"Thinking is hard work,"to quote the late Peter Sherrill a late friend of mine who was professor of communications theory at Stanford University. If that doesn't ring true immediately, maybe what you call thinking is something else entirely. Most people refer to the voices in their mind as thinking, and most dictionaries embody this wide range of mental activities in the meaning of the word think.

But real thinking is a unique experience and is extremely rare. It is barely addressed in any of the literature I have read on philosophy or social thought.

A passable definition of thinking has yet to be explicated. An explication tells us precisely what something is and most importantly what it isn't. It makes one word clearly distinct from all other similar words.

For the unique kind of thinking that I am talking about, I can go only part of the way to providing a definition. Thinking is easily confused with philosophy, creativity ,and the whole range of daily phenomena that transpire in the mind. Real thinking is a concept that has not been explicated and will take a few centuries to understand. First, let's discuss what thinking is, then what it isn't.

What Thinking Is

Sherrill says that a thinker "sees what is obvious that others don't see." Seeing the obvious means discarding rose colored glasses. It requires a broad base of knowledge and a designated area of inquiry.

Thinking occurs when you define the area of inquiry; mentally pose a question; feed yourself data, literature, collected thoughts; and then mentally work hard on it until you achieve the insight that gives you an alternate perspective. This process and the necessary concentration that accompanies it are hard work. If you've experienced thinking, you'll know how important it is to write your insights down, because even though they are hard won they easily forgotten (as Bucky Fuller pointed out in his lectures).

Gilbert Ryle, a professional philosopher who clearly distinguishes the concerns of philosophy from thinking, says that thinking is the mental process that presents us with something that is recognizably "new."

What Thinking Isn't

Thinking is distinct from processes of the mind that are not thinking. Ryle lists some of these: rehearsing, memorizing, recalling, and meditating. Our mind is constantly full of daydreams and anticipatory dialogues. These mental activities are not thinking because they are not new; that is, they don't come with a startling sense that our perceptions have been reorganized, which is the experience that Ryle is describing.

To recognize a thought as new means to counterpose it against what we already know and to perceive the differences. This is clearly a form of gestalt: We see the old and the new simultaneously. This is the outcome of true thinking.

Systems of Thought and Boundaries

In our new "ecological" world, the world of interlocking systems that has emerged as a key paradigm in the past two decades, the boundaries of disciplines, knowledge, and research methodology have become recognizable as areas of great interest. When we encounter a new area of knowledge we increasingly ask what is the core structure of this subject and what are the boundaries. Systems thinking focuses on inputs, feedback and boundaries. This is a new insight of our time and a reason that the experience of thinking can be seen in a startlingly contemporary light.

It is the very nature of "boundaries" to define the experience of newness that Ryle describes. Each established field of study has its tradition that demarcates its direction and flow, which in turn allows its participants to recognize when they have moved into a new territory. Metaphorically, newness is the recognition that we have crossed a boundary of established knowledge. (At least our own established knowledge.) Thinking itself is a new field that should place fresh boundary markers far out on the virgin horizons of the mind.

Thinking as Profession

In talking to thoughtful people in many parts of the world, I see that thinking is now emerging as a profession. This profession is a response to the need for a broader perspective of the human than has so far evolved within the boundaries of the older disciplines of philosophy and the behavioral sciences.

In fact, this new profession is particularly concerned with the specific areas beyond the boundaries of these two fields. The present overlapping boundaries of philosophy and linguistics, the overlap of linguistics and anthropology, anthropology and psychology, psychology and biology, are fertile fields for thinking.

Of course the field of thinking itself has a mutual overlap with many fields. There will in the future be a philosophy of thinking and an anthropology of thinking and an engineering of thinking and vice versa. Just as there is an anthropological philosophy and an engineering philosophy, there will be a philosophical form of thinking and an anthropological kind of thinking and an engineering kind of thinking, which will be quite distinct from the philosophy of all these disciplines.

