This Rings a Bell

Critical thinking as something aligned with a principle of self-mastery is not new, in fact, it goes back at least two and a half thousand years to both the Sinosphere and Greece. From the written records that we have available to us from ancient India, it appears that the oldest account of critical thinking is found in the teachings of Gautama Buddha and can be found in a collection of writings known as the Kalama Sutta. As the story goes the Buddha was travelling through the town of Kessaputta and he was met by clansmen called the ‘Kalamas’ who questioned Buddha on which of the travelling holy men that came through their village they should believe because each one of them had a different version of what the truth was. The Buddha then laid out what is considered the first recorded delineation of systemized critical reasoning. Buddha expounds his criteria for rejection of claims as follows:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”

(Kalama Sutta: The Instruction to the Kalamas)

It’s Greek to Me


In ancient Greece, it was Socrates who insisted that individuals should use a process of constant questioning to really delve into what we think we know, as well as what others think they know. The original term, and sometimes still used term for this systematic questioning was ‘maieutics’ which was a reference to midwifery, where the truth was laboriously extracted from a matter under scrutiny, whether espoused by another or claimed by the self. Today this method is far less dramatically known as either ‘Elenctic Method’, from the Greek word for ‘refutation’,  ‘Method of Elenchus’ form the Greek word for ‘uncountable’ or as is it is more commonly and less technically referred to as the ‘Socratic Method’ . The Socratic method is all about using a process of elimination to weed out contradictions in hypothesis and opinion. It is utilized as a system to assist people in getting to a clearer understanding of what may be missing at the base of their beliefs, or what truths are resident in those beliefs. This principle is a cornerstone of today’s modern scientific method. This interlocutory inculcation also sits at the heart of the types of pedagogy that teach children how to think, rather than how to merely memorize whatever is handed to them by figures of authority.

“Whom do I call educated? First, those who manage well the circumstances they encounter day by day. Next, those who are decent and honourable in their intercourse with all men, bearing easily and good-naturedly what is offensive in others and being as agreeable and reasonable to their associates as is humanly possible to be… those who hold their pleasures always under control and are not ultimately overcome by their misfortunes… those who are not spoiled by their successes, who do not desert their true selves but hold their ground steadfastly as wise and sober-minded men.” 

As our civilizations become increasingly technically complex and our societies more culturally diverse, we are faced with numerous situations wherein critical reasoning is vital to living peacefully, operating productively and engaging authentically with our fellow human beings. It does not serve us well if our thoughts are disorganized and fragmented, tied together in a tatterdemalion hodgepodge of notions, assumptions, half-truths and borrowed beliefs, which are but in essence the oozing effluvia of the manipulators of meaning and exploiters of ignorance accumulating in the self-affirming galvanized outhouse of an unquestioning mind.

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” 
― Michelangelo Buonarroti


This process of mastery that we are about to embark on, is in no way meant to imply that it is mastery over anything other than the automatic processes that govern what we think of as ourselves and the circumstances that we imagine we are finding ourselves in. Critical thinking does not make us superior to anything but our own reflexivity, and only occasionally and tentatively at best. We are not going to get it right all of the time, and further to that what we think of now as right may turn out to be totally wrong at worst or moderately inappropriate at best. Science itself is by its very nature not a closed book, it is at its core always, if sometimes rather slowly, open to being updated.

Which is why when we take a look at the origins of the word master we see that it comes to us from the Proto-Indo European word ‘magis’ meaning ‘more’and certainly in its meaning of more it is a suggestion to us that we need to move from scarcity to abundance, and the route to the acquisition of any treasure of worth as our popular myths and narrative inform us is via a quest. It is the same for the treasures of the mind, we too must embark on the route to that which is worthy, we too must (quest)ion.