Personal Knowledge: What is Called Thinking

“The answer to the question “What is called thinking?” is, of course, a statement, but not a proposition that could be formed into a sentence with which the question can be put aside as settled…The question cannot be settled, now or ever…Thinking itself is a way. We respond to the way only by remaining underway.” (Heidegger: What is Called Thinking?) 

“Just as it is with bats’ eyes in respect of daylight, so it is with our mental vision in respect of those things which are by nature most apparent.” Aristotle (Metaphysics​ Ch. I, Bk 2, 993b)

​”The conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience.” Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, A 158, B 197)

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘morning, boys. How’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘what the hell is water?'”- David Foster Wallace. Kenyon. 2005.

Thinking and TOK

This writing on Thinking attempts to show how thinking is not so much an “act” or “activity” as it is a way of living or dwelling or, as North Americans would say, “a way of life” or “lifestyle”. It is a remembering of who and what we are as human beings and where we belong. It builds on what has been discovered in the reading of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and attempts to continue on the path to understanding the relationship between “education” and “truth”.

To begin with, thinking is not “having an opinion” or a notion about something. It is not representing or having an idea about something or about some state of affairs. Thinking is not “ratiocination”, developing a chain of premises which lead to a valid conclusion. Lastly, it is not conceptual or systematic. It is not algorithmic.

“We come to know what thinking means when we ourselves try to think” (Heidegger). Thinking involves a questioning and a putting ourselves in question as much as the cherished opinions and doctrines we have inherited through our education or our shared knowledge. Putting in question is not a “method” that proceeds from “doubt” as it was for Descartes. The questioning or inquiring is a “clearing of the path” (and anyone who has had to ‘clear a path’ through dense jungle in this part of the world knows the difficulty of “clearing a path”) with no destination in mind. Questioning and thinking are not a means to an end; they are self-justifying. But the paths of thinking often become “dead-ends”: and our age abhors “dead ends”. The approach to thinking that is thought here is to bring to light what is currently called thinking and to “awaken” a new approach to “what calls for thinking” which is the essence of what you are asked to do in the TOK course. But how can you go about doing this?

How is thinking to be distinguished from “method” or from following a method such as algorithmic thinking? What is the relationship between memory as a way of knowing and thinking? Does any “thinking” take place in the areas of knowledge of TOK? Is there room for thinking in TOK i.e. an openness to thinking?

The great work of literature on the relationship between thinking, method and memory is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius’ observation of Hamlet: “Tho’ this be madness yet there is method in it” could be used as an opening or a way into an analysis of our times. “Rationality” as method may not necessarily be sane…

What is thinking? What Calls for Thinking?

“We all still need an education in thinking, and first of all, before that, knowledge of what being educated and uneducated in thinking means. In this respect Aristotle gives us a hint in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1006a if.): . . – “For it is uneducated not to have an eye for when it is necessary to look for a proof and when this is not necessary.”—Martin Heidegger “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”

To examine what thinking is and to ask the further question of what calls for thinking, we shall examine what is called thinking and what the philosophers have thought on thinking. We shall try to stay mindful of how the understanding of thinking’s essence and what is called thinking today is a result of the manner in which Plato’s allegory of the cave came to be interpreted, primarily by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. When we are exhorted to think “outside of the box”, the manner of the thinking that we are exhorted towards still remains within the “box” in which thinking has been traditionally framed. This thinking remains an “active doing” upon the objects that present themselves before us.

