New Chapter 3 Thinking As The Instrument Of Science

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The Philosophy of Freedom
(revised 10/19/2010)

Chapter 3
Thinking As The Instrument Of Science

3.0 Reflective Thinking
[1] When I observe how a billiard ball that has been struck transfers its motion to another ball, I remain entirely without influence over the course of this observed event. The direction of motion and the velocity of the second ball are determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I remain a mere spectator, I cannot say anything about the motion of the second ball until after it has happened. But the situation is different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation.

The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the event. I connect the concept of an elastic ball with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the particular circumstances prevailing in this specific case. In other words, I try to add to the occurrence that runs its course without my participation a second process that takes place in the conceptual sphere.

The conceptual process depends on me. This is shown by the fact that I can rest quite contented with the observation alone and do without any search for concepts if I have no need of them. But if the need is present then I am not satisfied until I have brought the concepts ball, elasticity, motion, impact, velocity, etc., into a certain connection with each other so that they apply to the observed event in a definite way. As certain as it is that the observed event takes place independently of me, it is just as certain that the conceptual process is dependent on me for it to take place.

[2] We will discuss later whether this activity of mine is really the expression of my own independent being, or whether contemporary physiologists are right in saying that I cannot think as I wish, but rather have to think in the way determined by the thoughts and thought connections that happen to be present in my mind. (Theodor Ziehen, Principles of Physiological Psychology). For the time being we only want to establish the fact that we constantly feel obliged to seek for concepts and connections of concepts that relate in a certain way to the objects and events given independently of us. Whether this activity is in truth our activity or whether we carry it out controlled by an unalterable necessity is a question we will leave aside for the moment. That it initially appears to us to be our own activity is without question. We know for certain that we are not given the corresponding concepts together with the objects. That it is I that is the doer in the conceptual process may be based on an illusion, but to immediate observation it appears so. The question is now: What do we gain by finding a conceptual counterpart to an event?

[3] There is a far reaching difference for me between the way that the parts of an event are related to one another before and after the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can follow the parts of a given event as they occur, but their connection remains obscure without the help of concepts. I see the first billiard ball move towards the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity. What will happen after the impact I cannot tell in advance. I must wait and then can only follow it with my eyes. Suppose that at the moment of impact someone obstructs my view of the field where the event is taking place; then, as mere spectator, I remain ignorant of what happens next. The situation is very different if before my view is obstructed I have discovered the concepts corresponding to the configuration of relationships within the event. In that case I can say what will happen, even if I am no longer able to observe it. There is nothing in a merely observed object or event that shows anything about its relationship to other objects and events. This relationship only becomes evident when observation is combined with thinking.

[4] Observation and thinking are the two starting points for all human striving of the mind, to the extent that we consciously strive in this way. The work of both the everyday human intellect as well as the most complicated scientific research are supported by these two basic pillars of our minds. Philosophers have started from various ultimate polarities: idea and reality, subject and object, appearance and thing-in-itself, I and Not-I, idea and will, concept and matter, force and substance, the conscious and the unconscious. But it is easy to show that all these polarities must be preceded by that of observation and thought, this being the most important one for the human being.

[5] Whatever principle we wish to establish, we must either prove that we have observed it somewhere, or we must express it in the form of clear thoughts that can be re-thought by any other thinker. When philosophers set out to discuss their fundamental principles, they must make use of the conceptual form and so make use of thought. By doing so they indirectly admit that their activity already presumes thought.

Nothing is being said yet about whether thought or something else is the main factor of world evolution. But it is clear from the start that philosophers can gain no knowledge of world evolution without thought. Thought may play a secondary role in the occurrence of world phenomena, but it certainly plays a leading role in the construction of a view of this phenomena.

[6] As for observation, we need it because of the way we are constituted. Our thinking about a horse and the object “horse” are two things that appear apart from each other. The object is accessible to us only by means of observation. As little as we can form a concept “horse” by merely staring at it, just as little can we produce an object “horse” by merely thinking of it.

3.1 Observation Of Thinking
[7] In sequence of time observation actually precedes thinking. We even first get to know thinking itself through observation. It was essentially a description of an observation at the beginning of this chapter when we showed how thinking is kindled by an event and how it goes beyond the given which is without any thinking activity. Whatever enters the circle of our experience we first become aware of through observation. The content of our sensations, perceptions, views, our feelings, acts of will, dreams and fantasy imaginations, mental images, concepts and ideas, illusions and hallucinations, are all given to us through observation.

[8] However, as an object of observation thinking differs essentially from all other things. The observation of a table or a tree occurs for me as soon as these objects appear on the horizon of my experience. Yet I do not observe my thinking about these objects at the same time as I am observing them. I observe the table and I carry on my thinking about the table, but I do not at the same moment observe this thought process. To observe my thoughts about the table while I am observing the table I have to put myself in a place outside any activity of my own. While the observation of things and events and thinking about them are everyday occurrences filling my ongoing life, the observation of the thinking itself is a kind of exceptional state. This fact must be sufficiently considered when we compare thinking – as an object of observation – to all other observed things. We must be clear that when we observe thinking the same method is applied to it that we normally use for the study of all other objects in the world, but that, in the ordinary course of that study, is not usually applied to thinking itself.

