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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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


“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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13 AUGUST, 2014

Truth and Tenderness: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship and Its Two Essential Conditions


“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?”

It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love (though it’s not uncommon for one to turn abruptly into the other), but whatever the case, friendship is certainly one of the most rewarding fruits of life — from the sweetness of childhood friendships to the trickiness of workplace ones. This delicate dance has been examined by thinkers from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Thoreau, but none more thoughtfully than by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an essay on the subject, found in his altogether soul-expanding Essays and Lectures (public library; free download), Emerson considers the intricate dynamics of friendship, beginning with our often underutilized innate capacities:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Barring all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eyebeams. The heart knoweth…

The emotions of benevolence … from the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life.

More than mere gratification of the heart, however, Emerson celebrates friendship as something that expands and enriches our intellectual landscape:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

But beyond the rewards of emotion and intellect lies an even deeper satisfaction — that of the soul:

What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis vanish; all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.

For Emerson, friendship isn’t something that can be willed or forced but, rather, the natural byproduct of our interaction with the world. A century and a half before the modern social web, he pens a passage that rings with extraordinary poignancy and prescience today:

We weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by-and-by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought.

Drawing from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

In the deepest of friendships, Emerson finds an element of reverie as the two friends amplify each other’s goodness through a boundless generosity of spirit:

I must feel pride in my friend’s accomplishments as if they were mine, and a property in his virtues. I feel as warmly when he is praised, as the lover when he hears applause of his engaged maiden. We over-estimate the conscience of our friend. His goodness seems better than our goodness, his nature finer, his temptations less. Everything that is his, — his name, his form, his dress, books and instruments, — fancy enhances. Our own thought sounds new and larger from his mouth.

But even the most absolute of friendships, Emerson argues, have a certain pace of presence and absence, a natural rhythm of “comings and goings” that should be respected rather than bemoaned as a weakness in the relationship:

The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations. The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase. Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship, and if he should record his true sentiment, he might write a letter like this, to each new candidate for his love:

Dear Friend:—

If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles, in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

To rush these rhythms or force friendship to comply to a specific fantasy, Emerson gently admonishes, would be an assault on the relationship:

Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart. The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness.

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo a century later in the context of love, writing to his teenage son that “the main thing is not to hurry [for] nothing good gets away,” Emerson argues that to be impatient in friendship is to mistrust the depth of the relationship and to deny the resilience and immutability of the friend’s affections:

Our impatience is thus sharply rebuked. Bashfulness and apathy are a tough husk in which a delicate organization is protected from premature ripening. It would be lost if it knew itself before any of the best souls were yet ripe enough to know and own it. Respect the naturalangsamkeit [German for the slowness of natural development] which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration, in which Alps and Andes come and go as rainbows. The good spirit of our life has no heaven which is the price of rashness. Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.


I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

And yet how rare it is to have a friend with whom one can be earnest to the point of absoluteness — who doesn’t require the veneer of self-consciousness and the shield of cynicism. Echoing Aristotle’s assertion that a friend holds a mirror up to us and thus brings us closer to ourselves, Emerson outlines the two key elements of a true, solid, soul-fortifying friendship:

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins… We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.


The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.

In another stroke of exalting prescience, Emerson bemoans — more than a century before our networking-preoccupied, self-promotional society — the superficiality and transactional ego-stroking that defines most human interactions, the vacant “chat of markets or reading-rooms.” (We all know the people who bestow upon professional relations and marginal acquaintances the misplaced label “friend” in an act of name-dropping or self-inflation — an injustice against true friendship.) Emerson laments:

To most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age, is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.


I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.

He returns to the greatest gift of true friendship:

[Friendship] is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution… We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends.' Click image for more.

But Emerson argues, as I too have long believed, that the fruits of friendship are best harvested in one-on-one companionship rather than larger social situations. He explores the inverse correlation between the quality of connection and conversation and the number of friends involved:

I find this law of one to one, peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals at once merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.

