We often take for granted the immense power of our minds, the ability to think complexly and abstractly, which has enabled us to create our diverse cultures, scientific achievements, and to envision the future. But our minds can also lead us astray, causing us to believe and behave in ways that are harmful. Philosophers have for centuries been studying the best ways to think and live well. In this article, we will explore some of the greatest philosophers in history and the wisdom they can impart to us on how to think and live better.
The Indian classic, the Nyāya Sūtras, written between the sixth and second centuries BCE, distinguishes between three kinds of debate. In jalpa (wrangling) the aim is victory, while vitanda (cavilling) is concerned wholly with criticising the other side. But in good or honest discussion, vada, the aim is truth. Bernard Williams identified sincerity as one of the two primary “virtues of truth”, alongside accuracy. Thinking well requires overcoming an ego that hates admitting being wrong.
It’s easier to dismiss people we disagree with if we attribute to them obviously foolish or stupid beliefs. But just as we are not as smart as we like to think we are, other people are not usually as stupid as we take them to be. The best way to understand any position is to ask what assumptions would make it rational. Applying the principle of charity can expose flaws as well as strengths.
Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock were two great British philosophers of the 20th century. Foot said she wasn’t as good a scholar as many of her peers and wasn’t especially clever in the sense of having an ability to process complex logical calculations quickly. Warnock’s excellence was not as an original thinker, but as a great explainer of others’ ideas and a brilliant chair of ethics commissions. Both women’s remarks reveal a self-awareness and honesty that helped them to excel. Thinking clearly requires confidence and conviction, but also a sense of humility.
Keep it Simple, but not Simplistic:
The principle of Occam’s razor is that all other things being equal, a simpler explanation is preferable to a more complicated one. Applying the principle, however, is no simple matter. The key proviso is “all other things being equal”. The preference for simplicity is a virtue so long as it is accompanied by a refusal to deny real-world complexities. We should look for explanations that are neither more convoluted nor more simplistic than is necessary.
Watch Your Language:
In the Analects, Kongzi (also known as Confucius) says that the first thing he would do if he were to administer the government would be to “rectify names”. Philosophers have always been keen to define their terms and use language accurately. Misuse of language can assist the misuse of political power. Getting words right sometimes requires changing them.
The wisdom of the greatest philosophers in history can help us to think and live better. From being sincere, charitable, and humble, to keeping things simple but not simplistic, to watching our language, we can use these ancient teachings to help us navigate our modern world.