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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

21 AUGUST, 2014

Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit

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“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy’s letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download; public library).

The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy’s death — a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein’s correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.

Tolstoy’s letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance — he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love — something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.

Gandhi’s introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy “one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers,” offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says … to realize the central truth of his indictment.

[...]

There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.

Tolstoy opens each “chapter” of his missive — for the letter’s length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive — by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:

The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same — whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether … the oppressors are of a different nation.

[...]

The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called “civilization.”

It’s worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy’s notion of “religious teaching” is perhaps best regarded as “spiritual direction,” for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:

In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love… The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:

This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society… The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth — that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man—this truth, in order to force a way to man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.

[...]

The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers … foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued — regardless of all that leads man forward — to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He distills this idea to one “old and simple truth”:

It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.

In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism — something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning break to down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical “stuff.” Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance — the danger of, as he puts it, “scientific superstition replacing the religious one”:

But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable… The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.

(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be “dazzled by the pomp” of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism — something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions — over clarity and rigor.)

He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance:

Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.

Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how “a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions” and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact “the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.” He writes:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence — as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.

Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that “eternal law,” Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:

What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.

When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived — not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.

But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.

To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.

Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that “in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity.” World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity’s grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned — which is why Tolstoy’s closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:

What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art — but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions — the truth that for our life one law is valid — the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.

(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than “childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities” in art in his sublime essay on the “emotional infectiousness” of art.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 — eight weeks before he took his final breath — Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:

The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts… Any employment of force is incompatible with love.

A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it’s available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore’s 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.

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20 AUGUST, 2014

Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: The Color of Distance and Desire

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“Something is always far away… After all we hardly know our own depths.”

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote after Apollo 8′s legendary “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold…” Its unprecedented perspective of distance seemed, paradoxically enough, to bring us earthlings closer together, to desire connection to one another more strongly than ever before. Nearly three decades earlier, Simone Weil touched on another aspect of this paradoxical relationship between spatial remoteness and emotional closeness when she wrote in a letter to a friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” So much of “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” that takes place on our Pale Blue Dot seems to stem from this eternal tug-of-war between distance and desire.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — that sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknownRebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in an exquisite essay that begins with the scientific and blossoms into the poetic:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

Trampolining off former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass‘s memorable formulation that “desire is full of endless distances,” Solnit dives into the pooling of the physical and the metaphysical:

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This relationship between desire and distance, Solnit argues in one of the most poignant passages in this altogether brilliant book, is also the root of our deep-seated unease with desire — a state we approach with a single-minded quest for its eradication. We seek to demolish it either with grasping action, through consummation, or with restless resistance, through denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire — bear witness to it, inhabit it fully, approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” With extraordinary elegance and sensitivity, Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Playing off Simone Weil’s bittersweet paean to distance and separation, Solnit writes:

The far seeps in even to the nearest. After all we hardly know our own depths.

Artwork from Ralph Steadman's illustrated biography of Leonardo. Click image for more.

Blue, it turns out, has long been used as a symbolic demarcation of distance. Solnit cites Leonardo da Vinci’s philosophy on painting buildings:

To make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building . . . of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

Solnit considers the role of temporal and psychological distance in the architecture of memory — that singular human faculty that keeps the horizons of our lived experience, however distant and blurry, in sight — by recounting the disintegration of a vivid childhood memory:

When I was two, we lived in Lima, Peru, for a year, and all of us, mother, father, brothers, and I, went up into the Andes once, and then sailed across Lake Titicaca, from Peru to Bolivia. Lake Titicaca, one of those high-altitude lakes, Tahoe, Como, Constance, Atitlán, like blue eyes staring back at the blue sky.

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. It vanished in an instant, and I saw it go… Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Solnit closes with a return to the overpowering duality of distance, at once destructive and generative:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[...]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is spectacular in its entirety and remains one of the best books I’ve ever devoured.

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18 AUGUST, 2014

How We Think: John Dewey on the Art of Reflection and Fruitful Curiosity in an Age of Instant Opinions and Information Overload

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“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.”

