Intelligence, Feeling, and Critical Thinking

Recently, I had two conversations, one with a woman with whom I once had more than a platonic relationship, the other with my first cousin, who had always been more like a brother to me than a cousin. In spite of our differences in worldview, I had always at least respected their intelligence. I suppose I still do. 

Yet intelligence, which is a raw, native endowment, and intellectual prowess, which is every bit as much a developed skill set as any other, most emphatically are not one and the same. More people are intelligent than are intellectually adept, and while some measure of intelligence is necessary for intellectual fitness, a genuinely curious and critical thinker can easily appear to be appreciably more intelligent than those with higher IQs but flaccid and undisciplined minds. 

The motivational speaker Tony Robbins once remarked that the old adage “Knowledge is power” is mistaken. Rather, power arises when knowledge is executed, when it is put into use. Similarly, intelligence uncoupled from bold, critical thinking; diluted by fear, prejudice, hatred, and arrogance; and/or anesthetized by the mind-numbing soundbites, memes, and slogans of nakedly partisan hacks is of little value. 

In fact, it is arguably worse than useless. It is potentially dangerous, for a person with a reasonable degree of intelligence can more readily rationalize away his or her lies of choice than can one with fewer intellectual endowments.

What is critical thinking and how can one become a critical thinker?

For starters, and most fundamentally, critical thinking is tough. It is laborious, demanding thousands and thousands of hours, over the span of years and decades. It requires reading, writing, introspection, reflection, and analyzing—rigorously analyzing—arguments, both those that support one’s own point of view and, crucially, those that are designed to counter it.

Perhaps as important as any other requirement, critical thinking demands courage, the guts to risk defying the conventional wisdom and prevailing dogma. 

The critical thinker, though, because he is all about following the argument, must know the differences between the various species of discourse with which argument is sometimes conflated. This, of course, demands that he first be familiar with the basic structure of an argument. He needs further to know the differences between deductive and inductive reasoning, between the concepts of validity and invalidity; soundness and unsoundness; strong and weak; cogent and uncogent. The critical thinker should as well be acquainted with at least some of the more common logical fallacies that Aristotle, “the father of logic,” identified over 2300 years ago.

Take, for just one instance, a specific variety of the ad hominem attack known as “circumstantial.” This fallacy is routinely committed by the true believers of the mask imperium against those who dare challenge both its decrees as well as “the science” in the name of which those decrees are rationalized: “Well, you’re not a doctor!” Or, if those dissenting actually are medical doctors, the very fact that they dissent from the orthodox position of big science (government-funded, bureaucratic and quasi-bureaucratic researchers) is taken as proof that they are quacks. 

This is flagrantly fallacious reasoning, for a person’s circumstances are logically irrelevant to whether their point of view is correct or not. (And we can, for now, sidestep the fact that the Corona walkers and their leaders aren’t deterred in the least from speaking with the authority of an Old Testament prophet by the fact that they aren’t doctors, either!)

Most obviously—or at least it should be obvious—the critical thinker needs to appreciate the basis of all thought, the principle or law of contradiction. He must know, in other words, that a thing can’t both be and not be in the same sense and at the same moment. “A and not-A” is a necessarily false statement, false in every conceivable world, for it is a logical impossibility and whatever is logically impossible is unthinkable.  

The critical thinker knows, then, that the statement, “Masks shouldn’t be worn by the public because they are essentially ineffective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’ and masks must be worn by the public because they are effective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’” is no less self-contradictory than the proposition, “She is pregnant and she is not pregnant.”  

It is misleading to suggest that feelings or emotions are of no consequence to the critical thinker. He is not a logic-chopping machine, and he knows it. The difference, however, between the critical thinker and the feelers is that, in glaring contrast to the latter, he is well aware that whatever feelings a person experiences at any given moment are no substitute for clear, honest, and authentic thinking. 

Feelings in and of themselves, divorced from reason and the sensitivity to contextual considerations that only reason, reflecting upon these emotional signals, can achieve, undermine the God-endowed dignity of the human person by detouring the mind away from truth.

