Cross-Cultural Critical Thinking: We need it now!

There is a western bias in contemporary logic and critical thinking education, especially in the textbooks that are most often used to teach these courses at most institutions in the USA. This bias can corrected for by adding in material from Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic writings on debate and argumentation theory that crosses the logic and critical thinking divide. Consider the following as a critical way into the issue:

Contemporary textbooks for Introductory courses on logic and critical thinking have changed a lot in the last 50 years. I am thinking here primarily of books like Paul Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic. It used to be that when they introduced information about the history of logic and critical thinking they only talked about Aristotle, Venn, De Morgan, and Boole. Later one finds references to other figures, such as A. Tarski, A. Turning, and W.V.O Quine. Now one finds references to Ruth Barcan Marcus, Alice Ambrose, and Ada Byron. The changes seem to reflect the fact that introductory texts ought to talk about the diversity of people that have contributed to the history of logic and critical thinking. Not only for the purposes of being factually correct, but also for the purposes of drawing in interest from a diverse pool of possibly interested parties. The main shift that is present in the list above is that publishers and authors finally realized that they needed to include women who made contributions to logic. This shift is absolutely correct. We should not be presenting logic and critical thinking to our students as if women were never part of learning it, thinking about it, and contributing to the evolution of it. But if publishers and authors have gone far enough to recognize this, then: Why have these books (for the most part) stopped short of including non-western figures?

Within the community of people working on classical Indian philosophy it is well known that there are a number of highly engaging works on logic and critical thinking both historically and by authors commenting on the primary sources. In the case of the latter I need only mention B.K. Matilal’s The Character of Logic in India and D. Perdue’s A Course in Buddhist Reasoning and Debate: An Asian Approach to Analytical Thinking Drawn from Indian and Tibetan Sources as reference points. So, why the neglect?

Perhaps the problem is the following. Outside of the vast number of scholars working on Buddhist, Arabic, and Hindu contributions to logic, no one in the introduction to logic and critical thinking community knows anything about what to include. They might be aware of contributions by these figures, but unaware of what to include. This explains the asymmetry between the inclusion of women and the inclusion of non-western thinkers. Here are some issues that might be going on.

(i) The core contributors have not been identified.

(ii) The core contributions have not been identified.

(iii) The core contributions are not easy to explain at the introductory level.

(iv) The core contributions are in logic, but not in critical thinking.

With respect to these issues, the following can be said.

It is hard to take (i) seriously. There might be disputes internal to classical Indian philosophical scholarship over who the main contributors are, but it seems hard to hold off on picking at least two or three figures that could have a short bio in an introductory textbook along with Aristotle and Ada Byron.

It is hard to take (ii) seriously. There might be disputes internal to classical Indian philosophical scholarship over what the main contributions are, but it seems hard to hold off on picking at least two or three ideas that could be safely introduced in an introductory textbook along with Aristotle’s square of opposition and Turing machines.

There is something to be said in favor of (iii). For example, the Jain anekāntavāda and the Buddhist catuskoti can be hard to explain. But are these ideas any harder to explain then Venn diagrams or the standard explanation of why when ‘P is false and Q is true’ we still say that ‘If P, then Q’ is true? The reasons in favor of inclusion outweigh those against it.

(iv) comes from a complete neglect of the work done by many scholars on debate and argumentation theory in classical Indian philosophy, both Hindu, Buddhist, and in Arabic thought. Again read Chapter 2 of Matilal’s The Character of Logic in India.

So, we come to a question that exposes what might be tacitly in mind:

Why should these books include non-western materials?

The “we shouldn’t include’ answer is backed up by the following reasoning. We actually use propositional logic and the square of opposition, but we don’t use any of these non-western things. So, those non-western things belong in a history of logic class, philosophy of logic, or a non-western philosophy class, which is where we currently find discussion of them. They don’t belong in a critical thinking text book which teaches things we actually use.

The answer I would give in favor of inclusion builds off of two points.

First, it is not true that everything we teach in an introduction to logic and critical thinking course is material we actually use. Consider the square of opposition. We use the Boolean method, not the Aristotelian one, yet we teach both. We often teach categorical logic, but that is really a special case of predicate logic; so you don’t need to teach both. So, the idea that we are teaching all and only the things that are actually used is false. Many students walk out of an introduction to logic and critical thinking course and don’t even use the things that are important in other contexts, such as propositional logic.

This leads us to the second point: the exposure point. We are including these things because students should be exposed to concepts like the Square of Opposition, both Aristotelian and Boolean, as a way of getting clear on what critical thinking and logic is. But once we have moved to the exposure position, and away from the all and only true components of logic position, we are on the way to a much bigger issue.

At the most basic level, in an introduction to logic and critical thinking course, we are trying to expose students to the idea of critical thinking, and to the question: what is it to reason correctly? Thus we are doing them a huge disservice by making it appear that logic and critical reasoning is not a global phenomenon investigated by many different traditions in the human condition. We are basically teaching our students that the idea of critical reasoning is a western idea. What we should be teaching them is about the variety of people who have contributed to thinking about critical thinking and logic while also teaching them how to use these tools.

Of course my push for inclusion could also be made about: introduction to ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. That is many people have noted on this blog the issue of the western bias in philosophy. My view is that we should be making the changes in these other cases as well. However, in the case of logic and critical thinking I think the damage is worse, and we have a strong argument for inclusion. The primary reason is that almost all students have to take a course on logic and critical reasoning as a G.E. requirement. However, most don’t have to take a course in the other areas. So, the current curriculum sets them on a pathway for thinking that critical reasoning is a western ideal, and given that it is sold as being the most important thing (think here of the idea of learning critical thinking as what is important in college), we implicitly give them the idea that the most important thing, critical reasoning, comes from the west.  That sounds bad. Again just read the Nyāyasutras.

