Essay on critical thinking, education and care of the self

By Adriana de los Santos

       These days, when we explore the possibilities and the scope of critical thinking we often  ignore its  very cornerstone; the  notion of criticality which first appeared in Immanuel Kant’s thought at the end of the XVIIIth century. To be critical from a Kantian perspective implies to make autonomous use of our capacity to reason, to renounce the scaffolding of ideas provided by the “other” and to think by ourselves. There is no doubt that autonomous thinking is, indeed, a key issue in  current educational contexts. We find ourselves surrounded by different discourses which stress the importance of critical thinking,  of generating new ideas autonomously, of coming up with interesting research lines and of innovating on the whole. Our postmodern world demands innovation. Thus, the issue of criticality gains different perspectives: those of pedagogy, of didactics,  of teacher education and practice. It is also a political  issue causing heated debate among different areas of public life, government bodies and international organizations dealing with state auditing in the educational field such as the OECD, for instance. In this brief essay I  will revisit the idea of criticality that Kant put forth in “What is Enlightenment?” and take a close look at some aspects therein that may provide useful contributions to the field of philosophy of education. The line of research I have chosen is  that of knowledge of self and care of self, from a Foucaldian perspective.


     “Sapere aude”, states the Kantian imperative: dare to think by yourself. “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage s man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!- that is the motto of enlightenment.”(Kant, 2009: 83)


The mediation Kant refers to  in the paragraph quoted above is that of religion, of the clergy. Nowadays, priests are rarely  the “ others” who provide the  scaffolding  for our thinking and limit, according to Kant, the possibility to develop our criticality. Nevertheless, there are “others”  who act as  a medium to access knowledge:  elementary and high school teachers, professors, tutors, the media, textbooks. It is understood, a priori, that learning subjects , while still in their  childhood or adolescence, need the guidance of the teaching subject in their initial approach to knowledge. Afterwards, Kant claims, it is laziness, lack of courage and of  resolution which  prevent us from renouncing that “ other” and thinking autonomously. Thus, critical thinking is presented as a natural  ability  of Man which is latent in him until, abandoning this  childhood period, he dares to wake it up. The question arises: if this possibility of thinking with a certain degree of autonomy is a natural quality of Man, what then is the nature of this “will” to abandon the “ tutelage” of his childhood years?


Javier de la Higuera, in his preface to “On Enlightenment” by Michel Foucault (2011), warns us that critique has veered from “ the realm of the transcendental conditions of  knowledge to that of the historically contingent conditions of discourse (…) from the aspiration to legitimate the truth in our knowledge to the resolve to defoundationalise such truths (de la Higuera, 2011: XXVI). I am particularly interested in this aspect introduced by  de la Higuera, the idea of a resolve to “defoundationalise” truths that acts as  an engine to an eternal search, preventing conformism, and creating  the constant doubt that mobilizes thought. Based on this concept, I envision an exercise in which a mobilizing question, unsheathed time and again, will gradually  develop the rational mind into a critical mind. This exercise of rationality would form part of  a discourse determined by the historically contingent conditions in which it appears, as I find it difficult to believe that we can all, by our mere will, dare to  think by ourselves at any moment and in any situation.

We are faced with some possible questions to reflect upon: What is the  role of education nowadays  in the exercising of this rationality and critical thinking? Is it possible to take into account (and try to go beyond) the historically contingent situation of learning subjects while aspiring to achieve high, global, pre-established higher-order thinking standards on a broad scale?

