critical thinking

Fore-having, Fore-sight, and Fore-Conception: Heidegger and the Hermeneutical Situation

Clear and informative explanation of Heidegger’s “fore-having.”



Perception is also interpretation. To help explain this idea of world-interpretedness, we greet our old friend the hermeneutical “as,” whom Heidegger calls “the primordial ‘as’ of an interpretation which understands circumspectly.” While often characterized by concern, here “circumspectly” (umsichtig) is not to be understood as a synonym for “cautiously,” but designates the manner in which we normally encounter our surroundings:

But if any perception of useful things at hand always understands and interprets them, letting them be circumspectly encountered as something, does this not then mean that initially something merely objectively present is experienced which then is understood as a door, as a house? That would be a misunderstanding of the specific disclosive function of interpretation. Interpretation does not, so to speak, throw a ‘significance’ over what is nakedly objectively present and does not stick a value on it, but what is encountered in the world is always already…

View original post 1,592 more words

Gun Laws

To Control Guns or Not to Control Guns, That is the Question

The issue of gun control is complex, highly politicized, and fraught with misinformation.

It is true that guns on their own, without a human operative, do not kill anyone. In fact, as benign objects, they pose no threat to anyone. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

It is also true that people are capable of unimaginable violence and are anything but benign objects.  People are willful, arrogant, fearful, unstable, unpredictable agents of action. We are all frequently surprised by the actions of others. And it seems that man’s inhumanity to man knows no limit. People kill people.

It is also true that regardless of what is available, people who intend harm and are willing to be both patient and methodical will find a way to inflict harm on others one way or another. We can neither ban nor regulate all objects that may be used as weapons of harm. A quick Google search reveals that people have harmed and killed others with some rather surprising, benign, everyday objects that no one would argue should be banned or regulated in the same way that some are proposing should apply to guns in general and certain kinds of guns in particular.

It is also true that we regulate people’s access to things that undoubtedly pose a threat to human life. We keep track of and regulate people’s access to certain pharmaceutical drugs for this reason. Upon discovering that a drug is deadly, it is recalled, banned, and lawyers quickly create ads encouraging those harmed by the drug to sue the offending drug company for restitution. Drugs deemed safe for human consumption that are used correctly are generally harmless but if abused are deadly. Because of the potential harm at the hands of human operators, drugs themselves as well as the methods in which people access them are controlled and regulated. Certain drugs not only require a prescription but also the amount and frequency of their purchase are tracked and regulated. Drugs kill people; therefore, we regulate drugs.

It also true that the example above applies to many objects such as cars, boats, chemicals, tools, fireworks, knives, fantasy weapons, and so on. When we recognize that an object possesses the potential to be catastrophically harmful in the hands of human operators, we generally take extensive measures in order to know who owns and operates the object as well as when, where, and how the object may be purchased as well as used.

It is also true that guns were and are designed and manufactured with the express intent of killing. There is no denying this. Is it possible to purchase and use a gun for another purpose? Sure. Some participate in Trap Shooting competitions. However, Trap Shooting events regulate the kind of gun and ammunition used. There are also specific rules imposed at Trap Shooting events intended to protect participants, judges, and spectators because the equipment for this sport, typically a 12 gauge shotgun, is lethal. Because of the rules and regulations at Trap Shooting events, I don’t know of anyone being killed while participating, judging, or attending one. These are controlled and regulated events in order to ensure the safety of all involved.

It is also true that some people purchase collectible guns for display or investment, and they are never armed nor fired. These also tend to remain benign, generally harmless objects because they remain under lock and key.

It is also true that criminals buy guns illegally. Hence the terms “criminal” and “illegally.” We do not, however, have a habit of rescinding laws simply on the basis of people breaking them. To argue that criminals will get guns anyway is neither a logical nor a common sense reason to weaken gun laws.

It is also true that there is no evidence to support the “good guy with a gun” theory when the “good guy” is a random citizen who happens to be armed at the time and in the place a shooting occurs. Being able to respond quickly, reasonably, effectively, efficiently, and accurately to an incident of violence, particularly when guns are involved, takes time, training, and skill. Few people have a natural proclivity for handling such stress. A Concealed Handgun License is insufficient for the kind of training needed to handle these intensely stressful events.

