History of Thought

A Brief History of Thought

Early Civilization – Primitive and ancient communities relied upon stories to make sense of the world, provide meaning to life, and supply guidance. The creation chronicle of the Book of Genesis, the dramatic tales of Greek mythology, and the animistic legends of Native Americans yielded not only shared histories but also normative cultural attitudes.  It did not matter if these stories were factual or accurate–they provided early civilization with explanations and wisdom nonetheless. Even in today’s highly rational culture, many people  rely upon the stories of the Bible or the Koran for insight and fortitude. Some people consult their horoscopes for daily guidance even though they consider astrology to be without any logical basis. In the last decades of the 20th century, elements of early civilization, from tattoos to tribal drumming, reappeared in a movement that is referred to as New Age.

The Age of Enlightenment – The ascendancy of rational thought, and consequently  human rights, in the late 17th century brought about a period of extreme optimism known as the Age of Enlightenment. The American Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and the French Revolution are all examples of the Enlightenment in action. Continued scientific progress led to the belief that technology could solve all of humanity’s problems.

The Age of Anxiety– The catastrophic events of the 20th century, including the two world wars, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombing of Japan created doubt about the promises of the Enlightenment. Rationality, and science, had substantially bettered the human condition, but killing and destruction were occurring on a previously unimaginable scale. Rationality was questioned by a number of existential thinkers such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Their uncertainty about reason’s invincibility was foreshadowed by Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who lived, interestingly enough, during the Age of Enlightenment.  In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had closely examined the Bible’s story about Abraham receiving direction from God to kill his son Isaac. Kierkegaard’s conclusion was that life’s greatest problems could not be solved by rational, objective thought; rather, the highest truth was subjective.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

Something objective is perceptible to all observers and independent of individual human perception; it is verifiable. Something subjective emanates from a personal experience of reality; it depends on the condition of a particular mind.

The following statements reflect objectivity:

  • The peak of Mt. Whitney is the highest point in California.
  • California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimated California’s 2007 population to be 36, 553,215.

The following statements are subjective:

  • California offers unparalleled economic opportunities and recreational activities.
  • The California state motto–“Eureka!”–is slightly bizarre.
  •  Los Angeles is a crowded megalopolis.

Some thinkers have put forth the argument that everything is subjective. They maintain that because reality itself is a construct of the human mind, all reality is in fact subjective. Other thinkers, especially scientists, have suggested that everything is objective. They contend that, given the necessary technology, the stirrings of the human mind would prove to be  nothing more than quantifiable electrical impulses. The 1999 film The Matrix wonderfully explores this topic, which is known as phenomenology.