The 20th century’s great philosopher, Martin Heidegger, said: “Most thought-provoking is that we are still not thinking – not even yet, although the state of the world is becoming constantly more thought-provoking.” (What is Called Thinking? p. 4) For us, thinking is traditionally thought to be “rationality”, “reason”, “judgement”. Heidegger, somewhat provocatively, says: “[M]an today is in flight from thinking.” (Discourse on Thinking p. 45) Not only do we not think; human beings are actively avoiding thinking. For Heidegger, all the scientific work today, all the research and development, all the political machinations and posings, even contemporary philosophy, represents a flight from thinking. “[P]art of this flight is that man will neither see nor admit it. Man today will even flatly deny this flight from thinking. He will assert the opposite. He will say – and quite rightly – that there were at no time such far-reaching plans, so many inquiries in so many areas, research carried on as passionately as today. Of course.” (Discourse on Thinking 45)

But for Heidegger, science does not think: and this is its blessing. “This situation is grounded in the fact that science itself does not think, and cannot think – which is its good fortune, here meaning the assurance of its own appointed course.” (What is Called Thinking? p. 8) What Heidegger is saying is that if science actually thought, we would cease to have science as we know it. And if this should happen, we would no longer have clean toilets, penicillin, and all of the wonderful discoveries of science. Science does not think because the grounding of science is in a faith: its belief  is that what is real is what it reveals.

We shall never learn “what is called swimming”, for example, or “what calls for swimming” by reading a book on swimming. Only a leap into the deep end of the pool will tell us what is called swimming and what calls for swimming. The question of “what is called thinking?” can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept “thinking”.

Rene Descartes

In the West, thought about thinking has been called “logic” which we have associated with “reason as a way of knowing” based on the principle of reason. This “logic” has received its flowering in the natural and human sciences under the term “logistics”. Logistics, today, is considered the only legitimate form or way of knowing because its results and procedures ensure the construction of the technological world. Logistics is an interesting word in that its use as a noun implies “symbolic logic” (mathematical algebraic calculation) and it is also related to the conduct of warfare. Its use as mathematical calculation is found in what is called logical positivism which is a new branch of the branch of philosophy that was previously known as empiricism. The thinking in logical positivism is the thinking expressed as algebraic calculation: only that which can be calculated can be known and is worth knowing.  To elaborate how this has come to be the case would require an analysis of 17th century philosophy and mathematics beyond what we intend in this writing. Suffice it to say that this is part of our inherited shared knowledge that we have received from the philosopher Rene Descartes. It is called Cartesianism.

Calculative Thinking:

Today we think that thought is the mind working to solve problems. We can see this in many of the quotes that are looked to as words of inspiration for young people. Thought is the mind analyzing what the senses bring in and acting upon it. Thought is understanding circumstances or the premises of a situation and reasoning out conclusions, actions to be taken. This is thinking, working through from A to B in a situation. Thoughts are representations of the world (real or not doesn’t matter, only the mind’s action does), or considerations about claims or representations (knowledge issues or questions), and the conclusions or judgements that are made. We think we know exactly what thought is because it is what we think we do. And as the animal rationale, the “rational animal”, how is it possible for thinking to be something we can fly from as it is our nature? Any examination of materials for approaching TOK illustrates, rather clearly, that we assume we already know what thinking is, what knowledge is. That is why so many of the posed questions can begin with “To what extent…” There is a pre-conceived hierarchy against which a response can be measured.

When we use the word ‘thinking’, our thought immediately goes back to a well-known set of definitions that we have learnt in our life or in our studies, what we have inherited from our shared knowledge. Definitions provide the limits to things, their horizons so that they can be known to us. These limits we call “meaning”. To us thinking is a mental activity that helps us to solve problems, to deal with situations, to understand circumstances and, according to this understanding, to take action in order to move forward. It is algorithmic. Thinking for us also means to have an opinion, to have an impression that something is in a certain way. Thinking means reasoning, the process of reaching certain conclusions through a series of statements. Thinking is “a means of mastery” or control over the ‘problems’ which confront us and stand as obstacles in our achieving our ends.

