Right, this shouldn’t take long. Because you can’t think about the absence of thought, can you; so how can you think about its origin? And of you can’t trace its beginning, how can you map its history? It’s like the old Irish joke: “You shouldn’t really be starting from here.”
Stanley Kubrick had an answer: a big black monolith suddenly appears amongst a bunch of hitherto thoughtless hominids; its mere presence triggers Thought – and we jump-cut 2,000,000 years. It’s a masterly bit of myth-creation, but it begs the question. Whoever put the monolith there must have thought about it first.
I think of thought (ha!) as boiling down to two words: ‘why’ and ‘if’. ‘Why’ looks to the past, trying to explain, ‘if’ to the future, trying to predict: the important thing is that to be thinking, you have to be able to do it with your eyes shut.
So, the history of thought? Well, from Kubrick’s apeman’s realisation that if he used that bone in that particular way, then this consequence would ensue; through the discovery by the likes of Socrates that you could think about the abstract as well as the particular; all the way to the boundless scope of artistic imagination and the consciousness-expanding potential of digital technology – there’s certainly been a lot of it. (And I haven’t even mentioned ‘Deal or No Deal’.).
But I’m not sure thought itself has really changed that much. It’s broadened its range of subject matter, obviously; but has it expanded its basic toolkit? Has it deepened? Did we become better thinkers over the millennia, as we civilised ourselves?