A Historical Perspective of Critical Thinking

Philosophy and psychology both started as a study of the human condition and the thinking process. From the musings of the philosophers came the sciences of behavior and mental processes. In earlier times the study of psychology and the human condition were considered to be a part of the study of philosophy.

In ancient Greece attempts were made to create the “ideal” society and the truly happy individual. Pericles was seen by the people of Athens as a great leader in this effort. He was elected to his position of leadership in Athens over and over again. He wanted Athens to be strong and powerful and the people who lived there to be prosperous and happy. He carefully developed policies to win the world and gain an empire by commerce rather than by war. Since Athens was dependent upon imported food they built a powerful navy to guard the routes by which that food came. The people were wealthy, happy, well fed and proud of themselves. But as history soon proved – they were very short sighted. They were only interested in their own well being not that of others.

Cities subject to Athens provided funds for the defense of the trade routes against the Persians. Much of this money was used for the adornment of Athens (The Acropolis and the Parthenon). While liberty and democracy were the policy among the designated citizens of Athens, the rest of the Greek Confederacy was ruled by force as an empire of Athens. Jealousy and resistance to Athens existed everywhere. Sparta, Athens’s old enemy, knew the strength of the Athenian fleet and contented themselves with supporting resistance and slowly forging a united front against Athenian power. If you had been a management consultant/advisor to Pericles, what advice would you have given him?

Surrounded by enemies abroad and at home, Pericles worked for and talked about peace while he very carefully prepared for war. He stockpiled food and supplies. When war came, Pericles thought the answer was simple. He withdrew the population of the entire surrounding area (Attica) within the walls of Athens and waited for the navy to win the war. The Athenians thought this was a smart policy. The crowding of Athens, however, led to a plague, which raged for nearly three years, killing a fourth of the soldiers and a great number of the civilian population. The people blamed Pericles for this great calamity and they convicted him for misusing public funds. He was deposed from office and fined. But, when no one could be found to lead them they forgave him and recalled him to power. To show their esteem and sympathy for him they even overrode one of their own laws and bestowed citizenship upon his illegitimate son. Pericles had, however, been infected by the plague and he grew weak and died within a few months.

Under Pericles, Athens had reached her zenith, her golden age. But that success had been attained through the wealth of an unwilling empire and through the use of power that invited almost universal hostility. Does this have any parallel with our current definition of success – “win at all costs?” After Pericles there was no strong leader and Athenian democracy became almost mob rule. One leader after another did whatever they thought would placate the citizens and win their votes, regardless of the wisdom of the policy (public policy based on polls?). It has been said that the Athenian population was so used to having all the wealth and power it wanted that they became free of any moral scruples. They wanted continued prosperity and they wanted the rest of the world to pay for their empire. They elected whoever promised them the most luxury and comfort.

Finally, the unthinkable happened. Sparta, under the leadership of Lysander, sank or captured a large portion of the Athenian fleet. The Athenians were willing to do anything to preserve their power. They melted down the gold and silver from the statues on the Acropolis to pay for a new fleet. They gave freedom to slaves and citizenship to anyone who would fight for the city. The new armada successfully defeated the Spartan fleet and Athens thrilled with the news of victory. Their status was preserved. News was brought back that the crews of 25 of their ships, sunk by the enemy drowned in a storm. Hotheads insisted that the eight victorious generals (including the illegitimate son of Pericles recently honored with citizenship) should be put to death. Is this notion of “something terrible has happened, someone must pay for it” the basis for any public policy decisions and legal proceedings today? Socrates as a presiding officer of the assembly objected to such a plan but it was presented and passed over his protests. The sentence was carried out on the shocked generals who had expected a victor’s welcome on the return. A few days later the Assembly repented and condemned to death those who had persuaded it to execute the generals.

Sparta was weak from the last battle and wanted peace and some kind of agreement between them but the Athenians would have none of it. Athens sent a newly reinforced fleet (with inept leaders after the execution of their best generals) to meet the Spartans thinking this would be the end of Sparta. The battle was a complete failure for Athens. All but eight of the 208 Athenian ships were destroyed or taken. Sparta now took the upper hand and became absolute master of the Aegean. Athens was blockaded and within three months their stock of food was exhausted. Sparta demanded that the walls of Athens be destroyed. Athens had to agree to be subject to Sparta. Gone was their empire and their prosperity.

The empire that Athens had carefully built all around the Mediterranean was now destroyed and those who had been appointed by Athens to rule this empire were required to return to Athens. The new Athenian government was now led by those who had been forced to return home. They were an unhappy lot and not pleased at the lack of proper financial rewards for their leadership. They confiscated property, sold anything they could and either exiled or put to death any and all dissenters. They wanted to rule Athens the way Athens had ruled its empire. They put an end to freedom of teaching, assemblage, and speech. They forbade Socrates to continue his public discourses. The reaction to all of this created an eventual overthrow of the government and the establishment of a “new democracy.” But the new democracy was looking for scapegoats for all of their troubles and they found one in Socrates. It was all his fault. He was convicted of corrupting public morals and put to death.

After his death, the Athenians regretted the decision and in turn put his accusers to death. Athens was exhausted. Gone were the dreams of wealth and empire. Gone were the leaders who gained favor by encouraging efforts to placate the citizens and the struggles for power. The irony is that the new legacy of Athens came from the teachings and students of Socrates. It was all they had left. They turned their energy to the study of philosophy and how to better the human condition.

Socrates had not been content to observe from a distance. He had been involved in the very center of the decision-making process of Athens. He actively taught what he thought was important. He believed that self-examination was the most important activity for the human brain. He said: “Vice is the result of ignorance.” “No one is willingly bad.” “Virtue is knowledge.” If a person has problems it is because they have not examined and questioned their knowledge and beliefs. In other words, the mind is in charge of the body and introspection and self-examination will modify behavior. Perhaps we could call Socrates the first cognitive psychologist.

