Philosopher Attributes II: Criticality

Criticality is a word I made up to describe a character trait I’ve seen. Being critical is not what I mean by criticality. Being critical, in common parlance, is a negative trait used to describe someone who cares about flaws in others that are of little importance. His evil is that he cares too much about things that matter too little. He aggresses those aspects of others which, though weaknesses, are best left alone. His posture is not unto the good of the person he criticizes but is to the destruction of the other. He states the truth nakedly, but without any real gentleness. He is like a would-be surgeon who crushes his patient’s chest on the way to deal with the heart.

So what is positive criticality? Criticality, as I use it, refers to a person’s sensitivity to the truth. He is sensitive to explicit truth but also the form of truth. What I mean by form is akin to what others refer to as a “substratum.” As an example of a substratum, think with me that there are many types of buildings in the world. Even though there are many different particular buildings there is something we perceive to be underlying all of them that we think gives us a right to call them “buildings.” This underlying commonality is what I’m referring to as the substratum of buildings. Criticality, in part, therefore, refers to the subject’s proclivity to and understanding of the substratum of truth, that which underlies it.

There are, therefore, several aspects of criticality which make for a good philosopher and they are all interrelated. The first, and most obvious, is the ability to notice contradictions between sets of phenomena. One man says God is immaterial, another says that God is all things including the material. These are contradictory notions, therefore both may be wrong but both can’t be right. This is criticality.

Further, the ability to deduce implications from statements and events is also an expression of criticality. Criticality here is simply the ability to reproduce the form “if this, then that” accurately and wisely. The wife can’t find her husband Jerry at home. But she thinks to herself, “Jerry always golfs with his friends on Tuesday from 2-4. It is Tuesday at 3:30. Therefore, Jerry is golfing with his friends.” Her problem is solved, her reasoning is sound. She has expressed her criticality rightly.

The third aspect of criticality is what I call systematization. Systematization is the subjective ability of individuals and groups to rationally harmonize a vast amount of what one believes, has seen, and has heard – in short, what one has experienced – into a whole. If someone asked me, I would tell them I am Reformed, Conservative, and Philosophical. This obviously wouldn’t encapsulate the totality of my ideology or person, but it does mean something about my belief system that I perceive to be true.

But how do Conservatism and Reformed Theology relate to one another? Didn’t Reformed people choose not to conserve the Roman Catholic institution, how is that conservative? And aren’t philosophers doggedly adherent to reason whereas Reformed people believe that faith comes by hearing, not principally by reasoning? It behooves a person possessed of criticality to seek resolution to these apparent problems (even if he cannot, in his weakness, solve them entirely).

As I stated with regard to openness, there is an aspect of these “philosopher attributes” that I regard as amoral. This is to say that just because one person has more criticality than another doesn’t make that person better morally. This is why I’ve referred to the attribute of criticality as an attribute and not as a virtue. Honesty is a virtue. The ability to see contradictions between statements is an ability. The proclivity toward open-mindedness is an attribute. Moderating your open-mindedness according to the truth is virtuous. Criticality is not a virtue, it is a relatively expressed attribute. And those philosophers who tend to be deemed the greatest are those who’ve cultivated it the most and in the best possible way. They are in all the best ways critically minded.

I have also chosen not to refer to it merely as a character trait as though. Criticality is something all people can grow in. In the Christian sense, it is our duty. In the Scriptures, criticality is often expressed in the term “discernment.” We are called to be as wise as serpents. The whole of the book of Proverbs is engaged in the tutelage of prudence. One cannot be discerning without also having criticality; one cannot be rightly critical without being sensitive to the truth. And though it’s not necessarily immoral not to have the same amount of criticality as someone else, it is immoral not to train yourself in criticality.

Though criticality is in itself good, men often use it wrongly. Criticality has often been negatively used to build thought idols (babels) which are, by later philosophers, cast down through that same criticality. Everyone is to some degree critical because everyone is a rational being. Though dead in sin, we maintain knowledge. This means we should always be seeking to grow our critical skills in a virtuous way. We should become more and more sensitive to the form of truth as we seek to communicate and hold that truth with all humility, gentleness, and love to the service of God and neighbor. Grace and peace.

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