What Is Thinking?

From Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff: “Words are essential to the process of conceptualization, and thus to all thought.” (p.79)

What a busy place your mind is! Not only is it Decision Central and Communication Central, but also Picture Central, Feeling Central, and even Word Central. In solving a problem, you might find everything going on at once: sensations turning into perceptions being sorted out by concepts allied to mental pictures leading to decisions causing emotions expressed in words.

Do all these things happen by themselves and keep themselves straight, or do you need to manage them?

To answer that question, ask what happens if you get things mixed up. If you mix up decisions with wishes, that is called wishful thinking. If you mix up a mental picture with an observation, then if you are awake, it is called hallucinating. If you mix up fears with perceptions, that is called paranoia. If you lose all ability to keep actions in your mind straight, that is called insanity.

Just as there is a fundamental need to keep everything in reality straight, so there is a fundamental need to keep things straight that go on in your mind. You cannot steer the car with the accelerator, and you cannot steer your thoughts with your feelings. To keep reality straight, you sort things out into mental groups called concepts. If you want to discuss concepts and improve concepts, then the group of mental activities using concepts must be given a definition of its own and a word of its own.

In her epistemology, Ayn Rand calls this thinking, and defines it as the use of reason, which is "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses." Thinking is identifying the differences and also identifying the common characteristics that tie things together.

Is there a difference between seeing a difference and identifying a difference? To see that there is, ask yourself how you remember differences. You state in words what the difference is. That color is brighter than this one. My left arm is half an inch shorter than my right arm. That clock is two minutes behind the right time.

To identify is to conceptualize, using language. That thing keeping time belongs in the mental group you form around the common characteristic of timekeeping, and with the word clock. You find differences and discover common characteristics until you have sorted everything out. That is the way you handle reality—by thinking.

When you grasp what thinking really is, you can translate various slang expressions into more accurate epistemological terms. Here are some examples.

I saw it in my mind's eye, and did my thinking that way,
     really means,
I imagined a mental picture, and then thought about that mental picture.
I didn't think about it in words; I thought about it in music,
     really means,
I imagined some note combinations, and thought about the effect they would have.
I decided, but I can't express it in words,
    really means,
I had an impulse, but I haven't thought about it yet.
I don't like to think; I just like to feel,
     really means,
I get my concepts mixed up, so I just act on impulse.

Can you reject the definition of thinking, and claim to really think in smells, or really think in colors? Of course. Others may do the same. When you then converse about thinking, nobody will have a clear idea of what anybody is saying. Better to identify olfactory skill or graphic skill as distinct from thinking skill, so those can be analyzed on their own terms. That is, so you can think about them.

Knowing what thinking is and is not is the first step toward analyzing and improving it.

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