Miscellany: infants, pigeons, “critical thinking”

I appreciated your example of an infant in connection with naïve thinking. The connection is felicitous and very intuitive on your part since the word “naïve” is a French loan-word into English that originally stems from the Latin word for “birth.” We have other words in English that we have imported directly from Latin (not via French) that belong to the same family. These include “natal,” “nativity,” and even “nature.”

Your example leads me to wonder about something. We generally assume that every adult of normal intelligence is capable of thinking critically and that if, on some occasion, he or she refrains from doing this, it is not because he or she cannot, but because one is not inclined to. At the same time, we affirm that newborn infants are not capable of critical thinking. I have wondered before about the stages of development between these two phases in life. At what (st)age does one become capable of critical thought? I think it is intimately connected with autobiographical memory and the self-concept. A person begins thinking naively without knowing it. It is necessary that this come before because a person has first to accumulate thoughts to then reflect upon them. Having a concept of a self with a biography provides a schema of ordering these thoughts, which otherwise would present a mere haphazard and incoherent jumble. He or she must also be able to make those past thoughts present before her mind’s eye in reflection. All of these things seem to emerge only at a certain age and perhaps we spend our whole lives seeking to perfect the use of this faculty. What do you think of this?


To pick up where we left off in our earlier conversation about the value you have found in Stoicism and Existentialism: I think I understand very well where you are coming from. I am reminded of an anecdote I heard that tells of an exchange between C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield (on whose work in epistemology and the evolution of consciousness, together with that of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner I wrote my doctoral dissertation) in which the latter corrects Lewis for an observation regarding “the use of the discipline (i.e. as in “academic discipline”) of philosophy.” 

“Excuse me, Lewis,” said Barfield (despite being close friends they referred to one another by surname), “philosophy was not a ‘discipline,’ for Plato; it was a Way.” 

A more modern philosopher called Pierre Hadot has also written extensively on this subject. In respect to studying the Philosophy of Science as a subject: it is immensely challenging to discover the practical value from it that you described having derived from your study of ethics. That being said, I believe it is possible and I hope we can attempt to study the subject in a way that supports the realization of this possibility. One element that drew me to Goethe’s approach to science was just this sort of integral regard he held for scientific inquiry as an aspect of total life. Perhaps you have further thoughts on this now.


The observation that mathematical theorems do not lend themselves to empirical observation brings up a very interesting question. You suggested that Newton’s laws and Bernoulli’s principle, on the contrary, do lend themselves to empirical observation. But I wonder if this is true. After all, the only kinds of things we empirically observe are falling apples and fracturing pipes. Only someone who already knows these theories will be able to observe instances of them. Moreover, Newton’s theories have been superseded by Einstein’s and, like Bernoulli’s principle, they describe the behaviour of matter under “ideal conditions” which, per definitionem, do not exist. What does all of this suggest to you?


Thank you for submitting your reflection, which was a delight to read. As you were “illustrating” the scenario that you set up as an analogy to how you see critical thinking, it occurred to me that the relations “emanate” in a much wider sphere than you described. In a way, your brain and nervous system is also part of the mediating apparatus. Your mind informs your brain just as, reciprocally, your drawing stimulates the brain and nervous system of anyone who perceives it, which in turn, informs his mind.

You might take it further and say even that your mind or spirit draws on a world of objective ideas or feelings or archetypes or meanings which it then “draws down” or “incarnates” into form according to the rules of drawing. This could also be called the “logic” or “grammar” of drawing. Then, reciprocally, anyone who perceives not only the shape of what you drew, but also experiences its meaningfulness has “closed the circuit,” as it were.

Returning to the point about “grammar” or “logic”: I think this also illustrates your point by analogy, since a person does not become more free to express himself by flouting the laws of grammar when he speaks. In fact, almost the opposite is the case. It reminds me of a (somewhat ominous) quote by Francis Bacon, whose name you may know: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” I think naïve people imagine that freedom is the same thing as removing all constraints but you have quite perspicaciously shown how this is incorrect.