At the upcoming APA in Vancouver I will be presenting some material on the issue I have noted here about logic and critical thinking education. The presentation will be for the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking and the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World. My goal will be to push for the inclusion of non-western thinkers into such well known textbooks for these courses, such as Paul Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic. And I don’t mean just a couple pages, I mean a major revision of these books that teaches the material as part of an intro level course in a serious way. It is not as though no one teaches these courses and fails to include non-western thinkers. And it is not as if there are no books that could be used in an introduction course that includes these thinkers. It is just that the mainstream books do not include any or enough. And some maybe starting to do so, but we need more. A lot more.

I am curious what others think. And I am really hopeful that readers of this blog and other scholars can get together and decide who and what should be included, and that a unified pitch to the top publishers can be made. The pitch being that non-western philosophers must be included.

Additionally, I think it might be good to have a session on this issue at the 2016 Easter APA.

Including for a Special Workshop on How to Incorporate Asian Texts into Traditional Philosophy Courses
2016 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association
January 6-9, 2016, Washington, DC

The Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy welcomes proposals for our panels at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting. Proposals regarding any aspect of Asian or comparative philosophy are welcome. This year, we especially welcome paper and panel proposals for a Special Workshop on How to Incorporate Asian Texts into Traditional Philosophy Courses. Workshop papers should be targeted at non-Asianists who want to incorporate Asian texts into a traditional philosophy course. Proposals for incorporating Asian texts into courses in any area of philosophy are welcome, including ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, introductory courses, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, moral psychology, logic, environmental philosophy, philosophy of gender, philosophy of law, social/political philosophy, etc.


8 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Critical Thinking: We need it now!

  1. Sri Aurobindo introduced notions like the Logic of the Infinite and Exclusive Concentration to erect an Integral Advaita bridging Judeo-Vedic perspectives. Relying upon such modern and Evolutionary contributions must receive priority over over-venaration of ancient texts. [TNM55]

  2. Anand, thanks a lot for this interesting post and most of all for your efforts in this direction. It is a difficult topic —to me it seems that the only way things can change is by creating a strong peer pressure in favour of it. In this sense, panels (like the one you suggest) within non-Indological conferences, just like articles in non-Indological journals and books and so on can be very helpful in raising a different awareness and especially telling a different narrative about what logic (and so on) is. Perhaps some posts (like this one) can help, too.
    (As for my position on this topic:

  3. Thanks Elisa. I am looking more into this issue, which is very difficult as you noted. And I am well aware of the number of scholars already out there who have written on this issue, I am hoping to build off of their work, so thanks for the link. Hopefully scholars from a number of fields can come together to suggest how these textbooks can be improved for the better. That is my hope. Perhaps I can get funding from the APA Inclusive Philosophy Fund to host a conference on the issue, where we can get scholars from a number of fields, including yourself.

  4. Thanks for the information.
    I think Conferences on Comparative Philosophy and Asian Philosophy is a great idea.
    My west wishes

  5. Great post, Anand. Thanks for this. A couple of quick comments.

    1. As part of my contribution to our core curriculum at Bridgewater State, I teach a few sections of an intro-to-logic/critical thinking class every semester. My first class is, in effect, a summary of Nyayasutra 1.1.3-8 with select commentary, where I try to explain why we are interested in arguments and logic in the following way. (Note that I just teach it, I don’t give them text to use. It’s my freeform summary of the contents, and I don’t make much of a fuss about it being comparative and all that.)

    There are a few basic ways we know about the world (to stipulate: perception, testimony and inference). I briefly explain how the first two work, which is often kind of interesting to newcomers who know nothing about epistemology. Then, I focus on inference.

    We see that inference can go right or wrong according to how we understand the relationship between an indicator fact and a putative indicated fact. (Discussion of various examples. . . )

    Argument is, in effect, externally verbalized inference for the sake of convincing another, and we can notice some basic ways that we mistake relations between the premises (which are verbalized indicators), and the conclusion (which is an externally verbalized target fact).

    In this class (baby logic), we will map some of the major ways that they are properly related and major ways they are improperly related.

    2. Stephen Phillips did some work on fallacies and “cultural universals”, like how tu quoque is identified as a fallacy in various traditions of thought. It may be worth asking him or looking at his website to find it, if it is up there.

  6. Thanks, Anand! I haven’t taught critical thinking in a few years, but I did always stress that critical thinking and logic aren’t purely Western ideas. If/when I teach it again I’ve thought of including some of the discussion of inference and fallacies in the Nyāya Sūtra (Matthew’s approach sounds interesting there). I’ve used the classic anumāna scheme in my Philosophy of Religion, Buddhist Philosophy, and Philosophies of India courses. Students are usually interested to learn about the emergence of classical Indian logic in the context of public debate, which is a way of making logic exciting (you need logic to decide who won the debate!). At least that’s my story in the classroom. Maybe specialists in the history of Indian logic can correct me if this is too much in the direction of skillful means.

  7. Thanks Matthew and Ethan, I am pretty confident that there are many others out there that also teach non-western material because they have been exposed to it. I usually discuss Buddhist ideas, but the Nyaya material has been on my mind for some time. I am hoping we can unify and get something out there in a leading book for non-specialists. The material from the Arabic tradition is also important.

    • Sure we need Arabic traditions and so on, least we want to achieve another particularised ghetto (as in the case of virtue ethics, which often means “Virtue Ethics in the West and in Classical Chinese thought”).
      And yes, I agree with the need of more material for non-specialists (while at the same time raising interest among them, though!). A blog where people can share ideas and imagine shared actions seems to me important in this connection.

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