Does critical thinking promote self-criticism?


Photo by Tim Salisbury

Sara Burke ponders the perils of perennially asking ‘why?’

I’ve always questioned things. Before I could spell “approximately” or multiply double-digits, I was an expert in asking ‘but why?’

Naturally, this led me to study philosophy where I spend my days contemplating whether reason exists or if our universe is real or how we can actually know what we believe ourselves to know. Or my personal favourite: why is there something rather than nothing

While my inquisitive nature positions me well within the realms of Socrates and Plato, recently, my urge to examine and re-examine has somewhat—problematically—manoeuvred its way out of the classroom and into my personal life, prompting me to wonder if there’s a limit to critical thinking.

“You are quite analytical of things,” remarked a friend.

“Really?” I frowned. Was I unhealthily curious?

Critical thinking was always highly encouraged at school. Indeed, questioning why the way things are is essential to both social and political progress. But does it have a place in one’s interpersonal relationships?

Even if you’re not as profoundly plagued by the ‘why?’ curse as I am, I’m sure you can relate to trying to understand someone else’s motives.

“Why did he message me out of the blue?” “Why did he stop messaging me?” “Why are they never the one to initiate things?” “Why did she flake?”

These ‘why?’ questions can lead us down a potentially self-destructive path of wondering whether it was something we did or if there is something wrong with us.

Yet most of the time, it’s nothing personal. Humans are complex, busy and utterly illogical. Sometimes, we don’t even understand our own motives so attempting to interpret someone else’s is a highly precarious science.

Perhaps the key to successfully navigating human behaviour then is not to ask ‘why?’ but rather ‘what that means for us?’ in terms of what we want moving forward. By relinquishing our desire to perpetually understand others, we gain time to focus on the whys of the world that really matter.

So continue to ask the big questions and challenge social norms but when it comes to the behaviour of others, let’s leave the question of ‘why?’ at the door because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt studying philosophy it’s that some questions simply don’t have clear answers.