On the special kind of thinking that occurs in science, Heidegger says that it is true that “[s]uch thought remains indispensable. But – it also remains true that it is thinking of a special kind.” (Discourse on Thinking 45) That is reasoning, rationalization, analysis by concept, logical operation are all part of a particular form of thought, one with presuppositions and operational rules. This is, and has been called, “method”. It operates within a system.  It is the thinking that you are required to do in order to be successful in the TOK course. It is not, however, a universal way of thought. Nor is it the oldest means of thought; human beings of the past did not approach the world in the manner given by Aristotle, but rather human beings (Aristotle, specifically) had to think in this manner after reaching certain conclusions about the world and human nature. For Aristotle, this view came from his understanding and critique of the Greek philosopher Plato.

Martin Heidegger

The kind of thinking we are probably accustomed to is what Heidegger names “calculative thinking”, and it is the thinking proper to the sciences and economics, which we, belonging to the technological age, mainly — if not solely — employ. Calculative thinking, says Heidegger, “calculates,” “plans and investigates” (1966b, p. 46); it sets goals and wants to obtain them. It “serves specific purposes” (ibid., p. 46); it considers and works out many new and always different possibilities to develop. Despite this productivity of a thinking that “races from one aspect to the next”; despite the richness in thinking activities proper to our age, and testified by the many results obtained; despite our age’s extreme reach in research activities and inquiries in many areas; despite all this, nevertheless, Heidegger states that a “growing thoughtlessness” (1966b, p. 45) is in place and needs to be addressed. This thoughtlessness depends on the fact that man is “in flight from thinking” (ibid., p. 45).

 Thoughtlessness”, Heidegger states, “is an uncanny visitor who comes and goes everywhere in today’s world. For nowadays we take in everything in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly. Thus one gathering follows on the heels of another. Commemorative celebrations grow poorer and poorer in thought. Commemoration and thoughtlessness are found side by side. (1966b, p. 45)

In the writing on Technology as a Way of Knowing, I have tried to show an example of this by comparing the “making” of the Japanese tea ceremony cup with the ubiquitous Styrofoam cup. The ‘creator’ of the Styrofoam cup, the patent holder, is Dow Chemical, the provider of the funds for Harvard’s “Project Zero”, and they, in turn, provide a number of IB educational institutions with their expertise on “what is called thinking” and are giving the techniques of thinking that will be used in the classrooms of those institutions. What and how are the ends of Dow Chemical, as a corporation, in alignment with the ends of Harvard University and the student learner outcomes in the IB Learner Profile? How do these relate to what is called thinking today?

Calculative thinking, despite being of great importance in our technological world, is a thinking “of a special kind.” It deals, in fact, with circumstances that are already given, and which we take into consideration, to carry out projects or to reach goals that we want to achieve. Calculative thinking does not pause to consider the meaning inherent in “everything that is”. It is always on the move, is restless and it “never collects itself” (Heidegger 1966b, p. 46). This fact, paradoxically, hides and shows that humanity is actually “in flight from thinking.” Now, if it is not a question of calculative thinking, then what kind of thinking does Heidegger refer to when he speaks of another way of thinking that might be possible for human beings? And why, if at all, is there a need for it? A possible answer might be that because we have no problem in understanding the importance of calculative thinking, we probably are not so clear about the need, in our existence, for a different kind of thinking.

 What Heidegger is saying, however, is something else. His thesis is that “reasoning” is not what thought really is. It is not the essence that defines thought. This is not to say that scientific thought is faulty, as Heidegger reiterates again and again. “The significance of science here (in the modern) is ranked higher here than in the traditional views which see in science merely a phenomenon of human civilization.” (What is Called Thinking? 22) How did science come to have this higher ranking?

Another Way of Thinking: “Poetically Man Dwells…”

Heidegger distinguishes from the traditional concept of thought (what he calls calculative thinking) a second form of thinking, ‘poetic’ thinking (meditative, contemplative thinking). Contrary to what it is commonly thought of, ‘poetic’ thinking is not a kind of thinking that is to be found “floating unaware above reality”, losing touch with reality. Nevertheless, the thinking he is proposing “is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs.” (Discourse on Thinking 46) In other writings on this blog I have referred to Simone Weil’s term of “attention” as the form of contemplative thinking that Heidegger has in mind.

