Socrates was trained as a “sophist.” Sophists were people who played with words and showed how careful choice of words could lead you to almost any conclusion you wanted. Socrates was interested in challenging people’s thinking and, indeed, getting them to think at all instead of just taking things for granted. He wanted people to examine what they meant when they said something. He was not concerned with building things up or making things happen.
From Socrates we get the great emphasis on argument and critical thinking. Socrates chose to make argument the main thinking tool. Within argument, there was to be critical thinking: Why do you say that? What do you mean by that?
Plato (c. 427-348 B.C.)
Plato is generally held to be the father of Western philosophy. He is best-known for his famous analogy of the cave. Suppose someone is bound up so that the person cannot turn around but can only look at the back wall of the cave. There is a fire at the mouth of the cave. If someone comes into the cave, then the bound person cannot see the newcomer directly but can only see the shadow cast by the fire on the back wall of the cave. So as we go through life, we cannot see truth and reality but only “shadows” of these. If we try hard enough and listen to philosophers, then perhaps we can get a glimpse of the truth. From Plato we get the notion that there is the “truth” somewhere but that we have to search for it to find it. The way to search for the truth is to use critical thinking to attack what is untrue.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
Aristotle was the pupil of Plato and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was a very practical person. He developed the notion of “categories,” which are really definitions. So you might have a definition of a “chair” or a “table.” When you come across a piece of furniture, you have to judge whether that piece of furniture fits the definition of a chair. If it does fit, you say it is a chair. The object cannot both be a chair and not be a chair at the same time. That would be a “contradiction.” On the basis of his categories and the avoidance of contradiction, Aristotle developed the sort of logic we still use today (based largely on “is” and “is not”). From Aristotle we get a type of logic based on identity and non-identity, on inclusion and exclusion.
The Outcome of the Gang of Three
So this was the gang of three. The outcome was a thinking system based on the search for the “truth.” This search was going to be carried out by the method of argument. Within argument there was to be the critical thinking that sought to attack “untruth.” This attack was going to use the methodology of Aristotle’s logic.
The Pervasiveness of Argument
To this day, argument is the basis of our normal thinking. The purest form of this type of thinking is in the law courts where the prosecution takes one side of the argument and the defence the other side. Each strives to prove the other side wrong. The “truth” is to be reached by argument.
The Inadequacy of Argument
There is a place for argument, and argument is a useful tool of thinking. But argument is inadequate as the main tool of thinking.
Argument lacks constructive energies, design energies, and creative energies. Pointing out faults may lead to some improvement but does not construct something new. Synthesizing both points of view does not produce a stream of new alternatives.
Today in business, as elsewhere, there is a huge need to be constructive and creative. There is a need to solve problems and to open up opportunities. There is a need to design new possibilities, not just to argue between two existing possibilities.
Parallel Thinking: An Alternative to Argument
More Discussion on de Bono E’s Six Hats website