"We come to know what it means to think, when we ourselves try to think."
And as we describe to ourselves what we are doing when we call ourselves thinking, the realisation comes to us that while everyone uses the word "thinking," we are not so sure that we know what it means. This, at least, was the position of Sokrates, one of the models of what it means to think, in the dialogues fashioned by his pupil Plato. The latter's own dialogues make the distinction between opinion (doxa) and knowledge (episteme). Authentic thinking leads to knowledge, belief to opinion.
We turn to examplars in history to glean from them other perspectives about thinking; our use of the past for this purpose is itself part of what it means to be thinking.
Aristotle begins with "All men by nature desire to know." That knowing is an instinctive and natural activity, by implication unique to humans (Metaphysics, 980a21). He points out the levels, or steps, of rational activities that end in cognition (knowing): Sensation
, which we share with other living beings.Memory
, which to some extent we share with some of the higher living beings, and causes these to be able to learn.Experience
, which is unique to human existents, in which individual instances of experience are subsumed under universals allowing for predictive action. Language allows these general rules to be taught.Knowledge
(art, or science, or understanding), which involves truths, or insights, as to the reason (or cause) that such and such a thing is as it is. It is the difference between knowing fire is always hot and knowing WHY it is always hot.
"Cogito, ergo sum" writes Descartes, and places the thinking activity as central to human existence. Instructive beyond his own purpose and the consequent place doubt has in his discussion, is that we conclude that doubt is also a part of what it means to think. Doubt, uncertainty, and the possibility of error enter into an understanding of what it means to think; can these occur without language?
Sartre makes a point of putting a lack, a notion of the possiblity of non-being, into human thinking (Being and Nothingness
). Heidegger places time and the possibility of futures---and action to a purpose or ideal---as an important part of thinking (Being and Time
). What role does language play in "fixating" a future-to-be-achieved?
Wittgenstein asks the question, can there be such a thing as a private language, and returns with the reply that language is always public, or shared between individuals. This echos Nietzsche's aphorism that "truth begins with two." Can there be private knowledge, or private truth, or private thinking (for all of these concepts seem bound together)?
These considerations help clarify the role of language in some kinds of mental activity, or perhaps whether the possibility of thought AS knowledge depends on language.
Everyone uses the word "think," and everyone has "thoughts" about every conceivable subject under the sun. But maybe "to think" is a shorthand concept that when examined has many different levels.
Edited by jgweed, 04 August 2006 - 07:55 AM.