In the glorious days of the Renaissance and in eras before that, there was much prestige in being classified as a great thinker. “Great thinker” was almost the equivalent of genius, or at least, very close to it.
In today’s circles, there are a few disadvantages – indeed even a social stigma – if you were thought of as a genius. There was connotation of bizarreness – weirdness outcast of a person who is considered way ahead of his time and does not think normally like most of his contemporaries. A common word to describe these “out of the box” thinkers was “visionary.” Yet, there is a subtle distinction between visionary and genius.
For instance, Bill Gates has more than once been labelled a “visionary.” The question is, does the windows concept and all the related software that was developed and later adopted by the entire world make him a genius? Computer geeks would probably say, “oh goodness, definitely. How can you even doubt it?” If you ask a missionary or a plumber the same question, you’d probably get a blank stare and be asked back, “who the %^&*@ is Bill Gates?
In this day of information technology and digital information processing, the word “genius” or “visionary” would be relative; it would depend entirely on what culture and from which perspective one sees it. It would be a monumental task to come up with a short list of 21 century geniuses. It was a lot easier to come up with such a list during the earlier centuries. It could also be a question of timing. If we were to wait another 10 or 20 years, some smart whiz may officially classify Bill Gates as a real genius after all, after the windows concept has demonstrated durability and staying power. And that’s probably how thinkers like Socrates or Einstein got classified as great thinkers.
Like the favourite saying goes, “you gotta give it time.” Some thinkers have received posthumous awards for past accomplishments only because someone bothered to make the effort to penetrate
deeper into the idea espoused by a thinker, many years after his death. We think that’s how it happens in majority of the cases. Sometimes, one has to die first before people realize the enormous value of your contribution. We tend to think, “it’s too late”, but when it comes to matters of the mind and everything related to it, it’s never too late.
Our selection of the greatest thinkers for this Chapter is strictly personal and is not based on any official pronouncements by governments or private organizations. We chose these thinkers simply because we have read about them and have been awed by their way of thinking.
If we had an extraordinary spiritual or religious bent, we would not hesitate to include Jesus Christ for the influence he has wielded on Catholicism; but then in the same vein, someone would say that Mohammed or the Dalai Lama was also a great thinker because of the scope and reach of their teachings.
Any personal choice will always be subject to criticism and attack. This is why we would state outright that our choices of great thinkers are by no means the sacred truth, and came about only because of what we have read and learned. It would almost be an act of sacrilege to claim otherwise.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Go ahead and laugh. We have included Einstein not because of his mathematical prowess, his preoccupation with the compass and geography, his abilities in music (the violin, most especially), and his admission into the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, then and still an institution of great learning and academic achievement. None of that formed the basis of our selection.
What impressed us most about Einstein were two things: he was a compulsive day dreamer and he failed his French language exam. Despite these qualities, however, he’s still considered a great thinker. He coined the theory of relativity. All his life he engaged in what the Germans call gedanken – imagination games and mental experiments.
Einstein devoted himself to problems of space and time. That was how his theory of relativity came into being. He sat on a grassy hill and closed his eyes and imagined himself travelling to the vast universe. Soon he realized that no matter how far he went, he was always coming back to the original point from which he started. This led him to the conclusion that the universe must be “curved.” Another of Einstein’s remarkable achievements was the “combinatory play” concept. He used visual images, rather than words, to make sense of his environment. Not that he downplayed the importance on words, but in his mind his combinatory play rested on the visual-to-verbal process; that is, the visual component came first before the verbal one.
Scholars from Princeton University led by Thomas Harvey (who had Einstein’s brain removed so they could examine it) and the University of California researchers led by Dr. Marian Diamond discovered that Einstein’s brain was extremely developed compared to brains of average individuals. They focused on the “glial” cells cells that bind neurons together that create the means for electrochemical messages to be transmitted. They found that Einstein’s brain had 400% more of glial cells per neuron, and were mostly found in the left parietal lobe. Dr. Diamond’s interest in Einstein’s brain development led her study rats in two groups: one with stimuli and the other deprived of stimuli. She discovered that the first group of rats who were provided with many stimuli fared much better in all aspects than the second group.
