Thinking as a Science
THINKINGAS A SCIENCE, BY HENRY HAZLITT
- I • The Neglect of Thinking • 1
- II • Thinking With Method • 11
- III • A Few Cautions • 51
- IV • Concentration • 68
- V • Prejudice and Uncertainty • 99
- VI • Debate and Conversation • 129
- VII • Thinking and Reading • 135
- VIII • Writing One’s Thoughts • 191
- IX • Things Worth Thinking About • 207
- X • Thinking as an Art • 237
- XI • Books on Thinking • 248
I THE NEGLECT OF THINKING
EVERYman knows there are evils in theworld which need setting right. Everyman has pretty definite ideas as to what theseevils are. But to most men one in particularstands out vividly. To some, in fact, thisstands out with such startling vividness thatthey lose sight of other evils, or look upon themas the natural consequences of their own particularevil-in-chief.
To the Socialist this evil is the capitalisticsystem; to the prohibitionist it is intemperance;to the feminist it is the subjection of women; tothe clergyman it is the decline of religion; toAndrew Carnegie it is war; to the staunch Republicanit is the Democratic Party, and so on,ad infinitum.
I, too, have a pet little evil, to which in morepassionate moments I am apt to attribute all theothers. This evil is the neglect of thinking.And when I say thinking I mean real thinking,independent thinking, hard thinking.
You protest. You say men are thinking morenow than they ever were. You bring out thealmanac to prove by statistics that illiteracyis declining. You point to our magnificentlibraries. You point to the multiplication ofbooks. You show beyond a doubt that peopleare reading more now than ever before in allhistory. . . .
Very well, exactly. That is just the trouble.Most people, when confronted with a problem,immediately acquire an inordinate desire to“read-up” on it. When they get stuck mentally,the first thing such people do is to run toa book. Confess it, have you not often been ina waiting room or a Pullman, noticed peopleall about you reading, and finding yourself withoutany reading matter, have you not wishedthat you had some?—something to “occupyyour mind”? And did it ever occur to youthat you had within you the power to occupyyour mind, and do it more profitably than allthose assiduous readers? Briefly, did it everoccur to you to think?
Of course you “thought”—in a sense.Thinking means a variety of things. You mayhave looked out of your train window whilepassing a field, and it may have occurred to youthat that field would make an excellent baseballdiamond. Then you “thought” of the timewhen you played baseball, “thought” of someparticular game perhaps, “thought” how youhad made a grand stand play or a bad muff,and how one day it began to rain in the middleof the game, and the team took refuge in thecarriage shed. Then you “thought” of otherrainy days rendered particularly vivid forsome reason or other, or perhaps your mindcame back to considering the present weather,and how long it was going to last. . . . And ofcourse, in one sense you were “thinking.” Butwhen I use the word thinking, I mean thinkingwith a purpose, with an end in view, thinkingto solve a problem. I mean the kind of thinkingthat is forced on us when we are decidingon a course to pursue, on a life work totake up perhaps; the kind of thinking that wasforced on us in our younger days when we hadto find a solution to a problem in mathematics,or when we tackled psychology in college. I donot mean “thinking” in snatches, or holdingpetty opinions on this subject and on that. Imean thought on significant questions which lieoutside the bounds of your narrow personalwelfare. This is the kind of thinking which isnow so rare—so sadly needed!
Of course before this can be revived we mustarouse a desire for it. We must arouse a desirefor thinking for its own sake; solving problemsfor the mere sake of solving problems.But a mere desire for thinking, praiseworthyas it is, is not enough. We must know how tothink, and to that end we must search for thoserules and methods of procedure which willmost help us in thinking creatively, originally,and not least of all surely, correctly.
When they think at all, the last thing menthink about is their own thoughts. Every sensibleman realizes that the perfection of a mechanicalinstrument depends to some extentupon the perfection of the tools with which itis made. No carpenter would expect a perfectlysmooth board after using a dented orchipped plane. No gasolene engine manufacturerwould expect to produce a good motor unlesshe had the best lathes obtainable to helphim turn out his product. No watchmakerwould expect to construct a perfectly accuratetimepiece unless he had the most delicate andaccurate tools to turn out the cogs and screws.Before any specialist produces an instrument hethinks of the tools with which he is to produceit. But men reflect continually on the mostcomplex problems—problems of vital importanceto them—and expect to obtain satisfactorysolutions, without once giving a thought tothe manner in which they go about obtainingthose solutions; without a thought to their ownmind, the tool which produces those solutions.Surely this deserves at least some systematicconsideration.
Some remarks of Ella Wheeler Wilcox underthis head will bear quoting: “Human thinkingis still in as great a state of disorder and jumbleas language was before the alphabet, musicbefore the scale was discovered, printingbefore Gutenberg, or mathematics before Pythagorasformulated its laws.” “This systematizationof all thought,” she tells us, would be “amore far reaching improvement than all theothers, for it will do for education, health,economics, government, etc., what the alphabetdid for language, movable type for printingand literature, the scale for music, andthe rules of arithmetic for calculation. Beingthe exact counterpart of these in its particularfield, its mission, like theirs, will be to bringorder out of chaos.”
