What distinguishes a good critic from the rest of the herd? I want to write a bit about this nugget offered by Richard Rorty in his article, Posties, that outlined three types of critics:
- The inferior critic: he attacks the original thinker because he cannot accept the radical consequences of the thinker’s thought, and fancies himself the defender of the status quo who combats the corrosive effects of this philosophy.
- The mediocre critic: he also defends the status quo, and tries to attack the original thinker with semantic analyzes that points at the ambiguities in his terms and arguments.
- The superior critic: he appreciates the unique and original thinker, and tries to attack the best version of his position. This method ignores the shortcomings of the thinker’s arguments and tries to show “the inability of the philosopher under study, even at his best, to do what the critic thinks needs to be done.” This superior critic invents a narrative that contextualizes the thinker in order to show that he hasn’t “understood the pattern of the past and the needs of the present as well as, thanks to the critic, we do now.” (Posties, London Review of Books, Sept. 1987, p 11)
Of course, Rorty fancies himself as the superior critic.
Most people who criticize a radical thinker belong to the first group, and most internet philosophers fall in the mediocre critic group.
So, in order to become superior critics, we should move past the first two groups and try to employ the method of recontextualization that juxtapose the elements of the thinker under critique with alternative metaphors and narratives for the sake of eliciting approval or disapproval, rather than refutation. This recontextualization will isolate important themes in the thinker’s thought and then place them in the context of alternative views.
I have tried to avoid being an inferior critic by not dogmatically holding positions or opinions, and remain open to conclusions or outcomes that weren’t pleasant or compatible with my views, but it’s not easy. However, it is far more difficult to avoid being a mediocre critic, given the training in academic philosophy. I am expected to break down a piece of writing to its bare constituents, its argument and carefully scrutinize the reasoning that leads to the conclusion.
The reason the superior critic is heads and shoulders above the mediocre critic is that he/she can re-interpret the material, the writing, and adapt it for his own purposes. He/she must be creative enough to have a well-formed and original worldview, and the courage to go beyond the apparent surface level of the material. Heidegger is another example of this superior critic.