The History of Thinking in Western History
The History of Thinking in Western History
While interviewing former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill in September of 2014, Megyn Kelly confronted him with the question “do you think there’s anything good about America?”. His snarky answer: “Well I’m sure you can find 50 things that are good about it, Megyn.”
Ward Churchill was the one who became famous for calling the white collar professionals killed in the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmanns”, likening them to the savage Nazi Adolf Eichmann. The proper premise Megyn Kelly seemed to be operating from was, because there is so much that is evidently great about the United States, e.g., its freedom, stability, opportunities and standard of living, how could anyone like Ward Churchill be so against it?
But, as bizarre at it is, like Ward Churchill most of our professors today are. They’re against it because the United States is a country founded on the idea that people live by thinking, and American academia has contempt for thinking – and thus for America.
In my previous blog post “How we get our Values: The Thinking Process”, October 2015, I said that thinking is ultimately how we get the things that are valuable for our survival. Given how important it is, how can anyone be against it?
Yet, as strange as it may seem, people can be against thinking. As I explained in my prior post “Why Liberals are such, uh, JERKS (and what to do about them)”, November 2015, thinking is not automatic, and people who do not learn how to do it properly can turn against it and end up hating it, along with all of its products such as technology, as well as against people who do it well and cultures, countries and philosophies that support it. This is, as I said, why liberals are such, uh, jerks.
Things get scary in a country when its intellectuals in academia, who are the most important people for the future of any country, turn against thinking – the way Ward Churchill and the majority of his colleagues have.
Academia’s importance for any society cannot be overstated. It is widely believed that elected officials determine social trends and professors are eccentric fuddyduddies who say crazy things nobody listens to. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything it’s the opposite: intellectuals are the source of the ideas that cause social trends and politicians merely implement them. Intellectuals have the influence they do because of their research, what they teach students and the consulting services they provide outside the classroom to businesses and government officials. From them culture-shaping ideas are created and spread, giving academia a position of the highest importance in influencing our culture and the future.
Academia has been using its immense influence to cause havoc all over the country for decades. Academicians advise officials to violate the will of those who elect them, as the statements of MIT professor and Obamacare architect Jon Gruber indicate. Their ideas are causing widespread economic stagnation, financial hardship, increased unemployment and underemployment, coarsening of our culture, a reduction in our military strength and disrespect for our national sovereignty from our enemies worldwide. Journalism schools are training future reporters to propagandize, law schools are teaching future attorneys to ignore individual rights and shred the Constitution, and colleges of education are training future teachers to dumb down students. The United States will not survive if this goes on indefinitely.
So now, the question remains: why are American intellectuals today against thinking? The answer is, philosophically since the 1780’s the Western world – basically Europe and North America – has been in a non-thinking trend.
Since its beginning in ancient Greece, Western history has alternated between pro-thinking and anti-thinking periods as a result of the dominant philosophical ideas taught by academicians. In ancient Greece western thought was generally pro-thinking, particularly in Athens.
Philosophy is the science that determines the path a culture takes, either towards a golden age or a dark age. Philosophy does this because it is the science that relates the facts of reality to the requirements of human survival. As the following shows, when the dominant philosophy in the West has been pro-thinking, the result has been successful countries and empires and prosperity. But when the dominant philosophy has been anti-thinking, the result has been corruption, economic stagnation and depression, and cultural and even total societal collapse.
In Athens Plato (who lived approximately from 425 to 350 BC) basically created the science of philosophy, recognizing its proper structure and branches. The most important branch of philosophy is epistemology (a word a lot of Americans don’t know but need to learn!!!!), which relates to how people know what they know. The next branch, ethics, a word Americans know but have only a vague idea of the meaning of, relates to how people should act based on their epistemology, i.e., based on how you know what you know. The next branch, politics, a word Americans not only know but also have a pretty good idea about the meaning of, relates to how people should organize a social system based on their ethics, i.e., based on how you should act.
