What is thinking?

In the western tradition, thinking is paradigmatically characterized as propositional thinking. Propositional thinking’s fundamental unit is the statement, and many statements gathered together become logic – ideally deductive logic. A statement (Logos Apophantikos) is the alignment of a subject and a predicate can be called “true” or “false”. Which is to say, in effect, that its meaning can be completely divorced from the particularity of the context of utterance. There is nothing more divorced from feeling than such thinking.

But is this paradigmatic mould of thinking identical with the essence of thinking? Where does thinking come from? Is perhaps propositional thinking merely an aspect of something wider; a species of the wider genus of language, or is there even thought beyond language?

These questions are not simple. But, I can suggest a simple way of starting to answer them: a statement, the unit of propositional thought, is a peculiar kind of utterance. Most utterances (even silent utterances to ourselves) are expressions, orders, prayers. I say “give me that”, or “Ouch”. These are not propositions, and yet they mean something. However, they cannot become part of a deductive argument because their meaning can not be immediately extracted from their context of utterance – the meaning of “ouch” in embedded in the situation in which it arises as an expression of feeling. Of course I can translate “ouch” into a propositional statement: “That hurt”, or more precisely, “The ball that fell on my foot at time X aroused a feeling of pain in me at time Y”. This statement can be true or false – we might even think of a way it can be evaluated by some kind of science. In other words, its meaning becomes disassociable from the specificity of its context of utterance by including the relevant information about that context in the proposition itself. I believe that this process – the abstracting of particular expressions of feeling into context-irrelevant statements, in principle evaluable by anyone, is in fact the technology of thinking which privileges propositional, deductive thought. And yet, it’s clear that propositional thought is not the essence of thought at all, but a particular version of it – a particular deviation of something wider and less specific.

If something like this is true, we can think about thinking in a radically different way than to which we are habituated: thinking is a technology of feeling. Initially we feel, and we express those feelings in context-dependant utterances. Then, we figure out how we can make those context-dependant utterances into context-independent statements. But still, what’s being expressed is feeling; it is simply being expressed in a way that enables us to consider the truth of the feeling-statement in abstraction from any particular qualitative knowledge about the feeling being expressed.

To make this clearer, I’ll give a more difficult example. Consider the utterance “this coffee is from Brazil”. Immediately, it seems insane to claim that this statement is somehow the conveyance of a feeling – it is the articulation of a fact! But, of course, how do we recognize facts? First we have to look – and when we look we have feelings about what we are looking at. When I see the box of coffee which says “made in brazil”, I don’t first simply absorb the proposition “made in brazil” as if it is an interest-neutral fact; rather, I first respond to the idea of it being made in brazil emotionally. If I happen to feel strongly about Brazil, or specifically about coffee production practices there, or the quality of coffee that comes from there, I am going to experience an emotional response to word “Brazil”, specifically in the context of the sentence “made in”, and appearing on the box of coffee.

Just because emotions or feelings are in a sense prior to propositional statements, however, does not mean they are fully contained in them. Of course, the complex emotional orientation of the person who labelled the coffee “made in Brazil” towards the idea of coffee being made in brazil is not fully communicated by the label. And that’s a good thing, because our emotions are too complex to be expressing to each other all the time. We need ways to simplify our communication for it to be feasible for incredibly complex beings to live together peacefully. So in that sense, it’s good that propositional thinking seems “emotionless”. But of course, it isn’t – the fact that we chose to utter certain facts rather than others is already an expression of value, and also the way we utter statements expresses feeling and valuation, even political orientation (imagine two people saying the term “this is fair trade coffee”, one a devout environmentalist committed to social justice, another pro-business student who dismisses any attempt to interfere in the free market – you’ll more than likely be able to read their politics off the tone of their voice).

So, rather than thinking about “thinking” as opposed to “feeling”, maybe we should think of thinking as something that feeling creates to simplify itself, for the sake of living with others. Thinking remains an expression of feeling, but a simplified one, which purposely strips off most information in order to leave the information that is the most useful for others. However, this stripping-off of emotional expression is never total; it remains there in thinking, muted, but present to anyone who cares to listen in the right way.


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