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Reading Backwards

One of the most powerful ways to open our minds to alternative experiences, and thus to counteract the influence of social conditioning and the mass media, is to read "backward." That is, to read books printed in the past: 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago, 400 years ago, 500 years ago, 700 years ago, 800 years ago, even 2000 years ago, and more. This provides us with a unique perspective and the ability to step outside of the presuppositions and ideologies of the present day. When we read only in the present, no matter how widely, we are apt to absorb widely shared misconceptions taught and believed today as the truth.

Below is a sampling of the authors of books that we believe enable us to re-think the present. Each has insights that deepen and widen the thinking of the critical reader:

  1. (over 2000 years ago) The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes

  2. 1200s (over 800 years ago) The writings of Thomas Aquinas and Dante

  3. 1300s (over 700 years ago) The writings of Boccaccio and Chaucer

  4. 1400s (over 500 years ago) The writings of Eramus and Francis Bacon

  5. 1500s (over 400 years ago) The writings of Machiavelli, Cellini, Cervantes, and Montaigne

  6. 1600s (over 300 years ago) The writings of John Milton, Pascal, John Dryden, John Locke, and Joseph Addison

  7. 1700s (over 200 years ago) The writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Goethe, Rousseau, and William Blake

  8. 1800s (over 100 years ago) The writings of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Henry Newman, Leo Tolstoy, The Brontes, Frank Norris, Thomas Hardy, Emile Durkheim, Edmond Rostand, and Oscar Wilde

  9. 1900s (the last 100 years) The writings of Ambrose Bierce, Gustavus Myers, H.L. Mencken, William Graham Sumner, W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Conrad, Max Weber, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Henry James, Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, William Appleman Williams, Arnold Toynbee, C. Wright Mills, Albert Camus, Willa Cather, Bertrand Russell, Karl Mannheim, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Simone De Beauvoir, Winston Churchill, William J. Lederer, Vance Packard, Eric Hoffer, Erving Goffman, Philip Agee, John Steinbeck, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Faulkner, Talcott Parsons, Jean Piaget, Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, Robert Heilbroner, Noam Chomsky, Jacques Barzun, Ralph Nader, Margaret Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, Karl Popper, Robert Merton, Peter Berger, Milton Friedman, and J. Bronowski

If we learn to read backward, we will begin to recognize some of the stereotypes and misconceptions of the present. We will develop a better sense of what is universal and what is relative; what is essential and what is arbitrary. We will also recognize how arbitrary many of our social values are, as well as how likely we are to have misconceptions that are not apparent to us—just as those in the past had misconceptions that were not apparent to them.

For example, reading widely in the past creates multiple perspectives in the mind that enable one to better understand the complexities of the present. Critical reading creates a lens through which we come to better understand the role in history in our lives, even the role in history of critical thinking itself.

For example, thinking historically we discover that though the idea of critical thinking is old, there has apparently never been a society that taught critical thinking as a basic social value. To the present, critical thinking is being taught only to a minority of citizens, and even then usually in a one-sided way. Critical thinking tends to be taken no further than the skill of attacking and defending ideas, or more usually, the skill of attacking ideas inconsistent with the status quo and defending it in turn. Very often, critical thinking has been indistinguishable from "sophistry," the ability to manipulate people into thinking that the reigning ideology was always "correct and complete." Typically, only a small minority learns and uses critical thinking to question a ruling ideology. We can see this if we scan the history of critical thought.

One of the first thinkers in the history of critical thought is that of Socrates, a Greek teacher from some 2400 years ago. Socrates discovered a method of questioning that, when applied to the leaders of his day, convinced him that most of them could not rationally justify their claims to knowledge. They arrogantly answered his initial questions, but could not intelligibly justify what they thought they knew. For this public exposure of the superficial thinking of authorities, Socrates was rewarded with execution.

Socrates concluded, like Plato and Aristotle after him, that humans typically have no more than a superficial understanding of themselves and their surroundings. This view was expressed by many thinkers over the next 2400 years—including Francis Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, John Stuart Mill, Sigmund Freud, and William Graham Sumner.

