In fact, our traditional thinking methods have not changed for centuries. While these
methods were powerful in dealing with a relatively stable world (where ideas and concepts
tended to live longer than people), they are no longer adequate to deal with the rapidly
changing world of today where new concepts and ideas are urgently needed.
The fall of the Roman Empire in Europe was followed by the Dark Ages. The so-called
barbarian hordes swept across what had been the civilizations of Rome and Greece.
Scholarship, reading, writing, and thinking were only preserved in the great
monasteries and abbeys of the Church. Naturally, the thinking that took place in the
monasteries and abbeys was concerned with theology and with preserving the doctrine and
dogma of the Christian faith.
Then came the Renaissance. The Renaissance was brought about by the discovery of the
classic thinking methods of the ancient Greek philosophers. This "new thinking"
provided a breath of fresh air. Humanity was given a more central role in the universe.
Thinkers were allowed to use reason to work things out. Logic was now allowed.
It is hardly surprising that this new thinking was eagerly embraced by the
"humanists" or non-church thinkers because it gave them a framework for thinking
and also for challenging the church. At the same time, this new thinking was embraced by
church scholars such as Thomas Aquinas of Naples, who fashioned Aristotelian logic into a
powerful, argumentative way of proving heretics wrong. So the two main thinking groups in
Western culture adopted, with eagerness, this classic Greek thinking.
Argument and Critical Thinking
To this day, Western culture depends on this type of thinking. In family arguments, in
business discussions, in the law courts, and in governing assemblies, we use the thinking
system of the Greeks, based on argument and critical thinking.
I sometimes refer to prominent philosophers of this day as the "gang of
three." Who were the famous Greek gang of three, and how did they form the thinking
habits of Western culture?
The Gang of Three
Socrates (469-399 B.C.)
Socrates was trained as a "sophist." Sophists were people who played with
words and showed how careful choice of words could lead you to almost any conclusion you
wanted. Socrates was interested in challenging people's thinking and, indeed, getting them
to think at all instead of just taking things for granted. He wanted people to examine
what they meant when they said something. He was not concerned with building things up or
making things happen.
|"From Socrates we get the great emphasis on argument and critical
From Socrates we get the great emphasis on argument and critical thinking. Socrates
chose to make argument the main thinking tool. Within argument, there was to be critical
thinking: Why do you say that? What do you mean by that?
Plato (c. 427-348 B.C.)
Plato is generally held to be the father of Western philosophy. He is best-known for his
famous analogy of the cave. Suppose someone is bound up so that the person cannot turn
around but can only look at the back wall of the cave. There is a fire at the mouth of the
cave. If someone comes into the cave, then the bound person cannot see the newcomer
directly but can only see the shadow cast by the fire on the back wall of the cave. So as
we go through life, we cannot see truth and reality but only "shadows" of these.
If we try hard enough and listen to philosophers, then perhaps we can get a glimpse of the
truth. From Plato we get the notion that there is the "truth" somewhere but that
we have to search for it to find it. The way to search for the truth is to use critical
thinking to attack what is untrue.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
Aristotle was the pupil of Plato and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was a
very practical person. He developed the notion of "categories," which are really
definitions. So you might have a definition of a "chair" or a "table."
When you come across a piece of furniture, you have to judge whether that piece of
furniture fits the definition of a chair. If it does fit, you say it is a chair. The
object cannot both be a chair and not be a chair at the same time. That would be a
"contradiction." On the basis of his categories and the avoidance of
contradiction, Aristotle developed the sort of logic we still use today (based largely on
"is" and "is not"). From Aristotle we get a type of logic based on
identity and non-identity, on inclusion and exclusion.
The Outcome of the Gang of Three
So this was the gang of three. The outcome was a thinking system based on the search for
the "truth." This search was going to be carried out by the method of argument.
Within argument there was to be the critical thinking that sought to attack
"untruth." This attack was going to use the methodology of Aristotle's logic.
The Pervasiveness of Argument
To this day, argument is the basis of our normal thinking. The purest form of this type of
thinking is in the law courts where the prosecution takes one side of the argument and the
defense the other side. Each strives to prove the other side wrong. The "truth"
is to be reached by argument.
The Inadequacy of Argument
There is a place for argument, and argument is a useful tool of thinking. But argument is
inadequate as the main tool of thinking.