It is also true that Guns Everywhere laws have not proven to be deterrents to gun violence. Instead, stressful situations that would have otherwise ended in a verbal exchange or perhaps even a fist fight quickly turn deadly when guns are ready and available.

It is also true that gun homicides in general are down while mass shootings in particular are on the rise. The Psychology of mass shootings is complex and multifaceted. There are no simple solutions to the problem of gun violence. Shooters have had a range of reasons for and circumstances surrounding their decision to open fire on others. We cannot and should not discount mental illness or terrorism, but they in themselves are complex issues that require complex solutions.

It is also true that resorting to trite statements by both Liberals and Conservatives alike that polarize citizens for the sake of political and ideological alliances will not and cannot even begin to solve this issue. The blame game does not help. When we allow ourselves to be consumed with either defending or attacking what racial, religious, or political group a shooter supposedly represents, we lose sight of the issue at hand.

It is also true that the Second Amendment, as it was written and when it was written, is no longer meaningful. In order for the Second Amendment to be relevant in our modern, advanced nation with a vast Military, National Guard, and state as well as local police, it needs to be amended in order to reflect how the country has changed both culturally and structurally as well as technologically.

It is also true that we must address the issue of gun violence with action. 353 mass shootings in 11 months is more than a tragedy; it is a result of gross negligence on the part of lawmakers and their constituents alike. We should not allow this level of gun violence to become the new normal. There are nations that address gun rights and gun control in ways that gun violence is reduced without violating citizens’ gun rights. We must be willing to say that we will not allow mass shootings to remain a daily norm and back that statement up with legislation and enforcement. We must be willing to make some changes if we want different outcomes.

It is true that guns on their own are not dangerous. It is true that people use guns to kill. It is true that we limit people’s access to items that pose a lethal threat to themselves or others. How can any reasonable person assume that this does not and should not apply to guns? It is true that we need to implement laws that will help reduce gun violence by limiting and regulating people’s access to them. It is true that not everyone will like the law. It is true that no new law can guarantee 100% protection against mass shootings in particular or gun violence in general. It is true that our aim is to drive the overall trend of gun violence and mass shootings downward rather than upwards and that a single incident – though tragic – is not indicative of an upward rather than downward trend nor an absolute failure of the law. Therefore, isolated events if and when they occur should not be heralded as a failure of gun legislation. To determine a laws success or failure takes time and patience.

It is true that if we set political, racial, social, and religious ideologies aside and come together as a nation determined to confront this problem, then we may actually do something about it. It is true that doing nothing about gun violence guarantees that nothing will change.

I would like to think that it is true that Americans are not the kind of people who look at a problem and say that it is too hard and too complex to solve and therefore would rather do nothing as opposed to something. It is true that we need to do something. We need to set aside hate and fear and come to the table of discourse in order to reach a solution together.


critical thinking, education, pedagogy, psychology, school

The Loss of Critical Thinking

As a professor, I have witnessed year to year a decline in students’ ability to think critically.  Educators often throw the term around in hopes of appearing pedagogically sound. Critical thinking actually matters, though; and consequently, we should take it far more seriously.  The question educators ask every year is how to teach critical thinking to students and subsequently measure our ability to do so.  While some find success with innovative teaching strategies, sadly, too many buckle under administrative and oversight pressures to follow a curriculum that suppresses rather than encourages critical thinking – they forfeit success for efficiency.  Perhaps we should begin by defining what critical thinking actually is. The Oxford Dictionary defines critical thinking as an “objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment.” I have to disagree somewhat with the “objective” part.  We do not actually have the capacity to think objectively because we cannot stop being who we are when we think.  We may like to tell ourselves that we are being objective, but it isn’t actually possible.  We cannot step outside who we are, no matter how much we may want or need to do so.  The best we can hope for is, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her confirmation hearing, to recognize our biases and try to set them aside momentarily.  Until we know what biases we hold, how can we possibly hope to think critically about anything?  I suggest that the first step to teaching critical thinking is to teach students how to be introspective with an eye toward an awareness of others.  An aim of higher education was once to graduate students who had a global rather than only a local perspective of the world – to see themselves in a large context alongside others who are different, think different, and live different. By teaching students to have a global self-awareness so as to see themselves within a global context, we can, perhaps, move one step closer toward teaching critical thinking.

