How We Think

Chapter 16: Some General Conclusions

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WE shall conclude our survey of how we think and how we should think by presenting some factors of thinking which should balance each other, but which constantly tend to become so isolated that they work against each other instead of cooperating to make reflective inquiry efficient.

I. The Unconscious and the Conscious

The understood as the unconsciously assumed

It is significant that one meaning of the term understood is something so thoroughly mastered, so completely agreed upon, as to be assumed; that is to say, taken as a matter of course without explicit statement. The familiar "goes without saying" means "it is understood." If two persons can converse intelligently with each other, it is because a common experience supplies a background of mutual understanding upon which their respective remarks are projected. To dig up and to formulate this common background would be imbecile; it is " understood"; that is, it is silently sup-plied and implied as the taken-for-granted medium of intelligent exchange of ideas.

Inquiry as conscious formulation

If, however, the two persons find themselves at cross purposes, it is necessary to dig up and compare the presuppositions, the implied context, on the basis of which each is speaking. The implicit is made ex-plicit; what was unconsciously assumed is exposed to the light of conscious day. In this way, the root of the misunder-


(215)-standing is removed. Some such rhythm of the unconscious and the conscious is involved in all fruitful thinking. A person in pursuing a consecutive train of thoughts takes some system of ideas for granted (which accordingly he leaves unexpressed, " unconscious ") as surely as he does in conversing with others. Some context, some situation, some controlling purpose dominates his explicit ideas so thoroughly that it does not need to be consciously formulated and expounded. Explicit thinking goes on within the limits of what is implied or understood. Yet the fact that reflection originates in a problem makes it necessary at some points consciously to inspect and examine this familiar background. We have to turn upon some unconscious assumption and make it explicit.

Rules cannot be given for attaining a balance

No rules can be laid down for attaining the due balance and rhythm of these two phases of mental life. No ordinance pan prescribe at just what point the spontaneous working of some unconscious attitude and habit is to be checked till we have made explicit what is implied in it. No one can tell in detail just how far the analytic inspection and formulation are to be carried. We can say that they must be carried far enough so that the individual will know what he is about and be able to guide his thinking; but in a given case just how far is that? We can say that they must be carried far enough to detect and guard against the source of some false perception or reasoning, and to get a leverage on the investigation; but such statements only restate the original difficulty. Since our reliance must be upon the disposition and tact of the individual in the particular case, there is no test of the success of an education more important than the extent to which it nurtures a type of mind competent to


(216) maintain an economical balance of the unconscious and the conscious.

The over-analytic to be avoided

The ways of teaching criticised in the foregoing pages as false "analytic " methods of instruction (ante, P. 112), all reduce themselves to the mistake of directing explicit attention and formulation to what would work better if left an unconscious attitude and working assumption. To pry into the familiar, the usual, the automatic, simply for the sake of making it conscious, simply f or the sake of formulating it, is both an impertinent interference, and a source of boredom. To be forced to dwell consciously upon the accustomed is the essence of ennui; to pursue methods of instruction that have that tendency is deliberately to cultivate lack of interest.

The detection of error, the clinching of truth, demand conscious statement

On the other hand, what has been said in criticism of merely routine forms of skill, what has been said about the importance of having a genuine problem, of introducing the novel, and of reaching a deposit of general meaning weighs on the other side of the scales. It is as fatal to good thinking to fail to make conscious the standing source of some error or failure as it is to pry needlessly into what works smoothly. To over-simplify, to exclude the novel for the sake of prompt skill, to avoid obstacles for the sake of averting errors, is as detrimental as to try to get pupils to formulate everything they know and to state every step of the process employed in getting a result. Where the shoe pinches, analytic examination is indicated. When a topic is to be clinched so that knowledge of it will carry over into an effective resource in further topics, conscious condensation and summarizing are imperative. In the early stage of acquaintance with a subject, a good deal of unconstrained unconscious mental play about it may be


(217) permitted, even at the risk of some random experimenting; in the later stages, conscious formulation and review may be encouraged. Projection and reflection, going directly ahead and turning back in scrutiny, should alternate. Unconsciousness gives spontaneity and freshness; consciousness, conviction and control.

2. Process and Product

Play and work again

A like balance in mental life characterizes process and product. We met one important phase of this adjustment in considering play and work. In play, interest centers in activity, without much reference to its outcome. The sequence of deeds, images, emotions, suffices on its own account. In work, the end holds attention and controls the notice given to means. Since the difference is one of direction of interest, the contrast is one of emphasis, not of cleavage. When comparative prominence in consciousness of activity or outcome is transformed into isolation of one from the other, play degenerates into fooling, and work into drudgery.

Play and work again

A like balance in mental life characterizes process and product. We met one important phase of this adjustment in considering play and work. In play, interest centers in activity, without much reference to its outcome. The sequence of deeds, images, emotions, suffices on its own account. In work, the end holds attention and controls the notice given to means. Since the difference is one of direction of interest, the contrast is one of emphasis, not of cleavage. When comparative prominence in consciousness of activity or outcome is transformed into isolation of one from the other, play degenerates into fooling, and work into drudgery.

