Notes for a Sociology of Thinking 1.1

Richard Swedberg begins his paper Thinking and Sociology by recognising that there may be “good reasons” why these two things are rarely discussed together. Though “all of us think” and “we all know the intensely private character of our thoughts”, these thoughts are fleeting and ephemeral when considered next to things that we say and things that we know. These phenomena have been the closest sociology has tended to come towards looking at thinking itself and the reasons for this are both epistemic (they relate to things that are more or less open to others and tend, by their nature, to use terms that are understandable to others) and genealogical (Durkheim was the founding father most interested in thought yet also the most strongly committed to studying it through its objectification in social facts). Given that social facts are a product of collectivities, “the individual plays a very subordinate role in Durkheim’s work, and most of what goes on in his or her mind belongs to the science of psychology, not sociology”. He understood the categories of thought, collective representations, as gifts of society which should be analysed as social facts. So while sociologists have often looked at the products of thinking, the process itself has tended to be ignored or even dismissed in principle as a possible object of study.

For reasons that are intuitively obvious but nonetheless rewarding to explicate, this has not been true of philosophy. Swedberg considers Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger as three philosophers, amongst many, whose work could provide insights for a nascent sociology of thinkingKant’s essay “What is the Enlightenment?’ can be understood as a short and purposefully accessible treatise on thinking: “what it means to think, why we should think, and what the consequences of thinking are”. It also discussed how people avoid thinking through falling back upon established authorities, directly or through their cultural products, as a substitute for addressing their own questions. Kant also offered practical guidance on thinking, for instance suggesting that one should avoid thinking deeply while eating and that thinking while walking should be a matter of letting the imagination wander. Kierkegaard was concerned with the relationship of thinking to existence as a particular individual. For him thinking is part of existence: “a human being thinks and exist”. Thinking does not dominate existence but can fit harmoniously with it. This however is an achievement and one not enjoyed by the ‘objective thinker’ whose generalising and systematising thought ignores his own particularity in spite of it being bound up with this thinking. Instead, we ought to think inwardly and thus avoid the ‘stuntedness’ of the objective thinker who is not interested in his or her own existence. For Heidegger all human beings can think but many do not. He distinguishes between the thinking we all have the capacity to engage in and the thinking which we usually engage in: the ‘one-track thinking’ and ‘thoughtless chatter’ which our everyday lives in a technological society provoke. Instead of thinking, for Heidegger, we too often have opinions. But we can also learn how to think. For Heidegger this is a practical competency which is learned through doing:

We are not simply born with a certain capacity to think. But how can one learn to think? Heidegger’s answer is that it is a bit like swimming: you learn it by doing it. You cannot ‘read a treatise on swimming’: you have to open yourself up to the ‘adventure’ and ‘leap into the river’.

If you read a book by a philosopher, you can learn thinking by studying the way that the author asks questions. Summarizing and repeating the ideas in a book does not represent thinking. One should also try to locate and work with what the author does not say – what has been left ‘unthought’. And once this exercise is over, and you have ‘found’ the thinking of the author, you have also to ‘lose’ it. Freeing oneself from somebody’s thinking, Heidegger says, is harder than to find it.

Associated with this notion of thinking as a practical competency which can be learned is an understanding of thinking as action rather than being opposed to it. Heidegger was concerned that “action has often replaced thinking” and sought to overcome the “common notion that thinking is simply what comes before action and that it lacks value unless it is followed by action”. Instead he sought to cultivate an understanding of thinking as a craft:

The carpenter cannot learn his craft in some abstract manner; he must develop his skill by working on wood and by sensing what he can make of this material. The wood contains shapes, Heidegger says, and it is the carpenter’s task to sense these and bring them out in the wood. The idea of hidden forms means that the person should use thinking to understand Being.

However Swedberg is well aware that these arguments lack a sociological dimension. The first two authors lived before there was a sociology, while the latter was explicitly critical of sociology (as a science). But his suggestion that philosophy can be a potent source for a sociology of thinking is surely plausible and his impulse to turn their thought in a ‘sociological direction’ is one which I find deeply appealing. Other potential sources are the sociology of knowledge, the economics of information, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. But Swedberg’s most pressing concern is with the contribution of philosophy:

Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger all agree that thinking represents its own special activity or, to phrase it different, that one should focus the analysis directly on thinking. This is an approach that sociology may want to follow. It would also appear that sociology should try to study thinking which is a process, rather than thought which is a product. Heidegger’s argument that thinking should be independent of knowing as well as of action raises further interesting questions for sociologists.

