Thinking about Thinking

We all have opinions, made up of small truths, in which we place trust. We all need to occasionally take time to think, especially when those opinions are shaken or not immediately clear. And we all feel knowledgeable about one thing or other.  Where thinking begins and where thinking will lead is however, a highly personal experience. Thinking about thinking has a long history of ideas. Plato describes thinking to be a passive act, aiming at and ending in contemplation, not action. Thinking to Plato opened the eyes of the mind, but once a philosopher realized truth there was no following preoccupation. In Christian times, thinking continued to be deemed as a passive act ending in contemplation. Although now contemplation equaled an additional goal – the goal of meditation – through which one could aim to receive temporary intuition, but never to know the truth.

Plato’s thinking as opening the eyes of the mind describes a two world theory. One world is a world of appearances perceived by the eyes. While the other, is a world of thinking taking place in the mind. With the rise of the Modern Age, thinking became the leading lady, guiding science. Science whilst born from a mental activity inherently belongs to the world of appearances. Science’s aim is cognition, knowledge or a truth which we can see and feel. Once science is established as a truth, it becomes part of our world of appearances. Mostly, these truths are only temporary however for scientists own the option to withdraw from previously established truths in order to ‘think’ and find more promising approaches or methods towards it. Truth following the eighteenth century enlightenment underwent a change in the realm of speculation and became broken into strings of general validity.  The scientific approach fed by the notion of unlimited progress became common sense.

A political theorist – she refused to be categorized as a philosopher – who kept preoccupied with thinking about thinking all her life long was Hannah Arendt. Kant separated Vernunft (German for thinking or reason) from Verstand (German for cognition and intellect). Arendt pursues the implications of this separation and theorizes that Vernunft relates to concepts of reason serving us to conceive and comprehend, whilst Verstand are concepts of intellect serving us to apprehend perceptions. Thus whereas, Verstand desires to grasp what is given to the senses, Vernunft wishes to understand its meaning. Verstand seeks truth from a world of appearances through sense perceptions. These sense perceptions offer self-evident testimony, which is only replaceable by other evidence – pretty much how modern science operates today. Ultimately, truth through Verstand results from evidence of the senses. Vernunft does not seek to explore what something is or whether it exists at all. The existence of its object is always taken for granted. The question however that drives Vernunft is “what does it mean for it to be?” What the opposition of these two mental activities reveals is that by expecting truth to come from thinking, we mistake the need to think with the urge to know.

What comes to mind is Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this story a fashion obsessed Emperor has garments made for him, which possess magical powers ensuring that only those who are intelligent and fit for office are able to see them. The reader understands from the beginning of the narrative that the garments are actually made by swindlers and that when the Emperor wears them he is indeed naked. Afraid of their own understanding that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes and what this means for their character, the Emperor and all the people around him keep quiet and continue the charade of admiring the Emperor’s new clothes. If among the crowd had been a thinker thinking along the lines of the separation between Verstand and Vernunft, her Verstand would be trying to know whether or not the Emperor is truly wearing clothes. Depending on which sources she used for this cognitive investigation she could bring forward a variety of answers or truths on whether or not the Emperor is wearing clothes. The thinker’s Vernunft however, would take as a given that either the Emporer was not wearing clothes or that at least a few people in the crowd were pretending that the Emperor was wearing clothes. Mentally she would then partake in a process of reasoning what it means for the whole crowd or part of the crowd to keep quiet while they can see that the Emperor is clearly not wearing any clothes.

Verstand seems much more intent on following the age old tradition of thinking as a contemplative way of life, occurring in quietness and devoted to the vision of God or an all-encompassing truth. While Vernunft can be utilized in an active life, occurring in public and devoted more to the necessity of one’s neighbour*. Both mental activities are clearly valuable, although in general we as a society tend to focus a lot more on our Verstand than our Vernunft. As explained earlier this trust in knowledge is a product of the Modern Age’s focus on science and intellect. Common sense, created by scientific knowledge is the way in which we manoeuvre in our world of appearances. When we are interacting with the world we must therefore be careful not to be blinded and confused by conspiracy theories and searching for underlying structures, which often render the thinker feeling out of depth and hopelessly confused. Instead of constantly searching for temporary truths or taking reality at face value and ceasing to contemplate further, we should more often stand still to reason what it means for what we see, to be.

*Taken from a distinction made by the medieval philosopher Hugh of St Victor

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