Friday, March 15, 2013

What is called thinking?

Two things: first, this list of world thinkers (you can vote on them!) struck me as odd (for instance, are Nussbaum, Sandel, and Zizek really the most important philosophers in the world?), and second, Lars Hertzberg has written that:
There may be many forms of thoughtlessness. One form of many is that in which people are thoughtless about the sense of the words they use (as when they confuse “accidentally” and “inadvertently”); even so, what they are *trying* to say may be perfectly in order.
This is undoubtedly true. But it reminds me that philosophers sometimes, perhaps often, are thoughtless about the sense of the words they use even when they try to be most thoughtful about them. (Over-dramatic italics, sorry.) I think this is what people mean by 'logic-chopping.' Imagine a less careful version of Aristotle dividing goods up into three categories (external, of the body, and of the soul), virtues into two (intellectual and moral), and so on. But, being less careful, getting it wrong and overlooking important points. This isn't simple ignorance of the meanings of words, but it is a kind of ignorance (a kind of ignoring). It seems to be a kind of weakness of will, like someone drunkenly forgetting what they already, usually, know. It's something that I think Wittgenstein tries to discourage (take your time!). Being slower to jump to conclusions, being more aware of what we already know, is not thinking in the usual, active sense preferred by philosophers. It's more like sobriety, not-forgetting, remembering both in the sense of not forgetting and in the sense of putting back together what the logical butcher has hacked, or is about to hack, apart.  


  1. Zizek could use a fair bit of editing but he is doing serious work in thinking through the implications of Hegel for our times (and making an interesting case for there being such), but Nussbaum and Sandel are popularizers at best (at worst dated salespeople for expensive 'humanities' degrees), does this make them "important", I guess that depends on important to whom/what?

  2. pretty tough, dmf! is there something about hegel, or our times, that makes them more in need of thinking through implications of hegel than of thinking through implications of hellenistic philosophy? not that i've gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of reading nussbaum, but still.

    i was surprised to find last year that today's precocious high school debate students are crazy for zizek.

    question: who are the most prominent, and/or best, philosophers working now who are mainly critical? the slowness duncan describes seems to me to be, in practice, incompatible with a philosopher's wish to produce something that says, in effect, 'this is what you should believe [or do]'. but i rarely read 'negative' work, or work that mainly engages in questioning, that's not directed at some pointless inside-baseball thing.

  3. I don't know much about Zizek, but I was put off by this: (In case I've got the wrong video, or misremembered, or anyone can't be bothered to watch it, what I don't like is the idea of deliberately not helping the poor with the idea, I think, that things will get so bad that revolution will become inevitable.) Nussbaum is something of a popularizer, but she also has ideas of her own. She has made contributions to the capabilities approach, for instance, rather than simply explaining Sen's ideas. She also defends gay rights, the humanities, and the kind of bourgeois liberal values that I share. The only work of Sandel's that I know is his popular stuff, but he does have original ideas too. He has a book on things that shouldn't be treated as commodities, and I think he was on George Bush's ethics committee with Leon Kass. Whatever you think of their ideas, they aren't just popularizers. But I find it hard to imagine anyone who thinks that precisely these three are the most important philosophers today. Not that many philosophers come to mind who are likely to be more influential.

    It's hard to be slow and prescriptive, it's true, but I think it can be done. It might involve showing the best way to combine things we know we want, for instance, or diagnosing problems that we already dimly see. Some of MacIntyre's work, perhaps, or Cora Diamond on animals. I wouldn't describe them as mostly critical though. Peter Hacker does some work that is mostly critical, but I don't really think of him as a role model.


    2. Thanks! That's a very interesting article, and shows that it would be wrong to be misled by what I said above into thinking that Michael Sandel = Leon Kass = George W. Bush. Although Sandel may be more conservative than Richard Sennett.

  4. What is called thinking? First of all, thinking is: not accepting that thinkers cannot be ranked. For Heidegger, thinking is accepting that we still cannot think, perhaps because we try to hard - or, as you say, use our words too thoughtless. Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p. 144: "toute expression m'apparaissant toujours comme une trace, nulle idée ne m'étant donnée qu'en transparence, et tout effort pour fermer notre main sur la pensée qui habite la parole ne laissent entre nos doigts qu'un peu de matériel verbal." Perhaps we only think WHEN we have words. And so should think again to think at all.

  5. Thanks, Rohmann.

    Ranking thinkers is a funny business because it seems childish to try to produce an actual ranking, and yet obvious that Kant, say, was a great thinker, and far greater than most people. In that sense of course he ranks highly. But getting specific about who is third or fourth seems silly.

    And we need words, but their meanings are hard to grasp, as Merleau-Ponty suggests (if I understand that passage correctly). Thinking about language, about meaning, is very hard. And so is any kind of important thinking, I suppose.

  6. sry should have translated:
    "because any expression already appears to me as a trace, whilst I am given the idea in its immediate transparency, any effort to grasp with our hands the thought that inhabits our speech, leaves only a bit of word-matter between our fingers."
    Wittgensteinian said: a thought is not yet a 'thought', but now it is - and the thought, where is that??

    yeah if Kant were alive today I think or hope he would be "the new Wittgenstein" :-P

  7. Thanks. I think I got the gist of it, but this helps.

    'Thinking' covers a range of activities from applying an algorithm to being aware (conscious, attentive, sober, mindful, etc.). And being aware has a historical as well as a spatial aspect to it. That is, it includes awareness of context, and this requires not only looking around and seeing connections that are there now, but also knowing the relevant history, too. I think we're not very good at this latter kind of thinking these days.