To Think, or Not to Think

From my present vantage point, if and when my dissertation gets written, these two passages will very likely serve as epigraphs.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:

“What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness–the heedless recklessness of hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty–seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Discuss, particularly in light of our tendency to outsource or offload our intellectual, moral, and emotional labor to our devices.

17 thoughts on “To Think, or Not to Think

  1. Wow. Great quotes. You’ll set yourself a compelling table indeed with those as your epigraphs, Michael. I’m going with Hannah, and I’m surprised that someone who writes the sorts of books Whitehead wrote could argue in favor of going on instinct. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised — he seemed to longingly admire the romantics and their (apparent) ability to experience the world free of the burden of calculation, perhaps because he was aware of how lost in his own head he could be (as the thicket of his prose suggests).

    1. Hi Dough (?),

      I liked your answer. I like Hannah Arendt best, too. But I see Whitehead’s point: in order to act, we need to actually stop thinking, to some extent. When you drive a car, you don’t think about every single movement: the very though would hinder you, it would be a hesitation. ‘The native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (?). The act is no natural instinct, it is more of an acquired instinct or a habit.

      This is of course of no excuse for not thinking enough. For using I’d argue that a middle point between the two positions is that we need to acquire new ‘instincts’ but we want to constantly reflect on them and on what we really need to acquire. We need habits to survive, we don’t want to blindly accept them all the time.

      And the interesting thing is, Whitehead is somewhat warning us that the very statement ‘we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing’ risks to become a habit devoid of conscious reflection. Both Hannah and Whitehead are against unreflected habits, and I like the paradox that arises when they are compared.

      Does it make sense?

      1. Hello Alexander.
        Yes, perfect sense! I myself am often trapped in the “thinking too much” mode, which can, as you and Whitehead suggest, inhibit unrestrained action (not to mention pleasure).
        And thank you for the wonderful quote from Hamlet.

  2. Regarding the second quote, yes we set some systems into motion precisely because we don’t want to think too much about them anymore, but we do, or should, put great care into how we design our systems, so that we’re not unthinkingly undercutting the future happiness of ourselves or others as we use the systems we’ve created. But there seems to be this constant tension between people who don’t want to think too deeply about older systems/interactions/behavior that was based on on a different set of cultural and technological variables, because they don’t want to take the effort to reimagine the whole system again, and people who are constantly want to leap into new systems/interactions/behavior based on new tech or new ideas without thinking about long term impacts on ourselves and our communities because it’s new and exciting and it’s the future and the future is coming and we have to hurry.

    So we’re always stuck between “ooh shiny, let’s just all do this now.” and “I’m happy with the old way and I don’t want to fix the old way or analyze the new way.” In both situations, it comes down to a simple resistance to take the time and energy to evaluate old systems/tech/behavior for relevance and utility in the current age or taking time and energy to evaluate new behavior/tech/ideas and how widespread adoption will affect our current and future goals, health, happiness and values. In my perfect world, we would spend far more energy than we do evaluating old and new tech/behaviors/systems for modern relevance, accordance with our principles and how it might affect our future rather than shying away from the problem because of the, admittedly substantial, effort that would require both personally and otherwise.

    1. Thanks for this. I thought the point about thinking both backwards and forwards particularly helpful. For my own part, I’m usually focused on thinking about what lies ahead. But you’re right, we need to be thinking backwards, that is re-evaluating existing tech and systems.

  3. I appreciate the polarities you are setting up here, and perhaps especially the two philosophers, broadly speaking, you have chosen with which to establish them. Arendt remains one of my steadfast intellectual models, particularly in The Human Condition–surviving long after the fad of Foucault and Derrida have lost their power to persuade.

    I am not even sure Whitehead would himself endorce what he has written above, not in the broad terms implied by the excerpt abstracted from its context. His conclusions in Science in the Modern World are perhaps more representative–and to my mind more compelling. I have that book right next to Arendt’s in my pantheon: my virtual bookends between which are contained the rest of the writers and thinkers about important matters.

    Anyway, whereas I do wish you the best of luck in writing your dissertation, I also have hopes that your labors will not require you to stop writing in The Frailest Thing.

    1. Well, I suspect a good bit of that dissertation will appear on here in some underdeveloped, preliminary form.

      I first read The Human Condition about three years ago. I was impressed by it as I read, but I didn’t realize then how influential it would be. I found myself returning to its ideas and concepts again and again. Right now I’m working through The Life of the Mind and enjoying it quite a bit.

      1. Excellent! I’m looking forward to see how your ideas unfold over time.

        I hope you will allow me to stump (briefly) for Science and the Modern World, which to my mind offers an analysis of the theoretical bases upon which science depends to be intelligible to the culture in which it is embeded. Whitehead’s book seems to have an intellectual architecture similar to your interests in thinking about technology.