3.2 Formation Of A Concept
[9] Someone could object that what I have observed here about thinking applies equally to feeling and to all other activities of the mind. For example, the feeling of pleasure is also kindled by the object and it is this object that I observe, not the feeling of pleasure. This objection is based on an error. Pleasure does not at all have the same relationship to its object as the concept formed by thinking. I am conscious in the most definite way that the concept of a thing is formed by my activity while pleasure is produced in me by an object in the same way as, for example, a change is caused in an object by a stone that falls on it. A pleasure is given to observation in exactly the same way as the event that causes it. The same is not true of the concept. I can ask why a particular event arouses in me a feeling of pleasure, but I certainly cannot ask why an event causes a particular set of concepts in me. The question would simply make no sense. Reflecting on an event has nothing to do with an effect on me. I learn nothing about myself by knowing the concepts that correspond to the observed change in a pane of glass caused by a stone thrown against it. But I definitely learn something about my personality when I know the feeling that a particular event arouses in me. When I say of an observed object, “This is a rose,” I do not say the slightest thing about myself; but if I say of the same thing, “It gives me a feeling of pleasure,” I characterize not only the rose, but also myself in my relationship to the rose.

3.3 Thinking Contemplation Of Object
[10] There can be no question, then, that thinking and feeling are not on the same level when compared as objects of observation. The same conclusion could easily be derived for the other activities of the human mind. Unlike thinking, they belong in the same category as any other observed objects or events. It is part of the unique nature of thinking that it is an activity directed solely on the observed object, and not on the thinking personality. This is apparent even in the way we express our thoughts about an object, as distinct from the way we express our feelings or acts of will. When I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not usually say “I am thinking about a table,” but rather “This is a table,” Yet I could certainly say “I am pleased with the table,” In the first case I am not at all interested in declaring that I have entered into a relationship with the table, but in the second case it is just this relationship that matters. In saying “I am thinking of a table,” I have already entered into the exceptional state described above, where something that is always present in our mental activity is made into an object of observation, although normally it is not an observed object.

[11] The unique nature of thinking is that the thinker forgets thinking while doing it. What occupies the attention is not thinking, but rather the object of thinking that is being observed.

[12] The first point to notice about thinking is that it is the unobserved element in our ordinary life of thought.

[13] The reason why we do not notice the thinking that goes on in our everyday life of thought is precisely because it requires our own activity. What I do not produce myself enters my field of observation as something objective. I see myself before it as before something that has come about independent of me. It confronts me. I must accept it as the prerequisite of my thinking process. While I am reflecting on the object, I am absorbed in it, my attention is focused on it. This activity is thinking contemplation. My attention is not directed on my activity, but rather on the object of this activity. In other words, while I am thinking I pay no attention to the thoughts that I am producing, but only to the object I am thinking about which I did not produce.

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3.4 Thinking Contemplation Of Thought  
[14] I am in exactly the same position when I enter into the exceptional state and contemplate my own thought. I can never observe the present thought in which I am actually engaged; only afterward can I make the past experience of my thought process into the object of my present thinking. If I wanted to watch my present thought, I would have to split myself into two personalities: one to think, and the other to observe this thinking. But this I cannot do. I can only accomplish it in two separate acts. The thought to be observed is never the one actually being produced, but a different one. For this purpose, it does not matter whether I observe my own earlier thoughts, or follow the thought process of another person, or, as in the above example of the movement of billiard balls, set up an imaginary thought process.

[15] Two things are incompatible with each other: actively producing something and simultaneously standing apart in contemplation. This is already recognized in the First Book of Moses. It represents God as creating the world in the first six days, and only after its completion is any contemplation of the world possible: "And God saw everything he had made and, behold, it was very good." The same applies to our thinking. It must first be there before we can observe it.

3.5 Know Content Of Concept
[16] The reason it is impossible to observe thought as it occurs at any given moment of its present course is the same reason that makes it possible for us to know it more immediately and more intimately than any other process in the world. It is just because we produce it ourselves that we know the characteristic features of its course and the details of how the process takes place. What can be discovered only indirectly in all other fields of observation, --the relevant context and the relationships between the individual objects-- is known to us directly in the case of thought.

Without going beyond the phenomena, I cannot know why my observation of thunder follows my observation of lightning, but I know immediately from the content of the two concepts why my thought connects the concept of thunder with the concept lightning. The point being made here does not depend on whether I have the correct concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those concepts that I do have is clear to me, and is so through the concepts themselves.

3.6 Guided By Content Of Thought
[17] This transparent clarity of the thought process is completely independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of thought. I am speaking here of thought as it appears when we observe our own mental activity. How one physical process in my brain causes or influences another while I am carrying on a process of thought is irrelevant for this purpose. What I observe in studying a thought process is not which process in my brain connects the concept lightning with the concept thunder, but my reason for bringing these two concepts into a specific relationship. Introspection shows that in linking thought with thought I am guided by the content of my thoughts; I am not guided by any physical processes in my brain. In a less materialistic age than ours this remark would of course be entirely superfluous. But today, when there are people who believe that once we know what matter is we will also know how matter thinks, it has to be said that it is possible to talk about thought without entering the field of brain physiology.

Many people today find it difficult to grasp the concept of pure thinking. Anyone who immediately counters the description of thought which I have given here with the assertion of Cabanis' that "the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does gall or the salivary ducts saliva . . .", simply does not know what I am talking about. Such a person tries to find thought with only the ordinary observation process in the same way we proceed with the other objects that make up the world. But, as I have shown, thought cannot be found in this way because it eludes normal observation. Those who cannot transcend Materialism lack the ability to bring about the exceptional state I have described where we become conscious of what in all other mental activity remains unconscious. Just as one cannot discuss color with the blind, so it is useless to discuss thought with those who lack the good will to view thought from this position. But at least they should not imagine that we regard physiological processes to be thoughts. Materialists fail to explain thought because they simply do not see it.