Play should not be fooling

By " fooling" we understand a series of disconnected temporary overflows of energy dependent upon whim and accident. When all reference to outcome is eliminated from the sequence of ideas and acts that make play, each member of the sequence is cut loose from every other and becomes fantastic, arbitrary, aimless; mere fooling follows. There is some inveterate tendency to fool in children as well as in animals; nor is the tendency wholly evil, for at least it militates against falling into ruts. But when it is excessive in amount, dissipation and disintegration follow; and the only way of preventing this consequence is to make regard for results enter into even the freest play activity.


nor work, drudgery

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Exclusive interest in the result alters work to drudgery. For by drudgery is meant those activities in which the interest in the outcome does not suffuse the means of getting the result. Whenever a piece of work becomes drudgery, the process of doing loses all value for the doer; he cares solely for what is to be had at the end of it. The work itself, the putting forth of energy, is hateful; it is just a necessary evil, since without it some important end would be missed. Now it is a commonplace that in the work of the world many things have to be done the doing of which is not intrinsically very interesting. However, the argument that children should be kept doing drudgery-tasks because thereby they acquire power to be faithful to distasteful duties, is wholly fallacious. Repulsion, shirking, and evasion are the consequences of having the repulsive imposed not loyal love of duty. Willingness to work for ends by means of acts not naturally attractive is best attained by securing such an appreciation of the value of the end that a sense of its value is transferred to its means of accomplishment. Not interesting in themselves, they borrow interest from the result with which they are associated.

Balance of playfulness and seriousness the intellectual ideal

The intellectual harm accruing from divorce of work and play, product and process, is evidenced in the proverb, " All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." That the obverse is true is perhaps sufficiently signalized in the fact that fooling is so near to foolishness. To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition. Absence of dogmatism and prejudice, presence of intellectual curiosity and flexibility, are manifest in the free play of the mind upon a topic. To give the mind this


Free play of mind

(219) free play is not to encourage toying with a subject, but is to be interested in the unfolding of the subject on its own account, apart from its subservience to a preconceived belief or habitual aim. Mental play is open-mindedness, faith in the power of thought to preserve its own integrity without external supports and arbitrary restrictions. Hence free mental play involves seriousness, the earnest following of the development of subject-matter. It is incompatible with carelessness or flippancy, for it exacts accurate noting of every result reached in order that every conclusion may be put to further use. What is termed the interest in truth for its own sake is certainly a serious matter, yet this pure interest in truth coincides with love of the free play of thought.

is normal in childhood

In spite of many appearances to the contrary usually due to social conditions of either undue superfluity that induces idle fooling or undue economic pressure that compels drudgery childhood normally realizes the ideal of conjoint free mental play and thoughtfulness. Successful portrayals of children have always made their wistful intentness at least as obvious as their lack of worry f or the morrow. To live in the present is compatible with condensation of far-reaching meanings in the present. Such enrichment of the present for its own sake is the just heritage of childhood and the best insurer of future growth. The child forced into premature concern with economic remote results may develop a surprising sharpening of wits in a particular direction, but this precocious specialization is always paid for by later apathy and dullness.

The attitude of the artist

That art originated in play is a common saying. Whether or not the saying is historically correct, it


(220) suggests that harmony of mental playfulness and seriousness describes the artistic ideal. When the artist is preoccupied overmuch with means and material he may achieve wonderful technique, but not. the artistic spirit par excellence. When the animating idea is in excess of the command of method, aesthetic feeling may be indicated, but the art of presentation is too defective to express the feeling thoroughly. When the thought of the end becomes so adequate that it compels translation into the means that embody it, or when attention to means is inspired by recognition of the end they serve, we have the attitude typical of the artist, an attitude that may be displayed in all activities, even though not conventionally designated arts.

The art of the teacher culminates in nurturing this attitude

That teaching is an art and the true teacher an artist is a familiar saying. Now the teacher's own claim to rank as an artist is measured by his ability to foster the attitude of the artist in those who study with him, whether they be youth or little children. Some succeed in arousing enthusiasm, in communicating large ideas, in evoking energy. So far, well; but the final test is whether the stimulus thus given to wider aims succeeds in transforming itself into power, that is to say, into the attention to detail that ensures mastery over means of execution. If not, the zeal flags, the interest dies out, the ideal becomes a clouded memory. Other teachers succeed in training facility, skill, mastery of the technique of subjects. Again it is well so far. But unless enlargement of mental vision, power of increased discrimination of final values, a sense for ideasfor principlesaccompanies this training, forms of skill ready to be put indifferently to any end may be the result. Such modes of technical skill may display themselves, accord-


(221)-ing to circumstances, as cleverness in serving self-interest, as docility in carrying out the purposes of others, or as unimaginative plodding in ruts. To nurture inspiring aim and executive means into harmony with each other is at once the difficulty and the reward of the teacher.

