Critical Spirit

Critical Spirit

In my culture

Coming from a regional culture I can say what is CriticalSpirit in my culture, I'm not even sure that CriticalSpirit is the best expression in other cultures.

CriticalSpirit should be seen as the essence of any intellectual endeavor and/or attitude. It should be seen as the essence of being intellectual, you have to be critical towards others, and accept and embrace critics towards you, you have to be critical towards yourself if you find too many people around you that tend to agree with you.

If your work, ideas, or attitudes are being criticized, you should be glad, as critique is the only way to progress; any endeavor taken in the absence of CriticalSpirit finishes in self delusion. Even if you think the critics are unfair, at least they help you understand how your ideas are perceived from outside. No accusation, no critique is to be taken as too outrageous.

There are instances where both the critiques and the proposition are misplaced. Critiques are misplaced and harmful when you make them in a forum where you know you don't have a chance of being replied to consistently. In a Java forum, criticizing Microsoft is intellectually dishonest. Press releases that deal with technology wars are usually intellectually dishonest. One the other hand even stating a theory or idea in a forum in which you will know people will tend to side with you, and critics will be rare, it's not quite kosher.

Friends can criticize helpfully is found at CriticsAreYourBestFriends.

A discussion on what are the best possible way to achieve critical spirit, has been started on CriticalStyles.

-- CostinCozianu

A CriticalSpirit is not one who is negative, abrupt, harsh, or cynical. That would be absolutely the opposite, in fact. Critical people are those who apply critical analysis to determine truth. They are the least passionate and the least defensive. They are even handed. They are also careful, precise, and concise. -- AnonymousDonor

I agree with the above. Passion destroys the ability to make a rational assessment, and to do so one need to be detached. A CriticalSpirit has to be applied to oneself, even at times when there is no opposition. And then, A CriticalSpirit is useless if there is no communication, meaning OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard. These are considerations that apply to me as a contributor as well. -- WikiNobody?

Society and our industry

Why I started CriticalSpirit, and unfortunately the discussion got derailed, is because CriticalSpirit is something sorely lacking in our industry and also in the modern and post modern society.

Of course you'll never hear a marketing department being critical towards its own values, so CriticalSpirit is not only not promoted, but not even tolerated. You will hear that EnterpriseJavaBeans is wonderful, that Windows 2000 and soon XP is stable fast and rock solid, that Oracle is the marvelous ideal implementation of their relational model, when anybody that is serious at all will take this things at most with a smile. But what is even worse the industry is trying to foster various communities (Java, J2EE, MSDN, Oracle developers, pick your own product and add it here) under the famous HerdSpirit?. CriticalSpirit is something very nice theoretically.

Working in an industry that supposedly cultivate intellectual values you can only wonder at the hypocrisy that is being promoted.

In the Wiki Community

That's the industry, let's forget about that for a moment. It surprised me a little that on the wiki community nobody started yet a discussion on the subject (CriticalSpirit), which should be inherently tied to many things discussed. So I did it.

And coming with the discussion to the true spirit of wiki and WikiZenisms and the likes, I'll make a parallel to a theory on literature that states that a literary work is more valuable with every personal re-interpretation that the lecturer is able to give to the work. Thus a literary work might multiply with each lecturer and each lecturer is a co-author to that work. So I shouldn't be too much in mistake if I give my position on wiki. Wiki is a forum where you freely exchange and share knowledge on various subjects, but especially on SoftwareDevelopment. Being so is a value but so much more a responsibility, because at some point somebody may share false knowledge on wiki.

And given the fact that WikiCommunity is not quite culturally diverse (as a matter of fact I don't know of anything in our industry that is culturally diverse) the bias towards one side of the story is so much more a danger. Therefore I think that CriticalSpirit is so much more important for the wiki community, and this includes being critical towards its own values. -- CostinCozianu

The WikiCommunity seems to be biased and lacking CriticalSpirit. ItsTimeToDumpCeeSyntax was accepted, but I guess that the absolutely similar arguments being made for ItsTimeToDumpSmalltalkSyntax? or ItsTimeToDumpPerlSyntax? would have been rejected by the same WikiCommunity with a lot of passion. ItsTimeToDumpMethodologies? would be undoubtedly cheered no matter what fallacious arguments are in there, while to start ItsTimeToDumpXp? would be suicidal for anyone who would start it. -- CostinCozianu [SunirShah is very critical of XP; not abusive, critical. Nearly all of Wiki still respects him.]