3.7 I Exist As Content Of Thought Activity

[18] For everyone who has the ability to observe thought --and with good will every normally constituted person has this ability -- the observation of thought is the most important observation that can be made. For in thought we observe something which we ourselves produce. We do not find ourselves confronted by something that is at first unfamiliar to us, but instead we face our own activity. We know how the thing we are observing comes about. We clearly see its connections and relationships. A firm point has been reached where with well founded hope we can seek an explanation of all other world phenomena .

[19] The feeling of having found such a firm point caused the founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, to base the whole of human knowledge on the principle: I think, therefore I am. All other things, all other events, are there independent of me. I do not know whether they are there as truth, or illusion, or dream. There is only one thing I know with absolute certainty, for I myself bring it to its certain existence: my thought. Whatever other ultimate source it may have in addition, whether it comes from God or from somewhere else, I cannot be sure. I am only certain that it exists in the sense that I myself produce it. Descartes initially had no justification for giving his principle any other meaning than this. He could only maintain that of all the world's content it is only in my thinking that I apprehend myself in an activity most uniquely characteristic of me.

What the attached "therefore I am" is intended to mean has been often debated. It can be meaningful only on one condition. The simplest statement I can make about a thing is that it is, that it exists. How this existence can be further defined in more detail cannot be determined in the first moment that anything enters within the range of my experience. Each object must first be studied in its relationship to others before we can determine in what way it can be said to exist. An experienced event may be a series of perceptions, but it could also be a dream, a hallucination, and so on. In short, I am unable to say in what way it exists. I cannot derive the kind of existence from the event itself, but I can discover it when I consider the event in relation to other things. But here, again, I learn no more than how it is related to these other things.

My investigation reaches firm ground only when I find an object from which I can derive the meaning of its existence from the object itself. This I am, as a thinker; for I give to my existence the definite, self-determined content of my thought activity. From here I can go on to ask whether other things exist in the same or in some other way.

3.8 Remain Within Thought
[20] When thought is made an object of observation, we add something to the rest of the observed content of the world that usually escapes our attention, but we do not change our manner of approach to it, which is the same as we do to other things. We add to the number of observed objects, but not to our method of observing. While we are observing the other things, a process that is overlooked intermixes with world events (among events I now include observation). Something is present that is different from all other processes that is not taken into account. But when I observe my own thinking there is no such neglected element present. For what now hovers in the background is itself, nothing but thought. The observed object is qualitatively identical as the activity directed upon it. This is another unique characteristic of thought. When we observe our thoughts we are not compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the realm of thought.

[21] When I weave a web of thoughts around an object that is given independently of me, I go beyond my observation, and the question becomes: What right do I have to do this? Why don’t I just passively let the object affect me? In what way is it possible for my thought to be related to the object? These are questions that anyone who reflects on their own thought processes must ask themselves. All these questions vanish when we reflect upon thought itself. We then add nothing unfamiliar to our thought and so there is no need to justify any such addition.

3.9 Creation Before Knowing
[22] Schelling says: "To know Nature is to create Nature." If we take these words of the bold Nature philosopher literally, we will have to renounce forever all hope of gaining knowledge of Nature. For after all, Nature already exists, so to create it a second time one would have to know the principles according to which it has originated. From the Nature that already exists one would have to duplicate the conditions of its existence for the Nature we are about to create. But this copying (use learning-see stebbing), which would have to precede the creating, would be knowing Nature, and would remain this even if after the copying no creation were attempted. The only kind of Nature that one could create without previously knowing it would be a Nature that did not exist yet.

[23] What is impossible with Nature ---creation before knowing--- we achieve with thinking. If we refrain from thinking until we have first gained knowledge of it, then we would never think at all. We must resolutely think straight ahead and only afterward by introspective analysis gain knowledge of what we have done. We ourselves first create the object when we observe thinking. The existence of all other objects is provided without our participation.

[24] Someone could easily counter my contention that we must think before we can contemplate thought with the contention that we also have to digest before we can observe the process of digestion. This objection is similar to the one Pascal made to Descartes, declaring that one could just as well say, "I walk, therefore I am." Certainly I must also go straight into digesting and not wait until I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But this could only be compared with the analysis of thought if, after digesting, I did not analyze it by thought, but were to eat and digest it. It is not without reason that digestion cannot become the object of digestion, but thought can very well become the object of thought.

[25] It is then beyond doubt that in thinking we grasp world events at a point which requires our presence if anything is to be accomplished. And that is the important point. The reason things seem so puzzling is because I am not involved in their production. I simply find them before me, but with thought I know how it is done. This is why there is no more basic starting point for the contemplation of all events in the world than thought itself.

3.10 Principle Of Self-Subsistence
[26] Here I will mention a widespread error concerning thought. It is said that we never experience thought as it truly is, in itself. The thought processes that connect the observations of our experience and weaves them together with a network of concepts is said to be not at all the same as that which our analysis later extracts from the objects we observe in order to make them the object of study. What we first unconsciously weave into the things is said to be something completely different from what we consciously extract from them.

[27] Those who hold this view do not understand that it is not possible to escape from thought. I cannot come out of thought when I want to observe thought. We should not forget that the distinction between thought that goes on unconsciously and thought that is consciously analyzed is a purely external one and irrelevant to our discussion. I do not in any way alter something by contemplating it in thought.

I can imagine that a being with different quality sense organs and with a differently functioning intelligence would have a very different mental image of a horse than I, but I cannot imagine that my own thought becomes something different because I observe it. I myself observe what I myself produce. We are not discussing how my thought appears to an intelligence different than mine, but how it appears to me. In any case, the image another mind forms of my thought cannot be truer than the one I form myself. Only if I were not myself the thinking being, but the thinking was the activity of a being unfamiliar to me, could I say that although my image of its thought may occur in a certain way, I cannot not know in what way that beings thinking is in itself.

