Without thinking, the human mind is dead: an investigation into thought

The fact of thought has intrigued and puzzled thinkers, and humanity in general, for centuries. And this, primarily because thinking about thinking is an exercise that is almost impossible. For thinking is the enabler of comprehension, it is the medium through which we seek to understand. How can we comprehend the tool that enables us to comprehend? To this we can add thinkings’ originless and endless particularity: it often emerges from our self intuitively, without any self-control, and disappears just as unusually (remember the number of times that a thought has simply left your mind). Thinking is by nature elusive, it can never be tangibly grasped. To paraphrase Henri Bergson, like children trying to catch smoke by closing their hands, the thought often flies before we can grasp it. Thinking about thinking is, therefore, an extremely difficult activity — there is never a grounding from which I will be able to define it in clear terms. Yet, I believe it would be appropriate, for the first article of our “thought-piece” series, to reflect on what thinking is, how we experience it and how it expresses itself in the real world. To help in me this daunting exercise, I will refer to philosophers, notably Hannah Arendt (to whom I owe everything in the writing of this article) and the work of artists such as W.H. Auden and Edward Hopper. I hope you will find this article stimulating, and literally, thought-provoking.

THIS ARTICLE WILL BE SEPARATED IN 6 PARTS:

  1. Thinking is a solitary experience.
  2. The relation between the thinking ego and the exterior world.
  3. How does thinking manifest itself in the real world?
  4. Where and when is thinking?
  5. What is thinking?
  6. Why think?

1. THINKING IS A SOLITARY EXPERIENCE

“Never is he more active then when is doing nothing, never is he less alone then when he is by himself”

— Cato the Elder

Thinking is, first and foremost, an intense solitary experience. In thought, you are detached from the real world. Gazing away from it, and back into the self, into the “thinking ego”. You are alone, and, crucially, no outside other can share your personal thinking experience. In general, the only outward manifestation of the thinking process is absent-mindedness. Yet, you would be wrong to believe that the thinking ego is lethargic. Thinking is a highly active and intense process. It can be uncontrollable and unstoppable, sometimes tormenting the self to a point of rupture. This experience of thinking has led Heidegger to describe it as a: “storm of thought”. And as a storm, it can be a highly destructive exercise, its current can often tear apart any foundations (conceptual, personal, societal). Nevertheless, this “storm of thought” can be channelled and tamed. Whether through meditation or logic, we can navigate thought towards an objective, be it ourselves (controlling our emotions…) or something exterior (a mathematic exercise…). In effect, thought can often be very relaxing. Many people, myself included, greatly enjoy the experience of gazing away into a space of thought and contemplation.

Moreover, thinking is a solitary but not a lonely phenomenon. In solitude, “I” keep myself company. Although when you think you cease to be among men, you are now with another familiar person — your other self — with whom with you are in a silent dialogue. From this duality of me and myself emerges a critical exercise in which both “I” am the one who asks and the one who answers. During this dialectical process, the criteria are not empirical observations or scientific research, which are useless in this space. Rather, the criteria are for both these I’s to agree. In other words, not contradicting yourself. This dual nature of the thinking ego becomes one again as soon as the outside world intrudes in its thinking process. Hannah Arendt names the latter phenomenon the “two-in-one”. Though this unity only exists when we are immersed in the outside world — our internal duality will come back running whenever there is an opportunity.

This description of thinking as a solitary internal dialogue is beautifully portrayed by W.H. Auden in one of his later poems “Aubade”:

Within a place, not of Names

but of Personal Pronouns,

Where I council with Me,

and recognise as present,

Thou and Thou comprising We,

unmindful of the meinie, (of the others)

all those We think as they.

No voice is raised in quarrel,

but quietly We converse,

Note how the “Thou” and “Thou” comprising the “We”, the thinking ego, remain unmindful of the “meinie”(others), those the “We” “think” as They. And, then, quietly, the two “Thou” converse. Interestingly, the many descriptions by various poets and philosophers about the experience of thought have been somewhat confirmed by recent scientific research. Indeed, a recent study showed that the parts of the brain you use when you think, are identical to those you use when you talk with another person.

Therefore, the solitary nature of thinking crucially means that our experience of it is always unique, not in the sense of what emerges from that process (as explained below), but more in terms of how we perceive and live these thoughts. The uniqueness of the experience of thought is an important part of our uniqueness as individuals: an element in us that can not be shared with others.

2. THE RELATION BETWEEN THE THINKING EGO AND THE EXTERIOR WORLD.

“Tantôt je pense et tantôt je suis” (At times I think and at times I am)

— Paul Valéry.

