Can you teach counterintuitive-thinking?

I recently read a portion of Thomas Browne’s famous Religio Medici that had me thinking of Seinfeld. The mid-seventeenth century text contains the following passage:

[…] I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession, I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malignant Aspects, fatall conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome springs, nor unsea- sonable Winters; my prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the times bee out of temper. Let mee be sicke my selfe, if sometimes the malady of my patient bee not a disease unto me, I desire rather to cure his infirmities than my own necessities, where I doe him no good me thinkes it is scarce honest gaine, though I confesse ’tis but the worthy salary of our well-in- tended endeavours: I am not onely ashamed, but heartily sorry, that besides death, there are diseases incureable, yet not for my owne sake, or that they be be- yond my art, but for the generall cause & sake of humanity whose common cause I apprehend as mine own […]

Browne implies what a perfect society looks like: not one in which no one gets sick, but one in which those who get sick also happen to be doctors and people carrying expert knowledge about the exact symptoms they then experience. So doctor’s still pay house visits, only they can also stay in bed because they’re the ones sick.

This is a very deft bit of dialectical or counterintuitive thinking. Generally, utopian discourses are based on purgation and exclusion: sicknesses are banished, suffering takes a holiday, longevity reigns (as though the miseries of life would be solved if everyone simply lived longer; hence utopian fiction’s tendency to devolve into dystopian fiction, and visa versa). But here Browne collapses time and space and the cultural divide between doctor and patient to envision a perfect society: What if only lawyers got divorced? Toothaches plagued only those practicing dentistry? It’s still wishful thinking, but it avoids the obvious utopia of envisioning illness gone altogether, or heartbreak, or the sadness of toothaches. Society is not absurdly error-free, just hilariously efficient.

In a silly way, this is reminiscent on Seinfeld joke about opposites:

Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

Elaine : Well, there’s no telling what can happen from this.

Jerry : You know chicken salad is not the opposite of tuna, salmon is the opposite of tuna, ‘cos salmon swim against the current, and the tuna swim with it.

George : Good for the tuna.


Buried beneath the joke is the claim that there is no natural opposite; no official opposite (perhaps the “official” opposite reflected in illness/no-illness is what Hegel means by conventional wisdom, or meinung, in Phenomenology of Spirit). The notion of opposite presents the illusion of unity when in fact its construction is equally chaotic and arbitrary and tenuous. The opposite of tuna could be “a nut”, because of the conventions of American spelling; or the opposite of tuna could be a salad made from a rusty hook; or the opposite of tuna salad for lunch would be to skip the midday meal altogether and begin fasting in the hopes that this will alleviate your spiritual malaise (malaise, by the way, goes great on a tuna salad sandwich); on and on and on. The nonlinearity of these plausible opposites illustrate that behind every notion of “opposite” is a perspective, a point of view, a particular vantage point that constructs a supposed unity from the immense difference that we identify as opposition; all the while opposition as such is never a given, even if obvious, its truth is faulty. To my mind, opposition in this way shares an ontology with hypocrisy insofar as, qua themselves, neither concept actually exists (they operate as adjectives, all the while we want them to be nouns).

I am left wondering whether this sense of counterintuitive-thinking, or counter-intuition (I want to write: counterintuity) be taught? It can certainly be modeled, and if it can be modeled, then it can be posed as something important, imitatively valued. If as it seems this is a case where the practice – the thing in the doing of it – is what it is, rather than some produced sum, then emphasizing when writers and artists and thinkers practice their counterintuitive art seems to be important (meanwhile: What’s the relation between counter-intuition and invention?). So often the summative So what? in all the Humanities seems to homogenize across disciplines and dilute into the vagaries of platitudes and solipsistic sloganeering, like: “Find what it is for you,” or: “Discover your path,” (in an absolute butchering of Frost).

Instead, I think allowing students to live will best educational summations of all kinds. Education cannot incorporate lives without allowing for their being lived out, not in a potential sense but in an actual one, and for all students. This is the importance of stressing so-called critical thinking in pedagogical theory: it’s not that this thinking is more comprehensive, it’s that such skillsets encourage the whole life of the student to participate. Critical thinking is un-phone-in-able. In fact, critical thinking practiced habitually is not a even a skill but a social enterprise indistinguishable from “real world” (which so often is mistakenly suggested as the opposite of school).