Just because a person feels this or that most definitely does not mean, as the feelers among us assume, that their feelings are infallible. Feelings ebb and flow. Even if they didn’t, even if a feeling persisted over a span of weeks, months, years, decades, that feeling could still very well be misplaced—and the feeler really could be as wrong as she thinks she’s right. 

Plato recognized long ago that a belief, shared by the majority, is almost certainly wrong. That the dominant paradigm of the self-absorbed thinker vs. the empathetic feeler subverts reality suggests that he was on to something. 

It is critical thinking that is, quite literally, a selfless activity, for the engagement of critical thinking is a mode of self-transcendence. If human beings possess an inviolable dignity, it is because they are made in the image of the God who created them. And if they are made in God’s image, then this is because humans, unlike plants and animals, possess two faculties that distinguish them apart from the rest of living things on earth: reason and will. Yet even if one is put off by talk of God, one will still grant that, fundamentally, humans are persons because of their ability to think, to reason. 

Intrinsic to thinking are cannons of logic and rationality that are of no one’s choosing and that aren’t in the least impacted by one’s subjective emotions. The critical thinker, that is, seeks to trade in a universally human currency. Moreover, because critical thinking, like the language in which it occurs, is always, inescapably, interpersonal, the critical thinker seeks to make of others joint-enterprisers in the search for truth.  

The feelers, on the other hand, have taken Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican revolution” one step further by presuming that the world revolves, not around human reason as such, but their own subjective emotions. For them, the old 60s adage, “If it feels good, do it,” isn’t comprehensive enough. Rather, their gospel is, “If it feels ‘right’ (to me), it’s true.” 

Given this understanding, the feelers can’t get beyond themselves, and far from welcoming discourse with others, they are conversation-killers; they render intellectual intercourse with other human beings impossible.

In the age of the great unreason, critical thinking is as needed as it has ever been. Most will not rise to the occasion. For those who do, though, they will discover that however great the costs—and the costs are considerable—the rewards are worth it. Critical thinkers may—indeed, they will—fall out of favor with the herd, including those with whom they have had close relationships. Yet they can be comforted in knowing that by engaging their higher capacities, they emancipate themselves from their animal nature; affirm their dignity and that of those with whom they enter into dialogue; and acquire such virtues as good faith, analytical prowess, humility, honesty, civility, and, critically, courage. 

The critical thinker fortifies himself against the predations of the unscrupulous, the powerful, the exploiter, and the manipulator.

Hannah Arendt famously noted that it wasn’t the stupidity of Adolph Eichmann that led to his monstrous actions. Eichmann wasn’t stupid. Rather, the architect of the Holocaust suffered from “a curious, but quite authentic, inability to think.” 

This phenomenon, she made a point of arguing, was hardly limited to Eichmann, the Nazis, and their sympathizers. It is endemic. It is also connected to moral character in that those who can’t think beyond memes, bumper stickers, clichés, and the conventional wisdom are that much more susceptible than the critical thinker to conform, to go along to get along.

They are that much more prone to become complicit in all manner of evil.

If Arendt were alive today, in 2020, in the age of the great unreason and the COVID Scare, she undoubtedly would regard her thesis as having been vindicated in spades. 

About Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick earned his doctorate degree in philosophy from Temple University. His areas of specialization are ethics and political philosophy, with a particular interest in classical conservatism. His work has appeared in both scholarly journals and popular publications, and he recently authored, The American Offensive: Dispatches from the Front. Kerwick has been teaching philosophy for nearly 17 years at a variety of institutions, from Baylor to Temple, Penn State University, the College of New Jersey and elsewhere. His next book, Misguided Guardians: The Conservative Case Against Neoconservatism is pending publication. He is currently an instructor of philosophy at Rowan College at Burlington County.

Photo: Infadel/Getty Images

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6 responses to “Intelligence, Feeling, and Critical Thinking”

  1. There is a Foundation for Critical Thinking… as far as I can determine, it’s one more progressive babble house. I wish that I had the time to dig into it. But Dr Kerwick’s conclusion is correct; being right will never get you in with the Popular Kids(tm). Took me many years to realize this. And many more to realize that I didn’t care. As has been noted in several contacts, you can immediately identify the PK, even absent their sycophants; the only thing about which they can discourse at length is themselves.