This experience that we have when we are thinking, of being detached from the world around us, has often led “professional” thinkers to make fundamental fallacies. According to Arendt, these thinkers believed that thought enabled them to transcend reality as it appears, in order to uncover underlying truths. This is most clearly expressed in Plato’s renown allegory of the cave, in which the human condition is described as being chained to the wall of a cave, facing another wall filled with shadows of objects. The real “perfect” objects exist outside of the cave, where the philosopher, lives. In effect, for Western traditional philosophy, the thinker is seen as a sort of god-like figure, exploring a world only accessible to authentic philosophers. This understanding of the thinker is perfectly embodied in Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (the thinker), in which a muscular and well-drawn man, sits on a stone pedestal, deep in thought yet remaining in a perfect pose.

Rodin’s “Le Penseur”

However, although we are thinking entities, we should not forget that we are “of the world”, a product of it. Our thinking ego and the exterior world constantly interact and oppose one another. As we move through our ordinary lives, thinking is always there, but the real world is too. As Arendt beautifully frames it: “thinking, after all, constantly occurs and constantly interrupts the ordinary processes of life- just as ordinary living constantly interrupts thinking”. The actual ordinariness of thinking is best illustrated in Edward Hopper’s “Automat”.

Edward Hopper’s “Automat”.

The woman in this painting sits alone, also deep in thought, but in a much less extravagant pose than the “penseur”. She appears absent-minded, yet as we now know, she is actually engaged in a highly active business: thinking, which, I believe, is encapsulated within the painting. Indeed, the background surrounding her would be engulfed in darkness would it not be for the reflection of the indoor lighting. In effect, Hopper creates a beautiful visual rendition of the experience of (her) thinking ego, as we see the lights of thought stray into the infinite darkness of the mind.

This continuous interaction between our thinking ego and the exterior world has fundamental implications. Contrary to the dominant doxa in Western philosophy that conceived the thinking ego as purely personal (I think therefore I am), our cultural backgrounds and societal condition can impact us to the very core. This has been shown by many commentators of the last century; whether it be Bourdieu and his notion of “Habitus” or Orwell 1984’s opus. External events can affect our very ability to think. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism rigorously demonstrates how man-made systems can control an individual’s thinking, sometimes to the point that the latter is unable to think. In the same way that an authoritarian system will try to stop two people from having a free discussion, a totalitarian system will try to thwart the very dialogue between the me and myself, by drowning the latter with a continuous monologue of information. In effect, what remains is just a lonely “me”, and a lonely me is always desperate for close company, a big brother of sorts to help he/she navigate in a menacing world.

Despite the “individual” experience of thinking, the exterior world can and does influence the process of thinking and the thought that emerges from it. The degree to which this thinking is influenced by outside factors has been subject to debate for centuries. Due to my lack of knowledge and length limitations for this article, I cannot offer a precise answer to that interrogation (look for to an upcoming article written by Finley Morris on that topic!). I will nonetheless seek to find routes into how thinking can exceed its environment in part 4 and 5.

3. HOW DOES THINKING MANIFEST ITSELF IN THE REAL WORLD?

“The results of philosophy are the uncovering of bumps that the intellect has got by running its head up against the limits of language”

— Wittgenstein

It is without question that the exterior world influences our thought. The question remains, how is our thought expressed in the real world? This process of expression begins in our thinking ego’s amazing ability to make present what is absent to our senses. Whether it be a song you heard at the club the night before or a beautiful landscape you saw during your summer holidays, you can make them “present” again through thought. We call that process “imagination” consisting of de-sensing and transforming in our mind an exterior entity/object. In this way, thinking can deal in invisibles, themselves informed by our past experiences. The process of imagination, of de-sensing exterior objects, is also the way we can manifest our thoughts in the real world. In other words, we integrate inwards, outside experiences, and then manifest outwards, inside experiences. Thought can be manifested in a variety of ways, such as painting (as we have seen in Hopper’s automat) or music. However, the dominant means of expressing our thoughts have been through speech and language. For instance, in Greek philosophy, the word “Logos” (which later gave “Logic”), although extremely polysemic, is usually translated to both “reason” and “speech”. Thinking and speaking/writing tend to be intimately tied to one another. As Hannah Arendt asserts, “thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think”.