Calling something and not someone stupid is inherent to the CriticalSpirit, after all stupidity is the very nature of some things, and I also committed plenty of stupid things. I'm grateful to my true friends who exposed to me the true nature of what I occasionally did (yes it was stupidity and they spelled it out to me as such). -- CostinCozianu

You miss an important point. Your intention seems to be to act as someone's best friend by criticizing them (if this is not the case, then why do you so often say that people should accept criticism because CriticsAreYourBestFriends?). However, it is human nature that people will get offended when you say that their actions are stupid, regardless of whether or not you actually called them stupid. If I were using your strategy, I would say something like, "This is not effective criticism because these people are not going to respond to you the way you seem to think they are. Your actions are stupid." But when you read that, does it make you want to change your ways? No. In fact you may become even more set in your ways because you may perceive it as an undeserved attack against yourself. (In fact, on CriticalSpiritOriginal?, this is the exact response you had.) It does not matter whether you technically call something or someone stupid, people will still perceive it as an attack against them and they will not benefit from your criticism. Therefore, CriticizeHarshly? is most definitely an AntiPattern, and CriticsAreYourBestFriends is less likely to be true than NobodyLikesaCritic?. This is supported by the work of DaleCarnegie, and just about every other expert on human nature and communication. AnonymousDonor

Sure, you can call my action stupid. If the intended result would be to teach or coach all kinds of people, yes the results are not good to say the least. And speaking of undeserved attacks, I take them very lightly, people have the rights to question anything about me and I have the right not to respond to all kinds of considerations.

CriticsAreYourBestFriends is not less likely to be true than NobodyLikesaCritic?, IT IS true. It doesn't matter if the persons themselves are your personal enemies, are indifferent to you or any other motivation they have. Just by exercising their critic (fair or unfair) they DO HELP YOU. -- CostinCozianu

re: analyzing Wiki, its diversity, and where you fit in

On Wiki, everything is wrong. Eventually. It may take four years, but it will be disputed with facts and valid argument. I recommend that newbies start by reading the site in depth and slowly. Take time. I spent six months reading the site before I wrote one word. Think about what you've read. If you do, you'll find more here than you might guess. You'll grow as a person. I don't know anyone who hasn't felt that way. -- SunirShah

I hope you consider CriticalSpirit something worth discussing; before I started this page, I checked that in all the diversity and richness of Wiki, it just wasn't discussed. -- CostinCozianu

This is how I see it - CriticalSpirit is not a person, it is a discipline. It like all disciplines can be mishandled. There is confusion on this page with regard to this point. A CriticalSpirit is not the criticism, but rather the spirit that examines with a critical eye the nature and content of the object or process. As a result of this CriticalSpirit, one can then offer reasoned arguments of refutation or support. Most often however faults are discovered and brought to light. This is often an embarrassment or source of irritation that is reacted to not out of reason, but out of emotion.

CriticalSpirit is present already even though not by that name in much of what XP is about. UnitTests - critically seeks to determine whether a Unit is functioning properly. The YouArentGonnaNeedIt is also a CriticalSpirit approach to the unnecessary functions and processes within software. RefactorMercilessly is the result of CriticalSpirit thinking and actions. I am a great believer in the Positive Dialog, and look at substance and facts and the improvement of ideas and ways of thinking and creating knowledge. The CriticalSpirit is important in that development process. Bad behavior and inappropriate criticism resulting from CriticalSpirit has developed some of this what you call nitpicky argumentation, but that is not how CriticalSpirit is most effectively used. I hope you do not consider this reply to be nitpicky, it is not meant to be.

UnitTests precede the code. How can they possibly criticize it? This is one of the problems with using criticism; it occurs too late to be useful. Criticism does not imply knowledge nor aid in learning; it often inhibits it. Teaching involves helping someone do something better in the future, criticism involves evaluating the past. I prefer the future looking approach. -- WayneMack

I see CriticalSpirit a minor player in a larger picture, hopefully that being Positive Dialog. Criticism for the sake of criticism with no other goal or purpose may well indeed take discipline and determination ... but that doesn't make it right (or wrong).

I see CriticalSpirit as an attitude toward information, not people, but the blurring of those has occurred a long time ago, obfuscating the true meaning of the word critical, and there's not much we can do about it. But there's a little we can do about it, which is to resurrect the distinction, and to remember to apply criticism with care, and maybe only when asked to do so. In that framework, CriticalSpirit is right, and is an essential ingredient to any high quality intellectual pursuit. -- WaldenMathews

As one who likes to use all the tools at his disposal, May I suggest that a balanced approach based on the time, culture, source of concern be applied: Just as you probably wouldn't use a sledge hammer to crack a peanut shell (even though some would!), there are appropriate tools available/can be made available for the use of the critical faculties (including CriticalSpirit). Many of the positions on this page are viewed from limited viewing angles. For some it is an all or none approach (there is just one way to look at this approach). Others have a time focus of past/present(ongoing)/future. Others have a view - it has always worked for me thus and such. I don't need another way.

