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Tuesday, December 30, 2014, 09:14

A better translation of critical thinking

By Ho Lok-sang

Critical thinking has been the subject of much controversy recently. Over the past few weeks, I have seen many articles on it in the local press, and it even came up in the LegCo debate. Legislator Regina Ip asked a question about the Chinese translation of critical thinking, which was widely taken to be pipanxing sikao.  She noted that the Education Bureau’s (EDB) own translation is mingbianxing sikao (literally “clear and logical thinking”) but this version has not been adopted in EDB publications A better translation of critical thinkingor on its website. Ip wanted to know why. She cited an associate professor of the University of Hong Kong Philosophy Department saying that critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or critical of other people. Instead, critical thinking skills should enable a person to understand logical connections between ideas and to put information collected to good use to analyze a subject in a comprehensive manner. Secretary for Education Eddie Ng agrees that the term mingbianxing sikao conveys the spirit of critical thinking better even though the term pipanxing sikao is widely used and apparently widely accepted in the education sector.

While it is true that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” thinking is not an object like a rose that exists in the world of nature. It is an action done by human beings, and human beings are not free from bias. For this reason, I would strongly urge against the use of the translation pipanxing sikao, which unfortunately could actually lead to the opposite of critical thinking, particularly if the student is encouraged to be critical of others without first being self-critical.

Actually, the essence of critical thinking lies in asking questions and to keep asking them until you are satisfied with the answer. In Chinese there is the term xuewen, which is sometimes translated as learning. Literally the term means “learning to ask and to doubt”. Critical thinking is not different from learning to ask questions. During the time when people were taught that the sun revolved around the earth, Galileo questioned this “traditional wisdom” and sought to overturn it by collecting evidence and showing the absurdity of traditional wisdom through reasoning. The beginning of true learning is being self-critical, which is questioning anything that one might take for granted, and re-examining the logic and the evidence for anything that one had believed in or one is told. Thus, humility and the acknowledgement of one’s own limitations must be the underlying attitude behind critical thinking. Without this humility, there can be no discoveries.

Unfortunately, not everybody agrees. A recent article in Mingpao carried the eye-catching title “Pipan bianshi pipan, bushi mingbian!”, which literally translates as “Critical is being critical; critical is not clear reasoning!” The author cited Immanuel Kant, a great philosopher. So the author placed himself in good company. Kant is well known for his Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Judgment, and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant’s views have a lot in common with Buddhist philosophy. Just like Zen Buddhists, he wanted to show readers that there are limitations to reasoning. But that does not mean that one is free to criticize as one pleases or that Kant is critical of reasoning in general. He only wants to tell the world there are limitations to reason, and that it is possible to be trapped by reason. Here is a verbatim interpretation of Kant from SparkNotes, a well regarded educational website: “From rationalism, he draws the idea that pure reason is capable of significant knowledge, but rejects the idea that pure reason can tell us anything about things-in-themselves.” “Things-in-themselves” is like the realm of reality in Buddhism, which is beyond reasoning and has to be tackled from a clear mind.

This is really unfortunate. In that Mingpao article, having cited Kant out of context, the author concludes: “What they call clear thinking (mingbian) is intended of course not to promote independent thinking. On the contrary, students are asked to listen to other people’s views, so as to achieve the goal of ‘accommodating’ other views and being ‘harmonized’. Thus, to translate critical thinking into mingbianxing sikao has an objective that is all too clear to need to be spelled out. (The EDB) continues to use false language, to mix up concepts and to transplant ideas. This is with the objective of replacing critical thinking (as required in independent thinking) into a confused and misleading form of clear thinking. How can we take this EDB initiative as a casual change in the words used, and accept it as if there is nothing we can do about it?”

The author used a penname, and there is nothing about his or her background. It will be particularly worrying if this author is a Liberal Studies teacher.

The author is director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at Lingnan University.

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