        My own background is in neuroscience, the actual practice of which, with its concrete focus on material cause and effect, almost prevents any study of the broader cultural/philosophical background within which that materialism is rooted. I would argue that this lack of conceptual insight is a liability both to the practice of neuroscience, and to the ethics of its aims.

        This is the point that Arendt enters so usefully–to think about what we are doing.

  4. I believe each of these passages more or less strongly, depending on the day, and its fascinating to see them brought together to confront their dissonance. The view expressed by Arendt feels to me like a kind of moral duty and involves a broad view of humanity and the place each person has in it. On the other hand, the perspective expressed by Whitehead captures a big part of my personal motivation for doing math and science. The joy I find in math and science comes partly from this feeling of progress.

    The danger I see in applying the perspective in the Whitehead quote to our gadgets is that typically we do not really earn the right of these tools since we don’t really understand how they work. They are provided to us, and we don’t work hard to get them. The joy I find in mathematics comes from the fact that I have worked my way through the abstraction. I have seen the building of the tool, and I know what’s involved in the arguments. So I feel that this tool is mine (say linear algebra, matrices and eigenvalues or something). If instead, I let Facebook create a timeline to manage my memories, there is so much in their approach that I do not understand that I am making a very questionable bargain in this process. I am really passing agency over to them who do actually control and understand these tools intimately.

    In any case, sounds like its going to be a great dissertation! Good luck!

    1. Your point about making the tool yours, so to speak, reminds me of Borgmann’s “device paradigm.” The more commodious our device become on the surface, the more opaque they become in their inner workings. Consequently, there’s a certain alienation that creeps in. With the alienation, I lack of agency, trust, etc.

      And, thanks!

  5. Michael, a good pair of ideas to get the ball rolling.

    To some extent, they are talking about different things. I think Arendt’s remark is aimed squarely at the intentional with the instrumental implied but bracketed off as a distraction to her purpose. Whitehead is discussing the relationship of the instrumental to the intentional requiring them both to be present. He then is observing that the instrumental proliferates as civilization advances, but that our intentional capacity does not, so must be held for the decisive moments. Arendt’s remark is from the point of view of such a moment. Perhaps it could be seen as a subset rather than a contradiction of Whitehead’s remark.

    1. I think that’s a fair assessment. But Arendt is on to something more, it seems to me. For instance, bureaucracy, one prevalent form of outsourced or automated thinking assumes, tends to dull the ability to think at all. At least it makes it easy not to think, by default, of what one is doing. Of course, all of that is not necessarily evident from the excerpt above.

  6. Fascinating as always. I think what differentiates the quotes are the words “human” in Arendt’s title and “mathematics” in Whiteheads. Yes, from an engineering perspective the more we can put on autopilot the more we free ourselves to do other things–but I’m not sure that’s always good. Are we any better off because of the time saving devices we have? Arendt’s quote on the other hand gets to the heart of the matter. People latch on to their truths and interpret the world on the Procrustean bed of those truths while mistaking a 140 character utterance for discourse.

    1. But isn’t a sign of our times an attempt to apply this engineering approach to understand and control people as much as possible? In this context, the two quotes do become comparable.
      And perhaps as with the language of economics being dominant where one must sometimes put environmental concerns into economics terms, today, we have to put humanistic concerns in engineering terms. Is face to face interaction only a higher bandwidth version of communication than most digital modes? Is some very rarified concept of consciousness the only thing differing between a person and a well designed robot? These kinds of questions put humanity on the defense, but I think they start to be asked today, and robust frameworks for pushing back seems pretty valuable to me. And at the same time, for those of us who love mathematics, we should be able to pursue this as well and enjoy it without having to be always defensive for the changes it is causing to society. Or maybe we just need an increased awareness of the responsibility that engineering is having on people and society. An interesting intersection here.

      1. Ah, yes! You raise a topic for another dissertation altogether. If you think back to the science vs. society debates in the middle of the 20th century, this is a similar dynamic. But what has changed is that engineering and technology have become more intimately involved in daily life and the difference between a scientist and a lay person (speaking very broadly) is becoming harder to distinguish.

  7. Yes, perhaps the relationship between science and society is a different direction here, though your comment, and Michael’s quotes suggested it to me. Its an interesting point that there may be less distinction today between scientist and lay person than in times past, though I’m not sure I agree. Perhaps some aspects of the scientific approach are more common, but the training, focus and expertise of scientists is still typically something most people don’t share. And scientists are still mainly only expert in a very narrow field, so will be broadly affected as lay people with respect to most technologies.

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