Thinking For Oneself
Truth is a free creation of the human spirit that never would exist at all if we did not generate it ourselves
– Rudolph Steiner
It seems odd to suggest that you could do anything but think for yourself. After all, you can’t very well put your voice in someone else’s head, nor theirs in yours. But all your own thoughts are products of the things you have seen, touched, tasted, smelt and heard. The words of our teachers, guides, and politicians; the chatter of advertisements and salesmen; the writings of poets, activists and philosophers. All we have been exposed to sets the limits and content of our minds.
Oxygen is one thing, Hydrogen another, but when put together they create something fundamentally different that is more than a sum of its parts. How we treat information is, by analogy, quite similar. Even if everything we know is necessarily comprised of pre-existing knowledge, the organisation and classification of this knowledge leads to something unique that is more than a mere sum of information. This is a type of knowing built on a relationship and conscious ordering of information. But, if you just take these thoughts and never consider them, if you only collect all this information and spew it out on command, how much do you really know? Like someone that memorises information for a test, only to forget everything they said the next day, did they really ever possess knowledge?
If you are asked ‘how did the first world war begin’ or more obtusely, you are asked ‘what is the meaning of life’ and your answer consists of just regurgitating what this historian or that philosopher said, what do you really know? Are they really your thoughts or are you merely voicing the opinions of others? Only once you have really considered the thought yourself and not resorted to the authority of others will you be in possession of the truth. When you simply announce the opinion of others, you may possess a fact – that is, a factual bit of information which can be verified by reading this or that text – but only when you consider something yourself and come to your own conclusion will you feel like you are in possession of the truth.
There is a difference between original thought – thinking for oneself, and pseudo-thought – thinking for others. Put otherwise, the difference between voicing what you think and repeating what others have said. Consider this thought experiment. There is an island where there is a fisherman and summer guests. We want to know the upcoming weather so we ask a fisherman and two of the city people, who have listened to the weather forecast on the radio. The fisherman, with his years of experience, will consider the problem; thinking about the wind direction, summer seasonal adjustment, heat, humidity, and how long it has been since it rained, weighing these different factors until coming to a more or less definite judgement. If he has heard the radio forecast, he will quote it as supporting evidence if it supports his opinion, or downplay it or ignore it if it doesn’t support his opinion. Either way, it is his opinion the forecast is vindicating.
The first of the city guests, who knows little about weather and does not really care about it says, “I know little of weather, although the radio forecast this morning said the weather will be x”. The other guest, however, is a different type of person. He believes he knows much although he knows little, feeling empowered by his now relevant knowledge. He ponders for a moment and provides “his” opinion, which is identical with the forecast. He explains that on the basis of wind direction, temperature, the season and so on is how he came to his conclusion.
From the outside, this man’s behaviour seems much like the fisherman’s but differs in one vital, absolutely fundamental respect. The fisherman began with his idea and used evidence to support it. However, the second summer guest began with the evidence of another and built his idea upon it.
The guest’s reasons did not precede his opinion like it would with an original thought. Although the second summer guest may be under the illusion he has had his own thought, we should be under no similar illusions, he has merely adopted the authority of another. He may be right, but what matters is not that he is right, but that someone else was right and he is just repeating them. Repeating the thoughts of others is like wearing someone else’s clothes. Your friends may think your clothes are cool, and they may think they are your clothes, but they will not fit right and you will always know possess something you don’t own.
The fisherman who drew upon his own knowledge engaged in a process of discovery. The second summer guest who recounted the weather forecast engaged in recollection. Discovery is an active organic process which is always new. Recollection is a static, dead process and never new because it involves precisely the recollection of things which have already been said, it is a re-collection. Discovery is learning and recollection is knowledge. People have lots of knowledge, but a huge library does not make a smart man if he hasn’t read the books but only the covers. Learning is like a fire which must be stoked, cultivated and renewed with interest, otherwise, it dies out and all that remains is the asphyxiating smoke of dead ideas. People are good at filling their head with the retreating vapours of the thoughts of others; very few keep the fire burning.
