contributed a number of interesting concepts such as “dysfunction” and ideas to sociology; one of which was the definition of knowledge as ‘organized skepticism. The important point of critical thinking is ‘to think’ first. Thinking should not start with the presumptions, one should not be preoccupied by the fame of the writer; we should look at a text as a text. We should not look at who is behind the text. And, we make our judgment and conclusions based on what the writer knows, not based on his/her reputation. Before we get into critical thinking we have to think (Martin Heidegger has a book titled, ‘What is Called Thinking’; he is probably the most difficult philosopher to understand). Hanna Arendt, a student of Heidegger, emphasizes on the importance of thinking in all her writings. She was sent to Israel to cover the story of Eichmann’s trial for the New Yorker. She was a political philosopher with a Jewish background and was thus expected to write everything against Eichmann. She thought, reflected and tried to understand Eichmann and his actions. However, the Jewish community in and outside of Israel did not see anything good that warranted an understanding of Eichmann and accused her of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ for not denouncing Eichmann. Arendt was not a ‘self-hating Jew’, all she tried to do was to think and understand. Obviously the holocaust against Jewish people (6 million were killed) was considered a great tragedy, but one really needs to think before s/he jumps into a conclusion as an intellectual. She was not a trial judge (a Judge has other imperatives). As an intellectual she had different perspectives. And she did not denounce the Israeli court, either. She simply wanted to understand Eichmann. And, that itself led to a huge controversy. But the point about thinking is important. If you think, you will see many scholars are thinking and rethinking. For example, feminism has within it many varieties (i.e. Sheryl Sandberg (2013) type feminism, critical feminism etc.) of positions. Chandra Talpade Mohanty wrote a fantastic article titled “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse” (1984); then, after nearly 20 years, she wrote an auto-critique saying that may be she was pushing it too far and that she could be misread. In the 2003 article she wrote, “… it is time for me to move explicitly from critique to reconstruction…” I have seen the same type of rethinking in some famous writers; sometimes they revisit their positions. They say, “I have to reflect on what I’ve said before. Maybe my position was too hostile, too critical; maybe I did not take everything into account.” So, the point is we really need to look at the context. The critique of critique is very important. What we need is reflective thinking. Reflection is you criticize and then you counter-criticize to discover the weakness of a criticism. You read it from different points of view. There is no single story that provides all that you need to know.

Back to Robert Merton, in sociology of knowledge one of his contributions is the idea: ‘knowledge is organized skepticism’. But we need more than ‘organized skepticism’. What we need is to check whether the knowledge has an element of universalism. That means, what I am saying something here would be of some value to students or intellectuals or people who like to think about the same issue elsewhere i.e. in China, in Australia, etc.? Would they find any value to this discussion? If they don’t then I cannot make any serious claim to knowledge since it misses out on universalism, which is one of the important features of knowledge.

*The Writer is a sociologist

*** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at

Categories: philosophy

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