"How to think" is already emerging as part of the psychological area of the thinking profession. Surprisingly, this is already an area that has a great deal of development, and the reader is directed to the work of Edward DeBono and others who have written on creativity.

Creativity is not thinking, inspite of what many people believe.

Creativity and thinking overlap; however, they are distinct. Creativity occurs in a wide range of final forms, from music to movement to visual images. The two fields, as far as I can determine, use many of the same techniques: analogy, homology, drawing, writing, giving imaginary lectures or even a real ones, posing a clearly stated problem and waiting a few weeks for the answer, lighting incense, etc.

The distinction between creativity and thinking is important, as it is part of the description of what thinking is not. Creativity applies to the arts of music, art, design, dance, and comedy. The output of creativity can be in any of the related forms: color, sound, movement, line, space, smell and many more. The output of thinking is in the form of ideas, thoughts, explications, theorems, hypotheses, and so forth. The final forms are conveyed in words and images.

Because the outcome of the thinking experience is in words and some images, it is possible to make a clear distinction between thinking and romance, sex, entertainment, travel fun, business, government, war, and most daily activities, such as shopping, dressing, eating, bathing and gossiping. These activities have a wider range of outcomes, including emotions, sensory responses, physical changes, and action. Of course, the thinking experience can overlap any of these activities: You can think and eat, just as you can get sexually turned on and eat. But they are still distinctly different.

Thinking Is Not IN a Language

Thinking is not a position, dialogue, or fantasy, nor is it done "in a language." Thinking can occur in any physical position or during any physical activity: writing, rocking, walking, showering, running ,or eating. It tends to occur infrequently in noisy environments or demanding situations such as in a sheet metal shop or while managing a business.

Thinking is not those voices we hear inside our heads, talking to each other or talking to us. While meditating, you can observe those voices going merrily on their own way for days without any outside input. But thinking must be going on behind this barrage, because every once in a while it pops up: a thought about something new that has nothing to do with the dialogue it interrupted.

The same applies to fantasies. While fantasizing about a sailing cruise with full mainsail and sun, we can be interrupted by the recognition that we just had a new thought. So thinking must have been going on in some other nonverbal form.

To make his point that thinking isn't a mental voice or a fantasy even more evident, Ryle pointed out that a translator who is translating a difficult passage from say Sanskrit to Japanese can certainly be recognized as a thinker (when the resulting product is well done), but the translator can not be said to be "thinking in Japanese." The translator, in fact, is involved in some type of process in which he or she is sorting through many words and phrases in Japanese to match words and phrases in Sanskrit. What "language"could one say this sorting process is being done in? Obviously none.



Gilbert Ryle, On Thinking (Basil Blackwell, 1979).

Richard Aaron, Knowing and the Function of Reason (Oxford, 1971).

Gilbert Harman, Thought (Princeton University Press, 1973).

M. Jouvet, In Cerebral Correlates of Conscious Experience (Biomedical Press, 1978).



Addendum: Thinkers' Ethics

At the time this is being written, there is no profession called thinker. I have called myself by this title for about two years now off and on. Mostly off, because the reaction to it seems to be similar to the reaction one would get from saying he is an artist, a convicted rapist, or a god. The reaction is a mixture of "what do I talk to him about" or "I'd probably be embarrassed to introduce him to my friends" (the same problems as with an artist); "what might he do?" (a rapist); and "the arrogance of it&emdash;everyone thinks"; (he believes he is a god).

People who are philosophers have a similar problem. Most say they teach in a university and, if asked for more, say "in the philosophy department."

Much has been written about the negative American attitudes about intellectualism and thinking. I have little to add. But there is a clear need for ethics in this new profession. First the ethics, then the reason we need them.


The Ethics:

1. Conscientious acknowledgement of others' work.

2. Genuine willingness to change (as opposed to religion).

3. Complete openness and accessibility to others when data or observations are involved.


Why do thinkers need ethics at all? There are two reasons. One is that it is a key definitional component of any profession to have ethics. This is not obvious, because many professions hide them. Second, appropriate ethics can provide a vitality for a profession that will ensure its health and future importance.

