In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.

In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen argued that the intellectual axis of contemporary sociological theory has shifted from a concern with individualism and holism to what he terms dualism and anti-dualism. I’m not convinced as to the accuracy of this as a claim about the state of the field given the degree of sophistication which can be seen in some of the work analytical sociologists are doing. However I think it’s useful as an expression of a core distinction between those theorists who see ‘structure and agency’ as a dualism to be transcended and those who see it as reflecting the ontological reality of two relatively autonomous aspects of the social world. I also really like how he sets this up because it helps me locate both my PhD research on personal morphogenesis and my post-PhD research on the sociology of thinking in terms of wider trends within sociological theory:

This leads us to what I think is the main battleground between dualists and antidualists, the mind of the individual. The question is: how social is it?


No one could question that there are singular organisms we call members of the biological species Homo sapiens, but the antidualists wish to remind you that these are not distinctly human individuals, not to mention social scientifically interesting agents, until they are in sociocultural relations with other people and thus components in sociocultural wholes that contribute enormously to their being the kinds of individuals that they are (see e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Dewey [1920] 1988:187–94, [1922] 1983, [1927] 1988:351–53; Elias 1978; Fuchs 2001; Giddens 1984; King 2004; Mead 1934; also Kivinen and Piiroinen 2013). As John Dewey put it a hundred years ago:

The real difficulty is that the individual is regarded as something given, something already there. . . . [For, actually,] social arrangements, laws, institutions . . . are means of creating individuals. Only in the physical sense of physical bodies that to the senses are separate is individuality an original datum. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out. (Dewey [1920] 1988:190–91)

For central conflationist antidualists like myself, indeed, the “micro” focus is not the individual so much as specific encounters and other small-scale situations involving specific kinds of people-in-relations and their interactions (see Collins 2004:3). In effect, “the stuff of the social is made of relations, not individuals” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:179). But Archer, in contrast, needs to keep individuals free from their social relations in order to pull those relations away from agency and turn them into the essence of structures. So relations and thus structures must be external to individuals and their beliefs and concepts, according to Archer, and relational roles, institutions, concepts, and ideas cannot be allowed to “invade” or “determine” individuals’ identities and decision-making processes. Basically Archer is saying that we must not stuff too much of the sociocultural world into people’s heads

(Piiroinen 2014:84-85)

I think he’s misunderstood Archer’s specific point slightly but he’s certainly correct about the general intention here. My PhD research on personal morphogenesis was intended to flesh out how people change in relation to social and cultural influences in a way that sustains the distinction between the personal changes and the social influences. We become ‘the kinds of individuals’ that we are in relation to others but if we cleave self and others too closely together, we obscure the variability in how these changes unfold. In essence I’ve argued that we understand relationships in terms of intersecting biographies and the changes brought about by them. So I’d insist on maintaining individual biography as a unit of analysis, with this representing a ‘chunk’ of one person’s biography in which we they undergo a change:

However we can’t understand the changes without analysing the intersection of biographies, as any number of other persons (Px) contribute to the unfolding of P1’s biography over this period of time. The interaction between P1 and Px contributes to the reproduction or transformation of the relations themselves but also the persons party to them:

I would accept that we are only “distinctly human individuals” when we are “in sociocultural relations with other people”: I just want to be specific about which sociocultural relations contribute to which aspects of our individuality and when they do so. I think this is important because actual biographies are messy. My empirical case study concerned undergraduate students. For instance I’m interested in understanding how interactions between a person and their new university friends can transform how they relate to their ‘home friends’. The personal changes emergent from one set of sociocultural relations can have a huge impact on another set of sociocultural relations and I think the central conflationists can’t (consistently) account for this because they have no concept of ‘outputs’ from relations. In other words: relations change people but people change relations and these processes are not concurrent. We are enmeshed within socio-cultural relations from birth but, as Laing once put it, while “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being … any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”.

So when we ask how social is the mind it connects us to a much wider network of questions, as Piiroinen adroitly illustrates. I see my project on the sociology of thinking as having an outward facing component (in the sense of what a sociological perspective can contribute to the study of thinking from other approaches) but also an inward facing one, in the sense that understanding thinking – as an activity but also the contents of thought – is integral to clarifying the dualisms upon which so much of sociological theory has tended to pivot: individual/relations, individual/society, agency/structure, micro/macro. I would like to critique what I see as a tendency towards disciplinary imperialism in how sociologists treat thinking and to critically engage with work in other fields with the intention of (cautiously) applying their insights to the clarification of these questions of social theory.