Plato’s student Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) filled in much of the details of epistemology, basically discovering the rudiments of the thinking process. He developed conceptualization with logical, non-contradictory definitions for words and is known in particular for coming up with the terms for many different natural phenomena, including plants and animals. When Greek soldiers conquered other places they took specimens of plants and captured animals, which they brought back to Athens for Aristotle to identify. Aristotle is credited with creating the world’s first zoo in Athens with captured animals for people to view. He also filled in a lot of ethics, discovering that the moral goal of one’s life is achieving values and happiness.
Throughout history Aristotle has been recognized as a brilliant, sophisticated and passionate thinker who loved life and values, and a powerful force for enabling Western civilization to ultimately become as affluent and healthy as it did. In the shorter term Aristotle’s ideas contributed to the tremendous expansion of the Greek empire during the Hellenistic era as a result of the conquests made by his student Alexander the Great, and ultimately the formation of the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, the dominant philosophy of the Roman Empire (50 BC – 476 AD), in contrast with that of Greece, was primarily anti-thinking. Plotinus (204 -270 AD), the most prominent Roman philosopher, believed that thinking was useless for resolving the most important issues faced by people. Instead, according to Plotinus ultimately people should live by mindlessly following their emotions.
The problem with Plotinus’ advice is that emotion, unlike thinking, does not give someone information about reality, which is necessary to achieve values. Understanding reality is essential for achieving values because reality is ever-present and always setting the terms of our lives, so it consequently determines the possible values that are available and the ways in which they can be achieved. This is why understanding the facts-of-reality is necessary to figuring out how to achieve any particular value.
Instead of information about reality all emotions give someone is what he thinks about reality, which of course can be erroneous. For example, you walk out of your office and in the street see a large, mean looking man punch a woman, and suddenly are overwhelmed with disgust towards him. But what you didn’t see was that immediately prior to the punch the woman tried to rob him by grabbing and attempting to run off with his wallet, making her the one in the wrong. By going on emotion alone without introspecting to see whether the ideas behind your emotions are right or not (which requires thinking), you can’t determine who is right and who is wrong. This is true of all values: without thinking and knowing reality, values become unattainable (except by dumb luck every now and then).
The result of Plotinus’ ideas was widespread confusion, misery, incompetently run businesses, economic stagnation, and the extreme corruption of political leaders the Roman Empire was notorious for. These leaders allowed the empire to be overrun by barbarians who hated thinking and further turned Roman culture against it, leading ultimately to Rome’s collapse in 476 AD.
Consequently people in the late Roman Empire began to believe that thinking was worthless and values and happiness were unattainable. They turned against them, regarding them as immoral. The views of Augustine (354-430 AD), the first significant Christian philosopher, reflected this attitude. According to Augustine thinking, values and worldly happiness were an illusion and a farce, leading to nothing but frustration. Instead, the moral path was for people to forgo values and happiness during their lives and instead passively abide the misery of life to get into heaven and eternal salvation after death.
The result of Augustine’s influence was the Dark Ages, an anarchy in Western Europe lasting from 476 to approximately 1000 AD. During this time very little in terms of values was available. The oceans were full of marauding pirates and bandits were everywhere on land. There was virtually no law and order and everyone was at risk of being robbed, raped, tortured or murdered by potentially anyone else he met. A mere cold could cause someone to die of pneumonia if another person didn’t kill him first; Rome, which previously had between half a million and a million residents, had become a nearly abandoned city with a population of about 20,000. Throughout the former Western Roman Empire the average age of death dropped to about 20(!). Understandably, during this time people regarded their lives as a brief period of severe but unimportant misery on the way hopefully to eternal salvation beyond the grave.
After 1000 AD the Christian Church as ruler of Western Europe had created enough stability so that civilization slowly started making a comeback. A priority of the Church was access to Christian holy sites in the Middle East by European pilgrims, so the Church sponsored military invasions of the area. During these invasions Aristotle’s writings were rediscovered in what is now Syria and brought back to Rome for analysis. The Christian philosopher who incorporated Aristotle’s ideas into Christianity was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Aquinas basically rewrote Christianity, making it the diametric opposite of the gloom and doom religion it was during the Dark Ages. His ideas were in essence a combination of Aristotelianism and Christianity: if you think and pursue values and happiness during your life you will go to heaven and achieve salvation after you die. Once Aquinas’ ideas (known as Thomism) became accepted as church doctrine, thinking was back in the picture in Western Europe. The result was an explosion in scientific discoveries, commerce, business, manufacturing, the arts and culture and an enormous increase in the standard of living known as the Renaissance (1300-1600).