Yet, this relation remains somewhat fractured. Although in ancient Greece, “logos” represents reason and speech, it is the “nous” that represents the thinking ego. Language remains somewhat exterior to the mind. Indeed, no language has a ready-made vocabulary for the needs of mental activity; they all borrow their vocabulary from words originally meant to correspond to experiences of ordinary life. For example, the word “Idea” that we use for abstract reasoning, initially comes from “eidos” which in ancient Greece was the blueprint that the craftsman had in front of his eyes before he began his work. When we think of concepts (thought-words), their meanings are never fully fixed, and there is always some uncertainty that we haven’t been able to exactly convey or express our the thoughts inside our minds. The human species has traditionally tried to make up for this discontinuity between thought and speech through the use of metaphors and analogies. They try to establish the “reality of our concepts”, through a comparison or an association of an abstract thought to an everyday experience that others could share.

Ultimately, despite all these tricks and methods developed by diverse thinkers over centuries, there is always something ineffable and indescribable in thought. As Nietzsche states, “the internal limit of all thinking… is that the thinker never can say what is most his own… because the spoken word receives its determination from the ineffable”. That particularity of thought means that it can never fully be comprehended, only experienced.

4. WHERE AND WHEN IS THINKING?

“backwards and forwards through Time, recalling and forecasting”

W.H. Auden

Although we know when and where we are while thinking (in a coffee room or a coach), one wonders, what is the topos of thinking itself? Well, first, thinking has the unique ability to make traditional notions of time completely obsolete. Indeed, in thinking, a past event that is never going to repeat itself can re-appear through remembrance and memory. It is in this moment (of recalling) that you can truly make sense of that past in the form of a story. Similarly, through thinking, you can “advance” in time through the process of anticipation and forecasting. Whether it be the plans for tonight’s clubbing or your lifelong projects; a future (often not the one you had planned) can be comprehended. Thinkings’ capacity to make ordinary time “outdated”, is beautifully depicted in Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”.

The painting creates an eerie atmosphere from the onset: the water is unusually still, almost nothing seems to be moving, the only objects that appear to be moving are the melting clocks. The title provides us with some understanding of what Dali is depicting here: memory. And in memory, ordinary time (embodied in the clocks) is literally liquefying.

Thinking also doesn’t have any spatial limitations. It is swift and unconstrained. You have no idea of physical weight, there nothing that you cannot (in theory) carry. For Arendt, this has led thinking to have a tendency to squeeze the real world of all its particularities (experiences, everyday events) in search of something generally meaningful. The mind observes a pattern and swiftly thinks up a general theory of the meaning of that pattern: “Inwards and outwards in space, observing and reflecting”. (W.H. Auden). In short, thinking always generalises. The generalising propensity of thinking entails that it deals with “universals” (concepts that are not limited to a particular place), at least in the mind of the thinking ego. In effect, the thinking ego, moving among universals, among invisible essences is “strictly speaking nowhere; it is homeless in an emphatic sense”.

Thus, the thinking ego has the experience of breaking not only temporal distances but also spatial limitations. Truly, thinking is out of order! This also means that it is impossible to situate where and when thinking is… again, it is strictly “nowhere”. Yet, thinkers have always traditionally loved this “nowhere” as if it was a country, a place in which they could and take refuge, away from the affairs of men (however, as stated above, thinking can never be fully separated from its surroundings). For Arendt, the experience of the activity of thought is “probably the aboriginal source of our notion of spirituality”. For example, the word “theory” comes from “theo” in Greek, which means “to see”. but it has also given us “theos”, (the divine, god…). Indeed, ancient philosophers believed that the gods, free from life’s necessities, could devote themselves to spectatorship, to “seeing” down from Olympus upon the affairs of men. Thinkers were “mortal gods”.

The extraordinary topos of thinking provides an interesting route into how thinking can go beyond its social environment. Although thinking is influenced by the outside world, it has the capacity to exceed its limitations and realities through the process of recalling and anticipation, and thanks to its ability to generalise particular outside experiences.

5. WHAT IS THINKING?

If you’ve reached this part, I hope that you are not expecting any clear definitions. However, I can make a certain number of clarifications by stating what thinking is not. Firstly, thinking is not logic. Or rather, logic is not the only way to think. Logic, where the mind produces a deductive chain from a given premise, uses thinking as a tool, but it dismisses thinking for what it truly is: a highly (self) critical phenomenon (more on that below). Thinking is not cognition nor science either. Cognition (the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) and its thirst for knowledge (embodied in science) again uses thinking as a means to an end. Yet, although thinking can and must be “employed in the attempt to know”, it is not its core purpose. Do not expect “knowledge” from pure thinking, you will get only doubts and uncertainties. Lastly, thinking is to be distinguished from common sense reasoning. The latter is directly tied to the real world, it is the 6th sense that ties all the other senses together. It has no desire to escape the context it develops in. On the contrary, it reacts almost with immediacy to it. In all these cases, thinking is involved, but only as a tool. Often, what we mistake as “thinking” in itself, are just ways of developing “trains of thought”. Logic, or even meditation, seek to understand “how” to develop our trains of thought in order to further ourselves in the real world. However, do not believe I dismiss these concepts. Very often they are much more “useful” and practical to advance human society as a whole, but I believe they are not thinking in itself.