  2. Feelers “believe” in the story they want to be true. The “power hungry” contrive stories they know are not true, but which will be embraced by their audience. This is demagoguery. Feelers want to force others to bow to their passion, making themselves “useful idiots” (Marxist idea) for the power hungry.

    • “Feelers … contrive stories they know are not true, but which will be embraced by their audience. This is demagoguery. Feelers want to force others to bow to their passion, making themselves “useful idiots” (Marxist idea) for the power hungry.”
      You mean like Trump.

  3. * The critical thinker knows, then, that the statement, “Masks shouldn’t be worn by the public because they are essentially ineffective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’ and masks must be worn by the public because they are effective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’” is no less self-contradictory than the proposition, “She is pregnant and she is not pregnant.” *

    That is true as far as logic is concerned, but I don’t know where you have read this statement. It is either a typo or mistake by the writer or a misreading on your part.
    The assertions are:
    1) We know now that masks should be worn by the public because we now know that – unlike say, measles – Covid-19 spreads as an aerosol – droplets that are spewed from people’s mouths and noses. We didn’t know that when we first encountered the virus.
    2) Masks should be worn by the public, but not because they “prevent people from contracting the virus” (“because they are essentially ineffective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’”)*
    3) Masks should be worn by the public because they are effective in preventing people from spreading ‘the virus’” because when you put a piece of cloth that covers your mouth and nose – preferably 3 layers of cloth – you prevent your snot and spit from going into the air.
    4) Because most people who are infected (and infectious) don’t know it, you should wear a mask whether you think you are infected or not. Therefore, everyone should wear a mask.

    So again, the assertions are:

    “Masks shouldn’t be worn by the public because they are essentially ineffective in preventing people from contracting the virus, but masks must/should be worn by the public because they are effective in preventing people from spreading the virus.”

    *Not sure this is still believed to be true, but they’re clearly not 100% effective. To be sure about the proposition, we need people willing to have Covid-19 spewed toward their faces – with some of the people wearing masks and some of the people not wearing masks. In fact, you should probably do this double blind – with some people having Covid-19 splashed at them and others having distilled water splashed at them.

  4. My 2 cents:
    An intellectual is someone who is a thinker but he is not just that. Everyone thinks from time to time so an intellectual must be a special kind of thinker – a serious thinker. But trades people think seriously about their activities – some quite seriously – but does thinking deeply about the mechanics of the movement and nature of material things make you an intellectual? Not by my definition. An intellectual is not so much concerned with the nature of nature: the aggregate of all physical phenomena but, rather, the nature of nurture: the aggregate of all cultural phenomena.

    To be an intellectual one must first have an intellect. My own definition of intellect is:
    The accumulated knowledge and mental habits of a mind widely exposed to the literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions of a civilized culture that has been critiqued through the use of deductive reasoning and is distinct from expertise and intelligence.

    Primarily, intellectuals exercise judgment, They are thinkers whose task is to find logical consistencies or inconsistencies in the world of abstract ideas. They are, by definition, critics. They are evaluators and, if their reasoning is sound, they regards their valuations as a form of knowledge. This path to knowledge is different from that of the scientist or other trained specialists whose knowledge is necessarily very narrow. Their knowledge is empirically based and tends to be concrete in nature. Because of this, scientists, and others who are similarly trained, are not to be considered intellectuals per se. Artists and musicians, also, are not intellectuals. Their state of mind is a cultivated one and is rooted in mysticism. That is to say, it is neither rational nor irrational, rather it is non-rational. This is not to denigrate mysticism as a potential source of enlightenment. A mystical experience is an intuitive one and can often provide the insight necessary to original thought – but intuition is not thinking. Intellect is not to be confused with intelligence. Intelligence may bear on the quality of one’s intellect but it is not synonymous with intellect.

    Lastly, the above mentioned categories of artists, musicians, scientists, other highly trained mental specialists, as well as intellectuals, are similar in that they all fall into the class called the intelligentsia but it is only the intellectual that possesses the broad knowledge that is necessary to have an intellect.