You are on page 1of 53

The History of Critical Thinking (abridged)

~ 85,000,000 b.c.e July 21st, 2008

Critical Thinking in the 21st Century

Critical thinking, due to its continually growing significance in the 21st century, is an idea that is highly deserving of attention. It receives it, however, mostly in the form of lip service. While educational leaders, teachers, parents, government officials, business, and the public are increasingly calling for its development and use in virtually every sector of life, it is an idea which is still largely misunderstood.

In Search of a History of Critical Thinking

Part of this misunderstanding is due to the fact that, though it is widely popular (in the sense that almost no one denies its importance), its place in history has not been firmly established. In one sense, it is a relatively new term which only entered the lexicon in the 1930s. Yet in another sense it is ancient, in that its roots are traceable to Socrates, and perhaps indeed to our prehuman ancestors. In a still further sense it is non-existent, in that no one, as far as we can tell, has ever attempted to write a history of the idea.

Why a History of Critical Thinking?

A history of critical thinking is vital if we are to understand its relationship and function in current world societies and ways of living (and therefore of thinking). Having a sense of the social conditions under which critical thinking has either taken root or been weeded out, allows us to see more clearly the extent to which societies today either foster or hinder its development. Knowledge of the manner in which historical thinkers have thought about, argued for, or developed various aspects of critical thinking gives it more life and figure. It also makes us aware of the fact that the idea of critical thinking has been an implicit part of human evolution, and is a major key to our survival in a future which promises to continue to increase in complexity. These insights, which a history of critical thinking, properly written, will provide, will allow us to more fully assess the work necessary to establishing societies in which criticality is a central cultural value.

Our Approach to this History

The purpose of this history is to construct a dual narrative. One will focus on the implications of stratification in societies and on the effect of that stratification on the way and the extent to which critical thinking was encouraged or discouraged, historically speaking. Our second narrative will seek to document those who were able to move beyond those social conditions and, in doing so, form the roots of critical thinking.

First Narrative: Social Conditions Necessary for Critical Thinking

Freedom of thought, belief and action A society which values criticality, reason, and questioning A society which values the development of intellectual traits of mind Widespread public education (in the true sense) The availability of a strong sense concept of critical thinking Available leisure time for all Work which encourages critical thought

Second Narrative: Contributions of Individual Thinkers

In its pure form, critical thinking cannot be found in history, for the simple reason that critical thinking is an ideal and ideals do not exist as fully embodied. Hence, in seeking to begin to develop a historical account of critical thinking, we are looking for emergent threads of critical thinking, aspects of critical thinking, forerunners of critical thinking. Not the pure stuff, but the impure stuff out of which the pure is being refined.

Threads of Critical Thought

the acceptance of freedom of thought the need to become intellectually disciplined and to think systematically the belief that the mind can reason and through reason figure out the nature of things the need to think within multiple points of view the need to develop intellectual humility the need to think for oneself and the courage to speak against established views the need to develop reasoning skills the need to apply intellectual skills internally in order to take charge of ones life the need to apply intellectual skills to important human problems in an effort to alleviate suffering and pain the need to think about a wide range of subjects The concern for understanding the manner in which the human mind can be flawed or problematic The commitment to lifelong learning and intellectual growth

Prehistory (~85,000,000 b.c.e. 500 b.c.e.)

Animal criticality?

Prehistoric Thinking
For millions of years we lived much as our pre-human ancestors (Chimpanzees and their kin) do today. We might characterize our thinking at this stage as almost wholly uncritical. It is difficult, however, to make judgments about the criticality of animals and pre-human creatures. Perhaps there was a primitive form of criticality which allowed us to use basic tools, utilize primitive communication, work together in groups, and make small change to our environment.

The Bushmen of South Africa are intimately acquainted with the way of life of more than fifty animals. They can follow a herd of antelope even over hard dry ground which holds only the very faintest impressions of hoof prints, and can detect the almost invisible hoofprint pattern that distinguishes a wounded animal from its fellows in the herd. an area hundreds of square miles they know every bush and stone, every convolution of the groundthey do not read or write, but they learn and remember. If all their knowledge about their land and its resources were recorded and published, it would make up a library of thousands of volumes. John E. Pfeiffer. The Emergence of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1969) pp 134-135

Looking back, we see that each step in human evolution has occurred over shorter and shorter time periods, but has resulted in increasingly significant differences. The first known primate was a shrew-like creature which appeared about 85 million years ago. It took almost 80 million years for the first hominids to appear It was five million more until the first human (in the genus homo). It took two million years until homo sapiens arrived. And it was two hundred thousand until the advent of agriculture and established settlements And just barely over 12,000 years to the modern day.