In the “Memorial Address,” Heidegger speaks of two kinds of thinking: the above mentioned “calculative thinking” and “‘poetic’ thinking” (1966b, p. 46). ‘Poetic’ thinking is a kind of thinking man is capable of, it is part of his nature; but nevertheless it is a way of thinking that needs to be awoken. When Heidegger states that man is “in flight from thinking” (1966b, p. 45), he means flight from ‘poetic’ thinking. What distinguishes ‘poetic’ thinking from calculative thinking? What does ‘poetic’ thinking mean? It means to notice, to observe, to ponder, to awaken an awareness of what is actually taking place around us and in us. It is a way of being quite different from that which I have described in “Understanding the Shadows in Plato’s Cave” as well as “Darwin/Nietzsche Part IX B” in other areas of this blog.

‘Poetic’ thinking does not mean being detached from reality or, as Heidegger says, “floating unaware above reality” (1966b, p. 46). It is also inappropriate to consider it as a useless kind of thinking by stating that it is of no use in practical affairs or in business. These considerations, Heidegger states, are just “excuses” that, if on the one hand appear to legitimize avoiding any engagement with this kind of thinking, on the other hand attests that ‘poetic’ thinking “does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking” (1966b, p. 46-47). ‘Poetic’ thinking requires effort, commitment, determination, care, practice, but at the same time, it must “be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen” (Heidegger 1966b, p. 47).

‘Poetic’ thinking does not estrange us from reality. On the contrary, it keeps us extremely focused on our reality, on the essentials of our being, ‘existence’. To enact ‘poetic’ thinking, Heidegger says that we need to:

dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (1966b, p. 47)

Even though “man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being” we need to train (“educate”) ourselves in the ability to think ‘poetically’, to look at reality, and thus ourselves, in a ‘poetic’ way. The cost of not doing so would be, Heidegger states, to remain a “defenseless and perplexed victim at the mercy of the irresistible superior power of technology” (ibid., p. 52-53). We would be – and today, more so than sixty years ago, when Heidegger gave this speech – victims of “radio and television,” “picture magazines” and “movies”; we would be “chained” to the imaginary world proposed by these mediums, and thus homeless in our own home. It is fairly clear that Heidegger has Plato’s allegory of the Cave in mind here. Heidegger further states:

all that with which modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man – all that is already much closer to man today than his fields around his farmstead, closer than the sky over the earth, closer than the change from night to day… (Heidegger 1966b, p. 48)

It is very easy to see how much further from the openness around us we are when we are dwellers in our cities or see ourselves as avatars in virtual worlds on our computers given the pastoral description that Heidegger provides here.

If we view our current thinking in the light of Plato’s Cave, we can see that the risk for humanity in our current approach to thinking is to be uprooted not only from our reality, from our world, but also from ourselves and from our natures as human beings. If we think ‘poetically’, however, we allow ourselves to be aware of the risk implied in the technological age and its usefulness and we can, hence, act upon it. We can experience some of the freedom which is spoken about in Plato’s allegory when we are brought out into the Open where the light of the Sun shines and things are shown to us in their own being as they really are.

 When we think ‘poetically’ we do not project an idea, planning a goal towards which we move, we do not “run down a one-track course of ideas” (ibid., p. 53). When we think ‘poetically’, we need to “engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all” (ibid, p.53). In order to understand what this means, think of the comportment (disposition) we have towards technological devices. We recognize that in today’s world technological machineries and devices are indispensable. We need just  think of computers and hand phones and their usage in our daily life’s activities to be convinced, beyond any doubt, that “we depend on technical devices” (Heidegger 1966 b, p.53). By thinking calculatively, we use these machineries and devices at our own convenience; we also let ourselves be challenged by them, so as to develop new devices that would be more suitable for a certain project or more accurate in the carrying out of certain research. (Think of the “madness” that usually occurs regarding the release of Apple’s latest IPhone or IPod.) We even allow our language to be determined by the machines and devices that we use (see Language as a WOK).