Criticism does not imply knowledge nor aid in learning; it often inhibits it. Teaching involves helping someone do something better in the future, criticism involves evaluating the past. I prefer the future looking approach.

I'm sorry to say but these assertions are dead wrong. After being both a student and a teacher in a performance oriented domain (chess), and getting performant results, I can tell you that criticism and educating critical thinking (which is only a part of critical spirit) is the sine qua non condition for intellectual performance, and for any endeavor that aspires to the glorified attribute of being intellectual. I hope you won't teach anyone without criticizing him, I hope you won't tell anyone to go on with future looking approach until he fully evaluated the past mistakes. You would do a great disservice to that guy, and maybe such approach can be fine for an average person to get on with his life and work, but it will ruin anyone's attempt to real performance.

No learning is effective in the absence of critical thinking, no significant knowledge is ever achieved outside critical thinking. Critical thinking is the small part of critical spirit that represents the minimum condition. But you'd better not settle for the minimum condition and cultivate a fully critical spirit.

One of the simplest proof of my counter assertion is that whoever doesn't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. -- CostinCozianu

I don't think effective learning can take place without good feedback, but I wonder whether the word "feedback" implies "criticism", necessarily. I wonder also whether Costin and Wayne are using the same definition of "criticism". I think Wayne is thinking something closer to "punishment", while Costin is thinking something closer to "feedback". But without feedback from both, my thinking is probably wandering astray. -- WaldenMathews

That's why I love It is the most useful site ever. -- CostinCozianu

I will verify that I was trying to address the negative side of "criticism," though I wouldn't go as far to call it "punishment." For the definition I have been using, "criticism" is to state "You were wrong," and seems based on a failure oriented model. One must fail, then one must be told that one failed. I two difficulties with this approach. One, every learned item must be preceded by at least one failure. To expect every individual to encounter every failure before advancing does not seem practical. To rely on individuals discovering a correct approach initially, by chance, also does not seem practical. Most learning must precede initial failure, must precede criticism, must precede feedback. Those that rely on feedback for learning are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. Two, upon hearing that a previous attempt resulted in "failure" (another difficult term), what should one do in the future? Repeat the previous actions? Do something different? What to do different? How might one expect individuals to react to the news? These are some of the underlying precepts I had in mind when I made my initial statement. I would find it interesting to hear the some of the underlying assumptions others have made and se where the divergence may occur. -- WayneMack

You are right in a way. CriticalSpirit is not effective in helping students acquire a lot of knowledge, the trivial part of learning. For example it is useless to use CriticalSpirit in teaching them how to multiply or how to extract a square root. However, I was referring to the part of teaching where students learn the creativity part. They have to learn to come up with new ideas, approaches, solutions on their own, and it is there that they should acquire an acute CriticalSpirit faculty. It is not necessarily a signal of failure to criticize students, it is most likely a way to teach them a multi-faceted approach to evaluation. An idea may be great in some respects, but have some drawbacks, and some of the drawbacks may lead in extreme to utter failure. In a creative process lack of ideas is rarely a problem. Even when it is a problem, it is orthogonal to what we discuss here. But what most students need to learn in those area (like chess or programming) is the capacity to critically evaluate and understand alternatives. There is a need to know when to give up a dead-end track, or just when not to go there. In software engineering these activities need to be performed by a group of people, not just one, and the way they are performed have a huge impact on the quality of the end product and on the bottom line. And that's where there's no substitute for CriticalSpirit. --CostinCozianu

This seems to highlight several areas of apparent disagreement we may have. For one, I do not see that criticism aids in creativity; rather it would appear to hinder it. If one comes up with a creative approach, it does not help for another to criticize the approach. Instead of teaching creativity, this leads to passive, rote learning. Don't suggest an approach and be criticized if it is "wrong," wait until one is given the correct answer. A better approach is to understand how the conclusion was reached. A conclusion is based on one's underlying axioms and theory; if conclusions differ, they must be based on different axioms and theory. To change one's conclusion, one must change his underlying axioms and theory. From this viewpoint, I do not see how criticism of a conclusion would lead one to acquire the new knowledge to lead to a different conclusion. --WayneMack

Well, for one instance, in the creative process you don't come up with the perfect solution the first time, or do you ? You therefore cannot improve what you do not know that it needs an improvement. Even further, if you know that it needs improvement and you do not know exactly where it needs improvement is bad again. Then there's this problem that you can follow alternative paths. Sometimes you may choose the wrong path, and improve on it until you get stuck. Wouldn't it be nice if you were able to quit sooner rather than later ?

