Thinking with words and thinking with things

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Thinking is usually assumed to occur exclusively within the brain. But there is much to be said for also looking at the thought processes that take place outside of the brain. We can first look at the way in which we use the language we have learned as a medium for our thinking. Secondly, there is the interaction between senses and objects that becomes increasingly refined through practice and dedication, until the moment we are thinking with things. This alternative view upon thinking allows us to reconsider some conventional outlooks on science, technology and education.

We think that we know what thinking is. After all, by introspection it becomes clear that this activity takes place inside the head, in the brain. After all, it’s not called intro-inspection for nothing. Thinking seems to be an activity in which the brain manages the information flows that have entered through our senses.

However, all kinds of empirical and philosophical research has shown that thinking does not work that way. Introspection easily misleads us. For example, the relationship between the senses and the brain is not one-way traffic, we perceive what we think we perceive. Despite these insights, disciplines such as psychology, neurology and philosophy still maintain the image that ultimately thinking is primarily a neurological process.

Of course the brain is the place where much thinking is done and without a brain there will not be a lot of thinking. But the dominant image too easily ignores the fact that many of our thinking takes place outside of our heads.

First, there is the role of language. When we think about possible futures or when we rewind the movie of the past in our head and think about the things that could have done differently, we use the words and meanings we have learned from our environment. This implies that there is little authenticity about our thinking: if thinking concerns reflection, we use a medium which does not originate from our own brain itself. Our thinking is not just subjective, but intersubjective: it refers to the social environment of the thinking individual and the meanings that are shared within that environment.

Of course we also think things that do not use language. Dogs and parakeets also think, but their barking and singing do not lead to much reflection (at least this is my suspicion). In fact, there is a lot of thinking that does not seem to take place inside of our brain, but involves the interaction with objects and materials. It is the craftsman’s way of thinking (our language is particularly gender-specific when it comes to craftsmanship).

Take a look at the following short documentary made by archaeologist Maikel Kuipers.

In this video you see how different craftsmen relate to their material, wood, fabric, clay and you see how the actions of craftsmen consist of an almost perfect choreography between eyes, fingers and things. Richard Sennett – also featured in the documentary – states that this choreography is a form of thinking that uses all senses, sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell, and that revolves around direct interaction with a material.

But why should this be thinking? Isn’t it just about thinking in a metaphorical way? I don’t think so. If you look at the way in which thinking takes place, then you can say that we constantly make ‘small hypotheses’ which we subsequently put to the test. We develop possible futures and see if they are correct. Testing takes place via conscious and unconscious mental processes or via the feedback we receive from our senses. We actually think in a sketching way: we orient ourselves to a future action based on everything we have learned in the past, and we plot lines that we think are the right ones.

Testing hypotheses takes place through a dialogue: we enter into a conversation with ourselves or with someone else to find out which statements are the best. In a discussion with someone else you try to arrive at a common understanding of a situation or shared agreements so that you rely upon each other in future activities.

We also use this model of a dialogue within our brain (as I wrote here). In the interior monologue we start a dialogue with ourselves by asking which futures are possible or desirable and how lessons can be drawn from the past. By definition, dialogues are based on language, which is why, as I said above, the structure of our reflective thinking is provided by our social environment.

But we not only enter into dialogue with others or with ourselves, we also enter into dialogues with things. We propose a hypothesis and ask things to give an answer. Consider of bicycles for example: we jerk the handlebars, learn how the bicycle reacts, with which the subsequent steering movements enable us to better control the bicycle.

Obviously, the working of thinking-as-sketching is nowhere as clear as in the activity of sketching itself: our fingers, the pencil and the paper draw a line, a kind of hypothesis based on the interaction with the material, after which you decide upon the information your brain receives via the eyes whether the line is the right one.

Performing your actions more often creates skill. You basically develop a kind of language between the material and yourself, so that you learn to understand the material. A craftsman is someone who effectively enters into a dialogue with the material he works with, he sketches and the material answers. The more skilled he becomes, the better this sketching goes, the more fine-grained the hypotheses will be.

Earlier I wrote about the way we use technology to ‘expand’ our brain. We use calendars and calculators because our own brain is not so well equipped to plan ahead or make difficult sums. But what I wrote above about sketching thinking actually goes one step further: we do not just use things to expand our thinking, we actually think with things. Things are the medium that allows us to formulate and test hypotheses.

Considering that we think with language and think with things, we can shed a new light on the pinnacles of human thinking, which are science and technology. But we can also look at the implications for education. What does it mean when thinking is not just about individual activities, but about the language and the things we share as a community?