Decades before Carl Sagan published his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, the great philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey penned the definitive treatise on the subject — a subject all the more urgently relevant today, in our age of snap judgments and instant opinions. In his 1910 masterwork How We Think (free download; public library), Dewey examines what separates thinking, a basic human faculty we take for granted, from thinking well, what it takes to train ourselves into mastering the art of thinking, and how we can channel our natural curiosity in a productive way when confronted with an overflow of information.

Dewey begins with the foundation of reflective thought, the defining quality of the fruitful, creative mind:

More of our waking life than we should care to admit, even to ourselves, is likely to be whiled away in this inconsequential trifling with idle fancy and unsubstantial hope…

Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something — technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

Thought, Dewey notes, also denotes belief, which he defines as “real or supposed knowledge going beyond what is directly present,” which is “marked by acceptance or rejection of something as reasonably probable or improbable.” But that process of acceptance or rejection is also where we brush up against one of the most quintessential human flaws, the same one responsible for the “backfire effect” — our tendency to construct our beliefs based on insufficient knowledge and understanding, then to cling to them blindly, rejecting all evidence to the opposite. Stereotypes and prejudice are among the products of such thinking. In that sense, our “thoughts” are not based on true reflection but on crippling cognitive shortcuts, often borrowed from society rather than arrived at by our own cerebration. Dewey writes:

Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. They are picked up — we know not how. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. Tradition, instruction, imitation — all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion — are responsible for them. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.

To truly think, Dewey argues, we ought to consider not only the origin of our beliefs but also how they affect our actions, which they inevitably do:

Thinking in its best sense is that which considers the basis and consequences of beliefs…

To think of the world as flat is to ascribe a quality to a real thing as its real property. This conclusion denotes a connection among things and hence is not, like imaginative thought, plastic to our mood. Belief in the world’s flatness commits him who holds it to thinking in certain specific ways of other objects, such as the heavenly bodies, antipodes, the possibility of navigation. It prescribes to him actions in accordance with his conception of these objects.

Dewey defines reflective thought, our single most potent antidote to erroneous beliefs:

Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.

This basis of reasons, Dewey argues, is a relational framework for how different bits of knowledge connect to and validate one another. To think well is to construct fruitful linkages:

[The] function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, [is] the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking… Reflection thus implies that something is believed in (or disbelieved in), not on its own direct account, but through something else which stands as witness, evidence, proof, voucher, warrant; that is, as ground of belief.

What follows naturally from this is the idea that to think is also to embrace uncertainty and harness the power of not-knowing:

Thinking … is defined accordingly as that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce belief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former. We do not put beliefs that rest simply on inference on the surest level of assurance. To say “I think so” implies that I do not as yet know so. The inferential belief may later be confirmed and come to stand as sure, but in itself it always has a certain element of supposition…

[There are] certain subprocesses which are involved in every reflective operation. These are: (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or to nullify the suggested belief.

Much like getting lost helps us find ourselves, being uncertain drives us to reflect, to seek knowledge. The spark of thinking, Dewey argues, is a kind of psychological restlessness rooted in ambiguity — what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability” — which precipitates our effort to resolve the unease by coming to, by way of reflection and deliberation, a conclusion:

Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another…

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection… This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

This is where the art of critical thinking becomes crucial. Like the scientist, whose chief responsibility is always to remain uncertain, so the thinker must cultivate a capacity for not only welcoming but seeking out doubt:

If the suggestion that occurs is at once accepted, we have uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection. To turn the thing over in mind, to reflect, means to hunt for additional evidence, for new data, that will develop the suggestion, and will either, as we say, bear it out or else make obvious its absurdity and irrelevance… The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful… To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

Just as importantly, Dewey argues, reflective thought acts as an antidote to autopilot — it “affords the sole method of escape from purely impulsive or purely routine action.” But like the use of any tool, thinking “may go wrong as well as right, and hence … needs safeguarding and training.” Dewey admonishes against the assumption that one’s intelligence prevents the operation from going wrong — if anything, the relationship between creativity and dishonesty suggests that the most intelligent people are often those most deft at rationalizing their erroneous beliefs and the resulting behaviors. Dewey writes:

Natural intelligence is no barrier to the propagation of error, nor large but untrained experience to the accumulation of fixed false beliefs. Errors may support one another mutually and weave an ever larger and firmer fabric of misconception.