European philosophers after the Renaissance picked up where the Greeks left off, discovering the ethical and political implications of a pro-thinking epistemology. This era was called the Enlightenment (1650-1781). Some of the prominent philosophers during the Enlightenment include Rene Descartes in France (1596-1650), Gottfried Leibniz in Germany (1646-1716), and Baruch Spinoza in Spain (1632-1677).
The most important and influential Enlightenment philosophers, however, were, not surprisingly, in England. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was the first philosopher who put together ideas on epistemology, ethics and politics to come up with a complete system that closely resembles how people live in the developed world today.
According to Hobbes thinking is the only way people learn anything about reality, which is necessary for achieving values. People should be free to choose the values they want, but in doing so they must not be allowed to initiate force against other people. The purpose of government according to Hobbes is not to tell people what to do, but to tell them what not to do. When people live together in any way they need to make what he called a “social compact” between themselves not to initiate force, and it is the job of a government to enforce the compact with whatever force is necessary to do so. Only with a government enforcing a social compact, according to Hobbes, could the best in people come out and not be snuffed out by the worst in people.
Hobbes is commonly thought of incorrectly as wanting an all-powerful dictatorship along the lines of Hitler or Stalin. Mark Levin, for example, characterized Hobbes as wanting to force people into an arbitrary utopia where the government could choose their values for them without their say so. This was actually not true because Hobbes never supported tyranny but rather was a proponent of absolute monarchy (as was Thomas Aquinas).
Although named “absolute”, an absolute monarchy was actually not totally absolute. While the king had absolute power over the police and the military, over moral matters the king’s power was held in check by the church and, increasingly, intellectuals in universities (which were usually created by churches). Before the founding of the United States’ representative democracy, absolute monarchy – with the stability provided by a powerful army and the check on power provided by the church – was actually as close to political freedom as people knew how to come.
Where Hobbes got his reputation as a political tough guy was in his reaction to the English Civil War, which broke out in 1642 in response to widespread dissatisfaction with King Charles I. Throughout Europe, there were anarchists who wanted to return to the Dark Ages. When the king was overthrown every Tom, Dick and Harry in favor of anarchy came out of the woodwork to proclaim the monarchy a failure and have Parliament, which was basically too weak to govern because it was beholden to special interests, become the ruling body. Hobbes was dead set against this. In his treatise Leviathan Hobbes stressed the need for a strong government when he famously and correctly called anarchy the “state of nature” where there is a “war of all against all” and “life is …brutish and short”.
Hobbes’ ideas regarding thinking, values, and a social compact between people were in essence followed by his fellow countryman John Locke (1632-1704), who in turn elaborated on and improved on them, in particular Hobbes’ political ideas in his treatise Two Treatises of Government. In Two Treatises Locke further limited the power of the government by stating that the social compact’s purpose is to protect the natural, individual rights of people to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness – which are man’s natural rights because they are necessary for people to achieve their values and live. (See my blog post “The Long Lost Doctrine of Individual Rights”, September 2015.) According to Locke the government is a party to the social compact, without the ability to violate the rights of those it governs. The government’s role as protector of rights according to Locke is as an unbiased arbiter who determines whether a violation of rights has occurred and, if so, how the perpetrator should be held accountable.
The ideas of Hobbes and Locke were the basis for the creation of the United States, whose founders conceived it as a country where people would live by thinking and pursuing the values they want free from coercion from others. The purpose of the American government would not be to tell people what their values are, but rather to prevent them from violating the individual rights of others.
The pro-thinking, pro-freedom ideas of the Enlightenment led to the greatest expansion of scientific and economic activity in human history, because of the discoveries of English scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1726) and the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840).
Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist in history. Among his many achievements is the discovery of much of modern physics, in particular the laws of mechanics. He is also along with Enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz the co-inventor of calculus, the mathematics of rate changes which is indispensible in modern engineering and design.