Being a Rhetoric Professor means that I spend the bulk of my time and invest the majority of my energy into teaching my students to analyze arguments.  The most frequent comment I make on student writing is that students confuse summary with analysis.  They have that summary thing down!  I have yet to encounter a student who had no grasp of or ability to summarize with some degree of success.  What 99% of my students struggle with is transitioning from summary to analysis.  I find myself continually needing to develop new strategies for teaching analysis.  My most frequent analogy is the difference between summarizing and analyzing a car.  My students tend to pick up on how summarizing a car means describing it as a whole with a nod to some of its component parts; they are quite keen to describe what they see.  An analysis, however, necessitates that students focus on how and why those component parts work individually and collectively in order to function as a whole machine.  I teach them the following mantra: “It is not just that something is so, but how and why it is so.”  Asking how and why questions permits us to analyze that which is under scrutiny by delving beneath the surface.

Social Media gets much blame these days for the perceived downfall and regression of society; however, in this instance, I am convinced that social media is largely to blame.  It does not encourage analysis much less critical thinking.  Rather, it encourages knee-jerk reactions to superficial, acontextual content in order to solicit either approval or disapproval at lightening speed.  Unfortunately, this mode of evaluation neither encourages nor rewards the kind of cognitive rigor that critical evaluation demands.  Likewise, social media encourages and rewards homogeneity rather than heterogeneous thinking.  Dissenters are frequently, rudely, and sometimes violently punished for their individual dissent.  If we are asking our students to evaluate that which they have analyzed, what are we asking them to do?  Is there actually a reliable means of objective evaluation? The scientific method applied in a controlled environment comes as close as is possible to this desire for objectivity.  However, strictly adhering to this method is not always available or desirable.  We’ve seen the disastrous fallout from this line of thinking in the form of standardized tests.  “Objective evaluation,” when one really takes the time think about it, means very little outside the laboratory.  We need to teach students to be critical and ethical evaluators instead.  Is there a consensus on what that means?  No.  Does this suggest that the results would be so varied that the meaning of “critical and ethical evaluation” becomes so diluted as to be meaningless? No.  Teachers should be exemplars of learning in the classroom, rather than mere gatekeepers of knowledge.  By creating opportunities for and demonstrations of critical thinking in action, perhaps we can begin to pass this skill on to future generations.  To do so effectively means that teachers must be willing to expose who they are, what they think, and how they think in the classroom.  We cannot expect students to make themselves vulnerable in the classroom, identify their biases, and attempt to set them aside in order to think critically if we are unwilling to do so ourselves.  If what we model to students is that we must keep secret who we are, what we think, and how we think as a result of fearing dissent, then how can we ever encourage our students to engage in civil discourse much less critical thinking?

In other words, in order to teach critical thinking we must be willing to step into the arena of identity psychology.  Our ability to think critically depends on our capacity to understand who we are in relation to others and our environment.  It also means that we must stop encouraging assent and focus instead on civil discourse – whereby dissent is viewed as an opportunity to learn and discover rather than as a threat to our identity.


Understanding Civil Discourse through the Lens of a Consequentialist Theory of Meaning

The backlash over Halloween costume choices is not new fodder for conversations about free speech  that come up against accusations of racism, which include discussions about what does or does not cross the line of what is or is not publicly acceptable  with regard to ethnic expressions.  Consequently, they are not likely to stop being a hot-button topic anytime soon.  The annual and now predictable discourse surrounding offensive Halloween attire presents us with an opportunity to examine not only expressions of free speech and the variety of offenses that they often create, but also the consequentialism of speech and an approach to understanding the significance of civil discourse in a democracy.  Let me make three points perfectly clear before we delve into this discursive and delicate arena: 1) I support free speech rights and simultaneously agree that not all speech should be legally protected. 2) I do not believe that anyone should knowingly and willingly set out to offend others; yet, I also realize that not everyone agrees with me on that point. 3) 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive nor are they objectively measured and regulated, which means that we must accept and address the fact that others’ subjective interpretations actually exist. We do not all agree on what is or is not offensive; nor do we all agree on the same course of action when we do find a particular speech act offensive.

