Understand Before You Criticize

Once when I was discussing a paper topic with Frank Clooney, I told him I wanted to critique some parts of the ritual theory of a third-century Indian thinker by the name of Shabara. He asked me, “Have you read all of Shabara?” His course was my first exposure to Shabara, and Shabara’s work exceeds fourteen-hundred pages. I had not.

At the time, I thought this somewhat unfair. Shabara writes on numerous topics. One needn’t read everything he wrote to take issue with his arguments on certain topics.

But since then I’ve realized that Frank perhaps understated his point. I could read all of Shabara and still not understand him well because I would not have read Kumarila‘s commentary on Shabara, Prabhakara‘s commentary, later commentators, or the sutra text on which Shabara comments. Shabara believed that the performance of Vedic rituals by appropriate persons is tantamount to moral duty, that the sounds of the Veda are authorless and eternal, that the effects of ritual actions may be felt–through the agency of karma–many lifetimes after the sacrificial fire is ash. What had I done to think like that?

This episode taught me the most important lesson I ever learned while working on my Master’s: A person has no business criticizing an idea he does not understand. In almost all cases, the criticism will be unfair to proponents of the idea, insufficiently nuanced, inattentive to the goals of the idea and the worldview upon which it is based.

To counter this peril I give readily digestible advice:

  1. Do you understand the idea well enough to defend it? If not, why do you feel your understanding sufficient to criticize it?
  2. Are you ruthless with your own beliefs? If not, why are you so ruthless when it comes to others’ beliefs?
  3. If conscientious people ascribe to an idea, find out why before criticizing it.
  4. Know what you’ve achieved.  Your criticism may be successful but only compromise a peripheral component of a theory.
  5. Oftentimes disciplines critique their own ideas, even scripture. Your complaint may not be new.
  6. The map is not the territory; the world is always more complex than any theory about it.  Your favored theory may be no more stalwart than that of your opponent’s.
  7. Are you offended by an idea? Strive not to be. Offense distorts judgment even when it points at injustice (and it doesn’t always).
  8. State the position you take issue with clearly. Are you criticizing a position your opponents actually hold or a strawman?
  9. You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t assume a theory is no more versatile simply because you investigated whether it can answer your criticism.