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pathways (guide)

3 what is thinking?

From The Glass House Philosopher 24th August 1999:

How does one acquire the skills of the philosopher? If you are a distance learning student, how do you get to practice and improve your skills? As a Pathways mentor this is a question I take seriously.

'It's not enough to read,' I tell my students, 'you have to write, you have to go through the struggle of attempting to express your thoughts and then the further struggle of seeing what you have written objectively, so that you can criticise it. You have to learn to argue with yourself.'

Well, easy to say. It's one of those answers that comes off pat. But obviously, if you can't think you can't write a single coherent sentence of philosophy. This is the daunting thing. We think we know what thinking is, until we come across a philosophical text for the first time, or listen to a philosopher speak. Then all our thoughts run helter-skelter in every direction, and we find ourselves not able to make sense of words which look as if they are written in English, but might as well be Martian.

Here's an interesting experiment, which one of my students who went to a few meetings of a well known school of Eastern philosophy showed me. He said the idea came from the mystic Gurdjieff. All you have to do is look at the second hand of your watch for just one minute without allowing your mind to wander. Concentrate on the movement of the second hand and nothing else. Sounds easy until you try. — That's how hard thinking is.

I am the first to stress the importance of creative reverie or lateral thinking as a source of new ideas. But that is not thinking. New philosophical ideas are of no use to you if you can't think, if you can't keep your mind on a problem for more than thirty seconds.

I believe that we can, and do, get better at thinking simply by practice. It doesn't have to be anything to do with philosophy. Here is a second experiment. Select a topic to think about, it can be anything. For example, what needs doing in the garden tomorrow. As you ponder your chosen topic, be aware of any stray thoughts that interrupt the flow. Each time, consciously pull yourself back. — Don't try this for too long, though, you will get a headache!

Bertrand Russell once remarked that a good philosopher manages about five minutes real thinking in any one day. A bad philosopher never thinks at all.

We are habitually lazy about thinking, simply because most of the tasks that we do don't require that kind of concentrated attention. But anyone can do it. It is just a matter of practice.