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How to think clearly | Psyche Guides

Before you begin…

To start with, let’s take a moment. Draw a breath. Slow yourself down. What’s going on? What are you thinking and feeling? What most deserves your attention? There’s a great line in Robert Poynton’s book Do Pause (2019) that speaks to the significance of taking stock in this way:

In a pause you can question existing ways of acting, have new ideas or simply appreciate the life you are living. Without ever stopping to observe yourself, how can you explore what else you might do or who you might become?

Inviting people to pause is among the easiest advice in the world to give, and the hardest to take. Yet it’s foundational to clarifying your thinking, because this is where it all begins: with a moment of self-reflection. Without pauses, there can be no second thoughts and no self-interrogations. There is no process until you take the time to embark upon it.

You might think that this point is too obvious to be worth making. Yet, in my experience, it’s where most of us fall down. We all carry around countless unclear, confused, contradictory thoughts and feelings. And precisely because we have neither the time nor the tools to sort them out, they mostly stay this way.

Once you’ve paused, a common psychotherapeutic exercise can help you take a first step towards clearer thinking. It’s about observing yourself as neutrally as possible. You make yourself comfortable, relax, then try to notice the flow of your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental way: the flickers of anxiety, anticipation, regret; the memories and ideas bubbling into consciousness.

These are the raw materials that any process of clarification must work with. The more carefully you’re able to attend to them, the more likely you are to tease out their complexities and contradictions. And the less likely you are to mistakenly assume that whatever seems obvious to you will necessarily seem obvious, or compelling, to someone else.

What are you claiming, and why?

When I perform the above exercise, I notice one thing that’s on my mind is a nagging question around what I eat. Should I become a vegetarian, or a vegan, for ethical and environmental reasons? And if not, why not?

In philosophy, what’s known as standard form is often used to set out the essentials of a line of thought as clearly as possible. Expressing your thinking in standard form means writing out a numbered list of statements followed by a conclusion. If you’ve done it properly, the numbered statements should present a line of reasoning that justifies your final conclusion. For example, here’s a first attempt at organising my thoughts around diet:

  1. Both eating meat and using animal products are associated with vast amounts of unnecessary animal suffering.
  2. They also use more energy and resources than most plant-based alternatives.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to have a healthy diet and live a full life without eating meat or using most animal products.
  4. So far as possible, I should try to prevent unnecessary animal suffering, excessive energy usage and the overconsumption of resources.

If I believe all of the above to be true, I should thus adopt a vegetarian or a vegan diet.

You might have seen examples of this approach before, or used it in your own work. You might also have encountered a great deal of discussion around logical forms, reasonable and unreasonable justifications, and so on. What I find most useful about standard form, however, is not so much its promise of logical rigour as its insistence that I break down my thinking into individual steps, and then ask two questions of each one:

  • Why should a reasonable person accept this particular claim?
  • What follows from this claim, once it’s been accepted?

When it comes to clarifying my thoughts and feelings, the power of such an approach is that anything relevant can potentially be integrated into its accounting – but only if I’m able to make this relevance explicit. Here’s how a few further thoughts might fit into my example:

  1. Both eating meat and using animal products are associated with vast amounts of unnecessary animal suffering.
  2. They also use more energy and resources than most plant-based alternatives.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to have a healthy diet and live a full life without eating meat or using most animal products.
  4. So far as possible, I should try to prevent unnecessary animal suffering, excessive energy usage and the overconsumption of resources.
  5. If I believe all of the above to be true, I should thus adopt a vegetarian or a vegan diet.
  6. However, I’m not currently a vegetarian or a vegan.
  7. This suggests that either: I don’t believe the above reasons to be true, or to be the whole story; or that I do, yet somehow still don’t find them compelling.

If I want to clarify my thinking around this issue, I need to investigate the divide between my apparent beliefs and my actions.

How might you apply such an approach yourself? As you’ll have noticed, the thoughts I’ve just added bring further complexities and qualifications into focus. They take what was once a relatively straightforward conclusion and turn it into something more complex – and revealing.

Paradoxically enough, this is a vital component of clarifying your thinking: stripping away oversimplifications, no matter how compelling or appealing, and replacing them with an honest acknowledgment of circumstances. The logic of my initial argument might have seemed admirably clear; but this clarity doesn’t correspond as closely as I might wish to reality.

Honest self-examination and iteration are vital, here. Even now, reading back my own words, I’m not sure I’ve managed to describe my state of mind accurately – or the issues at stake. Is it really true that there’s no ethical way of eating meat or of using animal products? Are there shades of meaning I’ve neglected in an effort to establish clear categories of right and wrong? Or am I simply failing to act on my beliefs because of a combination of inertia and self-indulgence?

These are just a few of the questions my scenario begs. And behind them is a fundamental point: that it’s only by repeatedly questioning both the why and the what of our claims, and the claims they in turn rely on, that we can hope to strip away the layers of habit, confusion and self-justification that all too often typify everyday thoughts.

