Sunday 6 February 2022

Is Thinking a means, an end, or an illusion?

I may be a bit strange this way; but there are few subjects that excite me as much as thinking

I have come to regard thinking as an-end-in-itself; indeed probably the highest activity of which we are capable. 

Of course, I am immediately compelled to clarify that I certainly do Not mean all kinds of thinking have thus supreme value; nor even most kinds of thinking... 

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is possible that many people may never experience the kind of thinking that I am talking about - not least because to experience this highest kind of thinking one must simultaneously recognize its supreme value. One must regard this thinking as intrinsically valid and intrinsically valuable. 

And that recognition is very far from the case!

Indeed, for most people, thinking is just a means to an end - and that end is 'action'. 

Most people would say that thinking but not doing is just a waste of time; and empty activity. Good thinking is that which leads to good outcomes in the perceptible world...

Most people nowadays would say that unless something is changed in the material, objective, external world - then thinking is a free-spinning-cog: futile, just wasteful of energy and effort. 

This seems like simple common sense to the modern, mainstream mind - its ideology and assumptions. To suppose that thinking had intrinsic value or validity is for such Men a kind of delusion; sheer insanity. 

For other people; thinking is a kind of illusion; and indeed a wicked illusion. 

Thinking is regarded as an aspect of maya: in other words, thinking is one of those snares or nets that keep us trapped in a world of appearance and suffering instead of the blissful reality that lies behind maya

Many of the influential 'gurus' of Eastern and New Age spirituality emphasize that we should aim to eliminate thinking, instead our striving should be towards not-thinking-being. 

We should strive for non-thinking awareness; because (they understand) thinking is what leads to our (false) sense of separation from the world; and the illusion of separateness leads to suffering. If thinking can be eliminated, so can suffering. 

For those who regard reality as One, and assume we began as unconscious spirit aspects of that One; our task as going beyond the body and back to pure spirit - and also going beyond thinking to pure being-awareness.  

Yet I have the solid conviction that thinking is of primary importance; and that our destiny lies in the direction of 'more and better thinking' - rather than no-thinking, or material-action. 

For many years this was an un-conscious and inarticulate conviction - and it only began to reach awareness and clarity by reading the work of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield. I found both of these authors very difficult to 'get' and spent years tackling them before the penny dropped. 

But the penny  dropped when reading Steiner's Truth and Knowledge followed immediately by re-reading the later part of Philosophy of Freedom. I then returned to Barfield and was immediately clear what I had been missing. 

The excitement of this perspective is now latent - and can be awakened or re-awakened by coming across the same view in these or other authors. For instance, yesterday I was listening (on Rudolf Steiner Audio) to a lecture from early 1914; the opening words of which triggered that joyful lifting of the heart (emphasis added).  

Man experiences within himself what we may call thought, and in thought he can feel himself directly active, able to exercise his activity. 

When we observe anything external, e.g. a rose or a stone, and picture it to ourselves, someone may rightly say: “You can never know how much of the stone or the rose you have really got hold of when you imagine it. You see the rose, its external red colour, its form, and how it is divided into single petals; you see the stone with its colour, with its several corners, but you must always say to yourself that hidden within it there may be something else which does not appear to you externally. You do not know how much of the rose or of the stone your mental picture of it embraces.” 

But when someone has a thought, then it is he himself who makes the thought. One might say that he is within every fiber of his thought, a complete participator in its activity

He knows: “Everything that is in the thought I have thought into it, and what I have not thought into it cannot be within it. I survey the thought. Nobody can say, when I set a thought before my mind, that there may still be something more in the thought, as there may be in the rose and in the stone, for I have myself engendered the thought and am present in it, and so I know what is in it.” 

In truth, thought is most completely our possession

If we can find the relation of thought to the Cosmos, to the Universe, we shall find the relation to the Cosmos of what is most completely ours. This can assure us that we have here a fruitful standpoint from which to observe the relation of man to the universe.

For me, this expresses in a nutshell a deep and vital truth. Thinking is potentially our most complete and valid form of knowing. Therefore, the big question becomes: How this knowing is related to 'reality' - to divine creation? 

If thinking turns-out to be in a direct relationship with reality - and not merely having some kind of indirect, 'translated', representational or linguistic 'communication' with reality - then this is of the greatest possible significance. 

We begin to see (as Steiner goes on to articulate later in this lecture) that the distinction between this 'primary' thinking, and the kind of 'secondary' thinking which most people do most of the time (and some people do all of the time) - is related to language.

Most thinking is in words, it is language - therefore secondary; therefore either a means to an end, or perhaps illusion. 

(This is the level of all public discourse and most private conversation: language responding to language - and nothing more. Our secondary thinking is no better than this.) 

But some thinking may be primary, and not in words or any other symbolism; but thinking 'in' the primary creative essence of reality. 

This kind of primary thinking is indeed itself reality

Thus we can come to know reality.

You see why I regard thinking (of the right sort - primary thinking) an end in itself?