Significance of Prehistory to the History of Critical Thinking

It is quite easy to forget our extended history, but a cursory look reveals its significance to understanding our present stage of evolution. How far have we truly evolved? To what extent are we still ruled by our primitive instincts and passions? What will be our next evolutionary step? Will it be from homo sapiens (thinking human being) to homo criticus sapiens (critical thinking human being)? Are we already in the process? It took seven million years to move from hominid to homo sapiens, how many years will it take to go from homo sapiens to homo criticus sapiens? What would the world look like if this occurred?

Ancient Greece and Rome (500 b.c.e. 400 c.e.)

Critical Thinking Emerges

Social Conditions in Ancient Greece and Rome

The World 6th Century B.C.E.

The World 3rd Century B.C.E.

The World 2nd Century C.E.

Greek City States 550 B.C.E.

Ancient Athens

On the whole there was very little snobbery or social exclusiveness at Athens. As Plato's dialogues show, men formed readily into groups and did not stand on ceremony with a stranger. The gymnasium and wrestlingground were common resorts. When Socrates got back from the wars, so Plato relates, he went straight to one of these and every one jumped up to greet him and ask the news from the front. Conversation never flagged. For the Greeks were never so happy as when talking.

But, if the Greek could appreciate the country-side, he perhaps loved the city more; and his favourite resort was the market-place or Agora. Along the sides were colonnades with stately rows of pillars and brightly frescoed walls. One, the Painted Stoa, gave its name to the Stoic philosophers who originally foregathered and found their pupils there. Everywhere is a babel of voices; and at time of full market the whole space is crowded. Many walk up and down in the adjacent colonnades. Groups form; and conversation flows freely, ranging over all manner of topics, from vulgar gossip to political or even philosophic discussion.

How is this Significant to the History of Critical Thinking?

The author only mentions males. Perhaps this is innocuous or perhaps females were oppressed and excluded from intellectual culture The Greeks were very interested in sharing ideas through discussion. There was a high level of openness. It does not seem that Greeks were unduly prejudiced. There were many opportunities in Greek life to discuss ideas with others, which would have greatly facilitated intellectual growth. Some took advantage of these opportunities to think through important ideas, and some did not, similar to modern day coffee shops.

The Marketplace

Greek Dress

Xenophanes went about from city to city, calling in question on moral grounds the popular beliefs about the gods and goddesses, and ridiculing the anthropomorphic conceptions which the Greeks had formed of their divinities. If oxen had hands and the capacities of men, they would make gods in the shape of oxen. This attack on received theology was an attack on the veracity of the old poets, especially Homer, who was considered the highest authority on mythology. Xenophanes criticized him severely for ascribing to the gods acts which, committed by men, would be considered highly disgraceful. We do not hear that any attempt was made to restrain him from thus assailing traditional beliefs and branding Homer as immoral.

Significance to Critical Thinking:

That questioning and dissent were cultivated to the extent that some individuals were able to question received beliefs and traditions That, at the very least, freedom of thought and expression were protected to allow for critique of established religious beliefs

From what has been said already it will be clear that Athenian citizens enjoyed considerable leisure; and it is natural to inquire how this came about. The explanation lay partly in the character of their occupations. Farmers, for example, were not always busy; there were slack times between corn-harvest in May and the vintage in September, and again after the vintage till the olive-picking in late autumn. Sailors, similarly, were unoccupied during winter when storms made the sea unsafe. The craftsmen, being independent and not working for a regular employer, were masters of their own time, and could knock off work when they chose. Retail dealers, too, could close their shops to attend a political meeting or dramatic performance.

Significance to Critical Thinking:

Leisure time was not limited to the upper classes. This gave many the opportunity (but not necessarily the inclination) for self-reflection. Without time to develop ones mind, critical thinking cannot flourish.

Of course these movements of intellectual freedom were, as in all ages, confined to the minority. Everywhere the masses were exceedingly superstitious. They believed that the safety of their cities depended on the good-will of their gods. If this superstitious spirit were alarmed, there was always a danger that philosophical speculations might be persecuted. And this occurred in Athens[as a result of anti-religious philosophers] they introduced and carried a blasphemy law, to the effect that unbelievers and those who taught theories about the celestial world might be impeachedAnti-religious thought was liable to be persecuted...but there was no systematic policy of suppressing free thoughtThere was a large enough section of influential rationalists to render impossible any organized repression of liberty, and the chief evil of the blasphemy law was that it could be used for personal or party reasons

Significance to Critical Thinking:

Despite the remarkable freedoms which existed in Ancient Athens (especially for the era), it was not an ideal state. In addition to the persecution of women and slaves, free men were also constrained in the ideas they could think and express. We are reminded that the amount of strong sense critical thought that was present in Ancient Greece was confined to a small minority of one city state.