If calculative thinking does not think beyond the usefulness of what it engages with, ‘poetic’ thinking, on the other hand, would notice and become aware of the fact that these devices are not just extremely useful to us. It would also notice that they, by being so extremely useful, are at the same time “shackling” us: “suddenly and unaware we find ourselves so firmly shackled to these technical devices that we fall into bondage to them” (ibid., p. 53-54). If human beings, not being aware of this, are in a situation of being chained to their technological devices and tools, then by becoming conscious of this they find themselves in a different relation to them. They can become free of them. With this awareness human beings can utilize these instruments just as instruments, being at the same time free to “let go of them at any time” (ibid., p. 54). And this is so because once we acknowledge that their usefulness implies the possibility for us to be chained to them, we deal with them differently; we “deny them the right to dominate us, and so to wrap, confuse, and lay waste our nature” (ibid., p.54). It is a matter of a different comportment (disposition) towards them; it is a different disposition to which Heidegger gives the name “releasement toward things” or “detachment” from the things (ibid, p.54). This “releasement” and “detachment” means an “openness” or “availability” to what-is so as to allow that which is to be present in its mystery and uncertainty. (See Plato’s Cave and the “openness” required to view the beauty of the forms and ideas in their “outward appearance” on the outside of the Cave.)

“Releasement” toward things is an expression of a change in thinking and, like Plato’s prisoners in the Cave, a change in their being in the world. Thinking is not just calculation, but ponders the meaning involved and hidden behind what we are related to and engaged with. This hiddenness, even if it remains obscure, is nevertheless detected – by a meditating thinking – in its presence, a presence that “hides itself.” But, as Heidegger states:

if we explicitly and continuously heed the fact that such hidden meaning touches us everywhere in the world of technology, we stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery. I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery. (1966b, p. 55)

“Releasement towards things” and “openness to the mystery” are two aspects of the same disposition, a disposition that allows us to inhabit the world “in a totally different way.” But as we already mentioned, this disposition does not just happen to us. It develops through a “persistent courageous thinking” (ibid., p. 56), which is ‘poetic’ thinking.

The traditional concept of thinking intends thinking as a representing, and therefore as belonging to the context of willing (action). It is still involved with a subjectivism. Subjectivism is “setting up the thinking ‘subject’ as the highest principle of Being, and subordinating everything to the dictates and demands of the subject” (See Reason as a WOK, particularly the thoughts on Descartes). It is what we have come to call “humanism”.

Probably when we hear the word “acting” we immediately relate it to a familiar concept of action, such as the one that thinks of action as that which produces some kind of result, which means that we understand action in terms of cause and effect. To understand what Heidegger means by “higher acting,” we need to refer to the essential meaning that, according to Heidegger, pertains to ‘action’.

In the “Letter on Humanism” (1998b), Heidegger defines the essence of action as “accomplishment”, and he unfolds the meaning of accomplishment as “to unfold something into the fullness of its essence, to lead it forth into this fullness – producere” (1998b, p. 239). “Higher acting” is not, therefore, an undertaking towards a practical doing, but is a ‘higher’ acting as accomplishment, in the sense of leading forth of some thing into the fullness of its essence.

Releasement itself is what makes this available to man. For Heidegger, “higher acting” remains a techne, but it is “making”, a producing or accomplishing, that is more of a poiesis (poetry, for lack of better word) than the cheap, quick making of our production lines such as we find in the production of the Styrofoam cup. In poiesis, human beings allow something to be in its mystery while at the same time bringing forth of that ‘some thing’ from out of the hiddenness in which it once resided.