It can be said that science revolves around the impossible goal of constructing a language that is completely independent of people, a language that is objective rather than intersubjective. Skilled scientists can make it look that they can reproduce that language to perfection. They know how to find, explain and apply the right terms and meanings. I do not belong to this category of scientists myself. First, I have to ‘translate’ meanings into a language that I do master and then I create my own view of things in the hope of convincingly selling them as scientific insights – basically, this entire blog is little else than the report of the attempt to do so.

But even those scientists who do not have to make that translation will suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’. Especially within the social sciences and humanities in which the everyday and scientific language are the same, researchers have the uncomfortable feeling that they are claiming something without really knowing whether that is correct or whether it corresponds to the language that only exists in theory. Every moment the unmasking threatens, when it becomes clear that the scientist is only pretending.

This fear of unmasking is unfounded – except for the real frauds among us. After all, there is no language without people, not even the language of science. Ultimately, science is based on agreements about what counts as objective, about the language we regard as independent from subjective influences. These agreements concern the methods we use to arrive at statements about ‘reality’. It is about the reproducibility of the results, but also about the duty you have as a scientist to do your best as possible.

Technology concerns objects such as corkscrews and supercomputers, but to an increasing extent it also concerns new materials created through the application of nanotechnology or genetic modification. But above all, technology is about methods of dealing with things and materials. At the risk of stretching my metaphor to the extent it becomes esoteric, you can say that a new technology introduces a different language with which you enter into a dialogue with things.

In this, technology is often seen as applied science. It is certainly true that modern technology can only be developed on the basis of new scientific insights, but that does not mean that technology is a form of science. After all, technology is usually about things and not about language.

It is therefore makes more sense to see science as applied technology. As I said above, what is accepted as a valid truth claim within science depends on a set of agreements. These agreements concern the methods, the jargon and the paradigms. To a large extent, those agreements are also based on things; after all, you need a yardstick to be able to measure. But the role of things goes further. If we do not rely on our senses in our perceptions, but on devices, these perceptions gain in objectivity: they seem to have become less dependent on human interpretation. In addition, we not only have reached the agreement that we perceive via instruments, but we also come to agreements about which instruments are the right ones. Whether it is telescopes, thermometers, simulation models or particle accelerators, these devices mediate our gaze and it is accepted that this mediation leads to the observations in which we believe.

The Flynn effect means that each generation scores ten IQ points higher than the previous one. So we collectively get smarter. Usually this effect is explained by better nutrition and more habituation with abstract thinking, because we started to work more with computers. Our brain benefits from that.

But are they really just our brains? If we look at the thinking that takes place outside the brain, it immediately becomes clear that it is mainly our language and are things are getting smarter. Not so much because they train our brains in abstract thinking, but because that language and those things themselves embody more abstract forms of thinking.

Our entire education system is aimed at getting students to get the most out of themselves. They must develop their individual thinking and they are tested for their abstract cognitive skills. Schools are judged on the performance of individuals, but not on the way students learn to share a language and things.

The medicalization of thinking is an extension of this. We take pills to make our thinking more abstract, more focussed. Ritalin and smart drugs are aimed at making the brain function better, the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is primarily a new step in this. In this, ‘better’ mainly seems to concern the way in which the thinking of the individual fits the requirements of a rational society.

All of this seems like a missed opportunity. Isn’t the Flynn effect not just an unintended side effect of a language and a technical environment that are becoming increasingly smarter, while we could also think about how we can make our language and technology smarter ourselves, but also which language and which things we really want to develop. I don’t see how that should be done exactly yet. But it’s a question that I consider to be worth thinking about.

One of the things that should be addressed in this is whether our thinking has not become too abstract? Do we not force ourselves too much into a rational straitjacket that does too little justice to our possibilities and our general well-being. The documentary introduced above mentions the revival of craftsmanship. Many of the things with which we think prevent thinking-as-sketching. Our digital environment is designed with the rationally functioning brain as a starting point, in which development and testing takes place within the brain itself, not outside of it. Before you start a conversation with things, you have to know exactly what you want to achieve – something the our brain isn’t particularly good at.

In his book ‘The Craftsmen’, Sennett tells how architects struggle with CAD programs, in which every line is a clear line. This deprives them of possibilities that are provided by pencil and paper. They are less able to develop and test small hypotheses with the material they work with, since the computer requires architects that the hypotheses have already been tested beforehand. A real dialogue doesn’t seem to be allowed.

At the same time, the computer is just another thing, just like a pencil or an abacus. Moreover, CAD programs allow all sorts of things that are impossible with pencil and paper. Nostalgia for the past is not necessarily a good adviser, but we can think of devices that actually make us smarter in a much broader sense than is currently assumed. I think that would be a good thing.

Further reading:

Apel, K.-O. (1975). The problem of philosophical fundamental-grounding in light of a transcendental pragmatic of language. Man and World, 8(3), 239-275.

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Malafouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind: MIT Press.

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman: Yale University Press.

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