Philosophy and the Search for Ideas: Foundations of Critical Thinking

As historians are quick to point out, the parallels between modern times and the classical world – including not only Greece, but also Rome – are plentiful. No new thinking here. In profound ways, our modern society, laws, forms of government and language are embedded in the classic traditions.

But there’s more to the story than that.

The history of philosophy, more broadly framed as the history ideas, tells a compelling story about a journey to new levels of understanding – a tale that traces evolution of ‘critical thinking’ itself.

At its core, philosophy is about learning how we ‘know’ what we know, and learning what we can do with the knowledge that can be gained.

Critical thinking and philosophy seem to share a common heritage, as shown in this table:


There is scant space here to do justice to such a rich history, but to advance the topic as part of my critical thinking series we need to at least expose the biggest pillars. In the paragraphs below, I focus on philosophers who have provided significant contributions to what has evolved as the modern notion of critical thinking.

  1. Pythagoras. A pioneer in math, Pythagoras advanced geometry with his famous theorem on triangles. In so doing, he brought the concept of ‘abstraction’ into the mainstream. He effectively demonstrated that what we observe is one thing, while what we comprehend mentally is quite another.
  2. Socrates. Famous for asking deeper and deeper questions to get to the core of an issue, Socrates was a relentless advocate of critical thinking. He is said to have used Pythagorean triangles drawn in the sand to challenge skeptics on their limited view of the ‘knowable’.
  3. Plato. While famous as both student and scribe of Socrates and an early political scientist, Plato was important in this discussion for driving concepts of perfected universals – truth, as one example – derived from accepted perfections in abstract mathematics. When we think about ideal solutions and archetypes, we owe a debt to Plato for asserting their importance, laying ground work for the modern framing of ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn) and ‘mental model’ (Senge).
  4. Aristotle. A critical inflection point in Western philosophic thought, Aristotle used his deep appreciation for observable science – biology in particular – to bring a rational, logical rigor to the abstract ideas of his time. He laid key foundational ideas of ‘causality’, and described abstract universals as characteristics that describe what we see in reality, reversing ideas of his predecessor, Plato. He was also the first rigorous ‘ontologist’ – developing categorization structures (including the classic genus-species taxonomy for plants and animals) that help us classify the world around us.
  5. Bacon. While not the first in a long empirical tradition, Francis Bacon is typically held up as the earliest catalyst of rigorous thought that established experimental science as a discipline. He provided the building blocks of what would later become known as the scientific method. With this structured approach, man gained the ability to discover and prove the causes of things.
  6. Decartes. One of the earliest to fully articulate human self-perception in philosophy, famous for cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am” with significant contributions not only in rational philosophy but also in math, where his thinking was foundational in analytical geometry.
  7. Hume. Among his many contributions, Hume helped advance the idea of ‘mediation’ in our perceptions, arguing that our logic and conclusions are often filtered, whether by our senses or by our prior patterns of behavior, describing how the mind makes assumptions around causation based on our experiences (note: watch for future discussion of ‘mental heuristics’).
  8. Kant. Perhaps the most influential critical thinker of the last 400 years and a rich source of insights, Immanuel Kant brought many of Aristotle’s early notions forward into the modern world. He advanced the categorization of knowledge, with ideas that hinted at ‘context’ based on the notion of “a priori” (pre-existing) factors such as the special external functions of space and time. He also introduced a rational approach to our behavior, bringing logical underpinning to the discussion of ethics.
  9. James. Known as the father of modern psychology, William James developed our appreciation for focus, and its importance on perception and discernment.
  10. Wittgenstein. Famous for bringing the nuances of language into the discussion of ideas, Wittgenstein argued that both culture and semantic bias carry a fundamental influence in any kind of meaningful exchange. He argued that semantic rigor is essential to philosophical endeavors, serving as a cornerstone of what we now call critical thinking.

At the risk of leaving holes in our story, I’ve left out some key names – deep thinkers like Hegel, Locke, Hobbes, Reid, Mill, and a raft of others – and I’ll take responsibility for the exclusions. This was in part due to space, but also due to the focus of my research on the dynamics and demands of modern collaboration.

If you can help me fill any gaps in the progression, share your thoughts and I’ll provide updates. There’s also a quick survey in the toolbar that would help build a broader consensus on those most influential.

With a foundation in place, where can we go from here?

Unlike any time in history, people and their ideas are getting connected at an accelerated rate. That changes the rules of what’s possible. Critical thinkers who collaborate are likely to drive a potent set of outcomes.

The ability to realize the new dynamics of knowledge sharing may be the next significant challenge our society faces, but also, I believe, it is our greatest promise. Building a sustainable future requires that we relearn what it means to learn, and to advance our ability to learn from each other – globally, deeply, and ever more quickly.

There’s still much work ahead, as this series continues to rediscover what scholars have known all along: the importance of critical thinking.

Let me know your thoughts.

14 thoughts on “Philosophy and the Search for Ideas: Foundations of Critical Thinking

  1. Powerful article. True! In order to create a sustainable future, we must explore our full human potential.

    I look forward to reading future posts.