Welcome to the world of subjective experience – where we engage, perceive, interpret, and experience the world from a perspective that is uniquely our own. I am not arguing for solipsism; there is in fact a real world that objectively exists outside our subjective interpretations of it. Despite my knowing and accepting that such an objective reality exists, I cannot access nor understand such a reality objectively because my capacity to perceive the world around me is bound by my own experiences, my own perceptions, and my own points of view, indeed my own capacity for interpreting and understanding  that which I perceive. Some of you may be raising the science objection. Granted, Science seeks an objective interpretation via the scientific method, which demands rigorous testing and intense scrutiny of data derived from testing. But, the purpose of this rigour is to navigate around our bound existence as subjective beings in order to arrive at as-objective-as-possible information. The fact that scientists had to develop a method by which to overcome our proclivity for subjectivity and that science itself is understood as this method by which subjectivity is taken into account in order to overcome it reveals just how pervasive subjectivity is in the human experience. While I applaud Science for its many successes, attention to detail, concern for ethics, and epistemological humility, we cannot employ this kind of methodological and epistemological rigour in our everyday experiences and interactions – there simply is not enough time in a day to do so. Therefore, we are left to struggle through our subjective experiences and interpretations without a clear and ever-present method at our disposal. This is precisely why interpersonal communication frequently gets messy, offensive, and ineffectual.

For those of us who study linguistics, philosophy, rhetoric, and/or literary theory, we are keenly aware that language is neither thought itself nor a map of reality as it actually exists. Words function metaphorically; they are never the thing itself of which one speaks. Words point toward concepts, which are ideas we have about both real things in the world and ideas thought by people. But, words are neither the things nor the ideas themselves. Every word on this page merely points to a concept you learned over time. Education is useful because it facilitates somewhat shared, reliable, and repeatable concepts that reside behind the words used to invoke them. However, we do not all have identical experiences in school, nor especially in the rest of our lives outside schooling. Consequently, our concepts vary, even if only slightly. For example, anyone who is bilingual knows that translation is actually interpretation and much of what is being interpreted is culture rather than the bare meanings of words. Words merely point to concepts; the concepts themselves vary according to culture, which is why word-for-word translation rarely results in anything intelligible.

As another example, consider the word “book.” The word itself evidently is not a book. Rather, it signifies the concept we have for “book.” Now, consider how varied our experiences with books can be. The word “book” does not bring to any two minds the identical concept of “book,” nor does it invoke for any two minds a single, actual book in the world. We share a concept of “book” that is close enough in our understanding that I know what you mean when you say “book” as opposed to “magazine.” In order to specify beyond the general concept and invoke in a hearer’s mind a particular book, one requires additional words: To Kill a Mockingbird. By specifying a title  with a proper reference to it, I now know which book out of many books is being referenced. But, further details may still be needed: “My signed, first edition, hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my desk in my home office…” specifies one particular book in the world – whereas: “Purchase any edition or copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for class” specifies a lengthy strand of particularly ordered words and sentences that make up the novel To Kill A Mockingbird distinguishable from any other lengthy strand of particularly ordered words and sentences that make up any other novel. We do this kind of asserting, referencing, and interpreting all the time without giving much thought to how we actually do it. Knowing all this, it seems remarkable that we ever communicate anything at all.

There are times, as we are all well aware, that communication does not work so smoothly as the examples provided above. We have all experienced strained moments during communicating when we wrestled to understand another’s articulations or someone else struggled to understand us – when we thought we were so obviously clear. Words as metaphors are challenging enough when they refer to actual objects in the world, given that we do not all share identical concepts of book, snake, tractor, school, government, border, boyfriend, spouse, or tea. Imagine the difficulty, then, when we attempt to abstract in words concepts that are themselves abstractions. We do relatively okay when referring to things in the world that actually exist; communication becomes all the more challenging when we use words to point to ideas. That is, we use words to point to concepts of, you guessed it, concepts. Talking, writing, singing about love, god, justice, truth, fairness, equality, and so on are particularly challenging because we do not understand the concepts in the exact same ways that others do. Enter rhetoric and civil discourse.