This post on things that universities should teach students is a lovely read in its own right. However the final point really stood out to me:

That if they haven’t, at some point, found themselves struggling to put words to an idea that they feel strongly about but can’t explain adequately, then they’ve missed an opportunity to learn.

I’ve long been a little bit obsessed with this experience, without being able to explain why in a way I’m satisfied with (appropriately enough). I guess my hunch is that much of what we subsume under the term ‘creativity’ grows from, resides in or otherwise responds to this discursive gap: the (productive) distance between what we are trying to say and what we can say given the ideational resources available to us. In many cases I think people withdraw from this gap because it can be threatening or frustrating. Could we see an important goal of higher education as being to help people develop the capacity to live in the gap in a productive way? 

I wrote a paper about this (in relation to sexual identity rather than education) which I never tried to get published. I’m wondering if i should try and work it up into something publishable after all. 

I’m increasingly interested in how interiority is represented in culture. I mean this as a general term for depicting inward experience of whatever sort. I’ve been primarily thinking about this in terms of film and tv so far. Partly because I happen to be someone who watches a lot of films. But there’s something interesting about manner in which this medium so often depends upon inevitably visual techniques to depict inner life. However not all such representations take this form. In fact some are a matter of the deportment of the actor, how they depict the orientation of their character towards others in a film (and often implicitly towards the audience). There was a Vanity Fair article I came across a while ago which captured something of this

How does Pitt embody cool? As the director Andrew Dominik noted in a DVD extra for the 2012 film Killing Them Softly, “When you watch Brad, you always feel like something’s going on under there, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I think that’s the reason he’s a movie star. He has that quality of mystery. He doesn’t invite you to share his position somehow.”

He doesn’t invite you to share his position. That is as good a definition of movie cool as there is. The cool actor invites admiration, envy, and desire, much more than empathy, because he is unreadable. His characters leave you wondering what it would be like to be them, without ever imagining that you could.

On the other end of the continuum is Tom Hanks, an actor who almost always invites you to share his position. The power of Hanks’s performances lies in their ability to communicate exactly what it would be like to the character he is playing, which is why he has succeeded so much at the Oscars. He has been nominated five times for best actor and won it twice, one of only nine actors to do so.

I would suggest that the argument being made here could be recast in terms of the variable opacity with which an audience experiences the internal life of a given character played by an actor. Not ‘inviting you to share his position’ constitutes a representation of inner life which embraces the elusiveness of that interiority. Some characters draw you in, externalising what is going on internally and inviting others to empathise with it. In contrast, there are those who make no attempt to do this, with their actions being clearly purposive but it being equally clear that those purposes do not include seeking understanding from observers.

I think this is why the final scene of Killing Them Softly is so powerful. Pitt’s character has been elusive throughout. At the end, his frustration leads him to share aspects of his internal life and we gain an insight into the cynicism with which he views the world. But appropriately enough, this heretofore absent externalisation is soon subsumed into a practical attempt to terminate the transaction: “Now FUCKING pay me”.

Pitt plays him in a way that makes no attempt to “communicate exactly what it would be like to be the character he is playing” and the film is so much more powerful for this. In fact I’d argue it’s crucial to the unfolding of the film’s narrative. This raises a question: is the mode of representation applied to the interiority of key characters similarly important to the narrative progression of other films? How does the role played by the representation of inner life (thinking, deliberating, imagining, day dreaming etc) in telling cinematic stories vary? Do the two ends of the continuum invoked by the Vanity Fair article tend to map on to two distinctive kinds of narrative? I suspect it can’t be that simple but there nonetheless seems to be quite a lot in this question that could be usefully explored.

The digital management guru Umair Haque seems to be having something of a nihilistic turn. At least until you get to the end of this essay, posted on his medium blog, which somewhat undermines the effect of a piece of writing I actually rather liked:

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

I love the Kindle app on the iPad. Or at least I want to love it. I’ve been using it intermittently for well over a year now and I’ve gradually realised how difficult I find it to read attentively when using it. I’m a compulsive underliner, margin scribbler and corner folder of books. I sometimes feel slightly embarrassed when a friend asks to borrow a book and, upon handing them an utterly mangled text, find myself wondering if they still want it or they’re just being polite.

Much of the appeal of Kindle for me was the neatness with which it is possible to annotate the text, as well as the ease with which those highlighted sections and annotations can be retrieved. But it’s too easy. I far too often find myself skim reading a text, effectively mining for insights in a way that filters out the overarching coherency of the text. I’m often effectively sorting the text rather than attending to it.