You seem to operate with a very simplistic and linear view of the creative process. --Costin

It may be simple, it may not, but to me it appears to be sufficient. Perhaps there is a model that might indicate where criticism might be useful? --WayneMack

Sure, try to answer to the problems highlighted above.

I would answer as follows:

Q: Well, for one instance, in the creative process you don't come up with the perfect solution the first time, or do you? You therefore cannot improve what you do not know that it needs an improvement.

A: I do not ever expect to come up with a perfect solution, and feel that continual improvement is possible and necessary for any result. I also accept that any result I (or anyone else) may obtain is probably the best that could be achieved based on current individual knowledge. To know that improvement is possible is not the same as knowing how to improve.

Q: Sometimes you may choose the wrong path, and improve on it until you get stuck. Wouldn't it be nice if you were able to quit sooner rather than later?

A: Yes, it would be nice to be able to correctly predict the degree of success or failure of a proposed approach. When one starts a task, one chooses the approach that he predicts will be successful, based on current individual knowledge. Until one has reason to believe that the approach will not be successful, there is no reason to change approaches.

If it is beneficial to others, I am willing to continue discussion of the model I presented. Lacking alternative models, though, provides me with little benefit and nothing to address improvements or changes to this model. I would find benefit in a discussion of an alternate model. --WayneMack

The alternative model is very simple: the individual and so much more the collective come up with a set of alternative solutions or paths to follow. To each alternative paths there will be an intensive analysis of what are the pros and cons. One of the alternatives is chosen (in rare cases there can be room for two) and followed, feedback is incorporated often and thoroughly lessons are learned and lesson are accepted promptly in the process so that a dead end may be identified long before it takes effect and the resources re-channelled. As the saying goes, you learn much more from your mistakes than from your successes. Once a task is accomplished or is failed further analyses "at cold" of the process identifies all lessons to be learned.

As it can be seen CriticalSpirit plays a fundamental role at every step of the way. Add to that the memorable quote from EwDijkstra from a discourse to his students:

 "I mean, if 10 years from now, when you are doing something quick and dirty, 
 you suddenly visualize that I am looking over your shoulders and say to yourself, 
 'Dijkstra would not have liked this', well that would be enough immortality for me."

Where does criticism play a part? Where does critical spirit play a part? Are the two related?

First step: how can you analyze alternatives unless you are able to apply a critical spirit to each of them, and criticize the hell out of each one so that the cons will surface ? So of course the critical spirit is part of the first step.

Following a chosen alternative, at each point you should be able to say: what the hell am I doing here ? if needed. Or "Dijkstra would not have like this", to put it more mildly. So this gives you the awareness and the feedback that will prevent you from going down the wrong path too far. You see, Dijkstra was trying to teach students self criticism, because he would stand just as a proxy for the doubled self that takes the critical position.

In the end game step, the post factum analysis, CriticalSpirit facilitates learning from one's own mistakes.

Over all there's an extra quality that CriticalSpirit brings to the process: it prevents people from being unskilled and unaware of it".

I still fail to see what part criticism plays in analysis. As best I can tell, the idea that criticism is necessary for analysis or learning is being presented as an axiom. That is, an axiom is an idea that is assumed to be true and is an "atomic" level truth, not derived from lower level truths. An axiom can neither be explained nor discussed, it can merely be accepted as true, and it is very rare for one to decompose an axiom into a derivation based on lower level axioms. Axioms are necessary and provide the foundation for one's knowledge. I may not believe an axiom to be true, but I also must accept that the truth of an axiom cannot be explained. I can accept that others may view the necessity of criticism as an axiom, though it is not one of the axioms I have chosen. It has been an interesting discussion, but, I feel, at this point we must simply agree to disagree. --WayneMack

That criticism is necessary in analysis is an almost self-evident conclusion, but you can hardly take it as an axiom. I notice first that you fail to provide a convincing alternative model. Take it first as an obvious observation (not an axiom) that people make many mistakes. Now take it as a second observation that one of the most difficult part in the creative process is identifying one's own mistakes. CriticalSpirit gives the ability to easily and precisely identify errors inspite of the natural inclination of people to gloss over one's own mistakes. It works in the individual creative and learning process, it also works in collective settings. What are the major objections to it ?

If the belief the "criticism is necessary in analysis" is not an axiom, from whence is it derived?

I propose splitting the discussion into at least two new pages: ScientificMethod for discussion of the use of reason, evidence, hypothesis and experiment in the quest for reliable truth; and SpeakingHarshly? for discussion of alleged benefits or drawbacks of being outspoken about pointing out perceived flaws in another's point of view. Personally I would enjoy participating in the first discussion and would flee the latter.

See also ThinkingAndTheCriticalThinker


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