Returning to the building blocks of true friendship, Emerson points out that the most valuable friendships don’t spring from a filter bubble of like-mindedness but, rather, from the perfect osmosis of shared values and just enough discrepancy in tastes and sensibilities to broaden our horizons:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party… I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend, than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it… Let it be an alliance of two large formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.

(A phrase like “a mush of concession” reminds you of just how daring a writer Emerson was in his era, and how original he remains in ours.)

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

He returns once more to the organic formation of true friendship and the reverie with which its natural rhythms should be beheld, the room we should give a friend to breathe and grow and just be:

Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it. Treat your friend as a spectacle. [Your friend] has merits that are not yours, and that you cannot honor, if you must needs hold him close to your person. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand. Are you the friend of your friend’s buttons, or of his thought? To a great heart he will still be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground…

Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit.

To entrust a friend with the burden of our own wholeness, he suggests, is not only to place an unbearable weight on the relationship but also to relinquish vital personal responsibility:

We must be our own before we can be another’s… The least defect of self-possession vitiates, in my judgment, the entire relation. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect until, in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown,' a vintage ode to friendship by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Emerson ends by considering the dual art of what it takes to have a friend and to be one:

Wait, and thy heart shall speak. Wait until the necessary and everlasting overpowers you, until day and night avail themselves of your lips. The only reward of virtue, is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.

A patience with the rhythms of relationships and an attentive sensitivity to their dynamics, he argues, will eventually elevate the true friendships over the false ones, over those of unequal investment of affections and effort, which will invariably fall away to reveal the immutable:

It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away… But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer… The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.

Complement this with Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful reflections on friendship. Emerson’s Essays and Lectures includes equally insightful meditations on love, heroism, intellect, prudence, self-reliance, and more. The entire volume is available, and highly recommended, as a free download.

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05 AUGUST, 2014

A Guide for the Perplexed: Mapping the Meaning of Life and the Four Levels of Being


How to harness the uniquely human power of “consciousness recoiling upon itself.”

“Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on how the art of getting lost helps us find ourselves, “and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” But the maps we use to navigate that terra incognita — maps bequeathed to us by the dominant beliefs and standards of our culture — can often lead us further from ourselves rather than closer, leaving us discombobulated rather than oriented toward the true north of our true inner compass. A decade after his influential meditation on “Buddhist economics,” British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher set out to explore how we can improve those maps and use them to better navigate the meaning of life in his magnificent 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).

Schumacher begins with an apt anecdotal metaphor for how these misleading maps are handed to us:

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “This is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

Map of Palmanova, from Umberto Eco's 'Legendary Lands.' Click image for more.

Instead, Schumacher set out to “look at the whole world and try to see it” — which requires examining what it really means to map knowledge and meaning in life, including its invisible, unprovable layers. Peering into the history of “philosophical mapmaking,” he writes:

The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be “If in doubt, leave it out,” or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: “If in doubt, show it prominently“? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.

'Isle of Knowledge' by Marian Bantjes. Click image for details.

To do that, however, we need a tolerance for doubt — more than that, an active embrace of uncertainty. Corroborating the idea that our compulsion for plans limits us, Schumacher cites the famous José Ortega y Gasset line that “life is fired at us point-blank” and writes:

We cannot say: “Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.” Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for; aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly. This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings … hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want, but above all of what they want.

Mapping our wants is a core part of the human journey. If we don’t do that, Schumacher argues, we are “left in total perplexity.” But the art of existential mapmaking is a delicate one:

Mapmaking is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but none the less clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. Its motto, in a sense, is “Accept everything; reject nothing.” If something is there, if it has any kind of existence … it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.

Graphic for Skepticism from 'Philographics,' a visual dictionary of philosophy. Click image for more.

But as Rationalism and Skepticism rose to power in philosophy, Schumacher argues they wrought a “very great impoverishment” in the ability to map abstraction, because these movements “strove with determination, not to say fanaticism, to get rid of the vertical dimensions [of being],” the distinction between lower- and higher-order ideals that traditional wisdom distinguished between. He writes:

Thus the maps ceased to be of any help to people in the awesome task of picking their way through life.