Let us return to our Halloween costume dilemma and subsequent civil unrest. As a rhetorician, I advocate for civil discourse whenever possible. There are times that certain speech acts (i.e., any means by which one attempts to communicate an intention to another by either speaking or gesturing in some way such as uttering words, smiling, pointing, and yes, even attire, may at times be considered a speech act). The question we should be asking of Halloween costume wearers is “what are you intending to communicate to others with your choice of costuming?”. I would like to think that this does actually happen on occasion. Typically, we ask this question when we are confused by a costume. However, we should be asking this when we think that we know exactly what the wearer intended to communicate; unfortunately, this is precisely when we don’t ask the question we should be asking. That is not to say that there are not times when the intent seems obvious.

Take for example the recent racist incidents at the University of Missouri. There is no denying that smearing a swastika on a wall in feces is intended to offend. Likewise, proclaiming one’s desire to shoot all black people is unequivocally racist, not to mention being unlawful speech. The question we should ask is: “What to do when we are offended?”. Civil discourse as opposed to screaming, name-calling, and threatening actually opens up possibilities for progress and change. I would have liked to have been present on the Yale campus when a student initiated a civil exchange with a professor but in a snap emotional reaction abandoned her opportunity for civil discourse and resorted instead to an emotional outburst. I would have liked to have had an opportunity to encourage her to collect her emotions and reenter the conversation with an intent to hear what her College Master had to say as well as invite him to hear what she had to say. The moment she heard Professor Nicholas Christakis say that he disagreed with her interpretation of events, she violated the framework of civil discourse by screaming at him. Two factors contributed to her emotional reaction and neither should be dismissed nor devalued: one, she is young; two, she was clearly impassioned. However, if she sought to have her grievances heard, she damaged that opportunity by cursing and screaming at her College Master. This young, Yale student is certainly not alone nor was this incident anomalous. Regardless of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, gender, etc., human beings by our very nature are overwhelmingly subject to forgetting that not everyone sees the world, events, or actions in the same way we do.

Both Professor Nicholas Christakis and his student resident were right – in their individual interpretations. Where they were in error was assuming that their individual interpretations reflected the objective reality of the world as it actually is outside their perceptions of it. Let us return to the lesson of words as metaphors that point to concepts rather than objective reality. What was in conflict at that moment on Yale’s campus was not just a student and a professor but two different world views. An older, white, male, Ivy League professor and College Master and a young, black, female, Ivy League student and resident. As outsiders to the incident, we may weigh in with our own interpretations but we have no more access to objective reality than the professor and student did. Civil discourse, then, seeks to assert, explain, and make known our interpretations. But, when we forget that we do not have direct, perfect, accurate, access to objective truth, we often resort to uncivil discourse that solves no problems but instead adds to existing issues and at times leads to violence.

Consequentialism examines the effects of communication. Perhaps if we first considered the potential effects of our speech acts before uttering them, we may be forced to consider not only our intentions but also the possible interpretations of others regarding those intentions. In the end, we may still not agree, but at least perhaps we could have a better understanding as to why we we disagree and avoid misunderstandings and maybe even violence.


The Rhetoric of Fear and the Trope of Tribalism

You are familiar with the trope of tribalism, even if you are not familiar with the phrase that signifies it. It comes in that oh-so-familiar format: “Cowboys vs. Eagles,” “Liberals vs. Conservatives,” “Miley vs. Amanda,” and the more sinister yet ubiquitous – “You are either with us or against us.” Both cognitive and moral psychologists study our evolved proclivity for tribalism. It makes sense for a communal species such as humans to have a sense of insider and outsider awareness. When our ancestors walked the plains in search of food, our evolutionary trait for tribalism likely secured resources and saved lives, which of course means that others lost lives and resources. It was, to a great extent, a zero-sum game for survival, insofar as groups competed for resources and territory. Groups existed on the basis of familial bonds and saw individuals outside their family as threatening to the survival of their family-community. When we developed agriculture and began to stay put, our instinct for tribalism ensured that -again- some secured resources and survival at the loss of others…competitors. That in 2015 we continue to view the world through an evolutionary lens of tribalism is not surprising. We are, on an evolutionary scale, the same species as our ancestors who roamed the plains and invented agriculture with the intent to secure resources for themselves. We are not likely to lose our instinct for tribalism anytime soon, though many (albeit not enough) expand their circle of empathy beyond their immediate family.

