Critical Consciousness

Critical Consciousness: Cultivating Discerning Minds and Strong and Loving Hearts

Split the atom’s heart, and lo! Within it thou wilt find a sun.


My thinking about the construct of critical consciousness began inductively, through trying to organize and name my personal experience and observations around questions of social responsibility and citizenship while living and working in several different societies and cultures: Bulgaria, where I was born and grew up, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, and the United States. The question that became prominent for me was what accounts for some people, particular sensitivity to injustices and half-truths; what gives them the courage and strength to resist forces of collusion both within and without, and to search their own hearts in order to understand that in our human nature which continues to enable social and global injustice; what gives them the commitment to persevere in pursuit of viable ideals and their steadfast implementation; what life influences might have helped them develop such level of integrity and agency.

Such people’s approach to life stands in sharp contrast with the prevailing tendency to compartmentalize problematic social standards that surround us, in that way allowing our thinking to be subtly shaped by the very same corrupt social and political forces with which we feel disgruntled. I came to call this type of consciousness critical moral consciousness, in that way continuing the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (1973), the father of the construct, who understood critical consciousness in broad developmental terms, as a cognitive disembedding from reality. Freire believed that “one can only know to the extent that one problematizes the natural, cultural and historical reality in which s/he is immersed.” (p. ix) He called this capacity critical consciousness, and emphasized its difference from the technocrat’s problem-solving stance (p. ix).

When I began my research, I was a European-bred agnostic existentialist. Having experienced the questionable nature of social groupings and the hollowness of much organized Christianity, I saw religion or any form of group identity as a way of relegating the authority and responsibility of one’s existential choices to external powers. In the following ten years of work on critical consciousness, my view of religion, spirituality, and social life changed profoundly, as I discovered the Baha’i spiritual philosophy and through it the wisdom of other world spiritual traditions and, most of all, the wisdom of my own heart. I came to realize that critical consciousness is the personal and social expression of an activated depth dimension of existence, of an awakened spiritual potential in a human being. This realization has been summed up for me in one of the Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i wisdom tradition:

O Son of Spirit! The most beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behoveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

I have come to understand that critical consciousness represents not just a particular stage or level in the development of consciousness, but an optimal path of human development, and has been the goal of much human thought. The best thinkers of each age, people as diverse as Rumi, Plato, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Christ, the Buddha, and Baha’u’llah, to mention a few, have spoken to this human capacity. The path of critical consciousness is manifested in an infinite variety of ways and degrees, and people move through them in widely different time-frames, which have a lot to do with their life circumstances. Regardless of the particularities, however, these people always strike us as more authentic, independent minded, and resilient human beings.

Critical consciousness cannot be fully understood on a purely individual level, as has been the tendency of much Western philosophy and most of Western psychology. In each cultural and historic context, the dynamic of critical consciousness plays out a little differently. While it has always existed as a minority way of being among people of every age and culture, in this age we are witnessing a groundswell of critical moral consciousness emerging as the most progressive standard in a world caught in a turbulent movement toward a sustainable planetary civilization. With the global trend toward universal education and lifespan development, information networks, and the growing appreciation for the untapped human potential, critical moral consciousness is now an attainable goal of adult development.

Revealed spiritual traditions, more than any other source, have spoken to the balanced and interdependent movement toward critical moral consciousness on an individual and collective level. However, much of that understanding has been buried under centuries of interpretation and ignorance and fear-bred distortions. In the new global age dawning upon us, we are forced to re-examine that wisdom, and separate it from myths and ideologies, so that it can guide us away from pervasive collective condition of politics on every level, an abundance of words and a failure of love.

What are the psychological dimensions of this new consciousness which is struggling to emerge on a larger scale than ever before in human history? In its developmental emergence, it engages in an intuitive and progressively more conscious critical moral dialogue with the world, spurred by a quest for truth and justice. It moves the individual into moral agency, while the understanding of truth, justice, and agency is continuously developmentally reconstructed. In its fully developed form, it is characterized by moral maturity and empowerment. This consciousness exhibits a qualitatively different level of integration of its cognitive, volitional, and affective capacities. In other words, even in its early forms, it is marked by less tension between mind and heart, by deeper feeling and deeper understanding, by a greater consistency between what we know, what we love, and how we exercise our will.

Papers on the subject:

A Whole-Person Approach to Educating for Sustainability

Published in International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (2010)

Education for Critical Moral Consciousness

Published in the Journal of Moral Education,Vol. 33, No. 3, September 2004