One shared concern of all three philosophers he discussed were the “forces that prevent the individual from thinking on his or her own”. Kant looked towards a reliance on established authorities, Kierkegaard towards the force of routine while Heidegger blamed technological society. These concerns naturally provoke sociological questions given the empirical referents of such claims. However these thinkers also raise important practical questions about the activity of thinking. Given that “it is easier to think in certain places, just as it easier to think in certain postures” we might ponder the existence of “an architecture of thinking as well as a body technique”. Such ruminations naturally connect the sociology of thinking to the existential concerns of sociologists of thinking:

My own way for how to think is to spend one hour early in the day sitting still and focusing on some topic that needs to be thought through. I do not write, and I do not try to empty my mind so much as to focus it. It is an exercise in thinking, not in meditation. I usually find that my thinking proceeds step by step, and it comes natural to memorize each step.

For a long time I was puzzled by Kierkegaard’s insistence that thinking has an existential dimension. I first began to understand what he meant by this when I started to set aside some time for thinking also at the end of the day. It was impossible to engage in thinking when the day was over, I found, without directly connecting broader issues to personal ones. The link between thinking and subjectivity was in this way established in a very natural fashion. A day that has passed in your life – what does this mean?

My “own way for how to think” is to blog. I like the notion of a sociology of thinking in part because it gives me a novel frame of reference within which to ponder my own use of blogging. I like it for many other reasons as well though. What do other people think?

10 Comments

  1. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere but IMO warrants spelling out. ‘Thinking’ is in need of definition. At one level the verb refers to the more or less random firings of our central nervous system and, understood thus, it seems fair to say 98% of our thinking – and then some – is garbage we do well not to torture others with. At another level, and this seems the drift when we bring in the heavyweights cited here, thinking is understood as reasoning.

    On the first definition it also seems fair to say that most of us have a highly superstitious relationship to thought. Walking down the street I experience a generous and uplifting thought, and draw the conclusion I am indeed a noble sort of chap. A few minutes later I’m assailed by a mean-spirited, envious thought and am cast down by the revelation of what a deeply unpleasant and uncaring dude I really am, utterly unfit for decent company. Both are nonsense of course. To anyone else it’s my deeds – the choices I make – that make me who I am.

    On the second definition I wouldn’t dare cross swords with the likes of Kant and Heidegger but like your point about blogging, which takes me to a favourite quote from a favourite writer: “how do I know what I think till I see what I say?” – EM Forster – and to the entirely plausible assertion by some evolutionary psychologists that the significance of language in our extraordinary success lies as much in its support for thinking as for coordinating woolly mammoth hunts.

    Thanks again for yet another thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Philip, I’d like to go for a middle ground between the two: thinking as what sits in between the phenomenological froth and applied practical reasoning. To take your example: what really interests me is what you say to yourself in each case. Why do you say it, what does it mean to you and what effects does it have on the initial thought and the feeling it provoked? Part of my enthusiasm for the sociological of thinking comes, I realise, because it suggests I’ve been doing a part-time PhD in the sociology of thinking for the last 5 years without realising it. But I’ve been looking at internal conversation rather than thinking per se – now I’m trying to get my head around where the boundary is between the two. I’d argue that you can’t understand your deeds without understanding your choices and you can’t understand your choices without understanding your internal conversations…

  2. I like both Philip and Mark’s responses and would have made such points myself if quicker with my thoughts (‘conclusions after rumination’) 🙂

    I’d like to add that thoughts, thinking and other such terms deserve better than simple definition and a concept map may be useful – err, em, to support our shared understanding and diversity of meaning.

    I’d also say that thoughts (however defined) are not limited to internal speech acts, even for logical argumentation – e.g. I often plan routes through town, and evaluate alternatives, without speech acts in my head. I often think (‘have the opinion’) that we demote intellectual acts in the arts and crafts in favour of verbal argumentation. As John Heron put it, when describing aesthetic delight “The emotions of a fulfilled imaginal sensibility are of a range and subtlety that outstrip the power of language to symbolize them. Hence they are conveyed by the non-discursive symbolism of drawing, painting, sculpture, music and dance.” – he might have added, cooking, carpentry and metalwork or even, dare I say, bodily function.