The Industrial Revolution was the change in manufacturing from predominantly small, mom-and pop type shops producing a small number of goods to enormous factories producing thousands of items of many different types. It occurred because the explicit respect for property rights under the Lockean theory of government allowed businessmen to keep their profits rather than have them confiscated by the government. This allowed them to accumulate enough capital to grow their business so large they could take advantage of economies of scale to the point that manufactured goods became affordable to almost anyone for the first time. As a consequence standards of living and life expectancy skyrocketed and wealth replaced poverty as the norm of human life in North America and Western Europe.
Unfortunately, while the Enlightenment philosophers were proficient at understanding the ethical and political implications of a pro-thinking epistemology, they had a poor understanding of that epistemology itself. In particular they knew little about the nature of concepts. For example, how do you determine the bounds of what’s subsumed by a concept, i.e., does “love” include “lust” and “infatuation”? And what is included in the “definition” of a concept? Also, does newly discovered information make a concept invalid? Can concepts be updated or changed, or are they ironclad? These and other vitally important questions regarding the thinking process were open issues at the end of the Enlightenment.
By the 1780’s these open epistemological issues left the anti-thinking intellectuals the biggest opportunity to reassert themselves since the Dark Ages, allowing them to take control of academia and sending Western civilization into another anti-thinking period that has lasted to the present.
The first and most important philosopher of this anti-thinking trend was Immanuel Kant of Germany (1724 –1804). In the first part of his epistemological treatise, The Critique of Pure Reason (called the “Transcendental Aesthetic”), Kant attacked thinking right at the first step, claiming sensory perception to be invalid. According to Kant whenever we see, touch, taste, smell or hear something, we aren’t observing it as it really is; rather, our brains change everything we observe by adding time and space to it. Things as they really are, outside of “time and space”, according to Kant, are unknowable by thinking. And since our perceptions are invalid, the rest of the thinking process that follows from it is as well: all concepts are arbitrary, all facts induced from them are invalid, principles are worthless generalizations, and understanding any kind of context is pointless.
Because thinking is useless, according to Kant we are unable to choose our values ourselves and pursue our happiness; if we did there would be havoc. Instead, according to his ethical treatise The Critique of the Metaphysic of Morals, an authority must choose them for us and we have an unconditional duty to obey the authority’s dictates whatever they may be, no matter how oppressive they are or what we might want personally.
Another German philosopher, Georg Hegel (1770–1831), figured out the political implications of Kant’s ideas in epistemology and ethics, claiming that the authority we are to obey is the state. Yet another German Kantian, Karl Marx (1818–1883), came up with the political theory of Communism, whereby the anti-thinking proletariat controls the thinking bourgeoisie by having all property owned by the state.
Just as the pro-thinking Enlightenment resulted in great things including Isaac Newton, the Industrial Revolution and the United States, the anti-thinking trend of Kant, Hegel, Marx and their ideological allies including Arthur Schopenhauer, Soren Kierkegaard, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, C.S. Pierce, Jean Paul Sartre, John Stewart Mill and John Maynard Keynes among others has resulted in unspeakable disaster: the Nazis, the Soviets, the Maoist Chinese, bloodthirsty dictatorships worldwide and piles of corpses from Phnom Penh to Poland.
In the United States the most influential philosopher since the end of the Enlightenment was John Dewey (1859-1951). A Kantian, liberal Democrat, and a founder of the ACLU along with Roger Nash Baldwin, Dewey softened Hegel’s political language to cater to a more freedom-loving audience. According to Dewey people have no existence by themselves and must obey the dictates of “society” (with, of course, the state as “society’s” spokesman). A professor at University of Chicago and Columbia, Dewey is best known for his pedagogical theory, Progressive Education, which dumbs down and intellectually disarms American children.
To teach children to grow up into productive thinkers who can choose their own values and live happily by their own efforts, their teachers need to present material in a logical hierarchy with the most basic material presented first and then new material that builds on it presented next and integrated with that previously learned. For example, in arithmetic a student learns 6+4=10; then later in algebra, the concept of a variable is added to the rules of arithmetic and the student learns 6x+4x=10x.