But, I am not a neuroscientist; I am a rhetorician. Therefore, what concerns me is that despite our awareness of this evolutionary trait, we continue to indulge public figures’ rhetoric of fear that triggers our instinct for tribalism and falsely generates a fear of our fellow human beings by convincing us to see others as our enemies, as threats to our “family.” Mass Media, politicians, corporations, gun lobbyists, religious leaders, ad nauseam profit from their instigating within us a fear of one another, while we, as a community of human beings, increasingly view complete strangers as threats to our way of life, resources, and sense of self. I am not so naive as to believe that no one poses a real threat and that everyone has others’ best interest at heart. I know that a small minority of people genuinely do pose a serious threat and that we must develop a means of protecting ourselves. While we have an instinct for tribalism that at times is useful and accurate in its threat assessment, we also evolved to have an instinct for altruism. Sadly, and to our detriment, Mass Media, politicians, corporations, gun lobbyists, religious leaders, ad nauseam do not trigger our instinct for altruism for one simple reason: it is not profitable. Appealing to fear seems to be the only game in town, which is a serious problem that we must address. 

Fear triggers a fight or flight response in the fearful. We either double down on homogeneity and never seriously consider or accept challenges to our beliefs, values, and ideas, or we see our neighbors as threats and are always looking at one another through crosshairs. Many are so fearful that they disregard irrefutable, indisputable facts in favor of their narrative of fear. Most Americans Believe Crime in U.S. is Worsening despite the fact that violent crime, overall, is down. We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting a day in 2015, but this fact is less an indication of an overall trend in violence and instead exposes a trend of a particular type of violence. Climate science is not unsettled on the matter of climate change and the human contribution to it. Scientists really do have more evidence for Evolution than they do for gravity; yet, Gravity is not challenged by Creationists. The economy is objectively better than most people believe it to be. Some Americans actually fear an ISIS invasion on U.S. soil. And, Donald Trump is wrong about undocumented immigrants.I could go on… 

I am not the first to point out this connection between fear and cognitive dissonance; sadly, I won’t be the last. So, the question, then, is what to do about it. As a professor of rhetoric, I teach civil discourse and critical thinking. But, I don’t merely teach how to analyze arguments, research topics, and decipher theoretical texts; I also teach my students to engage their critical thinking and rhetorical skills in order to contribute to their socio-political environment. In order to teach my students how to do this, I teach them that we all perceive the world from a perspective – a perspective that often varies greatly from person to person. Therefore, we must be charitable listeners but never stop being critical thinkers. By being charitable listeners, we can entertain a different perspective without adopting it. On the other side of this rhetorical coin, we must engage in a civil discourse that engages critical thinking, well-thought out and researched positions, and appeals to logic (i.e., logos). Pathos (i.e., appeal to emotions) has its place, as we should genuinely be appalled by some’s capacity for inhumanity and cruelty. Yet, we can no longer allow the rhetoric of fear and trope of tribalism to dominate our public discourse. Fear does not typically result in critical thinking, civil discourse, or solution-seeking efforts; rather, it trumps credibility in favor of what most expediently accesses our instinct for tribalism. Credibility (i.e., ethos) must be that which can sustain rigorous scrutiny rather than embolden our xenophobia. Military training demonstrates this rather well: assess whether or not a threat is credible, choose a logical course of action, act efficiently, effectively, and as humanely as possible. Of course, there are times this system fails. But, as an ideal model, it teaches to the possibility.

If we want to address the greatest threats to humanity, we must first accept that the creation of fear, hate, and suspicion of one another is our greatest threat. Once we learn to engage one another rhetorically, civilly, and critically, then fear will no longer be the driver of media, politics, corporations, gun lobbyists, religion, and so on. The degree of political polarization we currently suffer under is due to the rhetoric of fear that exploits our instinct for tribalism. Polarization is not a pathway to problem-solving; civil discourse and critical rhetorical study is. But, to accomplish this we must have the desire and the will to do better and be better. Fear is easy; credible rhetoric is hard.