Thoughts on Discursive Modes and Critical Thinking

I have been a guest lecturer twice now for an undergraduate critical-thinking class at University of Wyoming, and these are among the notes I gave out, minus the last paragraph, which is a late addition.

Critical thinking requires understanding of logical fallacies and the scientific method, of the dialectical process, and induction and deduction. However, logic is not the only mode of human interaction; it’s not even the usual one.

When I was working on my English degree, my critical theory professor made a statement that helped me crystallize my objections to the whole deconstruction project he was encouraging: “All categorical statements are political.” Is this true? Is it false? Is it true only from a certain perspective? My rejoinder to him was, “Including that one!” But what I might have said is that his statement begged the question, that is, assumed its premise as its conclusion, and so was logically unsound in argument; after all, if all statements were political, then his statement could not merely be an objective statement of fact. Or I might have said, “No, there are other modes of discourse than the negotiation of power. In the objective mode, which includes science, we follow rules to minimize the influence of political motivation. And there is also a mode of Meaning, of art and myth, and it is likewise nonpolitical. ‘All categorical statements are political’ only makes sense if you are in the mode of power negotiation, where we promote some facts and downplay others in order to empower people, who may or may not use the power — the respect, the money — for the purpose they were entrusted with it. ‘All categorical statements are political’ suggests the truth is always subordinate to its uses.”

This may sound fancy, so let’s get to first principles. I’m saying that art, science, and politics really are different concepts. The way we recognize and defend them is by viewing them as modes, or a mindset toward a goal, like pure discovery, power sharing, or enjoying a performance. These are not the same goals. We can’t be sure that another person actually holds to a given mindset, but their communication behaviors tend to go along with the pursuit of a goal. In the political mode, we make arguments for sharing power. We might say, “Save the snail darter!” To help the poor snail darter, we must marshal resources and give them to the people who will carry out the proposed action. In a game or a religious ritual, we follow certain practices or obey certain rules, with the goal of having a fun experience or a deep emotional one. In the objective mode, we try to minimize political and aesthetic motivation that clouds our judgment, and so we avoid making arguments based on logical fallacies, and we test our assumptions and put them at risk of being wrong.

Had my professor said, “All categorical statements are made within a political context, and thus may be seized upon for political use,” his statement would have been more logical. As it was, he wasn’t teaching, from my point of view; he was indoctrinating, trying to infect us with a cynical mindset.

To be fair, he might have meant “political” in a different sense. He might have just meant “political” to mean “social construction,” or consensus reality as opposed to material reality. But I think that’s an abuse of the word “politics,” which is really about power negotiation. Not everything that exists only by social agreement, like Santa Claus, for instance, is a product and tool of persuasion or domination. And a strong clue that he didn’t interpret “politics” in this wider, consensus-reality sense is that he found the Tao Te Ching to be completely incomprehensible and could not make sense of the premise that language is a useful fiction that helps us engage with a world that really exists beyond social construction and resists our categories, not because all our categories are political, but because they are limited. I discussed with him the opening stanza, which states: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” All acts of creation involve separation. The most ancient myths tend to begin with the language-mediated fracturing of a unity, the simultaneous birth of darkness and light, or sky and earth. In naming these things, we somewhat arbitrarily cut them off from the underlying reality of what they are; that’s what abstraction does: it allows us to manipulate things as objects, but it does not really capture those things. As I said to my daughter when she was very young, “There is no two of anything in the real world.” This fracturing of the unity does not capture the underlying reality. That part he could get. However, the Tao beyond words is reality, and it really exists, and there are ways beyond arbitrary power-negotiation to align with it, if not capture it, according to essentialist philosophy.

A famous science fiction writer known to me and [the class professor] once tweeted that she hated “essentialism.” I cringed at this. “Essentialism” is the philosophy of both Plato and the Tao Te Ching, and it’s the working assumption, or mode – if not the actual belief – of every scientist worthy of the name: the reality that science is trying to probe is not an intersubjective one; it’s not a social construction; it really exists, or at least that’s the attitude we need to adopt to do it, and I think the results speak for themselves. Saying that we only encounter it indirectly through our uniquely human senses and sensibilities is not to say that it’s not really there. Yes, we have things that exist only by human agreement, like money, and other people’s gods, and corporate brands, and the music of Justin Bieber, but those too must ultimately align with the potentials of an underlying physical reality. (Or maybe they don’t; maybe there is a virtual-machine reality created by the human mind abstracted away from the physical world. This is a philosophical position, either way. We don’t need to pick one to do critical thinking; we just need to be aware of the different perspectives, and adopt the one proper to the job we’re setting out to do.)

So to do critical thinking, we need logic, objectivity, experiment, falsification, and statistics. But we also need to understand that there are modes of artistic expression and reception, and of power negotiation. And we need to understand that a mode is not a domain of study, since it applies to all domains; and it is not individual objects, because all three of these major modes can be applied to any object. Is the Nazi flag a political statement? Is it a work of art? Can it be physically analyzed or its abstract effects studied quantitatively, even its effects on human cognition? “Yes” to all three, of course, but not at the same time, not in the same discursive mode.

Propaganda can be art, but not when it’s being propaganda.