Although we cannot expound on both issues, we can point out that the exercise of rational thought frequently observed in educational contexts is far from conducive to developing the concept of Kantian criticality. Educating subjects into “defoundationalising” truth, as Kant advocated in the XVIIIth century, is still a pedagogical horizon nowadays and is faced with obstacles originating in the historically-contingent contexts of present-day education. Apart from the poor conditions prevalent in the private domain of  childhood education ( the home),the public domain of education ( elementary school- high school) is conflictive and lacking in the  scaffolding for managing knowledge which would enable subjects to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming critical citizens. The resolve to “defoundationalise” truths implies being aware of the naturalized, dogmatic and fundamentalist aspects of the culture and subcultures we are a part of, in order to create and promote spaces for dialogue, conversation and exchanging of ideas which are rich in content and violence-free. Among the aspects which detract from this dual requirement of richness of content and non-violence are: unfavorable living conditions, a society which gives priority to the acquisition of consumer goods, and the use of violent dialogue forms not mediated by reason. Because of this, learners  entering  the state education system  are handicapped in the use of their thinking ability. Their rationality, numbed by the media circus and the lack of  life challenges  to foster change and growth, seems intrinsically difficult to  stir.

Social-pedagogical research studies and reports by international agencies show that students finishing their secondary and even tertiary studies barely achieve a  basic command   of some subject matters and of the rational tools that allow them to find their way ( and find themselves) in their personal life, their work  and  social interactions in general. We are then moved to, or rather forced to, a much deeper epistemological and philosophical reflection on the educational practices and ethics aimed at building criticality in students. Such considerations are often watered down in a field in which  discussion is increasingly meager in its discursive quality and  in self-criticism regarding teaching practices. We face an educational discourse  often fallacious and  biased, trapped in a system that is obsolete. This discourse is “ fault-finding” yet  uncritical of itself , a trait hardly likely  to promote  a different kind of thinking in those students the system attempts to educate.

Along these lines and  following Foucault’s “The hermeneutics of the subject” and successive seminars, the exercise of  critical thinking  requires the subject to  employ what in ancient times was called parrhesia1,a term which could be explained as “speakingtruthfully”. To adopt the resolve to “defoundationalise” truth is to adopt a parrhesiastic attitude, to dare to think by ourselves and to abandon the childhood ( mutism) of thought to embrace freedom: “…if the democratic institutions are unable to make room for truth- telling and get parrhesia to function as it should, it is because these democratic institutions lack something (…) what could be called “ethical differentiation.” (Foucault, 2010: 51)

Learning to think critically implies a task in itself, a sustained meditation on our role in society, our relationships with others, the ways we solve conflict and  the way life itself unfolds throughout history. Thus, enlightenment forms part of our self-development and of the care of self  and of others, as Kant put forth:

An age cannot bind itself and ordain to put the succeeding one into such a condition that it cannot extend its (at best very occasional) knowledge , purify itself of errors, and progress in general enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, the proper destination of which lies precisely in this progress (… ) For himself (and only for a short time) a man may postpone enlightenment in what he ought to know, but to renounce it for posterity is to injure and trample on the rights of mankind.” (Kant, 2009: 89-90)


[1] I am speaking of parrhesia in the sense  described by  Foucault  in “ The courage of truth”:  “… which  will be defined not in relation to the city (the polis) but to individuals’ ways of doing things, being, and conducting themselves (ethos), and also to their formation as moral subjects.” (Foucault,  2010: 49)


The question that arises in my mind is whether it is possible to reflect more deeply on current pedagogical practices, following the guidelines presented in this essay, and rethinking the ethical dimension of criticality in the educational context. From what I have carefully observed and heard in the pedagogical contexts I am a part of, this critical attitude is a remote ideal , a “should be”, more than an ethic teachers aspire to apply, and  we are still far from experiencing in ourselves the kind of  personal work that would turn us into free and truthful subjects.




Kant, Immanuel. What is Enlightenment? Translated by Aramayo, Roberto R. Alianza Publishing House. Madrid, 2009.


Foucault, Michel. On  Enlightenment. Translated by  De la Higuera, Javier and others. Tecnos Publishing House. Madrid, 2011.


Foucault, Michel. The courage of truth. Fondo de Cultura Económica Publishing House. Mexico, 2010.



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