[28] So far there is not the slightest reason why I should consider my own thought from a different point of view than my own. I contemplate the rest of the world by means of thought. Why should I make my own thought an exception?

[29] I think I have given sufficient reasons for making thought the starting point for my view of the world. When Archimedes had discovered the lever he thought he could use it to lift the whole cosmos from its hinges, if only he could find a point that would support his instrument. He needed a point that was self-supporting, not dependent on anything else. In thought we have the principle of self-subsistence. Starting with thought as our basis let us attempt to understand the world. Thought can be grasped by thought itself. The only question is whether we can understand anything else by means of thought.

3.11 Impartial Consideration Of Thinking
[30] I have so far spoken of thought without taking into consideration its bearer, human consciousness. Most contemporary philosophers will object that before there can be thought, there must be consciousness. According to them, we should start from consciousness rather than thought, since there is no thought without consciousness. To this I would reply that in order to clear up the relationship between thought and consciousness, I must think about it. This requires thought to come first. In response they can certainly say that although it is true a philosopher who wishes to understand consciousness makes use of thought and to that extent thought comes first, yet in the ordinary course of life thought does arise within consciousness and consequently consciousness must be there before thought. If this answer were given to the world creator who was about to create thought, then it would no doubt be to the point. Naturally it is not possible to create thought before consciousness. Philosophers, however, are not concerned with creating the world, but with understanding it. They are in search of the starting point, not for creating, but for understanding the world.

I find it very strange when someone criticizes philosophers for being concerned first and foremost about the correctness of their principles, rather than turning immediately to the objects they want to understand. The world creator had above all to know how to find a bearer for thought, but the philosopher has to seek a firm base from which to understand what already exists. How does it help us to start with consciousness and subject it to our thinking contemplation, if we have not first inquired into how far it is possible to gain an explanation of things by means of thinking contemplation?

[31] We must first consider thought in an impartial way, without reference to either a thinking subject or conceived object. For in subject and object we already have concepts that are constructed by thought. There is no denying that before anything else can be understood, thought must be understood. Whoever denies this fails to realize that human beings are not the first link in the chain of creation but the last. In order to explain the world by means of concepts we cannot start from the earliest elements of existence, but we must begin with the element that is given as the nearest and most intimately connected with us. We cannot in a single leap transport ourselves back to the beginning of the world in order to begin our analysis there, instead, we must start from the present moment and see whether we can advance from the later to the earlier. As long as Geology fabled imaginary upheavals to explain the present condition of the earth, it groped in darkness. It was only when it began to study the processes that are presently still at work on the earth and reasoned backward from these to the past, did it gain a firm base. As long as Philosophy goes on assuming all sorts of basic principles, such as atoms, motion, matter, will, or the unconscious, it will hang in the air. Only when the philosopher regards the absolute last thing in time as the first in theory can the goal be reached. This absolutely last thing achieved in world evolution is thinking.

3.12 Thought Is A Fact
[32] There are people who say we cannot determine with certainty whether our thought is in itself right or wrong, so our starting point remains a doubtful one. It would be just as intelligent to raise doubts about whether a tree is in itself right or wrong. Thought is a fact, and it is meaningless to speak of the correctness or falsehood of a fact. At most I can have doubts about whether thought is correctly used, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies wood suitable for the making of this or that useful object. To show to what extent the application of thought to the world is right or wrong is precisely the task of this writing. I can understand someone doubting whether we can gain any knowledge of the world by means of thought, but I find it unintelligible that anyone can doubt the rightness of thought in itself.


(revised 04/20/2009)

Chapter 3
Thinking as the Instrument for Understanding the World

3.0 Reflective Thinking
[1] When I observe how a billiard ball, when struck, transfers its motion to another ball, I remain entirely without influence over the course of this observed event. The direction of motion and velocity of the second ball are determined by the direction and velocity of the first. As long as I do no more than observe, I cannot say anything about the motion of the second ball until it actually happens. But the situation is different when I begin to reflect on the content of my observation. The purpose of my reflection is to form concepts of the event. I bring the concept of an elastic ball into connection with certain other concepts of mechanics, and take into consideration the special circumstances prevailing in this particular case. In other words, I try to add to the occurrence that runs its course without my participation a second process which takes place in the conceptual sphere. This conceptual process depends on me. This is shown by the fact that I can be content with the observation, and do without any search for concepts if I have no need of them. But if this need is present, then I am content only when I have brought the concepts Ball, Elasticity, Motion, Impact, Velocity, etc., into a certain connection, so that they apply to the observed event in a definite way. As certain as it is that the observed process takes place independently of me, it is just as certain that the conceptual process cannot happen without my participation.

[2] Whether this activity of mine is really an expression of my own independent being, or whether modern physiologists are right in saying that we cannot think as we will, but rather
have to think exactly as determined by the thoughts and thought-connections that happen to be present in our brains at any given moment (Theodor Ziehen, Principles of Physiological Psychology), is a question that will be the subject of a later discussion. For the moment we wish merely to establish the fact that we constantly feel compelled to seek concepts and connections of concepts, that relate in a specific way to the objects and events given independently of us. Whether this activity is truly ours, or whether we carry it out according to an unalterable necessity, is a question we will leave aside for the moment. That it initially appears to us to be our own activity is without question. We know for certain that we are not given the corresponding concepts together with the objects at the same time. That I am myself the doer in the conceptual process may be an illusion, but to immediate observation it certainly appears to be so. The question here is: What do we gain by the fact that we find a conceptual counterpart to an event?