I find using a pen rather frustrating these days. I’ve been touch typing since before I was a teenager and I’m used to being able to articulate myself electronically in a way that keeps up with the flow of thought. Whereas using a pen frustrates me because I perpetually feel as if I can’t write fast enough. But there’s a discipline to this, albeit of a sort I too rarely recognise the value in. It forces me to slow down. It forces me to read attentively. It encourages me to treat the text as a whole.

My claim here isn’t deterministic. I sometimes find myself doing this with books as well. But it’s much less frequent and much less pronounced. Things like eBooks don’t create my tendency to rush but they do amplify it.

There’s a great Brendan O’Neill post on Telegraph blogs* in which he reflects on the self-destruction of Richard Dawkins** online and its roots in the nature of Twitter as a medium. He’s probably correct that, with the exception of a cadre of ‘skeptic’ true believers, Dawkins has through his ill considered anti-religious tweets effectively destroyed a reputation he’d spent a lifetime building. What interests me about O’Neill’s argument is the claim that “we are seeing how Dawkins’s mind works prior to his exercise of thought and self-editing, and it isn’t pretty”. Again, he’s probably correct. His conviction that this is a negative trend, illustrated by the particular case of Dawkins, rests on a set of claims about intellectual expression in public life:

Twitter by its very nature invites its users to express unedited thoughts which in earlier eras would have lingered at the back of our minds or been spoken only to small groups of people, perhaps over a pint. In the past, there was a clearer distinction between private man and public man, between what we thought and what we said, between the inner workings of our brains and the public utterances that later fell from our mouths.

Today, that divide has been muddied almost into oblivion, so that now it is perfectly normal to see people tweet their instant, unformulated feelings about an event, a person, a religion, or whatever. Twitter isn’t single-handedly responsible for the detonation of the dividing line between private thought and public speech, of course, but it is the technological tool that has most explicitly moulded itself around the corrosion of the private/public split, inviting us, cajoling us in fact, to instantly share our half-baked thoughts on just about everything.

The end result is that even someone like Dawkins can now be better known for his late-night blabbing than for his intellectual works. I’m sure that to young people in particular, who don’t remember that time when Dawkins was taken seriously and who get the vast majority of their info via the Twittersphere, Dawkins is now just “that bloke what says weird stuff on Twitter”.

Dawkins’s fate – his self-demotion from serious author to barking tweeter – should be a lesson to everyone: beware Twitter, for it is the technological facilitator of the most backward cultural trend of our age – the Oprahite urge to spill, sputter and speak every thought, idea and feeling that pops into our heads.

He sees this as the apotheosis of a longer term trend in which the valorisation of ‘authenticity’ leads us “to give voice to our every feeling”. The real problem for intellectual life comes because this trend deprives us of “the space in which we once worked out what we really think about other people and world events, and instead encourages us to express our instant feelings about them”. So this isn’t the real Dawkins we see, as opposed to a previously false Dawkins, rather it is an unedited rather than edited encounter with the man.

I never thought I’d find a Brendan O’Neill article so thought provoking but this is a really provocative framing of a question that fascinates me. I’m convinced that iteration is an important aspect of the creative process: clarifying what it is you’re trying to say by recurrently attempting to articulate it. In other words, the space in which we ‘work out what we really think’ can be as dialogical as it is monological. But I think he’s certainly correct that Twitter encourages us to think aloud (this certainly fits with my experience) and that dangers are attached to this. Internal conversation is not a uniform thing, instead varying between people and across times and contexts. I don’t think communications technology can initiate these changes but I think it can (and clearly does) tendentially nudge them in certain directions. What makes this so complex though is that effects are not going to be uniform because mental life is not uniform – the properties and powers of Twitter (or an equivalent) are not the only variable in play here, with existing tendencies towards certain forms of intra-action shaping the inter-active uses people make of social platforms like this.

So I guess what I’m saying is that Twitter probably does inculcate a tendency towards thinking aloud, simply because it so radically minimises the constraints on externalising a thought. But leaving aside compulsive use (which is not a minor issue by any means but a distinct one) it doesn’t create the impulse to share, determine the content of the thought*** or condition its likely reception in anything more than the most formal sense (i.e. the kinds of people one is connected to, the channel constraints involved in their responses etc). In other words: the problem here is not twitter and thinking aloud, it’s Dawkins himself and the culture within which these ‘pre-edited’ views become plausible and coherent.

*Writing this sentence disturbs me on at least two levels.

