Cognition

Clear Thinking: A Workshop

Does thinking = being worried?

Posted Oct 21, 2017

susi ferrarello, used with permission
Source: susi ferrarello, used with permission

The other day I was in class doing my regular lesson, when a student replied resentfully to a question of mine by saying, “You’re making me think!”

I was startled by her reaction and humorously replied, “You’re welcome!” Meanwhile, an atrocious doubt arose in me: “Do my students know what thinking is?”

It’s been two years now that my students use on average the verb “I think” instead of “I feel." Why? Does this have anything to do with the resentment of thinking? In this train of thought, I decided to interrupt my lesson, or at least what was coming next according to my plans, and ask them a simple question: “Class, what does thinking mean?”

When the answer arrived, I realized that I wasn’t ready for it. “Thinking means being worried,” they all agreed.

Thinking = Being Worried

“So,” I swallowed, “if thinking means being worried, this implies that you avoid thinking as much as possible.” A forest of heads nodding eagerly was the only sound that one could hear in that eerily quiet classroom.

I paused, visibly shocked, and a flow of questions came out of my mouth—“Is it possible that you say ‘I feel’ instead of ‘I think’ because feeling is less scary and demanding than thinking? But then, how can you make important choices in your life if you do not think or you do not even know what thinking is? How do you live in a long-lasting relationship, if thinking is the same as feeling; even more, if you do not have thoughts with which to process your feelings? In one word, kids, how do you live your life?”

At that point, plenty of big needy eyes were staring at me begging for answers. One student had the courage to say, “We don’t know, in fact. Professor, what does thinking mean? How can we be thinking without feeling bad?"

Dewey—How we think

Susi Ferrarello, used with permission
Source: Susi Ferrarello, used with permission

There’s a small and nice book by a philosopher, a pragmatist, Dewey, whose title is How We Think. I used his book to give my students the first answer to the problem.

There are different qualities of thoughts, Dewey says. The first is whatever comes to mind, which is not so sophisticated or reliable, but it’s the first prompt we receive to start thinking. Second, there’s a form of thinking that connects what is not present with what is in front of us—this form of thinking is useful for us to fill the gaps between what is completely foreign to us and what we already know. Finally, there’s reflective thinking, which is the most sophisticated kind of thought that we can explore and it’s the one we use to grasp ideas that seem to go beyond our grasp.

This latter kind of thought, which we call reflection, is from Latin and means “to bend back." Thinking, Dewey writes, is an action. When you think you come back to what you lived in order to give a shape to what was passively lived before, when you were not aware of what you were doing. In fact, we live more than half of our life as objects among others, occasionally we wake up and we take active actions in our life. We are not awake when we eat, we talk, we walk. It is only when we wake up that we decide to come back to what we just lived through in order to give it a shape, a form, a meaning.

A meaningless life

Meaning and sense can arise only through the action of reflection, that is, through our willing and aware decision to stop the passive flow of our deeds and give it a shape. A life without pause, without interpretations, might easily become a meaningless life. Sense—what is meaningful for us—stems exactly from the exercise of reflection and interpretation of our passivity.

For this reason, Stoics used to tell us that life is a book that needs our interpretation. Everything has a meaning, it takes only our active effort in finding it. Our main task in life is reflecting on our oikos (home), that is, the place that we hold in the kosmos (the harmonious order of things). Only from that stance we can move forward and live a meaningful life. If we were to replace thinking with feelings—and Stoics were fiercely against that—we would be left with very mutable interpretations within a chaotic world.

Thoughts are actions that we take in order to find our oikos, our stable house in which we can find meanings—feelings only cannot replace these actions.

Were my students right?

susi ferrarello, used with permission
Source: susi ferrarello, used with permission

Yet, finding a house has never been easy. From a certain point of view, Dewey would say that my students were right: Indeed, we do not think unless we are not puzzled by something. The thinking process starts because we are perplexed about something, small or big it does not matter. We wake up from our passivity, because ‘we have to’—we have to provide food, we need to pass an exam, we want to fulfill our dreams, etc.

We start thinking because suddenly we realize that without it we cannot move forward, but would keep running in a circle. At that realization we have a choice either we think through reflective thought, or we take the short road and we give into idols. By idols Bacon, another philosopher, means our temptation to believe that genuine thinking means we rely upon old habits that are handed out to us through society. So we might think that something is correct because others use to think in that way, because it’s fashionable, because it will bring us money, because our family always solved problems in that way and so forth.

Or, we might decide to actually think. In that case, if we have the courage to suspend all the knowledge we previously gathered about an issue, we might arrive at a new judgment in which an analogous experience might work as a bridge to the new one. Thinking is a process that requires consecutiveness and plenty of action—when we think we build connections with the unknown and we move closer to the enigma.

Think! Please, think!

Hence, it takes a big effort and sense of initiative from us to shape meanings that are not quite there yet. Ideas, words didn’t always exist. They required work! Empathy, for example, is a word that that was finally formalized by Germans in the nineteenth century. Today it is easy for us to use all the meanings that that word is capable of evoking because we have the idea, and its sense—but it took the joint thinking effort of many human beings to arrive at its formalization. Not to mention words like equality, democracy, dignity and so forth.

So what can we say to my students? Yes, thinking might involve worries but it’s not the same as being worried; rather, thinking is there to prevent us from being worried. It’s an adventure that brings you to new, better lands and gives you new roots on which to thrive. So, I’d conclude by saying, “Dare to think! Sapere aude!”