[3] There is a far-reaching difference, for me, between the ways in which the parts of an event are related to one another before and after the discovery of the corresponding concepts. Mere observation can follow the parts of a given event in succession, but their connection remains dark without the help of concepts. I observe the first billiard ball move towards the second in a certain direction and with a certain velocity; what will happen after the impact I cannot tell in advance, I must wait and then can only follow it with my eyes. Suppose someone, at the moment of impact, obstructs my view of the field where the event is taking place; then I, as a mere spectator, do not know what happens next. The situation is very different if, before my view is obstructed, I have discovered the concepts corresponding to the constellation of relationships. In that case I can say what will happen, even if I am no longer able to observe it. There is nothing in a merely observed object or event that reveals anything about its connection to other objects and events. This connection comes to light only when observation is combined with thinking.


[4]
Observation and thinking are the two starting points for all spiritual aspirations of the human being, to the degree we are conscious of such aspirations. What is accomplished by ordinary common sense, as well as the most complicated scientific research, rest on these two fundamental pillars of our minds. Philosophers have started from various primary polarities: Idea and Reality, Subject and Object, Appearance and Thing-in-itself, Ego and Non-Ego, Idea and Will, Mind and Matter, Force and Substance, the Conscious and the Unconscious. But it is easy to show that all these polarities must be preceded by that of observation and thinking, this being the most important one for the human being.

[5] Whatever principle we may put forward, we must either prove that we have observed it somewhere, or we must express it in the form of a clear thought that can be re-thought by any other thinker. When philosophers set out to discuss their fundamental principles, they must express them in conceptual form and thereby use thought. They indirectly admit with this fact that their work presupposes thinking. Nothing has been determined yet about whether thinking or something else is the main element in the development of the world. But it is clear from the start that philosophers can gain no knowledge of this element
without thinking. Thinking may play a minor role in the coming about of world phenomena, but thinking certainly plays a major role in the formation of a view about them.

[6] As for observation, it lies in the nature of our organization that we need it. Our thought about a horse and the object "horse" are two things which for us appear separately. We have access to the object only through observation. As little as we can form a concept of a horse by merely staring at it, just as little can we, by mere thinking, produce a corresponding object.


3.1 Observation Of Thought

[7] In sequence of time, observation actually precedes thinking. For even thought we first become familiar with through observation. It was more a description of an observation when, at the beginning of this chapter, we gave an account of how thinking is kindled by an event and goes beyond what is given. Everything that enters the circle of our experience, we first become aware of through observation. The contents of our sensations, perceptions and views; our feelings, acts of will, dreams and fantasy images; our mental pictures, concepts and ideas, illusions and hallucinations; all are given to us through observation.

[8] But thought, as an
object of observation, differs essentially from all other things. The observation of a table, or a tree, occurs for me as soon as these objects enter the range of my experience. Yet I do not, at the same time, observe my thought about these things. I observe the table, and I carry on my thinking about the table, but I do not at the same moment observe this thought. I must first take up a standpoint outside of my own activity if, in addition to observing the table, I want also to observe my thought about the table. While the observation of things and events, and thinking about them, are everyday occurrences filling my ongoing life, observation of the thought itself is a kind of exceptional state. This fact must be properly taken into account if we are to compare thought --as an object of observation-- to all other observed things. We must be clear about the fact that, when we observe thought, we are applying to it the same method that is the normal condition for the study of all other world-content, but that, in the ordinary course of that study, is not usually applied to thought itself.

3.2 Formation Of Concept

[9] Someone might object that what I have observed here about thinking applies equally to feeling and to all other mental activities. When, for example, I have a feeling of pleasure, the feeling is also kindled by the object, and it is this object that I observe, not the feeling of pleasure. This objection is based on an error. Pleasure does not have at all the same relationship to its object as the concept formed by thinking. I am conscious, in the most certain way, that the concept of a thing is formed by my activity, while pleasure is produced in me by an object in the same way as, for example, a change is caused in an object by a stone that falls on it. For observation, a pleasure is given in exactly the same way as the event which causes it. The same is not true of the concept. I can ask: Why does a particular event arouse in me a feeling of pleasure? But I certainly cannot ask: Why does an event produce in me a particular set of concepts? The question would simply make no sense. When reflecting about an event, I am not concerned with an effect on me. I can learn nothing at all about myself by knowing the concepts which correspond to the observed change in a pane of glass by a stone thrown against it. But I definitely learn something about my personality when I know the feeling that a certain event arouses in me. When I say of an observed object: "This is a rose," I do not say the slightest thing about myself; but if I say of the same thing: "It gives me a feeling of pleasure," I characterize not only the rose, but also myself in my relationship to the rose.

3.3 Contemplation Of Object

[10] As objects of observation, then, thought and feeling are not on the same level. The same could also be easily shown for the other activities of the human spirit. Unlike thought, they belong in the same category as other observed objects or events. It is part of the unique nature of thinking that it is an activity directed solely on the observed object, and not on the thinking personality. This manifests itself in the way we express our thoughts about an object, in contrast to the way we express our feelings or acts of will. If I see an object and recognize it as a table, I do not normally say: "I am thinking of a table," but rather: "This is a table." Yet I could say, "I am pleased with the table." In the first case, I am not at all interested in declaring that I have entered into a relationship with the table; but in the second case, it is just this relationship that matters. In saying, "I am thinking of a table," I am already in the exceptional point of view characterized above, where something that is always part of and contained within our mental activity is observed which is not normally noticed.

