Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Everyday terms in thinking about thinking

You may have realised by now that the language used to talk about thought processes and thinking in general is full of jargon – technical words that the ordinary ‘man in the street’ finds difficult to interpret. Words like metacognition – thinking about thinking; cognitive dissonance – the psychological effect of the incongruity of unexpected phenomenon - need I go on? It is even necessary, or so it seems, to use impossible language to define these technical words and phrases. However, it might be a nice place to start thinking about everyday expressions relating to the process of thinking to see if it helps our understanding of those processes.

Let’s take some ordinary sounding expressions to see what meaning they yield.

 Common sense
Common sense is what we sometimes lack, particularly when we overlook the more obvious – be it a cause of something, or a reason why something is one way rather than another.

 Presence of mind
This is what you need at the point of beginning an action – to remember what it is you are about to do – or say. You need presence of mind when answering pointed questions, or when a similar retort is called for. How many times have you given an ordinary answer and thought of something more appropriate seconds later? How many times have you said, “I wish I’d said that..” Or “I wish I’d thought of that!” With the presence of mind, you won’t have to say those things again; you will say the right thing at the right time.

 Thinking on your feet
This is something that politicians and teachers are usually good at; being able to react quickly and effectively to an unexpected statement, question or request. Prime Ministers always have notice of the questions they will be asked in the session known as Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons, but they will have no knowledge of supplementary questions asked in response to his answer to the first question.

Similarly, a teacher will have planned her lesson before she enters the classroom, but she can have no certain knowledge of the questions she will be asked by her students during the course of the lesson. She must think on her feet, as we say, she must be able to answer questions meaningfully and correctly.

 Working things out
This expression means a sort of bringing together in the mind the different aspects and features of a problem, for example, to come to a reasoned judgment. At least that is the idealized form of the meaning of the expression.

 Thinking things over
This is close to taking everything into account – considering all the variables (‘things’) that are consciously known, and then approaching a point where a decision can be made.

 Wondering
Wondering is something like being unsure and then thinking of the possibilities. The word, however, has several different meanings, as well as something like ‘asking’ or ‘trying to discover the truth’.

 Pondering
This is something akin to wondering, but with the advantage of more information to choose from and inform a decision. Pondering is near to thinking – slightly more pointed and directional than wondering – not aimless, but probably not concerted thinking in an organized way.

 Knowing
This common word is a sort of catch-all word – it gets its meaning from what it accompanies in an utterance.
Think of what is implied about the meaning of the word ‘know/s’ in the following sentences.
1. I know John Smith.
2. He knows Turkish.
3. He knows the way.
4. I know God loves me.
5. I know why carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to the ‘greenhouse effect’.
6. I know what time it is.
7. I know what that word means.

It is something like this:-
1. ‘I know John Smith.’ – implies some of the following, perhaps less, perhaps more.
I know:
where he lives
what his sister is called
where his father works
how old he is
OR I only know him by name.
OR I know a little bit about him, but by no means all there is to know.

2. ‘He knows Turkish.’ - implies the following.
He knows:
how to speak, comprehend, read and write the language
OR He can understand Turkish but can’t speak it.
OR He can read it but can’t write the language.

What do 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 above imply?

And what about these? What is implied by these utterances?
8. I don’t know what you mean.
9. I don’t know John Smith.
10. I don’t know where we are.
11. I don’t know what ‘ballistic’ means.
12. I don’t know why the world is getting warmer.

 Imagining
The French writer, Voltaire, defined imagination in this way; ‘It is the power every sentient being knows she possesses to represent concrete objects within her mind. Our memory retains the things we see, hear and feel and then our imagination puts them all together.’ The imagination has a reproductive function – it draws on previously remembered experiences, and it has a creative function – it can conjure up completely new objects that you have never experienced. In effect, this creative function can produce imagery similar to that produced in dreams. It seems that the imagination is able to synthesize from what is stored in the memory.

Edward de Bono coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ to refer to the type of thinking that uses the imagination in ways that are not linear, but more multi-directional, to come up with possibilities that are not readily apparent when thinking in more usual ways.

Stephen Pinkner writes about man’s first attempts to store the food from plants and animals. He said that the best place to store meat was in the stomach of a neighbour, which sounds a very strange thing to say until Pinkner elaborates. He goes on to explain that, of course, the meat eaten by the neighbour cannot be retrieved, but the memory of that meat can, and this can then be returned in kind later as the neighbour returns the favour.

It is in thinking like this that you use your imagination to synthesize, to create, and to find alternative understandings of a situation or a dilemma.

 Understanding
Like the meaning of the word ‘know’, the word ‘understand/ing’ has many different shades of meaning.

Look at these expressions, and try to think about what the word ‘understand/s’ means.

13. I understand you want to buy my car.
14. I understand Turkish, but can’t speak it very well.
15. I understand you.
16. I understand the first Law of Thermodynamics.
17. I understand why she feels that way.

It is clear that we use words like ‘know’ and understand’ in a lot of ways, so that to know something or to understand something else is to have some knowledge of it, even though the nature of that knowledge can, at times, be very different, both in quality and type.

When you come to think about something you are studying, ask yourself if you understand it, and when you do, bed sure you understand which of the ‘understands’ you are using.

To fully know and understand an English word, for example, is to know some or all of the following:

 How to spell the word
 What it means
 What different meanings it can have
 What different parts of speech it can be. (Rain = noun or verb)
 How it collocates with other words (a + torrential + downpour)
 How it is pronounced (in isolation as well as in the middle of an utterance of several words)
 The register it evokes when spoken or written
 Whether it is more commonly found written or spoken - and a lot more besides.

Now think how much more complicated implications are involved in sentences like these:
18. I know Dubai very well.
19. I know the law.
20. I know who I am.
21. I know my own mind.

Now think about what you think you know or what you say you know, and think what saying that or thinking it means – exactly and fully. When you have done that once or twice, repeat what you think you know – be honest – you are fooling nobody but yourself if you claim you fully understand something when you don’t.

Actually, that is a bit unfair of me – nobody can fully understand all there is to understand about anything. All the same, knowing your limits as well as your limitations is useful, as is the confidence you will gain by increasing your knowledge and your understanding of something you are studying or learning about.

Robert L. Fielding


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