Friday, August 16, 2013

Thinking, Again

I have been doing some brainstorming and some reading in preparation for a series of short workshops on teaching critical thinking that I'm scheduled to begin on Tuesday. I had begun an inventory of the various activities that might be considered to be specific kinds of thought processes: remembering, observing, visualizing, hypothesizing, asking questions, and so on. Once I got done with my first pass at that (coming up with 40-something possibilities), I decided to see what others might have come up with. I didn't find exactly what I was looking for, but I did run across an interesting essay by a forward-looking historian named James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) entitled "On Various Kinds of Thinking."

After talking in a general way about what he sees as the limitations of philosophical approaches to thinking:

Most philosophers...have exhibited a grotesque ignorance of man's life and have built up systems that are elaborate and imposing, but quite unrelated to actual human affairs. They have almost consistently neglected the actual process of thought and have set the mind off as something to be studied by itself. But not such mind, exempt from bodily processes, animal impulses, savage traditions, infantile impressions, conventional reactions, and traditional knowledge ever existed...(Italics in the original.) Kant entitled his great work A Critique of Pure Reason. But to the modern student of the mind pure reason seems as mythical as the pure gold, transparent as glass, with which the celestial city is paved. 
Robinson argues, in language that is always accessible and often witty, that our mental processes are determined to a much greater degree than we are generally aware of by "hidden impulses and desires and secret longings." (In this sense his work presages the work of a lot of 21st century cognitive scientists like David Eagleman who arrive at some of the same arguments with the advantage of a lot more sophisticated brain research than Robinson had access to.)

Robinson goes on to argue that to his way of thinking there are four basic thinking processes:

  1. reverie, or the "free association of ideas
  2. practical decisionmaking
  3. rationalizing, or "finding arguments for going on believing as we already do
  4. creative thought, which "makes things different from what they seemed before"

He's particularly convincing (and entertaining) on the subject of rationalization. After arguing that "the real reasons for our our beliefs are concealed from ourselves as well as from others,"he cites Wilfred Trotter on the subject of sacred cows:

When...we find ourselves entertaining an opinion about the basis of which there is a quality of feeling which tells us that to inquire into it would be absurd, obviously unnecessary, unprofitable, bad form, or wicked, we may know that that opinion is a nonrational one, and probably, therefore, founded upon inadequate evidence.

That certainly rings true to me. [I posted that last night. This morning, I came across this passage by John Dewey from the beginning of his book How We Think, saying much the same thing:

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 an 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.]

Robinson goes on to suggest that "It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its favor, but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing in as a probable instance of rationalization." And furthermore, that most of our convictions on matters of importance are "pure prejudices in the proper sense of the word... They are not really our own ideas, but those of others no more well informed or inspired than ourselves, who got them in the same careless and humiliating manner as we. It should be our pride to revise our ideas and not to adhere to what passes for respectable opinion, for such opinion can frequently be shown not to be respectable at all."

I take that as the core mission of attempting to work with students in the hopes of getting them to be better thinkers. Let us beseech them, following Oliver Cromwell, to think it possible that they may be mistaken.

Which puts me in mind of the conclusion of the chapter entitled "The Fallen Angel" in Neil Postman's The End of Education. (There's a version of this chapter available online here.) Postman, who has argued earlier in the chapter for a embedding student learning a meta-narrative acknowledging that, well, "to err is human," makes the not entirely facetious suggestion that we replace our final exams in our various disciplines with something like this:

Describe five of the most significant errors scholars have made in (biology, physics, history, etc.). Indicate why they are errors, who made them, and what persons are mainly responsible for correcting them. You may receive extra credit if you can describe an error that was made by the error-corrector. You will receive extra extra credit if you can suggest a possible error in our current thinking about (biology, physics, history, etc.). And you will receive extra extra extra credit if you can indicate a possible error in some strongly held belief that currently resides in your mind.

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