**What does it say about you if even Brendan O’Neill thinks you’re obnoxious?

***Though it obviously may provoke it. Twitter can be a banal space but it can also be an intensely thought-provoking one.

hAgain I find myself somewhat repelled, though perhaps with less justification than in the previous lecture. The second lecture opens with the pronouncement that “we modern men presumably have not the slightest notion how thoughtfully the Greeks experienced their lofty poetry, their works of art – no, not experienced, but let them stand there in the presence of their radiant appearance” (pg 19). However I do see the importance of what he is saying is lost here. As he puts it, “we are compelled to let the poetic word stand in its truth, in beauty” (pg 19). He cites Holderlin to elaborate upon this point:

Who the deepest has thought, loves what is most alive,
Who have looked at the world, understands youth at its height,
And wise men in the end
Often incline towards beauty.

What I understand him to be saying is that aesthetic response involves a relatedness analogous to that enjoyed by the cabinet maker in relation to the shapes ‘slumbering within the wood’. It is only through an attentiveness in our engagement with the object (the deepness of thought) that we can be alive to its reality, responding to it as it ‘stands in its truth’. Heidegger claims that “what the line tells us we can fathom only when we are capable of thinking” (pg 21). We can only learn through doing:

We shall never learn what ‘is called’ swimming, for example, or what it ‘calls for,’ by reading a treatise on swimming. Only the leap into the river tells us what is called swimming. The question ‘what is called thinking?’ can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explaining what is contained in that definition. In what follows, we shall not think about what thinking is. We remain outside that mere reflection which makes thinking its object. (pg 21)

This ‘mere reflection’ precludes the relatedness necessary to let an object ‘stand in its truth’. I think this is something akin to the Buddhist notion of Tathatā (“thusness”) which I’ve always understood, perhaps incorrectly, to gesture towards the reality of an object beyond symbolisation. We rarely encounter this quiddity because of our propensity for ‘mere reflection’: we encounter partial aspects, mediated through our intellectualised concepts and past experience, rather than the thusness of the object. But if we do encounter the reality of the object, its ‘reality’ as an object immediately reveals itself as a function of symbolisation. If we really encounter an object in its thusnessit simply stands in its reality in relation to other existents rather than as something independently self-subsistent.

Is ‘thinking’ in Heidegger’s sense a matter of cultivating attentiveness to things and our relation to them? Or am I simply misreading Heidegger through what might very well be a longstanding misreading of Buddhism on my part? I’m aware as I’m writing this (in fact I’m thinking about it) that textual analysis of this sort engenders a feeling of intellectual insecurity in me which runs completely contrary to my considered views about the point of analysing texts. I’m deliberately throwing myself into this book without consulting secondary texts and I’m aware that the insecurity would likely vanish if I were not doing this. But this strategy actually seems deeply appropriate to the book now that I’ve got started. Given I’m not, nor have any aspiration to be, a continental philosopher, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I read the book ‘correctly’. Though does that mean I’m treating it as a resource to be mined* for insights? I hope not. I think there’s a middle ground between the two but I’m less than sure about what it is exactly and how to articulate it.

Another motivation for engaging with this text was my interest in Heidegger’s account of technology, which he begins to discuss in this lecture. However I’m confused by the distinction between technology and the essence of technology. I understand his argument that industrialisation destroys craft, in so far as that it preludes “the relatedness to such things as the shapes slumbering within wood” (pg 23). In so far as thinking necessitates an attentiveness to this relatedness then modernity will tend to preclude thought. But I don’t understand what he means when he says that “our age is not a technological age because it is the age of the machine; it is an age of the machine because it is the technological age” (pg 24). Presumably part of this distinction rests on his sense that we must avoid conflating the instances of technology (machines) with technology as such for risk that a preoccupation with the former obscures the nature of the latter. But what is the ‘essence of technology’? What is the ‘core of the matter’ which is not reached by the “economic, social, political, moral, and even religious questions” concerning technological labour?

I’m confused but intrigued by the prospect that we might “attain relatedness to what is most thought-provoking” (pg 25). The “listening closely” necessary for this means we must rid ourselves of the habit of “one-track thinking”: “track has to do with rails, and rails with technology” (pg 26). This one-track thinking is “one of those unsuspected and inconspicuous forms, mentioned earlier, in which the essence of technology assumes dominion”. But what is it?

Previous post about lecture 1.1 here.

*I originally typed ‘minded’ here. As Freudian slips go that was an interesting one.