What have you taken for granted?

Upon what basis can I justify any claims? Some will rely on external evidence; some on personal preferences and experiences; some on a combination of these factors. But all of them will at some point invoke certain assumptions that I’m prepared to accept as fundamental. And it’s in unearthing and analysing these assumptions that the most important clarifications await.

Assumptions are those things we take for granted: whatever we don’t explicitly spell out, but that our thinking relies upon. Assumptions are also extremely important. Indeed, it’s the existence of shared assumptions that makes communication (and much else) possible. As I write these words, I’m assuming they mean approximately the same thing to you as they do to me. It would be incredibly tiresome if I tried to explain every word in a sentence. It would also, in the end, be futile. I’d still have to explain my words via other words, my ideas via other ideas, and so on. Without some shared assumptions, there would be no way of building either common understandings or meaningful disagreements.

While common understanding and meaningful disagreement might sound like opposites, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. No matter how self-evident they might seem to us, the assumptions that our ideas rest upon might need spelling out to others. Some people could, for example, view animal suffering as a non-issue, on the grounds that human experience is all that counts when it comes to ethics. Some could believe that no further justification of veganism is required beyond the self-evident evil of inflicting unnecessary suffering on our fellow creatures. And some (among whom I tentatively count myself) might believe that most forms of industrial farming and fishing are abhorrent, but that there are some circumstances under which animal products can be ethically and sustainably sourced.

Our assumptions, in other words, aren’t just unexamined ideas. They’re also the roots of identity and allegiance; the stuff of our personal and shared histories; of our communities and our morality. They are the sources of much of the greatest good and deepest harm we do to one another. That which we take as ‘given’ is nothing less than the bedrock of what we believe the world to be.

What follow from this? When it comes to clarifying your thinking, it means that you need to be very clear about the difference between what follows from your assumptions and the status of those assumptions. To take things step by step:

  • Any line of thought must begin with certain assumptions: those things that you both explicitly and implicitly accept as given. No matter how deep you dig, you’ll never be able to find a wholly clear, self-evident and uncontroversial claim.
  • A careful process of analysis can show where your assumptions lead: what reasonably follows from them, if you assume that they’re true or accurate.
  • But different lines of reasoning based on different sets of assumptions are likely to take you in very different directions.
  • One of the most useful things you can thus do is to spell out both your own and other people’s key assumptions, then to compare what follows from each.
  • If you’re sufficiently open-minded, this can help you identify assumptions you hold in common with others, challenge faulty ones on both sides, and respectfully engage with alternative perspectives from your own.

Working out the implications of your assumptions is, in other words, far from the same thing as being definitively correct; and grasping the difference between these lies at the heart of honestly and persuasively articulating your views.

Embrace dialogue – and know your limits

What do you make of my attempts to clarify my thinking about meat-eating, thus far? Hopefully, even if you disagree with every single word I’ve written, you’re more likely to understand where I’m coming from than if I just blurted out: ‘I think that maybe I ought to stop eating meat.’ I certainly feel more confident about what’s going on in my head. And this suggests that, if we ever end up discussing these things in person, we’re more likely to be able to debate our differences constructively. We’ll perhaps be able to work out where we do and don’t disagree – and why – rather than falling back upon blanket assertions or aspersions. In the end, we might even arrive at a new, clearer understanding together.

This, I’d suggest, is the most precious thing about clearly presenting the thinking behind any point of view: not that it proves your rightness or righteousness, but that it volunteers your willingness to participate in a reasoned exchange of ideas. At least in principle, it suggests that you’re prepared to:

  • Justify your position via evidence and reasoned analysis.
  • Listen to, and learn from, perspectives other than your own.
  • Accept that, in the face of sufficiently compelling arguments or evidence, it might be reasonable to change your mind.

This approach is underpinned by what’s known as the principle of charity: a phrase that can sound strange in the context of disagreements, but that embodies one of our oldest and most practical guides to constructive debate. It exists in various formulations, all rooted in the same idea:

So far as possible, you should try to extract the maximum truthful and reasonable content from what others say, especially if they disagree with you.

Importantly, the principle of charity extends not only to what someone is saying, but also to your assumptions around why they are saying it:

Unless you have decisive evidence to the contrary, you should start off by assuming that someone else’s position is reasonable and sincerely held, rather than that they’re malicious, ignorant or mistaken.

Why? In both cases, the answer isn’t because this is a nice thing to do, but because it’s only by beginning with charitable assumptions that you can get to grips with the underpinnings of someone else’s perspective – and ensure that any judgment you eventually pass is based on a careful, fair-minded assessment.

All of which brings us back to the most important point of all: that clarifying your thinking means being as honest as possible about what you don’t know, and then putting a frank engagement with these limitations at the heart of your account.

Indeed, perhaps the most important tool in any attempt at clear thinking is the capacity to test (and to keep on testing and refining) your ideas as if they belonged to someone else: as acts of reasoned persuasion that must stand, or fall, on their own terms.

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