Philosophers at least since Socrates have traditionally played the role of gadfly. Plato’s Socrates’ wisdom lay in how little positive he actually knew; but also in his knowledge that other people on the whole knew even less than him. Socrates delighted in revealing this to them through critical questioning. Philosophers today still niggle away, find fault with other people’s arguments and generally get under people’s skin. Often this is because they challenge cherished assumptions; though sometimes, we should admit, it is just because some of them are irritating nit-picking people who enjoy putting other people down because it makes them feel clever (some of these get an extra thrill from conducting their put downs in inpenetrable jargon that makes them feel even cleverer) - oops! there I go being negative again.
So, should philosophers be so relentlessly negative? Is there any value in this apparently destructive style of thinking? Should we praise or despise those philosophers who, armed with the martial arts-like skills of critical thinking, stand ready to knock down just about any generalisation with a killer countermove? John Stuart Mill in Chapter Two of On Liberty (1859) recognised the charge and took it seriously:
‘It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic – that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice without establishing positive truths.’
This is as true today as it was nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Think of the appeal of ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘critical’ thinking. His response:
‘Such negative criticism would indeed be poor enough as an ultimate result, but as a means to attaining any positive knowledge or conviction worthy the name it cannot be valued too highly; and until people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great thinkers and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and physical departments of speculation.’
His reason for believing this is appealing. Mill argued that no one’s opinions, unless challenged and disputed, (and preferably by someone who really believes in what they are arguing) amount to much. It is the process of contestation, the presentation of putative counterarguments and counterexamples, the analysis of the structure of argument that should test our opinions to the very limit. This is the source of life in what we believe: otherwise we are likely to cling to our assumptions as dead dogma.
Rather than despise these critical people, we should thank them, even if their objections turn out to be ill-founded:
‘If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour ourselves.’
What Mill didn’t address was the difficulty of engaging in this sort of illuminating debate with those who take every criticism of an argument as a criticism of the person who is its source…or who cling so dogmatically to their beliefs that any questioning of those beliefs and their underpinning is considered a kind of sacrilege.