Perhaps the greatest gift of thought, Dewey notes, is that it allows us to imagine things not yet experienced, based on what we know in and about the present — it grants us the power of “systematized foresight,” which enables us to “act on the basis of the absent and the future.” And yet therein lies one of the most perilous potential pitfalls, as well as the greatest potentiality of learning the art of reflective thought:

The process of reaching the absent from the present is peculiarly exposed to error; it is liable to be influenced by almost any number of unseen and unconsidered causes — past experience, received dogmas, the stirring of self-interest, the arousing of passion, sheer mental laziness, a social environment steeped in biased traditions or animated by false expectations, and so on. The exercise of thought is, in the literal sense of that word, inference; by it one thing carries us over to the idea of, and belief in, another thing. It involves a jump, a leap, a going beyond what is surely known to something else accepted on its warrant. Unless one is an idiot, one simply cannot help having all things and events suggest other things not actually present, nor can one help a tendency to believe in the latter on the basis of the former. The very inevitableness of the jump, the leap, to something unknown, only emphasizes the necessity of attention to the conditions under which it occurs so that the danger of a false step may be lessened and the probability of a right landing increased.

Paying attention, essentially, means understanding the context in which an idea occurs and the conditions under which it is given credence — in other words, knowing why we believe what we believe. That, Dewey argues, is a function of critical thinking, the result of which is proof — something without which we can’t be certain that what we believe is true:

To prove a thing means primarily to try, to test it… Not until a thing has been tried — “tried out,” in colloquial language — do we know its true worth. Till then it may be pretense, a bluff. But the thing that has come out victorious in a test or trial of strength carries its credentials with it; it is approved, because it has been proved.

(How brilliantly this applies not only to the pursuit of capital-T truth, but also to the basic fabric of our wants and desires — so often we dismiss something as unworthy without having tried it out. To dismiss experiences and ideas in that way is, then, a profound failure of reflective thinking and of our highest human potentiality.)

In testing our inferences, Dewey argues, it’s crucial to discriminate between “beliefs that rest upon tested evidence and those that do not” and to be mindful of “the kind and degree of assent yielded,” both of which require a rich library of knowledge and experience against which to test our beliefs.

This notion strikes with particular resonance: I founded Brain Pickings around the concept of combinatorial creativity, the idea that our capacity to create — which is, essentially, a function of fruitful thinking — is predicated on a vast and diverse pool of insights, impressions, influences, and other mental resources.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

Dewey captures this elegantly in considering “the factors essential to thought”:

Thinking involves … the suggestion of a conclusion for acceptance, and also search or inquiry to test the value of the suggestion before finally accepting it. This implies (a) a certain fund or store of experiences and facts from which suggestions proceed; (b) promptness, flexibility, and fertility of suggestions; and (c) orderliness, consecutiveness, appropriateness in what is suggested. Clearly, a person may be hampered in any of these three regards: His thinking may be irrelevant, narrow, or crude because he has not enough actual material upon which to base conclusions; or because concrete facts and raw material, even if extensive and bulky, fail to evoke suggestions easily and richly; or finally, because, even when these two conditions are fulfilled, the ideas suggested are incoherent and fantastic, rather than pertinent and consistent.

We stock our “store of experiences and facts” via one of the greatest human faculties — our inherent curiosity, a “desire for the fullness of experience”:

The most vital and significant factor in supplying the primary material whence suggestion may issue is, without doubt, curiosity… The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.

