“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Thinking of things. Things such as thinking.
What is meant by thinking? My mind aimlessly wandering as I wait for the bus? The planning and scheduling of a busy day, making grocery lists, making the next move in a game of chess or scrabbles? Is it the imaginative process of creativity, of association, composition, the careful choice of a word, this word? Or the social act of placing yourself in another’s shoes, of seeing yourself from the eyes of others, seeing you seeing them, her, him? The equally contemplative thinking which stems from introvert solitude and extrovert dialogue?
All of these–and more–are certainly aspects of thinking. By Thinking of Things I mainly mean the kind of thought that leads to understandings and conclusions about aspects I deem important in my life and society, the critical thinking of questioning truths, so that new truths can be found to be questioned anew. The self-perpetuating thinking of figuring out, which is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
To be able to think is not a given, not something static. If done in solitude and never challenged, thoughts tend to stagnate, thoughts tend to purify and putrefy, to become simpler and more dogmatic. Left unchallenged, the thinking becomes unpractised and sloppy.
Thinking is inextricably intertwined with actions, both by spurring and by impeding them; for thoughtfully stopping an act is an act in itself. Oftentimes the merit of a thought is the action it spurs, and sloppy thinking may lead to wrongful actions. Thinking may therefore have dire consequences. But how do we know the merit of a thought, or an action?
Thinking is like most things attempted: in the beginning we fail. Unlike many things, however, we may not notice this. To notice the failure, our thoughts have to be tested against those of others, and preferably others who have thought further. If we only test our thoughts against those whose failure has gone unnoticed, there is little hope for our thinking to improve. Like most things attempted, thinking ability comes with practice, and practice we get by testing our lines of thoughts against those of others. Thinking is a social act, without the challenge of others we remain ignorant about our ignorance. The best thing that can happen to a thought is for it to be challenged. I have, from repeated and painful experience, become acutely aware of how ignorant I am about my own ignorance. Every time I have thought myself knowing something with certitude, something of which I was not aware–and not aware of being unaware of–comes back and bites me. For most things in the world are more complex than we think.
Three ways of being wrong:
1. Using flawed reasoning on correct premises.
2. Using correct reasoning on flawed premises.
3. Using correct reasoning on correct–yet incomplete–premises,
3. for no matter how well you think, your premises will never
3. be complete.
Thinking is social and it is communal. Society’s ability for thinking depends on a complex system of interdependence of all people critically thinking of things, who interact meaningfully, discuss and argue about things they thought of, criticise each other’s critiques, and then think of new things of which to have further meaningful conversations. For our communal and societal development, it is therefore critical to create communities which exchange ideas.
Like any person blinded by the shine of the new information era, I may be tempted to claim that the Internet! is the ultimate practice room for thinking, a vehicle for exchange of ideas. I can test my thoughts against any thinker of the online world, and do so easily! But I would be wrong. Alas, the free choice of the internet makes it much easier to only consult those who have thought nothing but the same as me, and lazily shy away from those who could possibly challenge me–not to mention the majority of humanity without presence on the internet–making me a thinker who never practises. For the shine of technology may tempt me to mistake information for thought, exchange for communication. Amongst all of its merits, the internet also fosters communities of solitude, echo chambers.
Thomas Mann: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and illicit.”
The internet and the life in the urban city have similar allures, in that they enable us to choose with whom we interact. In a city we may go through a whole life without a meaningful conversation with a person who voted for its sitting mayor (or someone who didn’t).
Three shades of lonesome:
1. Being on one’s own.
2. Being with people with whom one has
2. no disagreement.
3. Being with people with whom one does
3. not have meaningful interactions.
No, a diversity in social life is essential for practised thought. One does not choose one’s parents, but to a large extent the same holds true for one’s friends and lovers, an intricate pattern of chance within social structures weaves us together, and the more diverse the threads, the more challenged our thoughts may be, and the more practice we may get at thinking. A danger lies in the freedom by which we can choose who challenges our lines of thoughts.
When ideas remain unchallenged, they can transform into orthodoxy. No matter how true an idea once seemed, when absurdly attempted to be drawn to its logical conclusion, it fails, for we can never have a complete understanding of something. An idea is at least ever so slightly wrong, and when unchallenged and drawn to its logical conclusions, those small errors explode in your face and become apparent. But if you are not careful you may not notice this, for the explosion may be slow and sneaking. The notion of a perfect idea, an all encompassing explanation, is an impossible one, and should not be attempted. It is anyway the inevitable little errors, lacks, and smudges that make things interesting, give them personalities, render their continued exploration meaningful.
Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”
For the purpose of a line of thought is not its conclusion. The purpose is the line of thought itself, and that it may not end. The word conclusion is a misnomer in this sense; to conclude signifies an end, while in reality it signifies a continuation, a new beginning. A conclusion reached is boring and meaningless without the followup question: so what? And thus the line of thought continues.
To test a thought sometimes takes courage. One should not be afraid of being wrong, only open to it. For we are all thinker of very little brains, thinking of things the best we can with what we got, and I hope that by getting my thoughts out in the open to have other people looking at them, they will improve and multiply. These texts published here will somewhat describe the journey I have taken in thinking of the things relating to what it means to be human in the world of today. A journey which started in a not so distant past when I thought I had an obvious answer to these questions, a journey fueled by many a conversation and contemplation with great people who all have one thing in common: that they are not me. As will be clear (if it is not so already) where I am now is nowhere near the end of this journey, because it has no end. Therefore, in a way, this journey is like a blog, and as such, a blog offers a suitable form for this endless excursion, wouldn’t you agree? I invite you: participate in the journey, engage with my thoughts.
TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.