It was not until some 1400 years after Socrates that the notion of questioning beliefs became acceptable—albeit only at the university and only under the direction of authorities therein. Of course, in the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a number of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique. Among these scholars were Colet, Erasmus, and More in England. They followed up on the insight of the ancient Greek thinkers.

Francis Bacon (England) explicitly analyzed the way the human mind, in its normal state, is entrapped by ignorance, prejudice, self-deception, and vested interest. He recognized explicitly that the mind should not be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement of Learning, he argued for the importance of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes. He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called "idols") that lead them to believe what is unworthy of belief. He called attention to "Idols of the Tribe" (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), "Idols of the Cave" (our tendency to see things from our own individual, and often distorted, perspective), "Idols of the Market-Place" (the ways we misuse concepts in our associations with others), and "Idols of the Theater" (our tendency to become trapped in conventional and dogmatic systems of thought). His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking.

Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules for the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. He emphasized the need to base thinking on well reasoned foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.

In the same time period, Sir Thomas More developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and for the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.

In the Italian Renaissance, Hobbes and Locke displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered "normal" in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought. He laid the theoretical foundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens.

It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century) did their work. In his Sceptical Chymist, Boyle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought that roundly criticized the traditionally accepted view of the world. He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. After Boyle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning.

Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte, Spencer, and Max Weber. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to social decision-making and power, it produced a deep analysis of bureaucratic thinking and its tendency to dominate large organizations in such a way as to undermine their original purposes (Max Weber). Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwin's Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many profound analyses of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a ground-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology, Folkways (Sumner, reprint, 1940), in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination:

"Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe… An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations (p. 630)."

At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life and in education:

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty.A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded…They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence…They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices…Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens (pp. 632, 633)."

John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the pragmatic basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives. From the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, we have increased our awareness not only of the importance of concepts in human thought, but also of the need to analyze concepts and assess their power and limitations within particular contexts and expressed first in "natural" (rather than "technical") languages. From the work of Piaget, we have increased our awareness of the egocentric and sociocentric tendencies of human thought and of the special need to develop critical thought that is able to reason within multiple standpoints, and to be raised to the level of "conscious realization."

From the work of such scholars as C. Wright Mills, we have increased awareness of the manner in which democratic institutions are undermined and social exploitation takes place in mass societies. From the contribution of depth-psychology and other researchers, we have learned how easily the human mind is self-deceived, how easily it unconsciously constructs illusions and delusions, how easily it rationalizes and stereotypes, projects, and scapegoats. From the work of Irving Goffman and others, we have an increased awareness of how "social definitions" can dominate the mental life of individuals in a society. From the work of many sociologists, we have increased awareness of how the "normal" socialization process serves to perpetuate the existing society—its ideology, roles, norms, and values—however inconsistent these might be with a society's announced picture of itself. From the work of economists like Robert Heilbronner, we have increased awareness of how unbridled economic forces influenced by vested interest groups may act so as to undermine or negate economic, political, and ethical values as well as human rights.

From the massive contribution of all the physical and natural sciences, we have learned the power of information and the importance of gathering information with great care and precision, and with sensitivity to its potential inaccuracy, distortion, or misuse.

To conclude, a scanning of the history of critical thought heightens our awareness of the power and necessity of critical thinking as well as of its rarity in human experience. Nowhere is there, as far as we can see, a developed community of critical thinkers. No society systematically teaches it to its young. Every society teaches its view of the world as the TRUTH, and invests a good deal of effort into justifying itself to itself. The only community of critical thinkers, to date, exists across cultures and disciplines, across ethnic groups and orientations, across belief systems and life-style agendas.

Test the Idea
Committing Yourself to Reading Backward

Try to commit yourself to reading one book per month that is on our "reading backward" author list, or books by other highly reputable authors from different periods in history. Choose books that represent differing perspectives, differing ways of looking at the world. Should you make such a commitment, as time passes you will experience considerable development in your ability to see things from multiple perspectives and your worldview will significantly broaden.

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