Daniel Dennett is an American philosopher and cognitive scientist. In his Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, he offered these four steps to critical commentary, which ought to come in useful as we enter the next round of America’s quadrennial silly season:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
I doubt that would work in one of our political reality show debates, or that he hangs with the same people as me. At times I think I run a sort of Wild West saloon. I’d consider it a great achievement if people would just stop making ad hominem attacks.
I don’t really want to spend my days restating someone’s thesis in a way that is more coherent than their own thoughts: that’s their job. Still, there’s room for improvement over the beer-bottle-to-the-head method.
In art criticism, there’s no room for nastiness, even though artists will tell you it sometimes happens anyway.
I was thinking about this yesterday when someone was complaining to me about a critique that started, “you should never have done that; you should have done it this way.” That’s particularly useless, since the project was already done.
I’m not a philosopher, but there is a foolproof method of criticizing work in a way that’s productive and doesn’t hurt feelings:
- Find something good to say about the work in question. (If you haven’t anything good to say, perhaps you should take up another line of work, like prison guard.)
- Note practical ways in which the artist’s theme can be strengthened. Note that this requires you to look through the artist’s lens, not your own.
- Finish by telling the artist what you find strongest about his or her work.
Not only will you survive the critique without hurt feelings, you will make friends and positively influence other artists. It would be nice if we could apply the same system to politics.