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Transforming Critical Thinking: Thinking Constructively

Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon

2000 New York: Teacher’s College Press, 
pp. 189 ISBN: 0-8077-3925-1 (hb) £37.50, 0-8077-3924-3 (pb), £17.95.

Practical Philosophy (Book Reviews) November 2001 Volume 4.2

Reviewed by: Susanne Gibson

In Transforming Critical Thinking, Thayer-Bacon argues for the transformation of  critical thinking theory through a ‘feminist redescription of critical thinking’, which she terms ‘constructive thinking’ (p. xiii). The author is primarily a philosopher of education, but the book encompasses epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics and politics in its scope.

So what are the differences between the traditional critical thinking model and the model of constructive thinking that Thayer-Bacon wishes to supplant it with? Thayer-Bacon illustrates the critical thinking model with reference to Rodin’s Thinker, the image of the ‘solitary knower’ (p. 20). The roots of this model are traced backed to the influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, we discover the Truth by recollection of things that we already know. For Aristotle, it is established using a mixture of empirical and deductive thinking. In either case, there is no apparent need for the inquirer to involve anyone else in his inquiry. Knowledge is what is objectively out there waiting to be discovered, and the knower is essentially separate from what is known, from other knowers, and even in some sense from his own material body.

To develop the model of constructive thinking, Thayer-Bacon appeals to Seyla Benhabib’s conception of the ‘embedded and embodied’ knower (p. 93). We are not just minds, but ‘bodyminds’, and as knowers, we not only contribute to the construction of knowledge, we do so as members of communities of inquirers. Further, reason is just one of the tools of constructive thinking: we also use imagination, emotion and intuition. Whereas for the critical thinker, knowledge is knowledge of a universally objective ‘reality’, from the constructive thinking perspective, knowledge is always partial and open to revision and renegotiation. To develop this model, Thayer-Bacon uses the metaphor of the quilting bee. More of the quilting bee metaphor later.

It is important to note that Thayer-Bacon is offering a re-description of critical thinking rather than a rejection of it. In particular, she wants to argue that critical thinking, or thinking based on reasoning, is as flawed as our other ways of thinking and therefore should take its place among them, rather than being esteemed as the highest form of thinking (p. 33). Further, in tracing the development of her own theory, Thayer-Bacon shows that the Platonic/Aristotelian model has long been contested. In particular, Thayer-Bacon appeals to two apparently diverse schools of thought: acknowledging her debt to American Pragmatism, she also situates her work within more recent feminist theory. To a lesser extent, she also draws on contemporary critical thinking theory.

From the pragmatists, Thayer-Bacon takes on the idea that knowledge is socially negotiated, and as such, is fallible, since the negotiators themselves are fallible, each having only a partial perspective. Taking this as a starting point, she uses a range of feminist theorists to explore the extent of the partiality of human experience, and its full implications for constructive thinking. She also brings to the foreground the ways in which women and others who are oppressed have been excluded from the construction of knowledge. Again appealing to Benhabib, she utilises the concept of ‘enlarged thinking’, that is, thinking that ‘involves the willingness to reason from others’ point of view and the sensitivity to hear their voices’ (p. 104). Importantly, this call for enlarged thinking can only be met, first by interacting with concrete others, and second by drawing on the capacities for imagination, emotion and intuition as well as reason.

In a book of fewer than 200 pages, the author draws on an extensive and sometimes bewildering range of sources. Indeed, at one point a rationale is provided for this strategy: ‘With a desire to continually enlarge my thinking and achieve greater wide-awakeness concerning critical thinking, I turn to listening to more voices’ (p. 109). Regret is expressed that other voices have been left out of the conversation (p. 92). While this approach helps to give an overall picture of Thayer-Bacon’s own intellectual development, it does lead to a less than satisfactory treatment of some of the finer points of the argument. In the chapters on feminist theories in particular, significant areas of conflict are brushed over, giving the impression of a far more unified field than actually exists. Although in most cases, further references are provided, often to Thayer-Bacon’s own work, I would have preferred to see some of these issues addressed more fully in the text. After all, as situated bodyminds, some have easier access to these follow-up resources than others. > 

I was also surprised that the author did not extend her argument to consider the exclusion of children from the construction of knowledge. Given that the constructive thinking model is developed in part in the context of the classroom, very little is said about the marginalisation of children’s voices. Certainly it is acknowledged that children are a part of our knowledge communities, or our quilting bees, but it seems that what is most important is their socialisation into a particular community. Children have to be ‘educated into the art of quilting’ before ‘they are ready to begin to make significant contributions of their own to he constructing of quilts of knowledge’ (p. 146). The possibility of a more radical understanding of the ways in which listening to the voices of children might help us to enlarge our thinking is certainly not foreclosed, but an account of the ways in which the young (and indeed, the old) are silenced would have been apposite.

Finally, the ‘quilting bee’ metaphor itself: just how useful is it? The image of the quilting bee is provided as a contrast to the image of Rodin’s Thinker. Whereas The Thinker ‘perpetuates the image of critical thinking as a solitary practice … the quilting bee represents thinking as a social endeavour. Along with a social image of thinking, a quilting bee suggests a pluralistic, multicultural view concerning the thinkers themselves. Quilters are young and old, rich and poor, make and female; they are from all over the world and throughout time’ (p. 145). More specifically, Thayer-Bacon delineates the tools used for quilting as a metaphor for the tools needed for constructive thinking. Rulers, scissors and straight pins represent reason; needles and thread are our intuition; patterns and design, imagination and colours and texture our emotions. Reason is what we use to order our material and hold our ideas in place, but we need the creative as well as critical tools to construct our quilt.

Overall, the metaphor is more successful in some respects than in others. When considering aspects of postmodern feminist theory, Thayer-Bacon uses the image of the flexible, adjustable quilting frame to explore the place of boundaries in the construction of knowledge (pp. 118-119). Here a complex set of abstract ideas is given a concrete representation. However, problems arise when the metaphor is taken too literally: at some points, the author seems to be describing the process of making a quilt rather than the process of constructing knowledge. In particular, where emotion is considered, a convincing case is made for importance of emotion in quilting, but this isn’t carried through to show why it is equally important in critical or constructive thinking. A metaphor should be used to clarify an argument, not as part of the supporting argument itself. What is also missing is a sustained exploration of the limits of constructive thinking, perhaps using this same metaphor. How does the picture of a quilting bee - a relatively small, localised group of people with a specific goal in mind - fit with the calls for ‘enlarged thinking’ and ‘world-travel’ (p. 123)?

Whatever the problems associated with this image, however, I found it hugely stimulating, pushing my thinking in many different directions. As this is what Thayer-Bacon wants us all to do, I can only say that in this case she has had some success.