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Tallis in Wonderland

Thinking About Thinking

Raymond Tallis reflexes his mind muscle.

Philosophers spend much of their time thinking. Sometimes they think about thinking itself. But thinking about thought is a strange business. It should be impossible, like trying to navigate a stream in a boat made out of water.

We most often characterize thinking as ‘inner speech’. ‘Speech’ because, as Bryan Magee says in his Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), we “cannot express in language what thought is like before it is translated into language.” And so, as we cock our inner ears, we hear a voice ‘in our head’ – the ‘head’ being a rather ill-defined location, but closer to the intracranial darkness behind our eyes than, say, our feet, or indeed, the rest of the universe. It is tempting to think that this imaginary sound is necessary for us to be able to inform ourselves as to what we are thinking. This hardly holds up: it suggests that we require our thoughts to be fully formed in order that we can tell ourselves what they are. We would end up having to have our thoughts before we know what thoughts we are having! At this point vertigo beckons.

All in all, thinking to ourselves seems an instance of something Ludwig Wittgenstein said was impossible: the right hand giving the left hand a gift. Let us temporarily retreat from philosophy to psychology.

Shrinks Think

Psychologists have pointed out that the silent soliloquy footnoting our wakefulness from early childhood to our final days serves many functions. As well as assisting us to plan, control, and direct our actions, thoughts also propose alternative realities. Talking to ourselves is part of the process of registering and making sense of what’s going on in, and around, us. Thus articulated, that sense becomes a ‘we’ sense – an internalization of dialogue. As Charles Fernyhough puts it in his excellent The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves (2016), “A solitary mind is actually a chorus.” Our heads are echo-chambers. And it’s no surprise that our thoughts come in a variety of styles, with various tones of voice, as if they were meant to be spoken out loud.

We are not always considerate of our imaginary audience: our muttering is fragmentary, and frequently condensed or elliptical. Many things are left unsaid and the dots left unjoined. After all, we do not have to explain everything to ourselves. I know what I am on about.

Some people report that their thinking is not only decorated with but dominated by images. A flow of images would seem to be an appropriate alternative to one’s native language, given the tangle of connections between cognition and sight. Vision is the most epistemic, or knowledge-like, of our senses: advances in understanding are often regarded as in sights, and their cumulative effects as ‘en light enment’; the activity that drives them is ‘reflection’; while the breakthrough to higher consciousness is seen as a revelation that may present itself as a ‘vision’.

The most fundamental similarity between vision and thought lies perhaps in their clear separation from their objects. Unlike sensations such as pains, which (so long as they are not being interpreted) are intransitive, vision is transitive – a distance must be crossed between the perception and the thing the perception is about. The aboutness of vision holds open a space between the seer and the seen, between the seeing subject and the seen object. Thought is even more clearly separate from its object, given that it reaches into a boundless ‘out there’ from a place that is the very centre of ‘here’. My thoughts about the Big Bang effortlessly glance backwards through the entire history of the universe.

Nevertheless, for most people, thought is overwhelmingly in words rather than images. We have already observed that thought is often a rehearsal of one’s contribution to an anticipated conversation. There is another reason why words predominate in thought: they are not tied to any one of the five senses. How words look or sound is largely irrelevant to their meaning. They are therefore able to integrate information from different senses, helping us to piece the world together, to weave together different currents in the stream of consciousness.

Back to philosophy. Thinking about thinking gives us an excuse to visit the most famous moment in Western philosophy: René Descartes’ cogito argument, “I think therefore I am”. Any reassurance that I exist this must presuppose that the thoughts originate from me. And so we come up against one of the great puzzles of philosophical psychology: our ability to identify ourselves as the source of mental events. This might be anticipated to be tricky since there are no external cues, no physical effort with visible movements and audible grunts and groans, to give thoughts the stamp of ownership. It is hardly surprising that people with schizophrenia sometimes suffer terribly when they have an experience of ‘thought insertion’. They hear their own thoughts as voices they ascribe to an outside source, believing them to have been implanted by alien, often malevolent, agents.