It’s useful to recognize some further categories to organize critical thinking. A discursive mode is not the same as a process, a discipline, or a category of truth. However, it can map loosely to one of these. Rather, it corresponds to one of the three classic writing modes of exposition, narration and description, and persuasion. However, any one of these writing genres is not necessarily a pure expression of a mode, just characterized by the dominant one. What’s the dominant mode in the humanities? In STEM? In a debate class?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson teaches categories of truth that loosely map to the modes. He talks about objective truth, personal truth, and political truth. By “political” truth, I think he actually means intersubjective truth, where my professor likely did not, but like I said, I think this is an abuse of the word. Politics is about power-negotiation. Words, numbers, and corporate brands may have political uses, but these intersubjective constructs are not inherently political. “Personal truth,” I assume, is what he’d mean by religion, but religion apart from its myth element is about marshaling people and invariably has a political component. All the same, if his categories of truth are useful to you, use them. They are not the same as a discursive mode in the sense I’m describing though. A mode is a mindset, ultimately, and so unknowable (confidently inferring another person’s mindset is the psychological fallacy, identified by philosopher William James 150 years ago), so I tend to think of a discursive mode as a set of behaviors consistent with a dominant communication goal: to have an emotional experience, to dominate, or to learn. This can be equivocal, so really you can only confidently perceive the mode you’re in, and try to pursue interactions consistent with it, in talking to other people, and to be effective, you must read the room and figure out when the dominant mode everyone else is in might not be the one you’re pursuing. Trying to be logical in a hopelessly political situation is bound to be frustrating.

Conflating modes is absurd. Having a scientific debate about Creationism is absurd. That’s not to say that Creationism is wrong. I may think that, but that’s not my point. I mean that in the logical, scientific mode it’s not relevant, because it’s a religious and aesthetic proposition, not a falsifiable, testable, scientific one. Richard Dawkins mires himself in absurdity when he debates Creationism. Maybe there’s some use in his doing so; maybe showing the absurdity is somehow constructive. But don’t fool yourselves that it’s scientific. It’s really aesthetics seeking an audience by political persuasion.

The Roadrunner and the Coyote in the old Looney Tunes cartoons seem to be in different modes. The coyote is in the political mode, the mode of survival and domination; the roadrunner is messing with him, in an aesthetic mode of play. Likewise with Bugs Bunny and his antagonists like Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

You can think of a mode as the mental orientation of certain characters. Mr. Spock is a paragon of the objective mode. When he applies logic to an aesthetic situation, there’s humorous irony in the conflation of modes, just as with the Chuck Jones cartoons. McCoy is more emotional and aesthetically motivated. Kirk is a decisive man of action, a leader and politician.

But Star Trek characters aren’t quite stereotyped enough to represent the modes. Spock is really not a robot; he is merely disciplined, and at times that discipline breaks down. But consider an actual robot. All it knows if whether its inputs compute. It does not understand an aesthetic emotional experience, and it does not understand political motivation except in terms of its effects that can become further inputs, or objects for logical operation. It represents the objective mode. For the aesthetic mode, consider a child who does not understand Mommy and Daddy’s political battles, that only knows Mommy and Daddy are unhappy and that the environment in his or her home is emotionally unsatisfying, that there isn’t enough love. The machine comes by and holds Mommy and Daddy to rigorous logic, by which they must step out of their emotional state; they calm down. Our stereotyped child doesn’t understand logic, only emotional effects, so it observes “Logic is love!” (Or maybe hate, if Daddy’s relentless logical pose frustrates Mommy to tears, or vice versa.)

Meanwhile, a stereotyped cynical political sociopath does not understand emotional connection or transcendence, and uses logic only as a tool for personal advantage. Logic and emotional appeal are merely vehicles for power. The truth has no value in itself, only how it can be used for power. (In my slides, I use the “sore loser” as the speaker for the political mode. Maybe you can help me come up with better mascots.)

Critical thinking demands we understand all three orientations and work productively — which often means consistently — within them.

Don’t get confused about the difference between discursive modes and processes. Engineering and the craft of art both are activities that involve us variously in the discursive modes at different points in the process. For them, it’s constructive to observe what are often called open and closed modes, which are really cognitive orientations, corresponding to primitive modes of exploration and prey stalking. They are the modes of metaphor-play on the one hand and editing and making choices on the other. But what I want to emphasize as important to critical thinking are the modes of knowledge sharing: science, art (that is, religion, play, meaning), and politics.

Finally, don’t confuse mode awareness with compartmentalization, which is a kind of hypocritical inconsistency. Your aesthetic and logical operations don’t have to be in conflict with each other. Your misgivings and enthusiasms can drive your quest for facts while, at the same time, you remain aware that scientific propositions are value-neutral and the motivations for testing them are irrelevant to whether they’re true. If you are arguing facts with someone invested in a conspiracy theory, pull them into the logical mode where the motivations of the supposed conspirators are irrelevant to the truth of individual facts. However, logically arguing the merits of a conspiracy itself with someone invested in it is a losing game. Conspiracy theorists are transfixed by the inevitable shadows in our picture of the world where sinister forces might hide. When you shine some light on the situation, they just maintain focus on what isn’t yet known and try to present it as evidence, but trying to make what is not known a positive argument is the logical fallacy called “argument from ignorance,” in other words, no argument at all.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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