    ~ Misty (@Mysticle)

  2. Chris,

    Thank you for the insightful post and framing the conversation about critical thinking in the place I think it belongs: squarely in the middle of Philosophy. I wanted to get another thread of philosophy in the mix. Also starting from the Greeks but that path goes to Complexity as opposed to the Analytic approach.

    I’ve added some highlights and links.

    • Heraclitus (wikipedia) – known for saying, “You cannot step twice into the same stream”, he brought focus to the unity of opposites, and was also quoted as saying “the path up and down are one and the same”. In short, things can be described by pairs of contrary properties. Important in discussion of dualism.
    • Adam Smith
    • The Frankfurt School (wikipedia)
    • Philosophical Romanticism (amazon) – linked to North American philosophy of Emerson and Dewey, and through to the more recent work of Stanley Cavell and Richard Rorty

    Hope folks find these helpful.

    • Agree w/ you & Heraclitus.

      It’s about finding the ideal balance point. As part of my research on this I learned that virtue, aka the primary pursuit of ethics, is actually the optimal midpoint between excess (too much of a characteristic) and deficiency (too little).

      An example I’ve heard used:
      excess: to be brash, heedless, reckless
      virtue: bravery
      deficiency: cowardice, timidity

      Seems we tend to think in polar extremes, not the spectrum of possibilities in between. The ‘ideal amount’ of any virtue is, I think to Jenn’s point (below), personal .. though culture does set some expectations for us (but that’s another series!).

      When solving problems, it’s something to think about.

      • Chris,
        I agree that ethics is the crux of the issue. One way that is framed is freedom of choice within agreed upon constraints.

        It’s a point that is often under appreciated in excitement about the New. The paradox is that it is ethics – tacitly agreed upon rules of engagement – that allow for spontaneous authenticity.

        Consider the ethics – tacit rules of engagement – in a family. It is assumed and proven through action, that caring and love inform the family culture. Within that we can be authentically spontaneous.

        Then consider the tacit ethics that exist between the partners that are raising the children. A word or even a look can communicate rich complex understandings.

        It goes to the problem of communication in every complex adaptive system. Tacit commonly understood rules of engagement – ethics – take the friction out of communication exchanges.

        My thought is the next question is precisely how, where, when, how and what kind of ethics emerge in what development stages of a particular complex adaptive system.

      • Exactly right! You’ve hit several nails on the head with your comments.

        We’ve also circled back to Kant, who was famous for showing that without Freedom of Will, there can be no ethics or morality, because ethics implies we ‘make the right choice’. (keyword in this thread: choice, still hotly debated in other venues: what is ‘right’?)

        So, yes, trying to reduce ethical/cultural friction when solving problems (aka collaborating, which I believe maps directly onto your functional CAS example) can only accelerate interactions. In a family, or in a work group .. really, anyplace where people come together to solve problems. Might be better to frame this as stakeholder affinity.

        In complexity terms? We increase our chance for the emergence of useful outcomes.

        In business terms? We become better, more productive innovators.

        That doesn’t mean we devalue diversity of opinion. Quite the contrary. There is a balancing act here too. We can’t seek to reduce ethical/cultural friction by building teams with a homogeneous perspective..

        A balance of diversity with stakeholder affinity will be a key branch in this conversation. Thanks for bringing focus to it.

  3. Chris,
    It takes time and effort to curate a document so thorough and informative. You took my four year degree in Philosophy and put it into basically 140 characters. Synthesis – what a beautiful gift.
    First, I am so thankful you included Kant so gracefully. He was in my opinion the most important philosopher as he introduced the concept of subjectivity and the idea that individuals have individual experiences. This is still something we are learning to honor and appreciate and I don’t think many people understand how transformative, radical Kant was. He was so influential that when we designed the cover of Strategy Leadership and the Soul I insisted there was a lighthouse-with lights shining out–which is the way I learned about how our mind works from the inside-out. Not outside-in. And I got that image as an 19 year old in a survey philosophy class. I was agnostic for most of my youth but when I read Kant’s Critique of Moral Reason I found the passage “we have an imperfect, but positive duty to seek our own perfection and the happiness of others.” That to this day–has been my True North.
    OK, I am gaga over Kant. That is clear.

    Who is missing from my perspective is Friedrich Schiller. Schiller introduced the concept of truth and beauty. He brought forward the aesthetic element and felt that beauty was not only important it was moral. There is an elegance in some of his work that I believe deeply contributed to our understanding of “being in the world.”

    I will leave out the Existentials as that is a separate post, a separate conversation.

    I will however, mention Integral Philosophy and the clear distinctions that Ken Wilber may quite loud: The Good / The True / The Beautiful — they are separate and have never been integrated. Kant wrote three books-one on reason, one of morals and one on beauty — I think it interesting as we wrestle with those three today as we want things that are beautiful to be good and things that good to be true. But as we know intelligence doesn’t always equal morality–in fact one of the saddest things is the lack of moral courage with people who are so intelligent. It is easy to forgive ignorance or innocence. It is tragic to experience irresponsible intelligence.

    Thank you for being a catalyst for some deep held values that finally found a space to breathe.


