TAU and Cambridge University Celebrate the "Outside Critic"

New joint initiative studies how diversity and criticism are crucial to human development

Scientific revolutions, the birth of political ideologies, inter-religious understanding and personal growth — according to Prof. Menachem Fisch of Tel Aviv University's Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, all such developments emerge from the act of criticism. Criticism, especially from those from outside of your particular community — whether academic, religious, social, or cultural — is a crucial element of development, he says.

It's an unorthodox idea in a society where divisions between communities can be mired in truculence, making dividing lines increasingly difficult to cross. Now TAU, along with Cambridge University in the UK, has taken the message to heart, establishing a collaborative effort to advance inter-religious study and promote religious understanding.

The Center for Religious and Inter-religious Study at TAU and the Cambridge University Project for Religion for the Humanities will promote inter-religious research and dialogue, encouraging students to explore various religions in a comparative, critical manner. The result, Prof. Fisch hopes, will be a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of ourselves and others.

Seeking a critical distance

Prof. Menachem Fisch, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Menachem Fisch

Mere self-reflection, or criticism from a person within one's own community, has a limited ability to challenge the community's pre-existing, shared frameworks of ideals. Getting feedback from an outsider, however, is like "watching yourself on TV or listening to a recording of your voice. It gives you the critical distance that you, or members of your peer group, are unable to create," says Prof. Fisch.

This project, the theme of Prof. Fisch's new book entitled The View from Within: Normativity and the Limits of Self-Criticism, favors social diversity and mitigates a dangerous characteristic of homogeneous communities, where there is no agent for significant criticism — and corresponding change, growth, and development.

Throughout history, significant cultural change has been characterized by new sets of thoughts, values, or ideals, notes Prof. Fisch. And these large paradigm shifts don’t come from within insular communities. Instead, it's necessary for a critic from the outside, with a different point of view, to plant the seed of doubt.

For example, Prof. Fisch says, take the emergence a new scientific theory or school of thought —Copernican cosmology or Einsteinian physics, for example. In order to question what we think we know, we must experience sufficient ambivalence and doubt — and criticism — about current "wisdom" before experimentation can paint the scientific picture anew. This system drives both the sciences and human development forward.

Sincerity counts

The crucial element is that the outside criticism be perceived as sincere. "The processes of indecision and ambivalence are indispensable for the kind of radical rethinking capable of setting a paradigm-shift in motion," argues Prof. Fisch. This applies not only to scientific research but to the philosophy of science, ethics, politics, and questions of personal identity and growth as well, he adds.

Prof. Fisch characterizes this thinking, and the new TAU/Cambridge effort, as a broad argument for cultural diversity. "In closed, self supporting communities, norms are taken for granted," he explains. "In a pluralistic setting, we are constantly being challenged by those who see the world differently and expose us to new ideas." Importantly, a diversity of opinions and thoughts keeps various systems balanced through constant self-reflection, a mechanism clearly at work among different political parties that make up a vibrant democratic system.

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