Dewey explores curiosity at its most natural and uncontaminated — in the child’s mind. Children not only offer a model for fruitful risk-taking and overcoming the fear of failure, but their boundless curiosity, he argues, is precisely what we need to reawaken in ourselves in seeking to cultivate fertile thought:

In its first manifestations, curiosity is a vital overflow, an expression of an abundant organic energy. A physiological uneasiness leads a child to be “into everything” — to be reaching, poking, pounding, prying… The most casual notice of the activities of a young child reveals a ceaseless display of exploring and testing activity. Objects are sucked, fingered, and thumped; drawn and pushed, handled and thrown; in short, experimented with, till they cease to yield new qualities. Such activities are hardly intellectual, and yet without them intellectual activity would be feeble and intermittent through lack of stuff for its operations.

From this springs the next developmental stage, the what/why phase that often exasperates parents and teachers but provides the foundation for critical thinking:

A higher stage of curiosity develops under the influence of social stimuli. When the child learns that he can appeal to others to eke out his store of experiences, so that, if objects fail to respond interestingly to his experiments, he may call upon persons to provide interesting material, a new epoch sets in. “What is that?” “Why?” become the unfailing signs of a child’s presence… Yet there is more than a desire to accumulate just information or heap up disconnected items, although sometimes the interrogating habit threatens to degenerate into a mere disease of language. In the feeling, however dim, that the facts which directly meet the senses are not the whole story, that there is more behind them and more to come from them, lies the germ of intellectual curiosity.

Curiosity rises above the organic and the social planes and becomes intellectual in the degree in which it is transformed into interest in problems provoked by the observation of things and the accumulation of material. When the question is not discharged by being asked of another, when the child continues to entertain it in his own mind and to be alert for whatever will help answer it, curiosity has become a positive intellectual force. To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.

Once again, Dewey reminds us that this unique human gift is predicated on our fragile willingness to befriend uncertainty and welcome the unknown — something most of us relinquish by mid-life. Lamenting the ease with which “the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood” is lost, Dewey writes:

If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity. This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.

In a sidebar comment on the notion of dullness, he considers the very metaphors we use for the quality of the mind in a rather lyrical passage:

The common classification of persons into the dull and the bright is made primarily on the basis of the readiness or facility with which suggestions follow upon the presentation of objects and upon the happening of events. As the metaphor of dull and bright implies, some minds are impervious, or else they absorb passively. Everything presented is lost in a drab monotony that gives nothing back. But others reflect, or give back in varied lights, all that strikes upon them. The dull make no response; the bright flash back the fact with a changed quality.

But Dewey’s most prescient point has to do with how information overload — a malady undoubtedly far worse today than it was in 1910, yet one each era bemoans by its own terms — muddles the clarity of our view, hindering our ability to think critically and reflectively:

So many suggestions may rise that the person is at a loss to select among them. He finds it difficult to reach any definite conclusion and wanders more or less helplessly among them… There is such a thing as too much thinking, as when action is paralyzed by the multiplicity of views suggested by a situation… The very number of suggestions may be hostile to tracing logical sequences among them, for it may tempt the mind away from the necessary but trying task of search for real connections, into the more congenial occupation of embroidering upon the given facts a tissue of agreeable fancies. The best mental habit involves a balance between paucity and redundancy of suggestions.

In today’s culture of exponentially growing “multiplicity of views,” Dewey’s admonition exposes with great urgency both meanings of critical in “critical thinking.” (Thirty-five years later, in 1945, Vannevar Bush would propose a complementary solution to the predicament by predicting the emergence of “a new profession of trail blazers” — essentially, knowledge sherpas who “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”)

For Dewey, the solution was in large part a matter of depth — how deep we are willing to penetrate the bottomless pit of information. It is our capacity for depth that determines the richness and fruitfulness of our thought — something of equally urgent importance today, when the information web is dominated by bite-sized opinion riffs and “How Cat Are You?” quizzes. Deep-diving, according to Dewey, is something that can and should be taught:

One man’s thought is profound while another’s is superficial; one goes to the roots of the matter, and another touches lightly its most external aspects. This phase of thinking is perhaps the most untaught of all, and the least amenable to external influence whether for improvement or harm. Nevertheless, the conditions of the [person's] contact with subject-matter may be such that he is compelled to come to quarters with its more significant features, or such that he is encouraged to deal with it upon the basis of what is trivial. The common assumptions that, if the [person] only thinks, one thought is just as good for his mental discipline as another, and that the end of study is the amassing of information, both tend to foster superficial, at the expense of significant, thought.