PhilR said...

Fascinating stuff, thank you. One question: if secondary thinking takes place at the level of language and primary thinking occupies some sort of realm 'beyond' that, are you not back to the 'ineffable' states of mind of the mystics you seem to reject?

Bruce Charlton said...

@PR - Who says I reject mystics? - I don't at all; indeed several mystics (Blake, Joseph Smith, Steiner, Arkle) are core to my convictions.

But it depends on what you mean by 'ineffable'. I mean nothing more than that any linguistic expression is bound to be an incomplete and distorted summary of primary reality.

This does not just apply to spiritual intuitions but also to scientific hypotheses - and everything else.

PhilR said...

Thank you for your reply. I suppose I'm trying to tease out the real difference between 'mystical ' or ineffable states on the one hand and 'primary' thinking on the other. Both, I assume, would claim to be closer to 'reality' than the perceptual and language saturated world of the every day.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PR - You would be better forgetting what most people write about mysticism (and try to understand on its own terms) if you want to understand this Steiner type conceptualization.

The mystical tradition mainly derives from a very different set of metaphysical assumptions regarding reality. Most Western mystics, until recently, were from the Platonic tradition; which is extremely different from what I am arguing here.

Ann K. said...

In fact, our nous is most completely in our possession and we are assailed by thoughts that originate externally.

Francis Berger said...

You've written about this extensively from many different angles. It has all been insightful, I found this post particularly helpful.

"If thinking turns-out to be in a direct relationship with reality - and not merely having some kind of indirect, 'translated', representational or linguistic 'communication' with reality - then this is of the greatest possible significance."

I sense this applies to creativity as well. I've been struggling to explain co-creativity, which most regard as merely subcreation. While I think some kinds of co-creation can occur at the level of subcreation, it is quite plain that co-creation (in an active sense, aligned with God) is not a prerequisite of subcreation, which is mostly at the secondary level of thinking -- indirect, representational, linguistic, etc.

On the other hand, if primary thinking establishes a direct relationship with reality, then it makes a different kind of co-creativity possible because it is reality meeting reality without the need for secondary, objectified translated understanding, which offers the potential for a direct, "more authentic" form of co-creation that is not confined to works of art, or language, or anything representational.

These thoughts might be missing the point, but when I contemplate primary thinking, I immediately equate it freedom and creativity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank. I agree.

Anonymous said...

Far from becoming anything close to useful action, I recognize that I need to minimize internal monlogues and verbal queues. An attuned mind can "see" all that is before it, past and present, in a glimpse. Well attuned minds are capable of condensing possibilities requiring minutes or hours of physical work within the span of moments. Words and language are symbolism, but they are also subtle and obviously misapprehended powers, of action, yes, but also magic - magic as that action which realizes one's nature and is a reality to the soul. *Dasein*. Sound and musical harmony are integral to living up to one's truth.

Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan divine architecture are some of the most interesting languages made into "words." In describing the past, one makes way for the future of what must come again.

easty said...

"Thinking is regarded as an aspect of maya: in other words, thinking is one of those snares or nets that keep us trapped in a world of appearance and suffering instead of the blissful reality that lies behind maya."

Which is the most nonsensical claim imaginable. Its similar to how Buddhists argue that there is no God, the One, or Brahman, and then talk (as Huang Po does) of a One Mind, saying "All Buddhas and sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind." A student then proceeds to ask him (paraphrase) "So, like, with this 'One Mind' stuff you're saying we are emanations of God?" "No, it was only a joke. There is no One Mind." This is the depth of their "wisdom" (especially in Zen) i.e. to just contradict themselves over and over. If the problem is the physical world, then how is thinking, which is an activity of the soul the problem? The problem is these people are incapable of thought, because they deny the existence of the true organ of true thought, i.e. the soul.

Bruce Charlton said...

@easty - I agree that this view is incoherent.

The problem is that oneness/ no thinking teaching and preaching is itself an incoherent activity. It requires and creates thinking - and then claims that this paradox is a means of transcending thinking. Incoherence is re-framed as a higher mystical coherence.

But anyone sincere in the professed belief, would say nothing.

Having made this incoherent move, they then find they have to say *something*; and always commence moralizing... while simultaneously denying they are doing it.

In practice, oneness/ no thinking teaching mostly serves as a palliative/ tranquillizer - a technique - either partly/ temporarily to alleviate the suffering of life, or to provide a pleasurable type of meditative experience.

...But it always claims to be more, and claims to be 'good for people'; indeed 'for the general good' - in several or many ways. Hence the denied-moralizing.

Nathanael said...

Great post Bruce. It's a vital topic.

I believe this last 2 years has given us a crystal clear example as to how primary and secondary thinking plays out and impacts life.

As things stand it appears the majority are addicted to secondary thinking and actively hate - and seek to shut down - primary thinking.

We seem to collectively be pretending all legitimacy is only found on the surface.
Yet surrounding language there is sound, and surrounding sound there is intent/motive/thinking.