The years before Einstein’s death were marked with many occasions for humor, which as Gelb points out, is another manifestation of the brain’s ability to make connections. This was a manifestation of Einstein’s happy outlook in life. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1921, he was sought by audiences from everywhere, eager for his autograph. Gelb relates that as his fame increased, Einstein became more playful, humorous and humble. The last stanza of the following poem which he wrote to a friend is a reflection of this playfulness.
“Sometimes, surrounded by all this good cheer, I’m puzzled by some of the things that I hear, And wonder, my mind for a moment not hazy, If I and not they could really be crazy.”
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
You may have heard of the concepts of “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” which were borne out of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Since these theories have been discussed in high school – university for some we will not concern ourselves with those gems of wisdom; rather we’ll dwell on Darwin’s great abilities for observation and for having maintained, throughout his life, his inquisitive and innocent nature about his environment.
Many of Darwin’s qualities can be imitated by society’s modem thinkers insatiable curiosity, keen observation, and a passion for the natural world. When he was only eight years old, his mother died and to compensate for the absence of a mother’s love, he spent much time in solitary walks observing plants and insects. He collected shells, in addition to collecting stamps and seals.
Funny thing what happened to Darwin when he was studying at Cambridge University. He was almost not admitted into the journey of the HMS Beagle because the captain of the ship, Robert Fitzroy had the pea brain of someone who judged a person’s abilities by his face. When Fitzroy met Darwin, he was so turned off by the shape of his nose and doubted whether someone with such nose would possess sufficient amounts of energy and determination to undertake the five-year voyage. Darwin was, however, eventually admitted.
The journey took them to countries such as Tahiti, New Zealand, Brazil, and Ecuador among others, and to Darwin, it was one of the most exciting periods of his life. He took copious notes of flora and fauna; to him the voyage represented the first real training and education for his mind.
Darwin’s greatest works include The Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872).
Indira or Mahatma? For now, we’ll go with Mahatma. Indira Gandhi had a string of impressive accomplishments in her lifetime and was admired by world leaders and ordinary mortals – that’s a fact that no one can challenge or would even dare to. What was worthy noting about Mahatma Gandhi was that he made history and inspired political revolutions without the use of violence. Gandhi’s moral philosophy inspired the thinking of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. His moral philosophy was firmly grounded on the power of one’s spiritual genius to harmonize spirit, mind and body.
The great Indian leader drew inspiration by reading Tolstoy and the life of Jesus, and gradually came to believe that societies can be changed without the need for bloody uprisings. He was troubled by the occupation of India by the British and thought of peaceful means to surrender their control over the country. It was the “permission to think big” concept that encouraged him to think of peaceful ways to undermine British rule and to win followers to his flock.
Gandhi also went on a hunger strike, which some historians agree, led to the British granting India and Pakistan their independence. This form of passive resistance caught the attention of world leaders who adopted his principles and adapted them to their own particular situations.
The inspiration to change oppressed societies began when he was sent to South Africa by a London law firm. It was in South Africa where he learned of the plight of the Indians who were badly treated by the South African government. As he managed to work through their situation, getting Indians to protest against the way they were treated eventually elicited better treatment from the government. This experience brought him back to India, determined to help his countrymen fight for independence.
Gandhi’s mind was focused on fearlessness, love, non-violence (peace) and vegetarianism – a small segment of the 96 ideas that would contribute to our understanding of this man’s mind. In Gandhi’s mind, the core of the non-violent
technique was to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists. Observers and critics of modern day politics are turning their attention once again to the ideas of Gandhi and wondering if they might carry equal, if not more, relevance in today’s wars, including the sporadic outbreak of terrorist acts.