[11] This is just the unique nature of thinking, that the thinker forgets thought while actually thinking. What occupies the attention is not thought, but the object of the thinking, which is being observed.


[12] The first observation that we make about thought is this: it is the unobserved element in our ordinary mental life.


[13] The reason why we do not observe the thinking that goes on in our everyday mental life is precisely because it depends on our own activity. What I do not produce myself enters my field of observation as an object. I contrast it with myself as something that has come about without me; it confronts me; I must accept it as the prerequisite for my thinking process. While I am reflecting on the object, I am occupied with it; my look is turned to it. To become absorbed in the object is to
contemplate by thinking. My attention is not directed on my activity, but on the object of this activity. In other words: while I am thinking I do not see my thoughts, which I myself am producing, but I see the object of my thinking, which I do not produce.

3.4 Contemplation Of Thinking

[14] I am in the same position even if I enter into the exceptional state and reflect on my own thought. I can never observe my present thinking, but I can only afterwards make the past experience of my thinking-process into an object of fresh thinking. If I wanted to observe my present thinking, I would have to split myself into two personalities: one to do the thinking, and the other to observe this current thought itself. But this I cannot do. I can only observe my present thinking in two separate acts. The thinking-process to be observed is never the one in which I am actually engaged, but a different one. For this purpose, it does not matter whether I observe my own earlier thinking, or follow the thinking-process of another person, or, as in the above example of the motion of billiard balls, set up an imaginary thinking-process.

[15] Two things are incompatible with each other: actively producing something and confronting this in contemplation. This is already known even in the First Book of Moses (Genesis 1, 31). God creates the world in the first six world-days, and only after it is there is any contemplation of it possible: "And God looked at everything he had made and, behold, it was very good." The same applies to our thinking. It must first be there, if we are to observe it.


3.5 Content Of The Concept

[16] The reason why we are unable to observe the thinking-process in the present moment of its current course is the same reason that makes it possible for us to know it more immediately and more intimately than any other process in the world. Just because we create it ourselves, we know the characteristics of its course, the way in which the process being considered takes place. What, in other spheres of observation, can be found only in indirect ways --such as the relevant context and the relationship between the individual objects-- is, in the case of thought, known to us in a very direct way. I do not know at once why my observation of thunder follows my observation of lightning; but I know immediately, from the content of the two concepts, why my thinking connects the concept of thunder with the concept lightning. This, of course, does not depend at all on whether I have the right concepts of lightning and thunder. The connection between those concepts that I do have is clear to me, and is so through the concepts themselves.

3.6 Content Of Thought

[17] This transparent clarity of the thought-process is completely independent of our knowledge of the physiological basis of the mind. I am speaking here of thought as it appears when we observe the activity of our mind. How one material process in my brain causes or influences another while I am carrying out a thinking operation is irrelevant for this purpose. What I observe in studying a thinking-process is not what process in my brain connects the concept lightning with the concept thunder, but rather, my reason for bringing these two concepts into a particular relationship. Introspection shows me that in linking one thought with another there is nothing to guide me but the content of my thoughts; I am not guided by any material processes in my brain. In a less materialistic age than ours, this remark would of course be entirely superfluous. But today --when there are people who believe that once we know what matter is we will also know how matter thinks-- it must be said that one can talk about thinking without heading right away into a collision with brain physiology. Most people today find it difficult to grasp the concept of pure thinking. Anyone who immediately challenges the view of thinking developed here with the statement of Cabanis' that "the brain secretes thoughts as the liver does bile or the salivary glands saliva . . .", simply does not know what I am talking about. Such a person tries to find thought by the same method of ordinary observation that we apply to the other objects that make up the world-content. But thinking cannot be found in this way because, as I have shown, it eludes normal observation. Those who cannot overcome Materialism lack the ability to bring about the exceptional state I have described, in which we become conscious of what in all other mental activity remains unconscious. Just as one cannot discuss color with the blind, in the same way one cannot discuss thinking with those who lack the goodwill to shift to this viewpoint. But in any case they should not imagine that we take physiological processes to be thoughts. Materialists fail to explain thinking because they simply do not see it.

3.7 Content Of Thinking Activity

[18] For everyone who has the ability to observe thought --and with good will every normally developed person has this ability-- this observation is the most important one that can be made. For we observe something which we ourselves bring forth; we find ourselves confronting not something that is at first a foreign object, but rather, our own activity. We know how the thing we are observing comes about. We see its conditions and relationships clearly. A firm point has been won from which we can, with well-founded hope, seek an explanation of all other world phenomena.

[19] The feeling of having such a firm point led the founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, to base the whole of human knowledge on the sentence:
I think, therefore I am. All other things, all other events, happen without me; I do not know whether they are there as truth, or illusion, or dream. There is only one thing I know with altogether absolute certainty, for I myself bring it to its sure existence: my thought. It may have another source for its existence, perhaps it comes from God or from somewhere else; but the fact that it is there in the sense that I bring it forth myself --of that I am certain. Descartes initially had no justification for giving his statement any other meaning than this. He could only assert that within the content of the world it is in my thinking that I grasp myself within that activity which is the most my own. What the attached "therefore I am" is supposed to mean has been much debated. It can have a meaning on one condition only. The simplest statement I can make about a thing is that it is, that it exists. How this existence is to be more closely defined, I cannot say in the first moment that anything enters within the range of my experience. Each object must first be studied in its relationship to others before we can determine in what sense it can be said to exist. An experienced event may be a set of perceptions, but it could also be a dream, a hallucination, and so on. In short, I am unable to say in what sense it exists. This I cannot take from the event itself, but I can find it when I look at it in relation to other things. But here, again, I learn no more than how it is related to these other things. My investigation reaches firm ground only when I find an object, the meaning of whose existence I can draw out of itself. This is I, as a thinker; for I give to my existence the definite, self-determined content of thinking activity. From here I can make a start and ask: Do other things exist in the same or in some other sense?

