Theorizing criticality—a historical perspective

When we consider the history of the concept of "criticality," it is clear that it is crucial not just for theorizing the basis of education, but it is also, in a wider sense, deeply connected with a capacity for expression within a wider "public sphere," a space where ideas can be discussed and debated openly. The European Enlightenment, with its injunction that we "dare to know!" is crucial for initiating modern concepts of criticality. Immanuel Kant's 1784 essay What Is Enlightenment? famously defined "enlightenment" as the "exit of humans from their self-incurred immaturity" (Fleischacker 2013, 13), and this represents the elevation of a concept of criticality based above all on Reason. For Kant, Reason was a universal human capacity, and hence he regarded its denial as a denial of our humanity itself. He defines "thinking for oneself" as "seeking the highest touchstone of truth in oneself (i.e. in one's reason), and the maxim of always thinking for oneself is enlightenment" (Kant 1998, 146-147).

Reason in a Kantian framework is understood not just as a universal human capacity but as the capacity for critical engagement, which represents something much greater that the amount of information one possesses. "Becoming enlightened" involves liberating oneself at the level of thought and feeling, and Etienne Balibar has argued that "from Kant onwards . . . modern idealism is above all a theory of the active self-construction of the subject" (1994, xv). The corollary of this, Balibar argues, is the "autonomy of the political," which he characterizes as "reminiscent of a long tradition in the definition of citizenship . . . namely the emergence of 'we the people' as a political subject" (1994, x). The Enlightenment definition of criticality was thus inherently political and social, and connected with concepts of popular sovereignty, democratic citizenship, and, in their absence, revolution. These ideas were of course crucial aspects of the intellectual background of the French, American, and the Haitian revolutions, and which continue to be important to this day. This relationship between the capacity to use reason in a public and critical way remains as true of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as it was adopted in August 1789 by the French National Constituent Assembly, as it is of contemporary struggles for genuine popular representation manifest in the Arab Spring.

But where does Reason come from? While the establishment of this principle was one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment, Hegel's major contribution to this was the idea that it had to be accompanied by the development of "critical self-consciousness." As Pavlides (2010) argues, "Hegel attempted to demonstrate the active role which the human mind played in the evolution of civilization and, at the same time, he became aware of the contradictory essence of things as the moving force behind their transformation" (83). It was by historicizing critical self-consciousness through his use of the "dialectical" method that Hegel established "the principle whereby stable thoughts reveal their inherent instability by turning into their opposites, and then into more complex thoughts" (Houlgate 2005, 38). In this way of thinking Hegel demonstrated the importance of going beyond either/or forms of logic, thus overturning the perception that "things and concepts [were] either one thing or the other" (Houlgate 2005, 39). Hegel's approach radicalized criticality in the way it required a thinker to grasp "contradictions"—essential relationships between things that only appeared to be opposed to each other, but were, at a deeper level, essentially related.

It has almost become a cliche to reiterate Marx's claim to have turned the concept of the dialetic "on its head," but as Cyril Smith has noted, it is more useful to think of Marx as taking the method Hegel used for understanding philosophical contradictions as a means of understanding real material contradictions; in other words, Marx was "looking for the way to 'actualise philosophy' . . . Where Hegel's science sought to reconcile the conflicting forces of the modern world, Marx's science sets out from the necessity to actualise those conflicts and bring them to fruition" (1996, 147). This is demonstrated by the way Marx approached the question of religious belief. In common with most Enlightenment philosophy since Kant, Marx perceived uncritical religious faith as a major barrier to enlightened thought and existence. However rather than see this faith simplyas an "illusion" and thereby illogical, Marx argued that it needed to be understood as the inverted expression of real social contradictions:

Religious suffering is at one time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (1975, 244)

Marx's description of religion as the "opium of the people" has often been misunderstood to mean that he was simply dismissive of religion. Rather, he saw it an analogous to an opiate, in that it dulled the pain of people's lives and allowed them to carry on, but without any fundamental change in the oppressive conditions in which they lived and worked. It was thus not the clarion calls for freethinking offered by Enlightenment philosophers that would undermine the appeal of religion, but "the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness" (Marx 1975, 244). After working extensively on his critique of Hegel in his early writings, Marx shifted his focus toward understanding "political economy" where the material causes of the denial of people's humanity were to be found. This shift is captured in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "the philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" (Marx 1975, 423). This statement is remarkable for the way it encompasses criticality as a concept with inherently ethical, epistemological, and pedagogical dimensions, which themselves could only be realized through praxis, the unity of theory and practice.

In the twentieth century, as educational institutions expanded, debates around the significance of criticality moved more and more into the space of pedagogical practice. While the American pragmatist philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey did not see himself as a revolutionary in the way Marx did, he was equally concerned with the social implications of pedagogical practices. As Amsler notes, for Dewey, "[An] educator's decisions about what, how, why and where to teach can never be based on purely technical skill or theoretical knowledge. Instead they emerge from theorizing the particular form of democratic life, articulating the practical role that forms of education could play in this life" (Amsler 2013, 67). For Dewey education was not just about making a "good life," but also an essential component of a deepening practice of "democracy"that was predicated on the capacity of people at large being equipped with the skills to turn this into a reality. This is embodied in his oft-quoted statement that one should "cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life" (Dewey 1916, 239).

The same questions about the social role of pedagogy are important in the early work of social theorist Jurgen Habermas, particularly his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989). This work drew heavily on the pessimistic analysis of mass popular culture in the work of his Frankfurt School colleagues Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, but came to quite different conclusions. Returning to Kant's discussion in What Is Enlightenment? Habermas argued that the milieu of salons, coffee houses, and independent journals, which formed the context into which Kant's work was received, was very far from the context of the contemporary public sphere. He argued that this had developed primarily into a venue for entertainment where critical discussion was largely absent and social issues were framed in a language of "rational consensus" that was defined and dominated by powerful corporations and the simplistic slogans of political parties. As a result he argued that critical thinking had been "supplanted by manipulative publicity" (Habermas 1989, 178).

In order to prevent a resurgence of the sort of authoritarianism represented by both Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin, Habermas advanced the idea of "communicative competence." This concerned the capacity for a human subject to move beyond the dominant "rational consensus" and nurture a praxis whereby they could evaluate truth claims through a combination of reason, reflection, and critical thinking, thepurpose of which was to unveil hidden forms of domination. Habermas used the term "ideal-speech situations" to characterize this ongoing struggle for reflective understanding. In ideal-speech situations people were not told what to think, but had the opportunity to participate in a genuine interaction in which it was possible for them to independently evaluate their understandings and views on a particular issue. These ideas have had a major influence in contemporary discussions of the social role of universities and the place of pedagogy within them. Ron Barnett's 1997 book Higher Education: A Critical Business is just one such discussion that develops a Habermasian defence of critical thinking in relation to HE in the UK. Barnett argues that it is not enough for university students to develop the capacity to reflect critically on knowledge; it is only through "critical reflection" and "critical action" that the learner can become a truly "critical being" capable of engaging "with the world and with themselves as well as with knowledge" (1997, 1).

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