On productive criticisms

socratesI have been in a couple of discussions recently in which someone opined that certain sorts of objections or criticisms are not “productive”. The basic idea is that a criticism should not be wholly negative; it should point out a possible correction, or a new way forward, or something constructive. It should not merely have the form “That is wrong/stinks/has no justification”. One occasion, in fact, was a classroom discussion of Socrates in the Apology. Socrates, of course, insists that he does not know what virtue is, or justice. He merely has discovered that all of the supposed experts he has encountered also do not have this knowledge. He points this out to them, causing no small amount of embarrassment – and he does not follow up this criticism with any suggestions of his own. In this way, according to some students, his criticisms are not “productive”.

Socrates would insist otherwise. We do take steps forward when we realize that all the steps we have taken up to this point have been in the wrong direction. Sure, it’s not a happy discovery – all that wasted effort, and now no clear idea of where to go next – but at least we now know to stop and to reconsider. A negative result is indeed productive, as it stops us from continuing in a nonproductive direction.

This is a simple point, but I think it touches on a psychological element that underlies our efforts. Humans, particularly in a society like ours, place great value in work, forward movement, progress, and general “bettering”. Anytime we are not engaged in forward movement, we feel our time is being wasted. Consider this situation: you need to drive to the movie theater, and your current route is blocked by very slow-moving traffic. At this rate, it will take you thirty minutes to get where you’re going. But you could take the long way around, sure to have little traffic, which will also take thirty minutes. Which do you choose? We all know that it doesn’t matter. But many of us – myself included – would rather take the long way around, since faster forward movement feels better than slower movement. We feel more productive along the way, even though clearly we’re not: the same destination is reached in the same time.

Transfer this point to the situation where we are trying to discover what truth is, or what virtue is. Someone articulates a project or theory that gives us a lot to talk about, and we get busy raising criticisms, amendments, further applications, complications, and so on. Then someone like Socrates raises an objection that reveals a deep inconsistency in the foundations of the project. What are we supposed to do? We are already invested in the project, busily making what seemed to be progress with it. Now this critic points out our efforts are deeply ill-conceived – but the critic has no new project to offer us, no new efforts on which to spend our energy. Some us will call the criticism “unproductive”, for it leaves us with nowhere to go. But: what? Would it be better to continue to work on an ill-conceived project? Would it be better for the critic to launch some new project that, for all anyone knows, isn’t any less ill-conceived? We feel frustrated, to be sure; but scapegoating the critic for our folly won’t make our efforts any less wasted.

The policy that results from the “that’s not productive” criticism of criticism is that critics should not raise criticisms of a project unless they have a new project to offer. But what if all the critic knows is that the current project is doomed? Should that information be withheld until some new outlet for the wanton expenditure of energy is identified? To go back to the driving example: if I am a passenger, and I calculate that, no matter which way we go, we’ll be late for the movie – or if I somehow figure out that the movie is cancelled – should I shut up about it until I come up with an alternative idea of what we can do? If I make my observation without supplying that alternative, should the other passengers chastise me for being “unproductive”? That would be mad.

Clearly there are unproductive criticisms: criticisms which do nothing more than provide needless complications to projects whose overall intelligibility remains intact. If I insist that, for all we know, the traffic problems might get worse, and the alternative route might be equally congested, this really does not help us in our situation, particularly if I’m just spinning out possibilities without any reason for thinking they are actual. My criticisms (pointing out ways in which our knowledge is incomplete), though they are true, don’t give us any reason for thinking our current efforts won’t succeed, and they only clutter up our efforts with truths we can’t use productively. It occurs to me now that it may be that the students criticizing Socrates thought this was what he was doing, perhaps because they were confusing (a) cluttering up our efforts with truths we can’t use productively, with (b) proving our efforts to be wasted with truths we cannot use productively. That seems to me a distinction worth preserving.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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