Self-interest. Like I said in class on Monday, some people argue that all deeds performed in the name of love are ultimately selfish. In other words, “love” is a pretense and the reason we may appear to act kindly towards other people is that it gives us a pleasant feeling. “Altruism” is, from this perspective, an expression of the satisfaction that a person derives from feeling like an altruistic person.


Altruism. Others argue that love, or selflessness, or altruism can be motivating impulses for actions (Plato and some Christian philosophers even argue that it is the only motive for action). They would counter the claim outlined above by pointing out that the only reason a person derives the said personal pleasure from acting altruistically is because they already love the person towards whom they were acting that way. In other words, a person would receive no satisfaction from acting altruistically towards another if he or she did not bear some love for that person. 

From the outset, it seems self evident that love is not merely a pretense for self-interest. At the same time, our entire modern economic system (i.e. classical free market economics) and scientific paradigm (i.e. Darwinian evolution through natural selection) assumes, as an axiomatic departure-point, precisely this principle of ineradicable self-interest so it seems like a very important question to reflect on.


You did an exemplary job sustaining the paradox of drawing conclusions about something without ceasing to hold open the question. As I suggested, this is the hallmark of a critical thinker and Plato’s Socrates was a sort of personification of this orientation. The orientation could be described as “towards wisdom,” which conveniently translated the term philosophia. You observed that “You gather concepts because you want to know more about something unknown.” As we may discover in reading and discussion of Plato’s Symposium, this “wanting to understand”’ is the result of the action of love upon our souls. According to Plato, it is only in virtue of love—love for the truth, for the world, for another person, etc.—that we bother to seek to understand. Put another way, love of truth is what inclines us towards understanding or wisdom. I will be curious to hear your reflections on this.

 As to the figures that Socrates makes reference to: it can be very difficult for us to gain entry into writings from other traditions and historical periods because each, including our own, has its own “mythology” and “pantheon.” For the Greeks, Rhadamanthus was a son of Zeus and believed to be the judge of human souls after death. Triptolemus was a figure associated with the mystery center of Eleusis, likely in a priestly function but an essential element of the mystery rites is that they remain secret. We can talk about this in class if you are interested. Your question about the origin of Plato’s beliefs regarding the afterlife is probably connected with the ancient mystery cults as well.


You may already know this but the term “pigeon” may refer to a variety of species of the Columbidae family. It comes from the Latin word for “dove,” which is columba. Taken together Columbus’ surname, that our nation’s capital is called “Washington District of Columbia,” and that the nation has been imaginatively personified in the mythical figure of Columbia (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail,_Columbia, the Statue of Liberty) makes me think there exists something like a parallel USA that is somehow a spiritual ideal towards which “the better angels of our nature” have continually striven. Its national bird is not the Roman eagle but the dove and it’s anthem is “Amazing Grace,” or perhaps “Hail, Columbia.” There is a similar duality or “Jekyll-and-Hyde” complex in the idea of Rome. Roma is Amor backwards so they are reverse images of one another, just like the two faces of the USA. Roma traces its lineage to the fratricide of Romulus while its spiritual ideal traces its lineage to Aeneas’s flight from Troy as immortalized in Virgil’s epic. These are a few thoughts I have and I hope they can inspire you to take up whatever topic you see fit with the confidence that “Nothing is a long way off or far from anything else,” as the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (204-270 CE) observed.


Thank you for submitting your reflection for this week. I appreciated your use of the word “generic” in describing the opposite of critical thought. It leaves me with the image of a person who allows customs and habits and fashions to think for her. In some way, critical thinking depends on a certain individual responsibility in respect to what passes through my own mind. Critical thinking doesn’t just happen. Rather, it is something that one may either do or refrain from doing. What do you think of this?This leads me to a comment about the example of critical thinking that you provided. I would like to invite you to deepen your concept of critical thinking. You gave an example of increasing breadth when you suggested that you could consider more elements about the shirt than whether it left a first impression that was favorable. Can you think of how to add a dimension of depth? One thing that occurs to me is that you could consider the question: “What is it about me that makes me like this shirt?” Can you see how this is a qualitatively different question from one which concerns gathering more facts about the shirt?

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