Following on from this enormously thought-provoking paper by Richard Swedberg on the sociology of thinking, I’ve decided to return to Heidegger for the first time since I was a philosophy student. I really struggled with Heidegger and ultimately justified giving up conditional on the promise that I would one day learn German and read the original texts. Suffice to say I’m not enormously confident when it comes to primary texts in continental philosophy in general and particularly not with Heidegger. But in the spirit of strong misreading I’ll give it a go with the aim of developing my own understanding of thinking rather than deciphering the truth of the text.

When I say ‘thinking’ I actually mean the craft of thinking. This is the frame through which I’m reading the text and, though it means I’m engaging in the slightly unusual practice of partially reading Heidegger through C Wright Mills, it seems to be giving me more of a purchase on a text by Heidegger than I’ve ever achieved in the past. It does also seem to accord with his own intentions. Heidegger’s invocation of craft, summarised by Swedberg, caught my imagination when I read it at the weekend:

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

I understand this relatedness as an attentiveness to the object, preserved in motion through our sustained engagement in what we are doing. It is not rumination as a prelude to action, such that we deeply ponder our plan before enacting it. The attentiveness towards the object is constitutive of our engagement, rather than being a phenomenological extra on top of our physical doing. In attending to the object in a sustained way, the practice is transformed. We enter into a ‘current’ and ‘maintain [ourselves] in it’ (pg 17) rather than standing over and above the object in pursuit of its transformation in line with a pre-existing schema. In doing so, we attend to the possibilities inherent in the object – not in the sense of voluntaristically choosing between them but rather responding to them as someone caught in the ‘current’ through our engagement with the object.

Much as the cabinetmaker attends to the potential ‘shapes slumbering with wood’, the thinker inclines “toward what addresses itself to thought” (pg 17). In the half hour I’ve spent writing this post thus far, I’ve noticed my attention be dragged away as the mailbox icon on my browser’s toolbar went from ‘1’ to ‘2’ to ‘3’ before I eventually gave in and checked my e-mail. I’ve now removed the button. Phenomenologically I feel pulled from the current, withdrawn from immersion in a task and once more aware of sitting at my desk, with coffee that’s now run out and a distressingly large list of things I have to do today. From past experience I’m aware that in a similar situation, as a to do list involuntarily stays flagged somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, I’ll rush a piece of writing like this once I reach the half way point so that I can move on to the pressing exigencies of life. In such case I think I’m no longer responding to the potential forms within the ideas which are my object, closing down possibilities rather than opening them up.

I’ve written a few times this year about the phenomenology of blogging. I’m sometimes amazed at how quickly I can write if I sit down and write while the thought is live in my mind. There’s not an article or a post in my mind but simply a thought. It’s at the forefront of my consciousness and it feels different to abstract rumination. On these occasions, I find that writing I’m always pleased with spills out of my mind if I let myself attend to the thought that is pressing me for a response. As I described it over the summer: “when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world”. This is the experience I want to better understand. I can only do this with a keyboard. I’ve tried many times with pen and paper but my handwriting becomes unreadable and, as with writing in a document for myself, without the awareness of its ensuing visibility I don’t attend sufficiently to the elaboration of the thought(s) as I objectify them in writing. I simply externalise internal thought, with all its contraction and personalisation, which does not feel like it constitutes the creation of something. It just feels like I’m reiterating things which were already in my mind rather than creating something new, no matter how trivial or mundane that novelty may or may not be.

There are elements of this first lecture which I’m slightly confused by. The historicisation of our ‘still not thinking’ repels me. Not because of the history but because of the intellectual conceit I take to be inherent in making sweeping historical claims at this level of abstraction. Likewise I’m not sure if Heidegger’s repetition of this is a rhetorical device (given it’s a lecture) or if it is an expression of the gravity with which he feels this world-historical failure pressing down upon his soul. Perhaps it’s both. But I will persist because these lectures are thought-provoking and, as he says, “thought-provoking matter already is intrinsically what must be thought about” (pg 4). This is probably the most important statement of the first lecture from the perspective of my strong misreading: “what is thought-provoking, what gives us to think, is then not anything that we determine, not anything that only we are instituting, only we are proposing” (pg 6). This is the root of the experience of urgency I’ve described while writing, the particular experience of attending to an idea and elaborating it while it is still pressing upon you. This is the primordial reality confronted through the craft of thinking. I’ve been talking about mainly in terms of writing, largely as a consequence of my own proclivity for thinking-through-writing, but I want to avoid getting stuck in these terms. More broadly, I’d like to understand what is ‘thought-provoking’, what is ‘fascinating’ etc.

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?