    1. “I’d also say that thoughts (however defined) are not limited to internal speech acts”

      I agree – I’m completely unclear in my own mind about where the boundary lies between the two and what thought *is* beyond internal speech acts though. If I understand it correctly, the Heron quote is very interesting towards this end – gestures towards what I’ve called the ‘discursive gap’ in upcoming paper. The gap between what we’re moved to *try* and say and what we do actually say, given our imperfect capacities to symbolize our feelings and thoughts, as well as the limitations of the linguistic & cultural resources available to us.

  3. Hi Mark. I like ‘phenomenological froth’ but it could be misleading, suggesting something more substantial below – which ain’t necessarily or even, in my experience, often the case. Most of our thought-stream (I include emotions) are of little or no significance and it seems a tragedy of the human condition – up there with neoliberalism, climate change and disorderly taxi queues – that we read too much into them; drawing conclusions about who we are from the content of thought..

    I’ve read nothing on this so hope we aren’t at cross purposes. For years I practiced a form of meditation whose aim was not to reduce or temporarily eliminate the content of thought – I see little merit in that when a few stiff G & Ts do much the same – but to disengage from it: like a convo in the next room which we may or may not choose to listen in on. So meditation is an exercise in seeing that we are not our thoughts (or feelings). Why is it a tragedy when we equate the two? Because our species alone, it seems, has – perhaps as a by-product of our huge reasoning power – acquired self-consciousness. Homo sapiens sapiens is doubly wise: we know that we know. Yet we seem incapable – at least when it really counts – to take up this birthright. I recently heard Mel Phillips put straight on the Moral Maze. In a debate on school streaming she told a pedagogic witness that his views, more inclusive than hers, would lead to a world of stupid things being done by less intelligent people. The witness pointed out with admirable lucidity that IQ and capacity for stupid deeds have little to do with one another. We do stupid things not because we aren’t clever – brain damage apart, we are ALL immensely clever – but because (this is my addition of course) we closely identify with thought/feeling. If a dog wants food it more or less HAS to act on that, unless a more immediate emotion, like fear, supersedes it. We can choose, though we seldom do. Our most obviously stupid deeds are invariably done in the grip of primary emotions like fear, rage and desire, but on a more every-minute level it seems that identifying with thought – instead of using it as the marvelous tool it is – lies at root of much our woes.

    Of course, that doesn’t obviate the more immediate task: resisting capitalism at every turn (:-)

    I think your search for a midpoint between the incessant thought-stream on the one hand, conscious application of reason on the other, might take you to useful places. I also think this whole business of superstitiously identifying with thought may prove similar powerful.All the best.

    1. but that’s what fascinates me so much about this topic:

      “Most of our thought-stream (I include emotions) are of little or no significance”

      that’s only a judgement you can make reflexively i.e. by thinking about your own thought…

      funny you should mention that, as i’ve recently been trying to restart mindfulness meditation having briefly had a practice when i was much younger. unfortunately i’m not very good at it because i quite rapidly start introspecting about my own introspection rather than just letting it be… i think it’s definitely deeply relevant for this line of theoretical thought though and there’s a cognitive science literature looking at this which i’m planning to explore once i put the finishing touches to my PhD in a month or two.

  4. PS – only after commenting a few minutes ago did I see Richard’s comment, which of course opens up even more fascinating avenues of enquiry and aesthetic sensibility.I’d love to talk more about language v other tools for both thinking and communicating but, alas, have to write a witness statement for my tribunal claim against the Great Casualiser: University of Sheffield, where I was an “atypical worker”.

    Yes, that’s as well as my ongoing battle with Sheffield Hallam University, where I’m on a zero hours contract. Excuse my shameless plug but do feel free to check out my blog on casualisation and commodification in higher education.

    How could i resist? But back to the topic here: Mark, it’s hard for me to tell on the basis of these small exchanges, but so far we seem to be speaking more of a philosophy/psychology of thought than a sociology, no? However it’s called, though, it’s fascinating.

    1. It’s already in my blog reader!

      “so far we seem to be speaking more of a philosophy/psychology of thought than a sociology, no?”

      You’re not the first person to suggest that to me! I’m not sure where or how to draw the distinction between a sociology of thought and a social psychology of thought tbh. Perhaps it’s the introduction of social structural considerations into an analysis of thinking e.g. having the time to think…

  5. I think it would be interesting to discuss those thinkings that are very performance centred – sports, synchronised swimming, music in groups, dance in troupes and learning to manufacture by observing and copying? Is there a ‘conversation’? Is it mediated by social factors? I would say so.

    1. yes definitely, i think these are the aspects of thinking that have been studied most comprehensively though – the ‘talking through’ that’s part of practical activities.

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