3.8
Remain Within Thinking
[20] When thought is made into an object of observation, we add to the rest of the observed world content something that normally escapes our attention; but we do not alter the usual manner of observation, which is the same as people apply to other things. We add to the number of observed objects, but not to the method of observation. While we are observing other things, one process that is overlooked mixes itself into the world events (among events I now include observation). There is something present, different from all other occurrences, that is not taken into account. But when I look at my own thought, no such unconsidered element is present. For what now hovers in the background is once more just thought itself. The observed object is qualitatively the same as the activity directed upon it. This is another unique characteristic of thinking-processes. When we make them into objects of observation, we are not compelled to do so with the help of something qualitatively different, but can remain within the same element: the realm of thought.

[21] When I spin a web of thoughts around an object that is given without my participation, I go beyond my observation, and the question is: What gives me the right to do this? Why don’t I simply let the object work upon me? In what way is it possible for my thinking to be related to the object? These are questions that all who reflect on their own thought-processes must ask themselves. But all these questions fall away when we think about thought itself. We then add nothing foreign to our thought, and consequently do not have to justify any such addition.


3.9 Create Before Knowing

[22] Schelling says: "To know Nature is to create Nature." Anyone who takes these words of this bold Nature-philosopher literally, must give up forever all hope of gaining knowledge of Nature. For Nature is already there once; and in order to create it a second time, one must first know the principles it has originated from. One would first have to learn from the Nature that exists, the conditions necessary for its existence, and then apply them to the Nature one wanted to create. But this learning, which would have to precede the creating, would be to know Nature already; and this would still be so even if, after the learning, no attempt is made to create. The only kind of Nature one could create without knowing it beforehand would be a Nature that is not yet present.

[23] What is impossible with Nature ---creating before knowing--- we achieve with thinking. If we wanted to wait with thinking until we already knew it, then we would never come to it. We must resolutely think onward, so that afterwards by means of observation of what we ourselves have done, we come to knowledge of it. For the observation of thinking, we ourselves first create an object. The existence of all other objects has been provided without our participation.


[24] Someone could easily oppose my contention that we must think before we can contemplate thinking with the statement that we also have to digest before we can observe the process of digestion. This objection is similar to the one Pascal made to Descartes, declaring that one could just as well say, "I walk, therefore I am." Certainly, I must also resolutely get on with digesting and not wait until I have studied the physiological process of digestion. But this could be compared with the study of thinking only if, after digesting, I did not study digestion with thinking, but rather wanted to eat and digest it. It is, after all, not without reason that digestion cannot become the object of digestion, but thought can very well become the object of thinking.


[25] This then is beyond doubt: In our thinking we have got hold of world events at a point where we must be present if anything is to come about. And that is precisely what matters. This is exactly the reason why things confront me in such a puzzling way: because I am so uninvolved in their coming about. I simply find them before me; but when I think, I know how it is done. This is why, for the investigation of all events in the world, there is no more primary starting point than thinking itself.


3.10 Self-Subsisting

[26] I would now like to mention a widespread error that prevails with regard to thinking. It is often said: Thought, as it truly is, in itself, is nowhere given to us. The thinking-process which connects the observations of our experience, weaving them together with a network of concepts, is said to be not at all the same as that which we afterward extract from the objects of observation in order to make them the object of study. What we first weave unconsciously into the things is said to be something entirely different from what we then consciously extract from them.

[27] Those who draw this conclusion do not understand that it is not possible to escape thinking in this way. I cannot come out of thought if I want to contemplate thought. If we distinguish between preconscious thought and the thought of which I am afterwards conscious, we should not forget that this distinction is entirely external and has nothing to do with thought as such. I do not in any way alter a thing by contemplating it in thinking. I can well imagine that a being with different sense organs and with a differently functioning intelligence would have a different mental picture of a horse than I do, but I cannot imagine that my own thought becomes something different because I observe it. I myself observe what I myself produce. Here we are not discussing how my thought looks to an intelligence different than mine, but how it looks to me. In any case, the picture another intelligence forms of my thought cannot be a truer one than my own. Only if I myself were not the being doing the thinking, but rather, a thinking-process was to confront me as the activity of a being unfamiliar to me, could I say that, although my picture of its thought may occur in a certain way, I am unable to know what the real nature of that beings thinking-process may be like in itself.


[28] So far, there is not the slightest reason to look upon my own thought from any point of view other than my own. After all, I contemplate the rest of the world by means of thinking. Why should I make my thought an exception?


[29] I think I have sufficiently justified making thinking the starting point for my world view. When Archimedes had invented the lever, he believed he could lift the whole cosmos out of its hinges, if only he could find a point where he could support his instrument. He needed a point that was self-supporting, not carried by anything else. In thinking we have the principle of self-subsisting. Starting with thinking, then, let us attempt to understand the world. We can grasp thought through itself. The only question is whether we can, with thinking, grasp anything else other than thought.