Influential Thinkers in Ancient Greece and Rome

Pre-Socratics (650 450 B.C.E.)

Key ideas: This group of thinkers was the first historical example to question the natural world in ways that did not involve myth or superstition. Much of their writings have been lost Significance: They broke ground and in many ways set the stage for the thinkers that followed. Their secular stance influenced Athenian society, making questioning the gods and established traditions more palatable.

Key Ideas: Socrates believed that the best way to teach and learn was through disciplined, rigorous questioning, and almost all of his contributions to critical thinking are derived from his dialectics with unsuspecting Athenians. Socrates believed that people learned best, not by being told what to believe or do, but by being guided through questioning to what made most sense to believe or do. He often used questioning to help people see either that what they said they believed they did not, in fact, believe (because their beliefs were inconsistent with their behavior), or that what they said they believed was conceptually unsound or illogical.

Socrates Significance to Critical Thinking

From what we know Socrates was a paradigm critical thinker in many ways. He exemplifies all of the threads of critical thought, excepting that he did not always distinguish between questions which could be settled and those which could not. His contributions to critical thinking are widespread, but his most significant is his method of inquiry and teaching which we now call the Socratic Method.

Plato and Aristotle

Both were focused on explaining the world in terms of metaphysics. They theorized and attempted to answer questions which are unanswerable. Both made contributions to critical thinking in various ways, but their metaphysical underpinnings detracted from their work. In setting the stage for much of the reasoning which followed, as much Medieval thinking took Aristotle to be the highest authority, they did more to hinder the growth of critical thought than they did to advance it.

The Sophists
Key idea: They highlighted the importance of education and the role of intellectual dialogue in that process. They were ready and able to critique (or to defend) social, ideological, or political traditions or realities. They reflected on the nature of language and culture. They were said to believe that they could find the correct answers to all questions. Some of the sophists were skeptical of absolute truth and conventional morality and came eventually to teach the view that anything can be proved, if one has the requisite skills of argumentation.

Significance of Sophists to Critical Thinking

They did not fall prey to metaphysics or theology. Like the Epicureans and Stoics, they focused on human nature and human life. They advocated freedom of thought They typically questioned the status quo. They believed that the mind can reason and through reason to figure out the nature of human life (if not of the laws of nature itself). They recognized the need to think within multiple points of view They recognized the need to develop reasoning skills. They believed that it is important to take charge of ones life. They believed that it is important to become intellectually disciplined.

Hippocrates (460 370 B.C.)

Hippocrates took major steps in the field of medicine by focusing on the scientific logic as opposed to the metaphysical logic - of sickness and disease. Hippocrates ideas, though never synthesized or expressed in these terms, are based on the following two premises: (a) Health is the natural state, disease is unnatural; and (b) Disease, no less than health, is governed by natural causes, which it is the task of the physician to understand. Hippocrates denounced those who explained sickness as a result of the gods as magicians, ritualists, charlatans, and excorzists [sic] concluding that the reason they called [maladies] sacred [was] to conceal their ignorance of [them]. Though much of his work has since been lost, his philosophy and method of inquiry has survived. Consequently, he is now considered the father of medicine, and it is he for whom the Hippocratic Oath is named.

Galen (129 200 A.D.)

Galen, following Hippocrates doctrine, produced over 500 tracts on medicine, philosophy, and ethics. The article on Galen in Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia includes some of his most notable discoveries: he proved that different muscles are controlled at different levels of the spinal cord, that the brain controls the voice, he identified the functions of the kidney and the bladder, and he conceived that the body metabolizes in order to produce energy. Galen performed many audacious operations including brain and eye surgeries that were not tried again for almost two millennia. To perform cataract surgery, he would insert a long needle-like instrument into the eye behind the lens; He would then pull the instrument back slightly to remove the cataract. The slightest slip could have caused permanent blindness.

Hippocrates and Galens Significance to Critical Thinking

The significance of Hippocrates and Galen to the history of critical thinking lies in their questioning of dominant ideology and practice, their firm belief in the power of the human mind to solve problems using reason, and the systematic and disciplined nature with which they approached the study of medicine. In essence, they pioneered and formulated the nature of what it means to think like a physician.

Herodotus (484 425 B.C.) and Thucydides (460 395 B.C.)

What Hippocrates and Galen did for medicine, Herodotus and Thucydides did for history: they introduced secular history and explained human events as being driven by human, rather than supernatural, action.

Herodotus, for his work on the history of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians (500 - 478 B.C.E.), is often credited as being the father of history. In the Cyclopedia of World Authors he is credited with writing the first known secular history, with attempting to establish a strict chronology of events, and with highlighting the lessons inherent in his narrative (three fundamental aspects of modern historical writing). However, some of his work is questionable, as he often did not care to distinguish between fact and myth, leaving it to the reader to decide what to believe; it is for this reason that some scholars prefer Thucydides.