Thinking is critical. At a macro-level, it has the capacity to undermine and deconstruct any established criteria, values, norms. Throughout history, philosophers and political leaders have used their capacity to think, in order to critique the order in which they were in. At a micro-level, thinking has the critical capacity to undermine any of your personal certainties. That was noted especially by existentialists in the last century: if you think of any object — really think of it — you will start to realise how absurd the object is. Thinking can be dangerous in its ability to relativise everything, to liquefy any relations to reality. As Arendt states, “this bracketing of reality — getting of it by treating it as though it were nothing but mere ‘impression’ has remained one of the great temptations of the ‘professional thinkers’”. Not only can thinking deconstruct everything at a micro and macro level, but thinking also has a highly self-destructive capacity. For Kant, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something. In pure philosophy this is impossible. Our mind has a natural aversion to it”. Thinking always introduces doubts into your past thoughts, and forces you to redevelop and rethink them anew. Subsequently to thinkings’ critical and self-critical particularity, thinking has no end goal, no end product. For some thinkers, thinking “circles back into itself”; for others, it goes nowhere, it has no route, no directions. Unlike logical thinking, thinking in itself does not follow a pathway, coming back to Hopper’s painting, it strays into the mind’s infinite darkness.

Thinking is a double-edged sword. It’s critical and self-critical nature means an individual can always be more creative and innovative. It has, therefore, the potential to be a tool for improvement. Yet, thinking can also be excessively critical and self-critical, deconstructing norms and personal certainties without offering any alternatives.

6. WHY THINK?

If thinking has the potential for more confusion and uncertainty, why think? Well, the answer is precisely in the question, we think to answer the eternal universal question, “why?” Why do we exist? Why is there injustice? Why is there justice? The question “why?” exhorts the mind to find the meaning of something, meaning that arises through thinking. Indeed, as Arendt states: “All thought arises out of experience, but no experience yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking”. It is thinking that a posteriori, through the process of recalling, provides the actual meaning of an event or an experience. Until you have thought about the event, about your action, you don’t necessarily understand what occurred. Thinking also creates meaning for much larger interrogations, such as your project in life as whole, or the meaning of our world’s sorrows and inhumanities.

Yet, if we think to find meaning, the question now is why do we search for meaning in the first place? For Plato, the initial impetus for this search is wonder. Wonder at the extraordinary fact of existence and the world that surrounds us. This wonder encourages us to think the world, understand its eternal mysteries in order to further appreciate its amazingness. In this case, thinking is a tool to appreciate our world as it is.

For others, however, such as Hegel or Bertrand Russell, thinking arises out of the disintegration of reality and the resulting disunity of man and world, from which springs the need for another, more meaningful, world. In effect, disjointure is actually an opportunity for creativity and innovative thinking. As Russell explains, “the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare fluorescence of genius”. I believe these two “schools of thought” roughly summarise the historical duality in the history of thought, between “conservatives” who think to appreciate our world as it is, and “reformists” who continuously wish to think it anew.

CONCLUSION?

The unexamined life is not worth living

— Socrates

Socrates is often epitomised as the “purest thinker” (not necessarily the greatest) in Western thought. Through his process of “elenchus”, he would deconstruct and undermine anybody’s claim to certainty and knowledge. Yet, his dialogues would almost always come back to the initial quandary, without any answer, but with even more puzzlement. As such, he didn’t think to develop new alternatives like reformists or appreciate our world as conservatives do. No, Socrates thought for the simple sake of thinking. For life deprived of active thought would be meaningless, even despite thought’s inability to answer its own questions. Socrates notably affirms, “to think and to be fully alive are the same”. In an era where the mind is overwhelmed with mental stimuli and drowned in information, where we immediately and thoughtlessly react to events, I believe Socrates’ speech is to be treasured and promoted. Nowadays, an everyday individual will often come back from work, eat and watch Netflix… However, when do we think for thinking’s sake? It is crucial to create spaces where thinking is not used as a tool, but where it is appreciated in all its particularities, experiences, and exterior manifestations…Because, although thinking can be self-destructive, the horrors of the 20th century have shown how not thinking is even more dangerous.