The loss of the vertical dimension meant that it was no longer possible to give an answer, other than a utilitarian one, to the question, “What am I to do with my life?” The answer could be more individualistic-selfish or more social-unselfish, but it could not help being utilitarian: either “Make yourself as comfortable as you can” or “Work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”


Without the qualitative concepts of “higher” and “lower” it is impossible to even think of guidelines for living that lead beyond individual or collective utilitarianism and selfishness.

To remedy this flattening, Schumacher maps out four essential “Levels of Being” and proposes a model — a formula of sorts — for how they relate to one another and where they belong on the philosophical map: m marks the “mineral level” of inorganic matter; x is the “life force” of organic matter, which animates plants and animals, setting them apart from rocks; y denotes consciousness, which distinguishes a cat from catnip (though it has been argued, since Schumacher’s time, that plants may have a consciousness-like capacity); and z, which denotes the human capacity for self-awareness. Schumacher considers this uniquely human — though, one could presently argue, questionably so — faculty:

This power z has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself. This power z, consciousness recoiling upon itself, opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge.


We must, however, take great care always to remember that such a word label is merely (to use a Buddhist phrase) “a finger pointing to the moon.” The “moon” itself remains highly mysterious and needs to be studied with the greatest patience and perseverance if we want to understand anything about man’s position in the Universe.

By this model, then, a rock is described as m, a plant as m + x, an animal as m + x + y, and a human being as m + x + y + z. Where scientific reductionism and philosophies like Skepticism fall short, Schumacher argues, is in dealing with the lowest level, m, and pretending the rest don’t exist. He writes:

To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Illustration from 'Geometrical Psychology,' Benjamin Betts's 19th-century mathematical diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

It is from the ineffable power of z — “consciousness recoiling upon itself” — that our core humanity springs, and it is through harnessing this power that we can reach our highest potentiality along the vertical dimension:

Because of the power of self-awareness (z), [the human] faculties are indeed infinite; they are not narrowly determined, confined, or “programmed”… Once a human potentiality is realized, it exists. . . .

This “open-endedness” is the wonderful result of the specifically human powers of self-awareness (z), which, as distinct from the powers of life and consciousness, have nothing automatic or mechanical about them. The powers of self-awareness are essentially a limitless potentiality rather than an actuality. They have to be developed and “realized” by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.


Self-awareness is the rarest power of all, precious and vulnerable to the highest degree, the supreme and generally fleeting achievement of a person, present one moment and all too easily gone the next.

But self-awareness, Schumacher implies, also makes us invariably aware of the other — of our fellow human beings — without whom our individual experience would be vacant of meaning. Once again, he rebels against reductionism:

The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings. A world without fellow human beings would be an eerie and unreal place of banishment; with neither fellow humans nor animals the world would be a dreadful wasteland, no matter how luscious its vegetation. To call it one-dimensional would not seem to be an exaggeration. Human existence in a totally inanimate environment, if it were possible, would be total emptiness, total despair. It may seem absurd to pursue such a line of thought, but it is surely not so absurd as a view which counts as “real” only inanimate matter and treats as “unreal,” “subjective,” and therefore scientifically nonexistent the invisible dimensions of life, consciousness, and self-awareness.

He returns to the progression between the levels and considers our ultimate human potentiality:

At the level of animal … the power of doing, organizing and utilizing is immeasurably extended; there is evidence of an “inner life,” of happiness and unhappiness, confidence, fear, expectation, disappointment and so forth. Any being with an inner life cannot be a mere object: it is a subject itself, capable even of treating other beings as mere objects, as the cat treats the mouse.

At the human level, there is a subject that says “I” — a person: another marked change from passivity to activity, from object to subject. To treat a person as if he or she were a mere object is a perversity, not to say a crime. No matter how such a person may be weighed down and enslaved by circumstances, there is always the possibility of self-assertion and rising above circumstances… There is no definable limit to his possibilities, even though there are practical limitations which he has to recognize and respect.

Illustration from Ralph Steadman's visual biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Click image for more.

A Guide for the Perplexed is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people and Alan Watts on becoming who you really are.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.