Thucydides has been called The first truly critical historian of the world. Once a high ranking officer in the Athenian navy, Thucydides was exiled for failing to defend Amphipolis from the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War. He spent the remainder of the war traveling and recording the testimony of veterans and civilians from both the Spartan and the Athenian camps in order to write a history of the war. His account therefore portrays the viewpoints of both sides and provides excellent insight into the thinking of those involved. Though his thesis is never made explicitly clear (perhaps due to the fact that he died before he could complete his work), a close reading brings to light certain key themes: that clever, sophistic orators are able to sway uncritical mobs to actions which ultimately are not in their interest; that this can be fatal in a democracy; and that war is a tragic and unjustifiable waste of human life and property, which energy would be better spent constructively.

Herodotus and Thucydides Significance to Critical Thinking

Herodotus and Thucydides exemplified essential critical thinking traits such as thinking within multiple points of view; attempting to write without undue bias towards their own frame of reference; having the goal of the alleviation of suffering through historical lessons; and attempting to understand and develop the ability to think historically.

Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy

Both saw the world as a place filled with fear and suffering, much of which was beyond the control of individuals. Their solutions involved empowering individuals to use their rational capacities to overcome those pains which every human inevitably experiences in a lifetime. They both stressed the power of the mind to, as Milton would say over two thousand years later, make a hell out of heaven, or a heaven out of hell.

Epicurus believed that the main problem, and disturbance, in the human mind is a result of not understanding the natural world, and fearing the wrath of heaven. As he puts it A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story. For Epicurus, the ultimate goal was to avoid pain and fear and to promote pleasure. It is for this, and because of a superficial understanding of his ideas, that he was slandered by the Stoics as a hedonist, but this was far from the truth. Epicurus defended himself against these charges, saying For it is not continuous drinkings [sic] and revellings [sic], nor the satisfaction of lustswhich produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoningand banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit.

Significance of Epicurus
Epicurus contributed to the ideal of thinking by explicating a principle based system by which to live a rational life (which is explicated in his Principle Doctrines), as well as by reenforcing and advancing the scientific spirit and method of inquiry which was begun by the pre-Socratics and continued by Hippocrates. He also firmly refused to divert into metaphysical arguments, stating that where there are multiple reasonable explanations and no way to prove any of them, the reasoner should simply either pick one at random or suspend belief until proof is made possible. He was interested in a wide range of subjects and maintained a disciplined approach to solving problems. However, most importantly, he aimed to alleviate human pain and suffering by offering a means for overcoming fear of the world and of death.

Stoic philosophers agreed with Epicurus refusal to be afraid of death or of the world around him, however they did so on different grounds. According to the stoics, the events in a persons life can be divided into two categories: those which can be controlled, and those which cannot. Those which can be controlled should be, and to the extent that it is possible, individuals should seek to live a life of self-examination and should treat others with justice. Those events which cannot be controlled, however, should be forgotten or put aside, for worrying simply causes pain and stress.

Significance of Stoicism
Stoicism is significant to the history of critical thinking because it represents a rational answer to an irrational world. For to expect the irrational to be rational, is irrational. The Stoics, instead, contributed to the ideal of critical thinking by attempting to develop a disciplined system by which to take command of ones own life and alleviate human pain and suffering, both in oneself and in others.

General Conclusions regarding Thinkers in Greece and Rome

These contributions, some of which may seem self-apparent and unimportant, were profoundly progressive given the context under which they were developed. Greek and Roman progressive thinkers opened the door to many avenues of intellectual pursuit which had not existed before. For the first time in history, there was true scientific inquiry into the nature of the world and the human body which was not based on the dominant religious ideology of the time. The advances made Hippocrates and Galen greatly improved the treatment of illness and disease. Herodotus and Thucydides broke the mold of history as myth and provided a secular example which could be followed by later historians. They made it possible for historians and students of history to learn from the mistakes of the past and apply those lessons to the present. Socrates exemplified a substantive and powerful manner in which to approach learning and the internalization of ideas. In him we can see a very near approximation of the ideal of critical thinking. Epicureanism and Stoicism provided some with the opportunity to study the human mind with regards to the manner in which it can be unsound, as well as ways in which its critical capacities can be developed and improved.

What can we learn from this era?

That critical thinking as an idea is at least 2500 years old, perhaps many millions more. That Socratic critical thinking is extremely rare For critical thinking to emerge, reason must be valued. Available leisure time is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the development of critical thinking. Without separating metaphysical questions from questions focusing on science, human nature, etc., it is easy to become entangled and limited in thought. That even seemingly free societies often have significant flaws which are largely invisible to those within them.