Heidegger’s ‘poetic’ thinking is contrasted with the thinking that is present in Aristotle’s four causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the final cause and the sufficient cause.

The conventional view of perception is what is called “representational”. Representation “places before us what is typical of a tree, of a pitcher, of a bowl . . . as that view into which we look when one thing confronts us in the appearance of a tree, . . .” (Discourse on Thinking 63) Objects are there; they are perceived in both their form and idea (the mathematical as something which can be known).

Heidegger does not think of perception in this manner. Heidegger also includes something called horizon (time), which is, in keeping with the definition, the horizon or limits of that which we perceive (space). Objects are within a horizon, but we do not place them there; rather they “come out of this (openness of the horizon) to meet us.” (Discourse on Thinking 64) For Heidegger, “the Open” that we discussed as outside of Plato’s Cave is that area or realm in which objects can be perceived.

Rather than actively search out objects to represent, or passively allowing things to enter into our sense experience, Heidegger believes that we have a sort of “active reception,” where that which is present “comes out to meet us.” The proper state towards that which is perceived is called “unconcealment”; thinking is “in-dwelling in unconcealment to that-which-regions.” (Discourse on Thinking 82) For Heidegger, this thinking is not a “grasping” or an “apprehending” but a “releasement” that allows the thing to be in its being as what it is in the “Openness” of the horizon of its being. If we think of Heidegger’s “Open” as the region outside of the Cave, we will be close to what Heidegger means by this term (but it should be remembered that for Heidegger, the Cave is our “home”). Whereas Plato emphasizes the “open” as that region outside of the Cave, and thus focuses on “space”, Heidegger’s focus is more on Time as the region where the “Being of beings” is “sighted”.

Our conventional thinking is an “active doing” whose purpose is to “change” or to “apprehend” what is in being and to make it a part of our “standing reserve” or as some thing disposable for our use at a later time. Heidegger’s thinking is more related to the Vedanta ananda or “bliss” as being in thinking itself.

What Calls for Thinking:

We cannot properly address the question What Is Called Thinking? without answering the question What Calls For thinking? This distinction between the two questions and the priority given to “what calls for thinking” over “what is called thinking” will be the focus of these discussions on thinking, and this will focus on “rationality” as what has come to be called thinking.

According to Heidegger, one is not thinking if one does not rank the objects of thought in terms of thought-worthiness. This point flies in the face of many contemporary accounts of rationality, for they suggest that one can be thinking well as long as one is following the right method. The emphasis today is on the method of what is called thinking. What one thinks about does not provide the standard for the role of such “ratio-inspired” accounts of thinking (see below for the contrast to legein-inspired or language-inspired models); indeed, critical thinking has come to mean critical whatever method-following thinking instead of critical whatever essential thinking. Heidegger’s point is that such means-end accounts involve and indeed propagate a distortion; a life spent rationally researching the history of administrative memos and emails is not a thoughtful life.  In rationally pursuing anything and everything we are not thinking.

Meta-analysis, meta-cognition, meta-linguistics and all other “meta”-prefixed approaches to thinking remain in the realm of “method” thinking and need to be contrasted with “logos” thinking. This is because these “meta” forms of thinking remain in the realm of the traditional thinking of Western “metaphysics”.

You will notice in many of your classes that you are encouraged to become “inquirers”. This is an attempt to re-introduce philosophy of some kind into the curriculum. The philosopher differs from the chess player, biologist, and politician in that the philosopher’s calling is to think about thinking as such. Moreover, to think philosophically about thinking, is to come to a confrontation with a mode of existing–“being-thoughtful”–and thereby with Being and how you stand in Being.