I believe Miss Wilcox exaggerates matters.Incidentally I for one do not pretend to havediscovered anything revolutionary. But the importanceof the subject warrants its formulationinto as near scientific form as we canbring it.
I beg no one to get frightened. Science doesnot necessarily mean test tubes and telescopes.I mean science in its broadest sense; and inthis sense it means nothing more than organizedknowledge. If we are to find rules andmethods of procedure, these methods mustcome from somewhere—must be based oncertain principles—and these principles can comeonly from close, systematic investigation.
It may indeed be urged that we can thinkbest by disregarding all “rules,” by not payingany attention to method. But the man whomaintains this must give reasons; and once heattempts this he himself is bordering closely onthe science of the matter. In short, the settlementof even this question is part of the scienceof thinking.
And what is to be the nature of this science?
For our purposes, all sciences may be dividedinto two kinds: positive and normative.A positive science investigates the nature ofthings as they are. It deals simply with mattersof fact. Such a science is physics, chemistry,psychology. A normative science is onewhich studies things as they ought to be. Asthe name implies, it seeks to establish a normor pattern which ought to be adhered to. Itstudies means of reaching desired ends. Tothis class belong such sciences as ethics, education,agriculture.
Now these normative sciences, with theexception of ethics, are nearly always referred toeither as “arts” or “applied sciences.” Toboth of these terms I technically but strenuouslyobject. I object to the term “art” todesignate any set of organized rules for doinga thing, because “art” also means the actualdoing of that thing. And this thing may bedone, and often is done, in total ignorance ofthe rules governing it. A man may possess theart of swimming—he may be able to swim—withoutany previous instruction, without anyknowledge of how he ought to hold his body,arms and legs; just as a dog may do the samething.
I object also to the term “applied science,”because to me this term implies that the scienceit refers to is based on one positive science only.I can think of no so-called applied science whichis so based. Hygiene, not alone dependent onphysiology, must derive some of its rules fromthe chemistry of foods, as well as from the sciencesof sanitation and ventilation, themselvesnormative. Agriculture is based not only onbiology and botany, but on chemistry and meteorology.
The science of thinking, then, if such a sciencethere be, is normative. Its purpose is tofind those methods which will help us to thinkconstructively and correctly.
One more distinction and our preliminariesare over. There are two other sciences withwhich the science of thinking is liable to becomeconfused; one positive, the other normative.
The positive science is that branch of psychologywhich deals with the reasoning process andexamines the basis of belief. We shall makefrequent use of this science in trying to findrules for thinking, but it will not be the onlyscience we shall use, nor will that science be thesubject of this book.
The normative science with which the scienceof thinking may become confused is logic.Indeed, logic has sometimes been called the scienceof thinking. Now for our purposes logicis a part of the science of thinking, but it is notthe part which we are primarily to consider.Its function is merely negative; it consists inleading us from error. The part of the scienceof thinking in which we are interested dealswith those positive rules which will help to makeus creative thinkers. . . .
Our ship is headed for the port Truth. Ourmind is the engine, the science of thinking thepropeller, and logic the rudder. Without ourengine, the mind, the propeller of the scienceof thinking, which transforms our mental energymost effectively into motion, would be useless.Without the propeller, which gives motion, therudder of logic would be useless. But all threeare needed to reach our goal.
And now I must bespeak a little patience.The next chapter, and the one following it, aregoing to deal very largely with method andmethods. They will touch on classification, anda lot of other things to which the plain man hasan aversion; to which, at least, he usuallyevinces no very active interest. But it is necessaryto consider these things in order to makeour study complete.
II THINKING WITH METHOD
Most of us, at those rare intervals whenwe think at all, do so in a slipshod sortof way. If we come across a mental difficultywe try to get rid of it in almost any kind ofhit or miss manner. Even those few of us whothink occasionally for the mere sake of thinking,generally do so without regard for method—indeed,are often unconscious that methodcould be applied to our thought. But what ismeant by method? I may best explain by anexample.
From somewhere or other, a man gets hold ofthe idea that the proper subjects are not beingtaught in our schools and colleges. Heasks himself what the proper subjects would be.He considers how useless his knowledge ofGreek and Latin has been. He decides thatthese two subjects should be eliminated. Thenhe thinks how he would have been helped in businessby a knowledge of bookkeeping, and he concludesthat this subject deserves a place in thecurriculum. He has recently received a letterfrom a college friend containing some errors inspelling. He is convinced that this branch ofknowledge is being left in undeserved neglect.Or he is impressed by the spread of unsoundtheories of money among the poorer classes, andhe believes that everybody should receive athorough course in economics and finance. Andso he rambles on, now on this subject, now onthat.
Compare this haphazard, aimless thinkingwith that of the man of method. This man isconfronted with the same general situation asour first thinker, but he makes his problem adifferent one. He first asks himself what endhe has in view. He discovers that he is primarilytrying to find out not so much—whatsubjects should be taught in