3.11 Start With Thinking

[30] I have so far spoken of thinking without taking into account its vehicle, human consciousness. Most contemporary philosophers will object: Before there can be thought, there must be consciousness. According to them, we should start, not from thinking, but from consciousness. There is no thought, they say, without consciousness. To this I must reply: In order to clarify the relationship between thought and consciousness, I must think about it. In doing so I presuppose thinking. To this could be said: If the philosopher wants to understand consciousness, he then makes use of thinking and to that extent does require thinking first; yet in the ordinary course of life thought arises within consciousness, therefore consciousness must be there before thinking. Now if this answer were given to the world-creator, who was about to create thought, it would without doubt be justified. Thought cannot, of course, arise before consciousness. Philosophers are not concerned with world creation, but with the understanding of it. They are in search of the starting point, not for creating, but for understanding the world. I find it very strange that philosophers should be accused of troubling themselves, first and foremost, with the correctness of their principles instead of turning straight to the objects which they want to understand. The world creator had above all to know how to find a vehicle for thought, but the philosopher has to seek a secure foundation from which to understand what already exists. How does it help us to start with consciousness and subject it to our thinking contemplation, if we do not first know how far thought is in fact able to give us insight into things?

[31] We must first look at thinking in a completely neutral way, without reference to a thinking subject or a thought object. For both subject and object are concepts already formed by thinking. There is no denying:
Before anything else can be understood, thinking must be understood. Whoever denies this overlooks the fact that, as human beings, we are not the first link in the chain of creation but the last. In order to explain the world by means of concepts, we cannot start from the elements of existence which came first in time, but we must begin with that element which is given to us as the nearest and most intimate. We cannot, in a single leap, transport ourselves back to the beginning of the world in order to begin our studies from there, but we must start from the present moment and see whether we can ascend from the later to the earlier. As long as Geology assumed fantastic catastrophes to explain the present condition of the earth, it groped in darkness. It was only when it started with the study of those processes presently at work on the earth, and reasoned backward from these to the past, that it gained a firm foundation. As long as Philosophy goes on assuming principles like atom, motion, matter, will, or the unconscious, it will hover in the air. Only if the philosopher will look at the absolute last as the first can the goal be reached. This absolutely last thing in world evolution is thinking.

3.12 Application Of Thinking

[32] There are people who say: We cannot determine with certainty whether our thinking in itself is correct or not. That to this extent, then, our starting point remains a doubtful one. It would be just as sensible to raise doubts about whether a tree is correct or not. Thought is a fact, and it is meaningless to speak of the truth or falsehood of a fact. At most I can have doubts about whether thinking is correctly applied, just as I can doubt whether a certain tree supplies wood suitable for the making of this or that useful object. To show to what extent the application of thinking to the world is correct or incorrect is precisely the task of this writing. I can understand someone doubting whether we can come to any conclusion about the world by means of thinking, but I find it incomprehensible that anyone can doubt the correctness of thinking in itself.

Author's addition, 1918

[1] In the preceding discussion I have pointed out the significant difference between thinking and all other activities of the soul, as a fact that reveals itself to a truly unbiased observation. Anyone who does not strive for this impartial observation will be tempted to raise objections against this discussion such as: “When I think about a rose, this thought, after all, still only expresses a relationship of my “I” to the rose, just as it does when I feel the beauty of the rose. A relationship exists between “I” and object in the case of thinking precisely as it does, for example, in the case of feeling or perceiving.” Those who make this objection fail to take into consideration the fact that it is only in the activity of thinking that the “I” or Ego knows itself to be completely at one with what is active, right into all the branching out of this thinking activity. With no other soul activity is this so completely the case. For example, when pleasure is felt, a careful observer can very likely distinguish to what extent the Ego knows itself to be one with something active and to what extent something passive is present in such a way that the pleasure merely happens to the Ego. The same is true for all other soul activities.

But we should not confuse “having thought-pictures” with working out thoughts by means of thinking. Thought-pictures can appear in the mind in a dream-like way, as vague promptings. But this is not thinking. ---To be sure, someone could point out: If this is what you mean by “thinking”, then your thinking contains willing, and we are dealing not only with thinking, but also with the willing of thinking. But this would only justify us in saying: Real thinking must always be willed. Yet this has nothing to do with the characterization of thinking given here. It may be that the nature of thinking requires that it always be willed, but the point that matters is that everything that is willed ---while being willed---appears to the Ego as completely its own activity and under its own supervision. We would have to say that, just because the nature of thinking is as it has been described here, it must appear to the observer as willed through and through. Anyone who makes a genuine effort to understand all the facts relevant to an evaluation of thinking cannot fail to notice that this activity has the unique character we have described here.


[2] A person highly regarded as a thinker by the author of this book has objected that one cannot speak of thinking as I have done here, because what we believe we observe as active thinking is only an illusion. What one is actually observing is the result of an unconscious activity that underlies thinking. Only because this unconscious activity is not observed does the illusion arise that the observed thinking exists in its own right, in itself, in the same way that the light from a rapid succession of electric sparks deceives us into believing that we are seeing a continuous movement. This objection is also based on an inexact view of the facts. Whoever makes this objection fails to take into account that it is the Ego itself that ---standing
withinown activity. The Ego would have to stand outside thinking in order to be misled by the sort of deception caused by the rapidly consecutive lighting of electric sparks. One could go still further and say: To make such a comparison is to forcibly deceive oneself, like someone who claims that a moving light is newly lit by an unknown hand at every point it appears. ---No, whoever wants to see in thinking anything other than an activity that is brought forth and supervised by the Ego must first become blind to the plain facts that are there for the seeing, in order then to invent a hypothetical activity as the basis for thinking. Those who do not blind themselves will have to recognize that whatever they “think onto” thinking in this way only leads away from its real nature. Unprejudiced observation shows that nothing should be counted as belonging to the nature of thinking except what is found in thinking itself. One cannot come to something that is the cause of thinking if one steps outside the realm of thinking itself. thinking--- observes its

 

chapter three by Richard Laing