Critical Thinking and the Adversary Paradigm
The new APA newsletter includes an article by me entitled “Critical thinking and the adversary paradigm” — link in title above. My purpose is to review new evidence from argumentation studies about the continued dominance in the discipline of philosophy of what Janice Moulton called “the Adversary Method” in an early article (1983). I argue:
One of the primary ways in which the Adversary Method is reproduced is through critical thinking courses. These courses are typically taught by people with little expertise in argumentation scholarship, although argumentation has become the main tool for teaching critical thinking in the discipline of philosophy. Improving the standards for critical thinking pedagogy would help to unseat the Adversary Method from its status as a paradigm. Alternatives can be readily found in the textbooks authored by argumentation scholars.
I hope that this piece will help feminist scholars to see the epistemological, pedagogical, and political significance that argumentation theory could have. Maybe it will encourage textbook authors and academic departments to take more seriously their claims that critical thinking serves democracy.
Admittedly, argumentation theorists tend to have an idealized social ontology and to ignore oppression, as for instance when they assume politeness as a panacea for aggression and adversarial culture. They pay no attention to how the burden of proof may, in practice, shift according to the speaker’s social status and expertise in argumentation. Yet the ideals it establishes can work in concert with feminist epistemology to realize the ideals…
As my dad says, “hope springs eternal!”
2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking and the Adversary Paradigm”
I both agree and disagree with some of your claims. I would like to know your evidence for the claim that “argumentation has become the main tool for teaching critical thinking in the discipline of philosophy”. My experience is that this is not the case, although ideally it should be. Do you have evidence I don’t? Mine is anecdotal. What is needed is some systematic data and analysis, which I doubt anyone has done. Are you referring to philosophy specialty courses or Critical Thinking courses? I doubt this claim is true for either, but would defer to some evidence.
I do agree, again from anecdotal evidence going back 35 years, that the adversarial method is dominant in philosophy (and not just philosophy, but most of the academic community — this has deep historical roots) and is largely reproduced in critical thinking courses (although I doubt that is true of the Sonoma School (http://www.criticalthinking.org/), which deserves a better hearing than it has had thus far in the Argumentation and Critical Thinking Communities.
I doubt that improving standards for critical thinking pedagogy would help much unless we could somehow enforce those. And that is the rub. Even in my own institution, which has a very large number of critical thinking courses, we cannot enforce standards for Critical Thinking courses. The exigencises of who teaches (full and contract faclty) and “academic freedom” ensure that those who teach are neither required to be experts (or even have a passing acquaintance with the relevant literature) nor be accountable for what they teach. So long as this is the norm in academia, we will make little headway. I really am looking for ways of addressing such problems. The issues are organizational and political as well as cognitive. If we don’t address the first two, we have no hope with the third.
My final disagreement is with your assumption that this is an issue (solely or primarily) of feminist epistemology. It is a simple issue of epistemology and human freedom. The Adversarial Model, while it privileges some (and tends to privilege males (from some cultures) but not exclusively — some women adopt it and use it very well)), disadvantages non-alpha males, introverts, and all peoples from those cultures in which a dominance hierarchy is not the modus operandi. But more importantly, it also undermines the search for truth and resolution of conflict. The assumption that truth emerges from conflict, which goes back, at least to Mill, has serious problems factually. So, too does the ideas that truth emerges from simple cooperation. Both have been empirically refuted.
And this brings up a much deeper issue. If our goal as Critical Thinker advocates is to provide a method for people to be more reflective about issues, to make their decisions based on rational methods, to develop the skills needed to address their own reasoning and of others and to understand and address the cognitive issues that affect their decisions, then we need a lot more than what is taught in traditional critical thinking courses. (and I invite other objectives or reasoned challenges to these) And that may mean lobbying in our institutions for multiple courses.
There is a much broader set of issues here than feminist epistemology (although that contributes a great deal).
As argumentation theorists we need to unseat the Adversarial Model.and establish a new basis for “Critical Thinking”. For far too many people who teach courses in Critical Thinking, I suspect that they mostly teach how to identify what is wrong with reasoning, not how to engage with the other and make such thinking better. (Both claims based on anecdotal evidence over many years.) My experience is the same in philosophy. And that reinforces the Adversarial Model. A Communications Model needs overlaid, as well as a strong Argumentation Model. (Can you suggest a clear, simple model that can be used in a first year course? I have one but it evidently is not adequate.)
I have seen a different model in my work in science and psychology. There the focus is more on what are the limits and problems of the existing research and how can I build on that? The primary focus is not on challenging and dismissing, but recognizing limits and building a better understanding, on synthesis, rather than simple critique. Virtually all of the CT courses I have examined focus on the latter rather than the former. Part of that is due to their building skills of critique. That is both their virtue and limitation. In isolation, such courses implicitly support an an Adversarial Model. But they needn’t. If we are to teach one term courses CT we need to teach how to critique and engage. and that is difficult for a lot of faculty, particularly new faculty for whom this is not their primary area of expertise.
Thanks for your comment Jean. You raise some really important points, and I don’t think I can do justice to most of them, but I’ll try to address the criticisms.
You are quite right that I provide no evidence for my claim that argumentation is the main tool for teaching CT in philosophy. But if you don’t think it’s argumentation, what do you think it is? Formal logic, maybe. But in my experience FL is taught separately from the focussed CT courses, although there may be overlap, and often CT courses are a grab bag.
Perhaps we are understanding CT differently. I mean to address courses titled as such, or with synonyms (Reasoning, etc.) in the discipline of philosophy only. The textbooks I can find intended for such courses almost all spend at least half the time on argumentation. That’s all the evidence I can find to make any generalizations.
I appreciate your scepticism about the likelihood of enforcing standards, but I’m not advising an imposition but rather hoping to inspire change from the ground up: teachers and hirers of teachers; from among feminist philosophers. My aim is consciousness raising — a lot of feminist philosophers read the APA newsletter.
I’m not sure what your understanding of feminist epistemology is, but I think it’s narrower than mine; most feminist epistemologists are sceptical of cooperative models (as well as adversarial models). Also, I don’t mean to claim feminist epistemology is the whole answer to the problems of argumentation or CT pedagogy. But I do think it points to a serious gap in the argumentation scholarship that demands attention and that I would be remiss to not mention.
Otherwise, I agree with everything you’ve said! Thanks for taking the time and trouble to respond. These issues are very difficult and complex and I have a lot to learn about them yet.
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