Even more important, in our era of snap-judgments and instant opinions, is Dewey’s point about the slowness and deliberative contemplation inherent to such deep thought:

Sometimes slowness and depth of response are intimately connected. Time is required in order to digest impressions, and translate them into substantial ideas. “Brightness” may be but a flash in the pan. The “slow but sure” person … is one in whom impressions sink and accumulate, so that thinking is done at a deeper level of value than with a slighter load… The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows.

Ultimately, Dewey argues that thinking is predicated on mapping out the interaction of information and on an intentional organization of knowledge — something that requires a comfort with uncertainty, a systematic curiosity that stocks the mental store of ideas, and a willingness for depth and slowness:

Thinking [is] not a machine-like, ready-made apparatus to be turned indifferently and at will upon all subjects, as a lantern may throw its light as it happens upon horses, streets, gardens, trees, or river. Thinking is specific, in that different things suggest their own appropriate meanings, tell their own unique stories, and in that they do this in very different ways with different persons. As the growth of the body is through the assimilation of food, so the growth of mind is through the logical organization of subject-matter. Thinking is not like a sausage machine which reduces all materials indifferently to one marketable commodity, but is a power of following up and linking together the specific suggestions that specific things arouse.

[...]

Facts, whether narrow or extensive, and conclusions suggested by them, whether many or few, do not constitute, even when combined, reflective thought. The suggestions must be organized; they must be arranged with reference to one another and with reference to the facts on which they depend for proof. When the factors of facility, of fertility, and of depth are properly balanced or proportioned, we get as the outcome continuity of thought. We desire neither the slow mind nor yet the hasty. We wish neither random diffuseness nor fixed rigidity. Consecutiveness means flexibility and variety of materials, conjoined with singleness and definiteness of direction.

And yet, he is careful to point out, it is not a black-and-white matter of tuning out distraction and pursuing absolute concentration — that, in fact, is the very mechanism by which we confine ourselves to our existing beliefs, never leaving our comfort zone of knowledge and opinion. Good thinking, he argues, embraces contradiction rather than shunning it:

Concentration does not mean fixity, nor a cramped arrest or paralysis of the flow of suggestion. It means variety and change of ideas combined into a single steady trend moving toward a unified conclusion. Thoughts are concentrated not by being kept still and quiescent, but by being kept moving toward an object, as a general concentrates his troops for attack or defense. Holding the mind to a subject is like holding a ship to its course; it implies constant change of place combined with unity of direction. Consistent and orderly thinking is precisely such a change of subject-matter. Consistency is no more the mere absence of contradiction than concentration is the mere absence of diversion — which exists in dull routine or in a person “fast asleep.” All kinds of varied and incompatible suggestions may sprout and be followed in their growth, and yet thinking be consistent and orderly, provided each one of the suggestions is viewed in relation to the main topic.

So why would we ever go through all that trouble in the first place, rather than sinking into our comfortable routine? Dewey argues that thinking arises from the need to action — something undoubtedly evidenced by the history of successful entrepreneurship, wherein many great inventions came from the inventor’s own need for something that didn’t yet exist in the world, be it the Polaroid camera, which Edwin Land dreamed up after his little daughter asked why she couldn’t see a photograph right after it was taken, or Instapaper, which Marco Arment built out of frustration with how hard it was to read web articles on the iPhone offline. Dewey writes:

Intellectual organization originates and for a time grows as an accompaniment of the organization of the acts required to realize an end, not as the result of a direct appeal to thinking power. The need of thinking to accomplish something beyond thinking is more potent than thinking for its own sake. All people at the outset, and the majority of people probably all their lives, attain ordering of thought through ordering of action.

How We Think is a magnificent read in its entirety, exploring everything from the defects and potential reform of the education system to how we can train ourselves to interpret facts and create meaning out of them. It is available as a free ebook.

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