But this is not how liberals want to ‘educate’ children. Instead in public schools John Dewey and his followers have for a century now pushed scams like Progressive Education and its more modern variants, including “whole language” reading, the “new math”, “outcome based education”, and the current scourge of “common core”. In all of these, material is presented out of its logical hierarchy and out of context, so that it cannot be integrated and properly understood but rather ends up an incomprehensible hash of floating, disconnected facts the student thinks has nothing to do with anything. This is why when these kids grow up and Jesse Watters interviews them on television they hardly know anything.
If the dumbing down of Americans that is Dewey’s legacy is not reversed, the United States will suffer a similar fate to other societies during anti-thinking eras. The specifics of what exactly will happen are not knowable at this point but what is certain is that this country is still very vulnerable.
And now, in the midst of all this gloom and doom, some VERY GOOD NEWS: Kant’s anti-thinking era may be about to be replaced with a pro-thinking one, with a golden age to come soon.
Russian author and philosopher Alisa Rosenbaum (1905–1982) was an influential Aristotelian intellectual with a strong following. Her work is generally opposed by academia but interest in it there is growing. Using the pen name Ayn Rand, she was the author of the novel Atlas Shrugged which was about the collapse of the United States after the intellectual community became totally anti-thinking. In Atlas Shrugged she presented her philosophy, which she called Objectivism because of its objective, reality-based orientation. Rand believed in the individual rights-based political system of John Locke and an ethics based on individual freedom to choose those values that make one happy.
After the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 until her death Ayn Rand authored several nonfiction philosophy books which were basically compendiums of articles she wrote during the 1960’s elaborating on her ideas. The more significant of these include The Virtue of Selfishness (1965), on ethics; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967) and The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971), on politics; and The Romantic Manifesto (1971), on aesthetics (another branch of philosophy I haven’t discussed, relating to art).
Her most important work, however, was Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1979), which answered a lot of questions left open at the end of the Enlightenment regarding concepts. After her death her work on epistemology was continued by two close associates of hers, Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger, both of whom are professional philosophers.
The epistemological works of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger are precisely what Western civilization’s doctor ordered. In the meantime, though, there is something that anyone who has read and understands this post can do to help coax our rotten universities to change their ways, as suggested by Professor Walter Williams of George Mason University: snap shut those checkbooks! No alumni donations.
There may be even more that can be done. For example, any professor who teaches as if Kant’s ideas are correct and the university that employs him could be exposed as frauds who are committing malpractice with the minds of our children. This is because at the root of Kant’s philosophy is a fallacy that invalidates his entire system.
There is nothing in the nature of space and time that changes what we observe in any way. Space is just existing volume, and time is simply movement across it. People get confused defining time because they package-deal its essence with its significance as a planning tool, and end up giving it some mystical nature in their minds. When movement across space is at a constant speed and synchronized for everyone like the hands on a clock or the shadow on a sundial it does become useful as a planning tool, but it is still just at root movement across space, nothing more.
To end the anti-thinking trend of Kant and return us to a golden age, the true nature of space and time and the phony, hateful rationalization of Kantianism should be explained to anyone able to understand and willing to listen. At the same time any professors and universities that support Kant’s mental excrement should all be exposed for what they are: envy-ridden killers who want to destroy civilization for no good reason, but ‘just because’- and the tuition or consulting fees paid by students and clients to these cranks should be refunded.
But, you may be asking, what about “academic freedom”? Don’t academicians have the right to preach and teach whatever they want? The answer is: no, they do not – any more than a surgeon responsible for performing a sophisticated procedure suddenly has “medical freedom” to decide he’ll use medieval alchemy, Santeria and black magic instead of proven and accepted modern practices to save his patient; or an American lawyer has “legal freedom” to argue the merits of his client’s case on the basis of Sharia law rather than sound legal precedent. “Academic freedom” is no justification for being a fraud and committing philosophical malpractice.
Let’s be clear what I’m talking about regarding malpractice: there is no crime in teaching Kant or any other philosopher. There is no problem, for example, in a philosophy course saying “This is Immanuel Kant. He lived in Prussia. He believed that …”. The problem is in teaching or consulting from the premise, unbeknownst to students or clients, that Kant’s ideas, being false, are valid. That’s where the malpractice is.
To summarize where we are in late 2015; yes, Western civilization is still vulnerable. But, the answers are out there.