Julian Baggini is a writer, philosopher, and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He is Academic Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent. He holds a PhD from the University College London.
Below, Julian shares five key insights from his new book, How to Think Like a Philosopher: Twelve Key Principles for More Humane, Balanced and Rational Thinking. Listen to the audio version—read by Julian himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Good thinking is mainly about paying attention.
Why is it that half a century after the height of the civil rights movement, there was still a need to start the Black Lives Matter movement? Why is it that decades after women won the vote there is still systemic misogyny in every democratic society? It’s not for an absence of cogent arguments. That people should have equal rights and opportunities irrespective of their sex, skin color or ethnic background has not been seriously contested for decades. But these principles, which almost everyone signs up to, haven’t fully cut through the layers of prejudice and ignorance that centuries of oppression and elite power have wired into the collective psyche. Thinking clearly is one thing, taking something to heart is another.
When we have only thought through an issue at an abstract level, we haven’t thought it through enough. For thinking to get out of our heads and into our hearts and actions, it needs to be rooted in close attention to the world and to other people.
The act of thinking itself is largely about focusing the mind. That’s why in many Asian philosophical traditions we are advised to get into the right frame of mind to think, often with the help of formal exercises like breathing meditations. You need a clear mind and the energy to concentrate.
We need to attend to what is actually the case, otherwise, we only see what we assume is the case. Stripping away our preconceptions is harder than it sounds because most of them are deep and implicit. Philosophy is often said to be about argument but many of the greatest philosophers have simply noticed what others have missed. Think of how both David Hume and the Buddha observed that there is no singular, unified inner “I” that constitutes our essential self.
Lack of attention also leads us to jump to conclusions about what follows from our observations. Many mistakes are made by not distinguishing between what something tells us and what we assume it actually means, or what follows from it. And of course, we have to look out for attention hijackers, the things that distract us from seeing clearly or looking at the right things.
Finally, we need to attend to what others have to say, especially those whose experiences are close to what it is you are thinking about. Respect them but do not automatically defer to them.
2. Breadth is depth.
Good thinkers are eclectic. They do not restrict themselves to the insights of a narrow form of expertise. They recognize that disciplinary boundaries are not nature’s boundaries. They approach every issue from more than just one angle so that they think about the whole of it, not just a part.
“You can go deeper into an issue by focusing on a narrow part of it, or you can explore all its connections with other things.”
Specialization is a result of the relatively recent academicization of philosophy and other disciplines. Historically, philosophers have cast their nets wide. Aristotle studied nature in a lagoon on the island of Lesbos, not reclining at home in Athens; Spinoza ground lenses; Descartes dissected animals as well as concepts; Hume was better known in his day as a historian than as a philosopher.
But doesn’t this kind of breadth of thought come at the price of depth of thought? Isn’t the choice between being broad and shallow or narrow and deep?
I don’t think so. Think about how direction in space is relative. Up and down from one perspective is down and up from another. What’s to your left is to your right if you turn around 180 degrees.
Now, imagine a graph with two axes, one for breadth and the other for depth. Rotate 90 degrees. Now the breadth axis is vertical, suggesting it is really measuring depth. And in a way, it is. You can go deeper into an issue by focusing on a narrow part of it, or you can explore all its connections with other things. To call one “depth” and the other “breadth” is arbitrary. They are both ways of gaining more understanding.
There is a value in what we normally call depth and in what we call breadth. Going wide is not less rigorous than going deep. In fact, often, it is more fruitful. We should think broadly without any shame because breadth of thought is a kind of depth of thought.
3. Language can both help and hinder us.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” So do many other problems. When a war is called a “special military operation” or an attempt to control the use of narcotics hyperbolically called a “war on drugs,” what is actually happening in the world is misrepresented. To think well we have to get our words right. This is why Confucius said that if he were to govern, the first thing he would do would be to “rectify names.” In other words, call things what they really are.
Subtle inaccuracies can lead to great misconceptions: recorded crime is not the same as actual crime, deaths attributed to a cause are not the same as deaths due to that cause, and reported incidents are not the same as actual incidents.
