The Art of Thinking

You can’t learn something without thinking about it. You have to “get your mind around it”, as they say. Some things require a great deal of thought, some just a moment of reflection, but there’s no way around the problem of thinking. It’s one of the skills you are developing as a university student; it may even be the most important one; and it will be the subject of my talk tomorrow afternoon in the Art of Learning series. As usual, I want to use a blog post to prepare, working through the three levels on which I intend to approach the question.

First, thinking is the art of making up your mind, of forming a belief. It’s the process by which you reach a judgment about what is going on, or what it means. This judgment can then be expressed in a sentence and that’s actually what we mean when we say a sentence “expresses a thought”. And the important thing about judgments, assertions, and sentences as the foci of our thinking is that they can be wrong; a sentence doesn’t have to be true to be meaningful. We can even think something is true — that is, we can believe something — without it actually being so. Thinking isn’t yet knowing (if we define knowing as justified, true belief); it is a matter of putting things and ideas together in our minds to form propositions, i.e., the contents of our mental states.

The father of modern analytic philosophy, Gottlob Frege, once suggested that concepts are just “functions” that take objects as “arguments” and, when they do this, their value is “true” or “false”. In mathematics you can have a function like f(x) = x+2 and if you put 6 in for x (if you make 6 the argument of the function), its value is 8. Frege asked us to imagine a function like f(x) = “x is a horse”. If you put Bobbie in for x (if you make Bobbie the argument of the function) it is false. But if you put Secretariat in for x, it is true. In that sense, the concept “horse” lets us make true and false judgments about things in the world. Indeed, it lets us think about every single blessed thing in the universe; it lets us consider whether it is a horse or not. We might say that thinking is the art bringing concepts and objects together “for the sake of argument”.

The second level on which I want to approach thinking is as a means with which we can distinguish belief from understanding and imagination. We can never be sure that we know something because we can never be sure that what we believe is true. We always think we know things. We can understand the sentence “Bobbie is a horse” just as well as we can understand the sentence “Secretariat is a horse” but only one of them is true. Here “thinking” can be seen as way of bringing true and false sentences onto a level playing field so that they can be compared to each other. In understanding, that is, the two sentences are equals, they mean comparable things. This also means that we can form an image of the two animals in our minds. To think, you have to use your imagination.

And this brings us to the third level, which is perhaps the most philosophical, even “transcendental” level. Thinking can shift our perspective from our beliefs and judgments, to our understanding and imagination, and then on to the “conditions of the possibility” of our objects of knowledge. We can reflect upon how things must be (think ontologically) and how our minds must work (think epistemologically) in order for it to be possible to know them. When Kant tried to do this, he focused on what he called our “intuitions”, the sense in which objects are “given” to us, as it were, “immediately”. We see a horse and recognize it immediately because the concept and object come together instantly when we see the horse on the meadow. But how is this possible?

That’s something we can think about. We can try to catch ourselves in the act of making these snap judgments and we can notice that sometimes they lead us astray and sometimes they save us a lot of time. Kant tried to capture the things we always already get right in experience, the things that must be true for us to have any experiences at all. But we can recognize the “contingency” of these intuitions, too, the sense in which particular experiences depend on a variety of different factors. Some of those factors have a long history, some a broad sociology, and some a deep psychology. There are things that are very difficult to believe, and even imagine, but some of them are, indeed, difficult even to think. Something — something in our livesseems to prevent us from “going there” immediately — we have to find a “back way” to them, if you will. As Heidegger put it, the whole point of metaphysical thinking is to “prepare a free relationship” to the things we think we understand. This requires us to think.

I realize that all of this is a bit philosophical. And I want to assure you that you don’t have think this deeply (if that’s what I am) about everything all the time. In fact, I recommend that you don’t, and instead develop some strategies for deciding when to think at the different levels I’ve suggested and how long to remain there. Most of your thinking should consist of the free arrangement concepts and objects in the construction of propositions that you can then try to decide whether are true or false. Some of your thinking — probably also quite a bit of it — will involve trying to understand what those propositions really mean, and trying to imagine the facts that they imply. Finally, you will sometimes run into the limits of your thinking; you will feel less free to think certain things that you’d like and you will have to try to explore the conditions under which you are doing it. “I can’t work under these conditions!” as the old complaint goes. Well, have a look at them. See if there’s something you can do about it. Think.

In my talk, I will try get all this to make a little more sense. You have to do a lot of thinking at university. There are different kinds of thinking and different ways to do it. My ways aren’t the only ones that work and the important thing is to find your own way of thinking — one that works for you. My view is that our ability to think can be improved by deliberate practice, and tomorrow I will try not to forget (as I almost did last week) to emphasize that being good at something means being able to enjoy it. To become good at thinking you have learn to take pleasure in it, to find the joy in it. It can be as fun as imagining dragons.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Thinking

  1. A friend of mine was supervising several PhD Students in the Netherlands for more than a decade. At her farewell party, I asked one of the students what his field of study was.
    “Human identity” he responded.
    “How do you study identity?”
    “15% reading, 5% writing, 80% thinking” he responded without any hesitation.

    The next day I asked her about the student. “Oh, he’s by far my most productive student and is undoubtedly the person who has the deepest understanding of his field out of all the students I’ve ever supervised.”

    Einstein could run complex experiments and test theories through his thoughts, without the benefit of a physical laboratory. Tesla could design machines and refine complex engineering constructions without any prototypes. There is a lot to be discovered and a lot of mistakes to be avoided by simply thinking about things.

    We should spend more time thinking.

    p.s. I find your site incredibly useful and practical.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Shaun. I’m glad the blog is helpful.

    Out of curiosity, I decided to run the math. My advice is to plan 30-hour work weeks, with at most 3 hours and at least one half hour of writing, 5 days a week. So let’s go with the lower bound of 2.5 hours. That’s just over 8% of 30 hours. But most people “think outside the (30-hour) box”, so, if we imagine 50-hour work week that includes a lot of unplanned musing in the evenings and on the weekends, 5% writing becomes possible.

    It seems a bit low to me, of course. But I would say that, being a writing coach. And we should be careful when using people like Einstein as a model. As David Letterman says, “There is no off position on the genius switch.” I think he meant that as a warning.

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