Sunday, June 2, 2019

"Thinking about Thinking"

What is Philosophy?

Our second answer is:

2) Philosophy is thinking about thinking.

When viewed in this way, our initial response is to turn to the study of logic.  The study of logic is an instructive and useful pursuit, but students and philosophers who are serious about thinking should shift their attentions to a consideration of grammar—to an exploration of the context, sense and meaning of propositions.  The progression of the history of logic suggests this shift; moreover, while logic is a broad field, the key touchstones of its history can be summarized rather briefly. They main points of this progression begin with Socrates’ elenchus, which is a sort of prosecutorial cross-examination that reveals inconsistency, credulity, or fraud.  Plato (if indeed he is to be fully distinguished from his teacher) places emphasis on taking simple noun-predicate sentences as the basis of logical structure, though his contextualization of such statements as elements of dialogue needs to be acknowledged as central to his assessment of the meanings of expressions.  Aristotle represents the emergence of logic as a distinct and formal discipline; his efforts yielded deductive logic, and the classification of ordered chains of premises and conclusions, or syllogisms, with emphasis upon sentences beginning with “all”, “no”, and “some”. We might note here, that Aristotle’s “all”, “no”, and “some” are attached to nouns and verbs, while he neglects words like “if” and “then”, which link sentences and trace the progress of our inferences. But we digress. In order to evaluate and classify different kinds of syllogisms, Aristotle attached schematic letters to these statements, and symbolic logic was born.  Aristotle’s activity with logic was to create a tool (organon in Greek) to clarify scientific and philosophical problems. His model of a "systematized” and “categorized” method of logic, however, will later enable figures like Kant and Russell to attach metaphysical significance to logic (or to reason) and so create the mirage (as I call it) that philosophers are somehow equipped to do something “scientific.” Through their obscurantist (elaborate, potted, sophistic) activity exercising dazzling logical architectures, some philosophers make a claim upon scientific, moral and political authority, which in our time is among the greatest threats to democracy, rule-of-law, equality before the law, human rights, freedom of speech, integrity of property, the right of employees to negotiate with employers, and the fair and merit-based distribution of goods and services. Here it is appropriate in this discussion of systematized logic to ask how far we are departing from “thinking about thinking” and discovering an appropriate overview of how we really think in the world. Aristotle’s contribution, his influence and the re-discovery of his methods in the Scholastic period deserve careful consideration. Nevertheless, in his wake there follows a long hiatus in the development of logic as a tool for thinking about thinking, and our formulation of a useful exposition of the “real” thinking we’re seeking to uncover. The key transition occurs, first, with the emergence of inductive reasoning, which is the activity of assembling long lists of variously related statements, facts, and data-points, and clearly saying intelligent things about them. The second point of transition comes with William of Occam’s observation that logic is properly the analysis of philosophical and scientific language. Still, we have not said much about what it means to think about thinking, and moreover this task is complicated by the fact that such notions as “thinking” (regarded as a sort of neurological activity resembling a computer process) and “ideas” (in particular the notion that ideas are the “objects” of thought) are abstract and misleading. Consider: thinking is an activity that is expressed through language, and ideas are not really “objects.” So, we should wish to move away from these abstract concepts and rather talk about what we are really doing when we are thinking. What do we see when we look at ourselves thinking? To find out, we must clearly understand where we are, what we are doing, what we are discussing with one another, what we are attempting to do—such is the point of thinking itself, and which is properly revealed when we look at the language of our expressions and our dialogues. Such questions as “What is the context of my statement?”, “What do I mean when I say X?”, “What am I doing when I say X?”, and what am I seeking to do when I say X?”,  help us to expose the nature, the sense and the meaning of our expressions, and reveal to us the usefulness, the suitability, the legitimacy, and the appropriateness of our “thinking.” At this point, we should do well to define thinking as “coming to an understanding.” When we do good philosophy, we are creating a synoptic overview of our thinking, in which we can see ourselves thinking—or writing, or talking. Thus, we seek to clarify our language, seek to understand the context of our discussions, seek to assess the appropriateness of our language, seek to clarify questions, seek to answer questions, seek to solve problems—and in these ways we prepare to take good actions.  All the while, we are keenly aware of how our actions are linked to our understanding, and that our understanding is an on-going process continually subject to revision and improvement. 
Please see HERE for a note on propositions, and please see HERE for a discussion about setting up synoptic overviews for assessing our use of language. Also, please see HERE for a bit of therapy in regard to these matters. After looking closely at this stuff, a bit of therapy is in order.

This post is part of a series:

Giuseppe Bottani, “Athena revealing Ithaca to Ulysses”

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