Those who control the language control the debate. Often, terms are contested. Simply insisting that they have one of the contested meanings is a powerful way of shutting down debate. Take the question of what is the right way to think about the sex and gender of trans people. On one side, there are some people saying a trans man is a man, a trans woman a woman, period, no debate. On the other side, there are some saying that a woman is an adult human biological female, a man an adult human biological male, period, no debate. But when words are contested, we cannot just stipulate what they mean. We have to advocate for our preferred usage, to bring others in our linguistic community around to our point of view.
“Those who control the language control the debate.”
Words are often ambiguous and their usages slide over time. This sometimes happens naturally; sometimes it happens to suit people’s agendas. We need to take care how we use them and define our terms as clearly as we can. Clear thinking requires as much clarity of language as possible.
4. Think for yourself, not by yourself.
We’re often told to think for ourselves. Independence of thought is meant to be the great legacy of the Enlightenment liberation from ecclesiastical authority. As Immanuel Kant implored in his essay “What is Enlightenment”: “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!”
The ideal of autonomous thought is reflected in the common trope of the lone genius, popular in philosophy, science, and the arts. But psychology and history tell us this is false. Very few geniuses reached their insights without the input of others. There are numerous experiments that show we are much better at solving many logical tasks when we do so in groups than when we do them alone. We are social thinkers. We cannot do without the expertise of others and we think better when in dialogue with others.
Of course, we can do this badly. There is the curse of groupthink, which not only creates too much consensus and conformity but can push members of the group to greater extremes. Similarly, there is the trap of going along with recited wisdom or accepting ubiquitous propaganda, whether it’s from governments or advertisers. But all these failures are not the result of thinking with others: they are the result of going along with others without thinking.
To think well together we need active strategies to counter conformity. Leaders need to minimize their involvement and encourage criticism. Problems should be discussed by different, independent groups. External expertise should be sought and all alternatives considered. We should seek views that differ from our own and come from people outside our own circles. We should not get all our information from the same source, or those with a similar stance. We need to be prepared to challenge friends and colleagues and learn to do so without being aggressive or confrontational. Loyalty should be reserved for people, not ideas.
“We cannot do without the expertise of others and we think better when in dialogue with others.”
At the end of the day, the buck stops with us. Only we can optimally judge what is true or false, and how confident we can be in those judgements. In that sense, we have no choice but to think for ourselves. But the more we get others to think with us, the better our thinking will be.
5. Character is the secret source of good thinking.
Like with good driving, most motorists know how to change gears, what the speed limits are and so on. The difference between good and bad drivers is not primarily a matter of principles and techniques. It’s the attitude they have to their driving that is essential: how much care and attention they pay, how motivated they are to drive properly, and how thoughtful they are to other road users.
Similarly, thinking is about attitudes as well as techniques. Are we sincerely trying to get to the truth or are we more motivated to defend our prior convictions? Do we have enough self-knowledge to spot and check the ways we deceive ourselves? Do we really listen to others or are we only looking out for their weak points so we can discount their disagreements with us?
The virtues of thought include sincerity, accuracy, modesty, and openness. Putting them into practice is difficult because being virtuous is not a simple matter of avoiding the opposite vice. As both Aristotle and Confucius understood, for almost every virtue, there is not an opposite vice, but an excess and a deficiency. Generosity is the mean between profligacy and tightfistedness, understanding is the mean between lack of sympathy and indulgence, pride is the mean between self-hatred and arrogance. The same applies to the virtues of thinking.
We should be precise, but you can be too precise as well as too vague, if that precision is bogus. We should be understanding of views we disagree with, but you can be too understanding as well as too dismissive. You can think too much for yourself or too little. That is why every piece of advice comes with a warning not to slavishly follow it. Follow the argument wherever it leads but don’t follow it to absurdity; question everything but not always; define your terms but don’t think all terms can be defined.
The virtues of thinking require balance and judgment, and for every way of erring, there is an equal and opposite way of going wrong. We can apply any critical thinking rule to excess or not enough, depending on the context. The doctrine of the mean is a kind of meta-principle that we should bear in mind at all times.
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