Reconsidering critical thinking in embodied terms

Critical thinking is the core ability to be trained in philosophy. Enlightenment, according to Immanuel Kant, implies the courage to think-for-oneself. How does philosophy teach that? Philosophy conveys rich contents, but does it convey rich methods to encourage students to face their very own questions/ideas evolving from their actual experience of a highly complex world ?

  • ECT researches how the embodied and entangled being-in-the-world is the ground from where we think critically.
  • ECT researchers explore (interact with) an embodied space of meaning, in which the fresh precision of experiential processes is as important and relevant for the philosophical discourse as arguments are.
  • ECT explores what this means in terms of what we think and how we think, in terms of academic practices as well as in terms of educational practices.

The aim of ECT is to undertake a systematic, thoroughgoing and practical reconsideration of the concept and practice of critical thinking by engaging recent theories and discussions of embodiment in terms of integrating the complexity of feeling and experiential backgrounds in thinking.

The theories and pedagogics of ECT will be put to practice in teaching, tested and qualitatively assessed in seminars for students, and in workshops for teachers and researchers. International universities participate in the project, as well as two transdisciplinary research institutes in Århus and Chicago. Internationally leading researchers and transdisciplinary research centers in the field of embodiment will be involved in contributing to the theoretical and practical components of the project. The project takes its inspiration from Eugene Gendlin’s “pioneering work” (Depraz, Varela and Vermersch 2002: 2) on how to deliberately engage embodied experiential and felt backgrounds in reflective, creative and research processes.

Contemporary philosophers have described various functions of tacit and implicit forms of knowing that expand our understanding of rationality, yet until recently there has been a truly inconvenient shortage of means to methodologically draw upon these more-than-conceptual forms of thinking. Research in the cognitive sciences confirms how engaging an intricacy implicit in feeling and lived experience expands the scope of frameworks which one has at hand, fostering the ability to think within complexity (Damasio 1994, 1999, Depraz, Varela and Vermersch 2002, Ratcliffe 2008, Petitmengin 2007, 2016, Petitmengin and Bitbol 2009).

Gendlin’s methodology of “Focusing” and the philosophical technique of “Thinking at the Edge” that he developed at the intersection of phenomenology, pragmatism and humanistic psychology, have been applied in teaching philosophy and in developing research projects in universities worldwide, but have not yet been systematically explored in relation to critical, problem-based transdisciplinary thinking abilities of students and researchers. The ECT research project is a first-time inquiry into the effects of these methodologies in view of an enhancement of critical thinking abilities on the basis of an evidence-based assessment.

Contact instead of detachment

ECT manifests the “experiential turn” in philosophical education, responding to the insight that cultivating thinking is not only about cognitive development and good grades, and critical discourse is not exclusively restricted to debating positions. The conception of the intellect as an analytical modality of detachment is complemented by an understanding of intellect as a modality of openness to the world in experience, which holds “only insofar as we know how to make contact with it” (Noe, 2012: 3) and thus emphasizes perceptual faculties no less than cognitive abilities. To foster creative and communal, but also independent and problemoriented thinking requires connecting with an experiential basis. Encouraging students to draw on and develop their ability to experience and feel complex situations in addition to their cognitive capacities (Dewey 1984, Gilligan 1993, Gendlin 2017, Ratcliffe 2008) enhances transparency in argumentation and leads to independent, yet engaged and problem-based thinking. ECT is an integrative methodology that teaches how to combine different kinds of logical precision with felt situational experience. This helps students tackle the real-life challenges of issues that matter in today’s paradoxical and complex world.

Main research questions:

Taking its cue from the strong tradition of a philosophy of critical thinking in Iceland, also manifested in the Erasmus+ Gender and Philosophy Summer Schools, and of its implementation in efforts to intertwine critical thinking into education on different levels (teaching of “living skills” (lífsleikni) and ethics in schools, and critical thinking in primary and secondary education in Iceland), this project has methodologically both a strong theoretical and practical point of departure. The originality of the project resides in the way in which it sets out to combine aspects of the theory and practice of critical thinking with recent as well as historical developments within embodiment research. The project teams up with researchers that are doing cutting-edge work on embodied thinking and its practical applicability for critical thinking.

A) To what extent does a close elaboration of situational and experiential backgrounds have the potential of “cutting the chain of habitual thought-patterns and preconceptions” (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1993: 27)?

B) Does integrating experiential backgrounds and situational intricacy have an encouraging effect on students with regard to dealing with socio-ethical, environmental and political concerns?

C) How do ECT methodologies effectively support independent thinking that gives voice to unexpected aspects of a problem or issue opening up creative and novel paths for thinking?

The rich philosophical background of ECT methodologies will be developed further in the light of the project’s findings and integrated into the teaching of philosophy in secondary and tertiary education. We claim that the work conducted here will provide new tools for the teaching of critical thinking.

The test base of the project is the teaching of philosophy on the university level, but the methodology developed as ECT will also be of use in other disciplines and in schools, from elementary school to high school level in subjects where critical thinking is trained.

The main output of the project, a Handbook on Embodied Critical Thinking, will be a practical introduction to this new methodology of teaching, offering exercises and descriptions of teaching techniques in addition to a presentation of theoretical background and of practical implications. The Handbook will consist of three thematic complexes: ECT as political-democratic thinking, ECT and the environment, and ECT as
creative, critical thinking.

The main applicants have already gathered experiences in integrating ECT methodologies in their teaching philosophy at universities in Europe, US and the Middle East, and in introducing these and other complimentary, novel methodologies through the Erasmus+ funded GAP-project (www.genderandphilosophy.hi.is) hosted at the Department of Philosophy at the UoI. (The results of the four experimental summer schools conducted within that project are accessible in a Handbook.)

ECT received a grant from the Icelandic Research Centre (2018-2020) and is hosted at The Institute of Philosophy at the University of Iceland.