Ownership of thoughts, however, seems rather more plausible than ownership of perceptions. There is no equivalent even in transitive perception to intellectual property: what I perceive over there seems to belong to the world, whereas how I think about it seems to belong to me. Nevertheless, while we are more likely to be responsible for our thoughts than for our experiences, this is not always the case: we frequently seek out experiences, while thoughts may just occur to us, as if we were their recipients. And there are, of course, different degrees of activity and passivity in thought. An unceasing flow of ideas, images, and bits of chatter spontaneously wells up in the cognitive spaces. There is idle recollection and fantasizing. And there is possession by thoughts that circle round the same miserable place, anchoring the thinker to obsessive guilt and fear: thought as ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (Blake) rather than an expression of freedom. Against all this there is effortful thought, driven by a determination to think, to examine, to solve, to explain. The effort may not be rewarded at the time when our brows are most furrowed. As is often remarked, happy intellectual accidents occur only to the prepared mind, and the mind’s self-preparation may be a matter of months, even years. The ‘Eureka!’ moment is the result of earlier mental effort, honoured as we seize and build on it.

One of the most astonishing of our cognitive capacities is our ability to re-trace the journey that led up to a thought we are puzzled to find ourselves thinking. How did we get here? Why did last year’s holiday pop into my mind?

The backward glance looking for the engine that set a train of thought in motion is an extraordinary act of inner attention and cognitive will; of our capacity to inspect our own connectedness.

Ideas About Ideas

Since Gilbert Ryle’s assault on Cartesian dualism in The Concept of Mind (1949), philosophers have generally been reluctant to think of thoughts as ghostly goings on in the head. And yet it difficult not to think of the thoughts I am having now as being ‘inside’, in contrast to the letters appearing on the computer screen as I type them that are located as ‘outside’. My thoughts seem to be nearer to me even than the sensations that arise from my body, such as an itch.

Which brings us to another mysterious aspect of thoughts: their dual character. It is worth pausing on this, because it helps us define the distinctive roles of psychology and philosophy in investigating thought.

Token thoughts – specific instances of thoughts, for instance, my thought at a given time that ‘Stockport is in Greater Manchester’ – are personal, taking place in my internal soliloquy. They are perhaps suitable for psychological investigation. In contrast, the type thought to which ‘Stockport is in Greater Manchester’ belongs is impersonal. This is a suitable topic for philosophy. The type thought is the idea expressed in any given token of thought, such that the same type thought is thinkable by any number of people. Its referent is a part of the world that belongs to everyone and no-one. While our token thoughts are embedded in me-here-now, they instantiate type-thoughts whose objects are disconnected from any here and now, often being about permanent, general possibilities not confined to a discrete part of spacetime, or even in part captured by a sensory field. It is not without reason that we say of someone lost in thought that they are ‘miles away’; but those are not the miles which separate physical locations.

The daunting challenge – and the excitement – of thinking about thought is what I noted at the beginning: the requirement to inspect thoughts by means of other thoughts. Those other thoughts have somehow to rise above their fellows to count as vantage points on thought-in-general, as a means of arriving at the essence of thought. It is hardly surprising therefore that while nothing could be nearer to us than our thought, it remains elusive. Employing introspection to catch thought in action is, as William James remarked, “like trying to turn the gas up quickly enough to see how the dark looks”. Or, to change the metaphor, it’s like endeavouring to take hold of tassels of fog with tweezers made of mist. To develop a theory of (all) thought is like attempting to grasp with our hand the sum total of all grasps.

Perhaps things are not quite so challenging for the philosopher as they are for the psychologist. Although in thinking about thought philosophers have to utilise some instruments of thought – strategic recall, assembling reminders, and logic – they do not have to catch themselves catching themselves. But the fact that thinking can transcend itself to think about ‘Thought’, remains extraordinary. It sometimes seems like a feat comparable to standing outside of our own body. This alone should enable us to resist the temptation to seek an account of thought that draws solely on one of the late, sophisticated, products of thought: objective science, and, in particular, neuroscience.

Our capacity to think about thought is one of a family of enigmas arising out of a fundamental mystery: our ability to encompass ourselves – as when we talk about ‘matter’ or ‘human beings’ or ‘the self’; or try to get our head round (as the saying goes) the totality of things – as when we talk about ‘the universe’, or, indeed, about ‘the totality of things’. Thinking about thought is the most developed expression of our capacity to make what-is explicit, and, moreover, to assert that it is.

We may argue over the logic of ‘I think therefore I am’ and how much ‘I’ it delivers, but we must concede that to think about one’s own thoughts, to chase after this thought that I am thinking, is to place the astonishing joy-filled sense of our own being, the that I am, in italics.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2021

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God & Science is out now.

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