Critical Inquiry Honors

The primary motivation behind a course in Critical Inquiry is to get students to ask questions—but with purpose, instead of in a scattered, floundering way. The course is designed to help students learn how to structure their questioning by making critical distinctions in order to better understand some of the following:

  • What question they are asking
  • What sort of thing would answer that question
  • What counts as evidence for, or justification of, an answer
  • How to determine whether that answer, and its justification, are trustworthy
  • What the rules are for discussing different kinds of questions

The structure of the course is based loosely on Aristotle’s theory of causality, in which he argues that there are four causes: four kinds of answers to the question why? There is an important way in which each cause is discussed in its own logical space, and what counts as a good reason in one kind of answer to the question why might well be irrelevant for someone making a different kind of answer. Therefore it will be crucial to begin with an analysis of different kinds of answers to the question why, to better understand the questions that we are asking. This will be the subject of Unit 1, Philosophical Preliminaries. In this unit we will discuss the four causes, what constitutes an answer to questions about each of the causes, and what kinds of reasons are appropriate to justify those different kinds of answers.

After exploring the nature of the question and answer from a more general philosophical perspective in Unit 1, we will examine how particular disciplines pose and answer questions about the world in Units 2 and 3.

The fundamental distinction between kinds of questions considered in Unit 1 hinges on Aristotle’s theory of causality, which categorizes answers to the question why into what are known as the four causes. Each discipline discussed is identified with one primary cause of investigation, which helps to identify the scope of the discipline’s inquiry and the limitations of its conclusions.

In Unit 2: Questions about Racism, we examine a series of readings that consider the question of racism from many different perspectives, including philosophical, scientific, psychological, poetic, ethical/political and historical accounts of the phenomenon, its causes and what answers we might be able to give to the rather haunting question, why? This comparison of how the different disciplines approach the same topic will introduce and begin to create a sense about the different kinds of questions that each discipline asks, the different ways they justify their claims, and how those relate to a real-world issue that confronts us all.

After this topical approach, Unit 3: The Disciplines will consider each discipline in greater detail. The goal is to look seriously at each of the disciplines and what they claim to know.

  • What question does this discipline excel at answering?
  • What can I learn from this discipline that I can’t learn from any other discipline?
  • How does it contribute to my understanding of a particular issue?
  • What does it look like to explore an idea in this discipline?
  • What are the limits of what this discipline can know?
  • What are the pitfalls associated with inquiry in this discipline?

An intensive consideration of the disciplines studied in high school will help us better understand what kinds of questions we are in the habit of answering; with some critical distance we will be in a better position to understand how these questions fit into the larger scope of human inquiry, education and—more generally—life.

Finally, Unit 4: Living Philosophically is a short send-off into the world, with reflections on the role of philosophy, or critical inquiry, in classical education and on the ways in which classical education has shaped the character of individual lives over the past 2500 years.