The Greek experience of thinking was grounded on a link between thinking and Being. This link is present in the earliest Greek thinking and carries over into the works of Plato and Aristotle. With Socrates in particular one catches the notion that built into thinking was a directedness towards order (particularly order within one’s self), goodness, beauty, truth, and Being.  Aristotle’s remarks on God and nature also underline this link. It is more revealing, Aristotle holds, to consider the relation between God and the world in terms of God as idea rather than God as creator or cause. God as idea can explain the striving of natural substances; the acorn seeks to become an oak, and thereby reproduce, and thereby the acorn mimics God’s eternality. In the same way, the human infant is on its way to becoming a thinking being, and so the human’s telos (purpose) is to mimic the highest being’s thinking. Moreover, Aristotle wonders what God would think about, and concludes that thought thinking thought is the only befitting topic for the most divine activity. The philosopher par excellence thus mimics the highest being (God) not only by thinking, but also by thinking about thinking.

What calls for thinking in our time? What is it that you should think about to be “educated”? The present age is the technological age, the age in which brain currents are recorded but the beauty of a tree in bloom is forgotten. What is thought-provoking about our time? Heidegger claims that what is thought-provoking about our time is that we are still not thinking. But what is it about our time that explains why we are still not thinking?

Heidegger diagnoses this age as the time of nihilism. The dominant characteristic of our time, then, is the forgetting or withdrawal of Being, and it is this that explains why we are still not thinking–even as we attempt to mimic intelligence via computer programs or connectionist (social) networks. We call to mind that in the allegory of Plato’s cave, “beauty” and “truth” must be “apprehended” as they will slip into “forgetfulness” or “forgottenness”. Our focus is on a “beauty” that withdraws (the physical appearance; the beauty in the “eye of the beholder”) the beauty that is “subjective” and belongs to the “subject” rather than on the Beauty that presences right before our very eyes in all that is in Being.

We are more distant from Being because the experience of thinking–in our technological age–has been shrunk to that of using a tool to operate within an already-fixed network of ends. This age, in other words, is more thought-provoking because in it ratio has triumphed over legein; thinking has become so severed from the being-thoughtful that the thoughtful being is in danger of being entirely eclipsed. This triumph of ratiocination is discussed further in imagination as a way of knowing.

We are still not thinking–despite Plato’s directive–because we have missed the object and source of thinking—Being, that thinking which occurs in the region of the “Open” outside of the Cave. We will continue to miss this thinking as long as we merely use thinking and do not dwell as thoughtful. All genuine thinking arises from and returns back to thoughtful existence; “thinking” that is not so anchored is homeless “thinking”, e.g., calculating, computing, or even reasoning, or all of the “meta” approaches to thinking that were mentioned earlier. This thinking floats on a great sea of nihilism. Thoughtful dwelling in the region of the “Open” is the existential ground of thinking; in such a mode we can hear what calls for thought.

The loss of thoughtful dwelling can be “remembered” by looking back to the Greek thinking experience in order to recover that which has been lost in the translation of the Greek legein into the Latin ratio. Legein carries with it two significations that are not preserved by the Latin ratio: thinking as speaking and thinking as gathering. Thinking moved from that which is bound in sense perception as a way of knowing to thinking that thinks in language as a way of knowing is the direction for thought. But how is this change in direction to be achieved?

Thinking as speaking, as language. Being calls for thinking, i.e., for articulation, and thus to let Being be in language is thinking. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, for example, houses the carefree Being of playing children. The language of thinking plays a crucial role. That we are not thinking because we are not “mindful” of the language of thinking can be seen in how our technology is taking over the role of language in our being. A full elaboration of this idea is impossible here, but the claim, roughly, is that to be thoughtful is to exist as authentically immersed in language.

To begin, “the language of thinking”… all of these phrases can be taken either in the subjective or objective genitive, and those are possibilities on which we should reflect in our thinking. The phrase, “the idea of God”, for example, can mean “God’s idea” in the subjective genitive and “the idea about God” in the objective genitive. In like manner the phrase “the language of thinking” means “thinking’s language” or “the language found in thinking” in the subjective genitive and “language about thinking” in the objective genitive. The difference, then, is between the language found in thinking generally and the language found in thinking about thinking.