His student, Plato was certain that knowledge is not the same as perception. He felt that perception can fool a person and therefore cannot be trusted. It is best to know what is real and what is not real based on pure logic and reason. He wanted to know the best way to organize society and construct governmental systems. Every time he attempted to put his theories into actual practice they failed. He had no system of obtaining a reality check and testing his ideas because of his belief that human perception was faulty and could not be trusted. Plato defined the task of the psychological study of perception.

Charles Hobbs came along much later. His philosophy was that to think too much about your condition in life would bring unhappiness. Self-examination and introspection are unhealthy and unnecessary. You must simply accept the fact that your status in life is determined by your birth. Some are born to rule and others are born to be ruled. Life is very simple. Accept it. The English did a very unthinkable thing, however that challenged this approach. The English population executed one king and after a brief fling with a republic invited the son of the ruler they had executed to become their king. What gave the people the right to depose one ruler and then establish another?

John Locke provided the philosophical answer. He said that the mind is a blank slate. Status is not determined by birth, every one begins life with equal potential. Individuals are basically good in nature, independent and of equal value. He taught that all power of government is derived from the individual and is subservient to the rights of the individual. He believed that by everyone working together for the common good, individuals stand the best chance to be happy. He placed a great deal of responsibility for individual as well as societal well being on the free thoughts and actions of each individual. It was up to individuals to think and reason in order to determine their course of action, including the type of government they would create. His thinking was perhaps best stated in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. This philosophical approach might be said to create an open field for the development of the discipline of psychology.

Karl Marx looked at the world around him and saw poverty on the one side and wealth and power on the other side and came to a totally different philosophical view. He said that happiness is always destroyed by an emphasis on production to create profit and the obtaining of property. The notion of profit would always lead to the subservience of the individual. He believed that all of this could be changed if private ownership were abolished and production based on the needs of the community rather than the whims of individuals with power and the need to create profit. In order to bring this about it would be necessary to have a government with absolute power to wrest property and power away from the individuals who have it now and share it equally with everyone. Eventually, this would create a community where all shared everything in common and all would act for the common good. His thinking created a school of thought in direct opposition to that of John Locke. We have seen that this kind of philosophy created a philosophy which had as a main focus to teach individuals to accept their subservience to the group. The class warfare began by Marx continued in the writings of his followers. Milovan Djilas (Vice President of Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito) saw some basic flaws in this approach. His book “the New Class,” maintains that to follow Marx only changed the groups that had power and that did not have power but would never lead to a “classless society.” This kind of independent thinking only caused his arrest and long imprisonment for being an enemy of the State.

The German philosopher Nietzsche tried to get back to Socrates. He said that each individual must examine his or her own life and learn by interaction with others. He wrote against what he called the “slave mentality” of his time, which he felt, exalted conformity and mediocrity. He said that the highest values in life and true happiness are most fully realized in life through great individual efforts, particularly in artistic and intellectual achievement. He felt that the religious and political system of his day were barriers to the development of human potential – not because they were religious, but because they were so rigid.

Great minds in fairly rapid order began to attempt to organize and structure the study of the human condition. Wundt established the first organized and accepted psychological approach, based on introspection and the workings of the inner mind (Structuralism). William James looked at the how and why of behavior and how the mind was influenced by the environment (Functionalism). The Gestaltists were interested in looking at the whole picture. They did not focus on a scientific approach and their concepts remain today mainly as an attitude or an approach, which tries to look beyond the specific to the general issues. In his psychoanalytical approach, Freud focused his attention on childhood experiences and sexual energy.

Watson and Skinner and the behaviorists felt that if you could not directly observe something it may as well not exist. The focus was on observable behavior. This created a scientific approach in the study of the nature of human nature and led to psychology being considered a science instead of a philosophy. For many years the behaviorists ruled the discipline of psychology. No one else had yet figured out how to study more complex aspects of the human condition scientifically.

The humanists (Maslow and Rogers) were more interested in what was going on “inside.” They spoke of self-actualization and felt that if the individual had all of their physical needs met and had the appropriate emotional support, they could solve all of their own problems based on their own internal strength and ability. Does this sound like Socrates revisited?

So today as we consider the practical aspects of management and research we study the human condition as we see it and use a variety of different theoretical and philosophical approaches to explain the mechanisms that seem to be working in any particular case (Eclecticism). We have learned how to do research based on what we can observe and from it derive conclusions about that which we cannot directly observe. In doing so, however, we often run the risk of making inferences as to causation based on an observed correlation which may or may not be meaningful. Sometimes what we call research is helpful and aids in understanding and at other times it seems to be the prisoner of the perception and intention of the researcher. A researcher must not have a personal agenda to prove. A researcher must be open to the discovery of the truth no matter where that discovery might lead. We need to beware of Deficit Model Thinking – where we gain the perception that anything which is different than how we think is not just different it is deficient.

As an example, in the past, both philosophers and psychologists have been involved in the nature vs. nurture debate. Now we have gone beyond that simple concept to a much more complex one in which we have begun to look at the degree to which biology and genetics contributes to personality and behavior in each unique individual. With what we know now we must deal with trying to understand to what degree environment and genetics influences each specific individual. Current research seems to indicate that any one individual’s personality can be determined anywhere from 20 to 80 percent by genetic factors. What an even greater challenge this new understanding creates to help each individual sort out all of the relevant issues affecting a specific situation. Are we then in some way determined or influenced by our genetics or totally free to think and contemplate without any restraint or predetermined inclinations? There may be no really clear unequivocal answer. But to the best of our ability we need to use our brain to ask questions, to challenge our understandings and be open to discovery – not set in concrete.

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