Miscellany: infants, pigeons, “critical thinking”

On the nature and emergence of critical thinking:

One method, or organum, by which to inquire after the essence of something is by via negativa—by inquiring after everything that it is not. In this way, we can seek to understand the essence of thinking that is not critical but naïve. The infant provides perhaps the most quintessential example of naïve thinking that is accessible to our direct experience since we all passed through a period of infancy, whose vestiges remain just outside the scope of our explicit memory. The connection is felicitous and very intuitive 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.”

The connection between infancy and naïve thinking invites a question for me. 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 she will not; 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 and reflection is a sine qua non of critical thinking. 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. A person 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.

On finding psychological value in the traditions of Stoicism and Existentialism:

A great deal of the value of these schools of philosophy is their emphasis on practice or askesis as opposed to mere theorizing. 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.

Science is said to be both empirical and rational but are these predicates contradictory?

A law of nature as such can never be observed, in principle and no object of perception reveals its lawfulness directly to empirical observation.

That mathematical theorems, do not lend themselves to empirical observation is self-evident but the extension of this observation to scientific laws poses a very interesting question. Some people might argue, on the contrary, that Newton’s laws and Bernoulli’s principle, do lend themselves to empirical observation. But I don’t think 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. It is hard to see how a scientific law, which posterity reveals never to have existed in the first place, could ever have been an object of empirical observation.

On the spurious dichotomy between freedom and constraint or lawfulness:

In any creative activity—illustration, for instance—the mind or spirit draws on a world of objective ideas or feelings or archetypes or meanings which it then “incarnates” into form according to the rules of drawing. These archetypes must me objective because otherwise the artist herself, and by extension everyone else, would lack any criterion to evaluate the illustration. This lawfulness could also be called the “logic” or “grammar” of drawing. Anyone who perceives not only the shape of what was drawn, but also experiences its meaningfulness, has “closed the circuit,” as it were, by completing the incarnational action of the artist with its reciprocal action of intellection. These two series—which can also be grasped as a single whole—have been been identified by medieval philosophers under the rubrics of the ordo cogniscendi, or “order of cognition,” and the ordo essendi, or “order of being.”

Returning to the point about “grammar” or “logic”: it is critical to note that a contemplation of these elements reveals that our conventional notion of freedom as “lack of constraint” is simply incorrect. 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: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Naïve people imagine freedom in a way that is indistinguishable from arbitrariness.

On self-interest versus altruism:

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.

Others argue that love, or selflessness, or altruism, can be motivating impulses for action in their own right (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 to begin with. 

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.

On the highest use of the philosophical mind:

To draw conclusions about something without ceasing to hold open the question that attracted those conclusions is among the loftiest attainments of philosophical reason. To manage this is the hallmark of the critical thinker, for which Plato’s Socrates was a sort of paragon. The inverse of this is the person who already thinks he knows and hence obviates himself from learning anything. This could be described as “dogmatism.” The orientation of the philosopher’s soul, on the other hand, could be described as “towards wisdom,” which conveniently translated the term philosophia. This contrasts with an orientation towards one or another propositional answer or fixed idea or, obviously, towards something which instrumentalizes the question altogether, like signaling affiliation with one or another tribe or political movement. The wish to understand something is, in the first place, the result of love acting 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.

 As to the figures that Socrates makes reference to in the Symposium dialogue: 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.

Hail Columbia!

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—or perhaps the Wild Turkey, as Franklin proposed—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 (amor is Latin for “love”) 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.

On critical thinking against generic thinking:

The notion of “generic thinking” invokes, foremost, the notion of attempting to arrive at knowledge by way of statistics. This is a method that has come to underpin a great deal of what we commonly recognize as “science” today. But in many ways, statistical knowledge is the opposite of real knowledge because statistics only concern generic members of a class. It is supremely important to observe that there is no such thing as a generic member of a class except in abstraction. Hence I said that statistical knowledge is the opposite of real knowledge; in reality we encounter only real things and beings and not generic ones.

“Generic thinking” also 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.

Photo by Meru Bi on Pexels.com

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