  4. Misty, Michael & Jenn – thanks so much for your responses. The more I delve into this space, to more I realize how truly important this foundation is.

    Michael, Jenn – we’ve got Heraclitus & Schiller on radar now, thanks.

    Jenn – was literally touched by your response, and I found it perhaps not that ironic that both of us find a strong connection with Kant, probably the philosopher in the mix that resonates most for me. Clearly Kant brought many diverse forces together, including a rational view of ethics, and I believe (correct me?) brought science and aesthetics forward in powerful ways. I guess the romantic wave of the era had a powerful pull – though its not clear if Kant was a founder of that, or one sympathetic to it.

    To me, only Aristotle had the greater long term impact.

    Socrates, of course, playing a key role, if not the original catalyst for critical thought, as we think of it today.

    The other voice worth noting here, to me, is Thomas Reid, of the ‘common sense’ Scottish school. Anyone who advocates common sense gets my vote, and did (see the poll at right).

    Truly appreciate the depth of conversation and insights.

    Learning at every turn.


    • An often under appreciated fact of the value of Philosophy in this day and age is that it points to deep patterns of human life. The central questions have always been What is Truth, Beauty and the Meaning of Life.

      in the last twenty years or so the notion of Complex Adaptive Systems has become mainstream. Every discipline now tends to frame their focus of study in similar ways. Now with the emergence of ‘Big Data” the patterns of communication are now becoming visible in organizations and “Real Life.” The most disruptive areas are education, health and government.

      The neat part is that if a family is seen as a Complex Adaptive System every thing we need to know in general is something we can learn in that context and take those same insights to apply in almost any context.

      Even more exciting is to see that our individual consciousness can also be seen as a Complex Adaptive System.

      I think it’s fair to say that for the first time in Human History, we can now literally look into ourselves to articulate the dynamics of the world at large.

      Pretty cool, methinks.

  5. Hi Chris, Jenn and Misty,

    Just want to suggest you take a close look at Philosophical Romanticism

    It has only very recently emerged as a defined framework. From what I’ve read so far, it is the most recent appearance of the thread that goes from Kant into today.

    If anyone is interested, I’ve been tweeting from the Kindle from @edkare persona from from the ebook version “Philosophical Romanticism by Nikolas Kompridis”

    Might help to see what I think I see.

    the link is

  6. Chris,

    Great to be included in this very personal conversation. It is personal because our future rides on all of us to make wiser decisions moment to moment. And, a large part of wise decision making requires an understanding short & long term trade offs and this requires critical thinking.

    To my knowledge Kant had a great deal to do with the conversation regarding “ethics” and with his categorical imperative calls on each of us to live in accordance to that idea that the way we live become a rule for everybody. Take you personal ethic and turn it into a world view– is the way I interpret his teaching. He did believe at our core we were ethical creatures and would do the right thing–out of obligation for being in the collective. So whether it was enjoyable or not, easy or not, had nothing to do with it–it was a moral imperative to do right. Fortunately we have “free will.” Unfortunately some people do not use that free will in a sustainable way. Consciousness & conscientiousness are two different animals.
    Kant had very little to do with aesthetics in “truth = beauty” convo. Schiller was a student of Kant and that is where he departed. He felt the “duty” thing did not leave room for elegance and the concept of grace. So Schiller truly takes Kant to the next level to appeal more to our senses than our sensibility. These, of course, are my interpretations.

    Cheers to progress. . . .

  7. Great feedback, Jenn.

    Yes, powerful, and very personal. But not to constrain benefits to us as individuals. As with anything in the public/social domain, many can learn as each one of us learns.

    Engagement has it’s benefits :)

    Back to Kant, I was afraid I might have been on thin ice with a ‘beauty’ reference .. I was probably thinking about Kant’s 3rd Treatise (“Critique of Judgment”) assuming his aesthetics references were on beauty when, on reflection, he was talking about universals framed more broadly .. correct?

    Aristotle + Hume + Kant = so much to learn, so little time :)

    To take it back down a level and, in keeping with my promise to keep this conversation practical and accessible – I just spent a few minutes reviewing key takeaways from Kant’s 1st Treatise (“Critique of Pure Reason”), where he introduces important framework elements –

    • “Pure Intuitions” – space, time
    • “Categories of Understanding” – quantity, quality, modality, relation

    These, to me, are rich concepts to inform our approach to problem solving. Per my original framing above, one of Kant’s primary contributions to Critical Thinking is how we establish context in our efforts to solve problems. After all, isn’t that what the search for knowledge is all about .. solving problems?

    Hope that helps. Please, challenge us on this. Much more to come.


  8. Great post! I feel that Descartes – in many ways the father of Modern Philosophy – is missing. Disagree with him if you may, as many do, but he was the first philosopher in the Modern era to take up the Aristotelian method and apply it with gusto.

    • Absolutely agree, Ed. While I qualified the above post from May that I was leaving out many great thinkers, I think the omission of Descartes from this list is significant. Perhaps I restored the error by placing him atop the “rational philosophy” branch of thinkers in my November post on “Divergence”.

      If I republish the chart above, I will be sure to include Rene Descartes.

      Great catch – thanks much for the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s