Anthropologists are not supposed to intrude on the cultures they are studying. One graduate student at Stanford, Steven Mosser, was publicly kicked out of the field for his misbehavior in doing just that while making studies in China. Psychoanalysts, therapists, and psychologists are not supposed to have sex with their patients. Medical doctors are not supposed to consciously endanger their patients without letting the patient know it. Lawyers, scientists, and many academic-based professions frown heavily on lying and dissembling.

It would be easy to continue with these kinds of example for many more paragraphs, but the reader can see the obvious fundamental relationship between the existence of ethics and the definition of professionalism. This is not to say that the stated ethics or public ethics of a profession are the actual ethics, but merely that there are underlying ethics that are in fact enforced. The reader also can see from the examples given above that the particular ethical constraints of each profession are inherent in the viability of these professions. It is unfortunate for all of us these ethics are often not explicit.

Proper Ethics: Science has become the dominant approach to Western understanding in the past few hundred years. It has been slowly crossing cultural and national boundaries and is, in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, supplanting traditional religion with a secular (scientific) one.

One reason for this astounding expansion of science is its methodology of openness. As Daniel Boorstin has pointed out, this methodology evolved without any conscious intent as a result of the British Royal Society publishing papers to assure the appropriate recognition for inventors and researchers. The Royal Society established their recogniiton based on who published their findings first.

Ambition mixed with a demand for justice thus created the process of scientific openness. The process has stood on its own ever since, because it has the effect of building a cumulative and consensus-based knowledge system that is accessible to a wide base of people. This is clearly distinct from secret organizations like the Masons, craft guilds, corporations, unions, government agencies, and the military, and inaccessible organizations such as private social clubs, astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, and mystical orders.

The benefit of openness is simple: a widespread understanding and acceptance of the profession. Its corollary is the absence of effective opposition (secrecy creates its own opposition, usually based on fear of the unknown). These reasons are embedded in the third ethical standard listed above, openness.

The first standard, "acknowledgement of others", needs to be defended only because it is not obvious. Acknowledgement is an inexplicit ethic of science; it should work effectively in conjunction with the thinker's third ethic, openness. Because acknowledgement is not explicit in science and especially because it is not explicit in technology, there is a great deal of jealousy, cattiness, and an unreasonable amount of dissembling in science and technology, which contradicts the very principle of openness. I would expect the profession of thinker, by contrast, to have the minimum level of rivalry and interpersonal jealousy and the maximum amount of cooperation and friendship.

The second ethical standard, willingness to change, is also intended to contribute to the level of consensus building, knowledge accumulation, and general cooperation. Many scientists have died holding tenaciously onto ideas that were discarded a generation earlier. What a waste! The "willingness"to change, which should be clearly distinguished from a "desire" to change, is an ethical basis for each person's daily practice. Our daily practice is the way we deal with other people, make a living, stay healthy, and entertain ourselves. By encouraging a flexibility of attitudes in this profession, we are promoting the benefits of openness for extension into personal behavior and encouraging thinkers to be interesting, curious people. As a professional standard, a willingness to change is a license to be curious, experimental and socially expansive.

We can envisage thinkers being widely sought after as friends and as public commentators because their willingness to change their minds will be recognized as a form of honesty and personal integrity.

This kind of flexibility should also permit thinkers to be effective professional contributors well into old age (as compared with physicists and mathematicians, who seem to be more like meteors, flaming and burning out).


There we have it. Ethics creates the profession. Our first ethical standard, acknowledgement of others, discourages self-defeating rivalry. Our second ethical standard creates a personal practice that will keep thinkers useful throughout their lives. The third creates a body of growing consensus-based knowledge that has a broad constituency and will be widely accepted.

Michael Phillips, 1984 (revised 2000)


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