3. The Far and the Near

Familiarity breeds contempt,

Teachers who have heard that they should avoid matters foreign to pupils' experience, are frequently surprised to find pupils wake up when something beyond their ken is introduced, while they remain apathetic in considering the familiar. In geography, the child upon the plains seems perversely irresponsive to the intellectual charms of his local environment, and fascinated by whatever concerns mountains or the sea. Teachers who have struggled with little avail to extract from pupils essays describing the details of things with which they are well acquainted, sometimes find them eager to write on lofty or imaginary themes. A woman of education, who has recorded her experience as a factory worker, tried retelling Little Women to some factory girls during their working hours. They cared little for it, saying, "Those girls had no more interesting experience than we have," and demanded stories of millionaires and society leaders. A man interested in the mental condition of those engaged in routine labor asked a Scotch girl in a cotton factory what she thought about all day. She replied that as soon as her mind was free from starting the machinery, she married a duke, and their fortunes occupied her for the remainder of the day.

Naturally, these incidents are not told in order to encourage methods of teaching that appeal to the sensa-


since only the novel demands attention,

(222)-tional, the extraordinary, or the incomprehensible. They are told, however, to enforce the point that the familiar and the near do not excite or repay thought on their own account, but only as they are adjusted to mastering the strange and remote. It is a commonplace of psychology that we do not attend to the old nor consciously mind that to which we are thoroughly accustomed. For this, there is good reason: to devote attention to the old, when new circumstances are constantly arising to which we should adjust ourselves, would be wasteful and dangerous. Thought must be reserved for the new, the precarious, the problematic. Hence the mental constraint, the sense of being lost, that comes to pupils when they are invited to turn their thoughts upon that with which they are already familiar. The old, the near, the accustomed, is not that to which but that with which we attend; it does not furnish the material of a problem, but of its solution.

which, in turn, can be given only through the old

The last sentence has brought us to the balancing of new and old, of the far and that close by, involved in reflection. The more remote supplies the stimulus and the motive; the nearer at hand furnishes the point of approach and the available resources. This principle may also be stated in this form: the best thinking occurs when the easy and the difficult are duly proportioned to each other. The easy and the familiar are equivalents, as are the strange and the difficult. Too much that is easy gives no ground for inquiry; too much of the hard renders inquiry hopeless.

The given and the suggested

The necessity of the interaction of the near and the far follows directly from the nature of thinking. Where there is thought, something present suggests and indicates something absent. Accordingly unless the familiar


(223) is presented under conditions that are in some respect unusual, it gives no jog to thinking, it makes no demand upon what is not present in order to be understood. And if the subject presented is totally strange, there is no basis upon which it may suggest anything serviceable for its comprehension. When a person first has to do with fractions, for example, they will be wholly baffling so far as they do not signify to him some relation that he has already mastered in dealing with whole numbers. When fractions have become thoroughly familiar, his perception of them acts simply as a signal to do certain things; they are a "substitute sign," to which he can react without. thinking. (Ante, p. 178.) If, nevertheless, the situation as a whole presents something novel and hence uncertain, the entire response is not mechanical, because this mechanical operation is put to use in solving a problem. There is no end to this spiral process: foreign subject-matter transformed through thinking into a familiar possession becomes a resource for judging and assimilating additional foreign subject-matter.

Observation supplies the near, imagination the remote

The need for both imagination and observation in every mental enterprise illustrates another aspect of the same principle. Teachers who have tried object-lessons of the conventional type have usually found that when the lessons were new, pupils were attracted to them as a diversion, but as soon as they became matters of course they were as dull and wearisome as was ever the most mechanical study of mere symbols. Imagination could not play about the objects so as to enrich them. The feeling that instruction in "facts, facts" produces a narrow Grading is justified not because facts in themselves are limiting, but because facts are dealt out


(224) as such hard and fast ready-made articles as to leave no room to imagination. Let the facts be presented so as to stimulate imagination, and culture ensues naturally enough. The converse is equally true. The imaginative is not necessarily the imaginary; that is, the unreal. The proper function of imagination is vision of realities that cannot be exhibited under existing conditions of sense-perception. Clear insight into the remote, the absent, the obscure is its aim. History, literature, and geography, the principles of science, nay, even geometry and arithmetic, are full of matters that must be imaginatively realized if they are realized at all. Imagination supplements and deepens observation; only when it turns into the fanciful does it become a substitute for observation and lose logical force.

Experience through communication of other's experience

A final exemplification of the required balance between near and far is found in the relation that obtains between the narrower field of experience realized in an individual's own contact with persons and things, and the wider experience of the race that may become his through communication. Instruction always runs the risk of swamping the pupil's own vital, though narrow, experience under masses of communicated material. The instructor ceases and the teacher begins at the point where communicated matter stimulates into fuller and more significant life that which has entered by the strait and narrow gate of sense-perception and motor activity. Genuine communication involves contagion; its name should not be taken in vain by terming communication that which produces no community of thought and purpose between the child and the race of which he is the heir.

Notes

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