Better to know little on your own, than to know much of what others have thought. After all, why waste your time regurgitating things you could find in a book or google in half the time? The biggest library of thousands of books that is disorganised will always be inferior to a small library of a hundred books that are fabulously organised. In the large library, it will be impossible to find the book with the idea you are looking for. But in the small, well-organised library, where you know where things are stored, where the ideas are easily accessible, this library is far superior. By comparing books, and seeing which one goes with which, comparing one with another and achieving a synthesis, you will feel like you are in possession of a coherent view of life, your view. The library is a metaphor for your mind. Having hundreds of thoughts of others swirling around in your head, all disconnected, is of no help to you. Rather, having fewer thoughts, but being sure of their legitimacy and interconnection will bring a greater reward. We should strive to be like St. Jerome, whose library was modest, but his mind, immense.
Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study, 1475
It is better to spend time thinking than reading. One who spends time thinking always cultivates the fire, illuminating more and more, one could even say enlightening their mind. If, after spending a long time thinking, one reads a book, the information contained in the book is read in relation to ones’ own thoughts. The authority is in ones’ own opinion, and the book is judged in relation to the strength of those opinions. Those who spend all their time reading do not have the fire but cloud their mind with smoke. They do not come up with their own thoughts but fill their mind with the thoughts of others. For the sake of freedom, one should not let one’s thoughts be determined solely by what one has read or heard. Thinking proposes thoughts, reading imposes thoughts. We do not fancy someone telling us what to do, so when we read a book we should also consider letting someone tell us what to think.
Reading is a surrogate for real thought. Like being driven by someone else, you may be moving, but in the direction of their choosing, not your own. You may even like the destination, but it remains a destination of their choice, not yours; and thus to only read and not ponder is to either be led astray or to forget how to drive yourself. Reading the thoughts of others is like looking at a photograph of a beautiful valley rather than going to the valley yourself, like going to a country and looking at a map rather than the towns the map seek to collate.
There is more than one way to get knowledge. Consider a DC50 Steam engine train. One person has read all the books on the world on the DC50 steam engine train. They know all the pieces and how they fit together; the shape, size, density of metals and depth; the speed, braking systems, velocity and decibels of the moving parts. They know, for the sake of the argument, all the factual information about the train. There is another person, who has never read of a DC50 steam engine train, but they’ve been on one multiple times, they’ve also seen one on many, many occasions, unlike the first person who has never seen the train. There appear to be two ways of knowing. Knowing intellectually (person 1) and knowing phenomenally (person 2). Person 1 knows much about the train, but they don’t really know, unlike person 2, what it’s like to experience the train.
Consider the well-known philosophical experiment of Mary’s Room. There is a girl called Mary who is brought up in a black-and-white room. Her mother, a cynically depraved psychologist, yearning to know about the phenomenon of colours, has made her daughter her guinea-pig and has even bleached her daughter’s skin white. Mary studies the colour blue her first 20 years. She knows everything humanly possible about wavelengths, hue, blends, tones, how light bends, and even of objects commonly regarded as blue in the outside world. However, growing up in her black-and-white room, Mary has never seen the colour blue, she has only studied it. On her 21st birthday, Mary is allowed, for the first time ever, to go outside in the world of life and colour. She looks up at the sky and, for the first time, sees the colour blue. She recognises what blue looks like. Unlike all the factual information, Mary now knows what it’s like to see the colour blue.
There appear to be two types of knowledge. There is the knowledge of facts and knowledge of experience. If we are discussing things such as love, power, hatred, culture, truth, jealousy or the like, these are experiences. Therefore, if you want to learn about what they are, do not consult the books but go out and experience them for yourself. To do otherwise would be to consult the map rather than visit the town the map seeks to project; or to assume that the person who has read all the maps of Paris know what it’s like in Paris more so than someone who lives there.
The greatest concern for people is their own existence and trying to make sense of it. If you are trying to make sense of your existence, it seems ridiculous to consult the thoughts of others. You may consult someone else’s map to explore a territory you have yet to go; but when that territory is the inner recesses of your own mind, no map drawn by anyone else will help you, the landscape of our inner worlds are all different. Your inner world requires the gatekeeper to look within, he is the only one with the keys.
When looking at the outside world, it is fine to consult the help of others. But, one must be careful where the authority is placed. Like the fisherman, you must be your own authority, and treat evidence as a compliment or challenge; you must not allow the evidence or information of others to become an authority and mould your opinions according to that. Likewise, if you simply read this and do what I say, you have totally missed the point, because you would have made me the authority. I want you to read this, to consider and evaluate what I have said, and come to your own conclusions. You may agree or disagree with what I have said, but we are not concerned with being right or wrong, we are concerned that you decide, and you keep the fire of learning alive.