Appreciative Thinking

I’ve been having a debate on a friend’s Facebook page about the value of Martha Nussbaum’s work (I’m a fan) and serendipitously I found this post on “appreciative thinking” via Tyler Cowen. It’s a kind of inverted critical thinking, from Seth Roberts:

When it comes to scientific papers, to teach appreciative thinking means to help students see such aspects of a paper as:

  1. What can we learn from it? What new ideas does it suggest? What already-existing plausible ideas does it make more plausible or less plausible?
  2. How is it an improvement over previous work? Does it use new methods? Does it use old methods in a new way? Do it show a better way to do something?
  3. Did the authors show good taste in their choice of problem? Is this a problem both important and possibly solvable?
  4. Are details done well? Is it well-written? Is the context of the work made clear? Are the data well-analyzed? Does it make good use of graphs? Is the discussion imaginative rather than formulaic?
  5. What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?

That sort of thing. In my experience few papers are worthless. But I’ve heard lots of papers called worthless.

The framing for these rules is worth looking at as well. Obviously, a lot of these skills are part and parcel of any true critical thinking or good close reading, but it’s nice to see folks emphasizing the positive element of reading. “Appreciative thinking” also seems like a good way to introduce a version of the principle of charity that Augustine describes in his On Christian Doctrine. The nice thing about this is the way it’s framed as a “checklist skill,” the kind you can put on your syllabus and design assignments around.

Anyway, it doesn’t exactly resolve the issue of Martha Nussbaum, but it does suggest some perspectives from which her work might be valuable even if some of her conclusions are also wrong.

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