Thinking as gathering. Legein signifies gathering and the gathered. Thinking demands…that we engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all.

Thinking is the gathering of that which calls to be gathered–the modes of our existence and Being as such. Thinking can begin when we hear that which calls for thinking:

Joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought…if only we do not reject the gift by regarding everything that is joyful, beautiful, and gracious as the kind of thing which should be left to feeling and experience, and kept out of the winds of thought. Only after we have let ourselves become involved with the mysterious and gracious things as those which properly give food for thought, only then can we take thought also of how we should regard the malice of evil. (Heidegger: What is Called Thinking? P. 31)

Thinking, then, is not so much a matter of being an expert or technician in a field–even if the field be philosophy–as it is being responsive to the various ways of being of who we are, and this points to the disposition of “being thoughtful” as the ground of thinking.

We may now state some conclusions about thinking:

  1. Those who take as the object of their theories a purely mental activity, “thinking”, are missing the richest part of the phenomenon: being-thoughtful.
  2. Being-thoughtful is not essentially a mental activity; it is rather the encounter with Being (the manifesting of meaning which occurs in the ‘showing’ through the beautiful).
  3. Means-end analyses sever thinking from its existential ground; one can be “means-end” rational and yet not thoughtful (and this is the thinking which occurs in the technological world view of logical positivism, the language of algorithms).
  4. Receptivity is the distinguishing mark of thoughtful being; the mastering thinking of the human sciences and the natural sciences in their demanding stance towards being and beings do not think; Nietzsche, who stated that what characterizes contemporary science is the victory of scientific method over science, the victory of method over thought.

Thinking and Language:

What is it that is named in “thinking”, “think”, “thought”? The Old English ​thencan, ​​to think, and ​thancian, to thank, are closely related; the Old English noun for thought is thanc ​or thonc–a thought, a grateful thought, and the expression of such a thought; today it survives in the plural “thanks”. ​The “thanc”, that which is thought; the thought implies thanks.

Blaise Pascal

Is thinking a giving of thanks? Or do the thanks consist in thinking? What does thinking mean here? “Thought” to us today usually means an idea, a view, an opinion or a notion. Pascal, the French mathematician and contemporary of Descartes, in his journals given to us as Pensees, ​​searched for a type of “thinking of the heart” that was in conscious opposition to the mathematical thinking prevalent in his day. Thought, in the sense of logical-rational representations (concepts), was thought to be a reduction and impoverishment of the word “thinking”. Thinking is the giving of thanks for the lasting gift which is given to us: our essential nature as human beings, which we are gifted through and by thinking for being what we essentially are.​ I have called this love in other sections of this blog.

“The gathering of thinking back into what must be thought is what we call the memory”. (Heidegger).

Today, some perceive that the task facing thinking is the overcoming of what is now described as its weaknesses:

  1. Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences;
  2. Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom;
  3. Thinking solves no cosmic riddles;
  4. Thinking does not endow (or empower) us directly with the power to act.

These observations of thinking’s weaknesses overrate and overtax thinking.

The question “What is called thinking?” can be asked in four ways:

  1. What is designated by the word “thinking”?
  2. What does the prevailing theory of thought, namely logic, understand by thinking?
  3. What are the prerequisites we need to perform thinking rightly?
  4. What is it that commands us to think?

A Brief History of What is called thinking:

​We can begin to answer question #2 above, what and why the prevailing theory of thought has determined thinking to be logic, by examining the titles of the major works of Rene Descartes. His first work is entitled Rules for the Direction of Mindthe second is entitled Meditations on First Philosophy; and the third is called Discourse on Method. ​These works describe the path of the grounding of what is called thinking today. Further discussion is available on What is Knowledge?



—— (1966a). Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking. In: Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper and Row.

—— (1966b). Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper and Row.

——(1968). What is Called Thinking?. Trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York. Harper and Row.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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