Socrates (470-399 BC)
We’re going way back now, but an e-book on the mind and brain would not be complete without mentioning an influential Greek thinker who, through his thoughts, laid the foundation of western philosophy. Fortunately for lovers of philosophy, Plato chronicled much of Socrates’ thinking because none of his original works could be found anywhere.
Plato studied under Socrates and was said to be one of his most ardent fans. For mind enthusiasts, Socrates’ most outstanding contribution would probably be his dialectic method of inquiry (answering a question with another question) or what some present-day analysts call “repetitive questioning.” It was simply known as the Socratic method and was applied largely to moral concepts such as Good and Justice. It would be difficult to pinpoint which constitute the theories of Socrates and which of these belong to Plato. Since Plato recorded most of his master’s ideas, we would be hard pressed to credit them solely to Socrates, as Plato everyone knows, was also a great thinker in his own right.
The foundation of the Socratic method of thinking is the elimination of contradictory hypotheses, which can only be achieved if an individual poses a series of questions about his own thinking what is aptly called “questioning your own set of thinking.” By eliminating hypotheses, one does arrive at better hypotheses (process of elimination?). Socrates said that the “highest form of human excellence was to question oneself and others.”
Socrates lived at a time when his teachings were viewed by the Athenian Empire, then threatened by external forces, as corrupting the youth of Athens. He was judged and sentenced, eventually given the choice of leaving the country or dying by poison. Not seeing any integrity of fleeing one’s own country, Socrates chose to die by poison.
Will Durant (1885-1981)
Will Durant is a personal favorite since he was influential in cultivating our fondness for philosophy while in school. We’re sure that millions of others have benefited from the teachings of Durant, in whole or in part, for even if his focus was on the story of civilization, he also spoke about love, human relations, happiness and the power of books and learning.
A pious Catholic, educated and bred in Catholic schools in the United States and son of a devout French Canadian who had hopes that her son would become part of the clergy, Will Durant was extremely spiritual in word and deed that his teachers did not doubt he would become a priest. But as he was preparing to enter the priesthood, he was suddenly awakened by the tenets of socialism and did not feel that being cloistered in a seminary would help him stretch his thinking beyond the limits of reason and logic. He was especially intrigued by Spinoza’s Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated, but by memorizing it word for word, he began to see the absurdity of the man’s way of thinking.
Durant moved to New York – much to the chagrin of his parents – and was deep in the teachings of a libertarian education. He taught at the Ferrer Modern School, an experiment in libertarian education. He was taken under the wing of Alden Freeman, who invited Durant to travel Europe so he could broaden his perspectives.
It was during the birth of his daughter Ethel that Durant began to shed off some of his original ideas. But when Ethel came, I saw how some mysterious impulse, far outreaching the categories of physics, lifted her up, inch-by-inch and effort by effort, on the ladder of life. I felt more keenly than before the need of a philosophy that would do justice to the infinite vitality of nature. In the inexhaustible activity of the atom, in the endless resourcefulness of plants, in the teeming fertility of animals, in the hunger and movement of infants, in the laughter and play of children, in the love and devotion of youth, in the restless ambition of fathers and the lifelong sacrifice of mothers, in the undiscourageable researches of scientists and the sufferings of genius, in the crucifixion of prophets and the martyrdom of saints in all things I saw the passion of life for growth and greatness, the drama of everlasting creation. I came to think of myself, not as a dance and chaos of molecules, but as a brief and minute portion of that majestic process…”
Skeptics of the 21 century may think that philosophy has been put on the back burner. That would be a serious error on our part. Philosophy is not dead.
We have become embroiled in scientific thinking and processes, forgetting that all science begins from somewhere. Philosophy is the starting point random thoughts, loose connections, shaky conclusions but these eventually lead to order after a systematic approach or questioning. Science springs up, when that order has finally been defined.
Philosophy, therefore, is very much alove. Everything begins with a shred of thought, an ounce of an idea, a slice of thinking and a sprinkling of reasoning. Science takes over when the time is ripe.
As Durant says, “every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.