In Arthur Schopenhauer's essay “On Thinking for Oneself” (1851), he writes that there are few people who possess a natural love of learning and that they will only learn from others if they find something that triggers an innate interest inside themselves.
Thinking must be kindled, like a fire by a draught; it must be sustained by some interest in the matter in hand. This interest may be of a purely objective kind, or merely subjective. The latter comes into play only in things that concern us personally. Objective interest is confined to heads that think by nature; to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; and they are very rare. This is why most men of learning show so little of it.
The social activist Emma Goldman would express a similar thought when writing in 1910 that “the pupil will accept only that which his mind craves.” In Goldman's essay, as in Schopenhauer's, there is the germ of an educational theory, and it is this course of thinking I would like to explore.
Ideas toward an educational theory seem difficult at first blush, especially with Schopenhauer's insistence that reading and thinking are counterpoised to each other. He writes that
reading forces alien thoughts upon the mind—thoughts which are as foreign to the drift and temper in which it may be for the moment, as the seal is to the wax on which it stamps its imprint. The mind is thus entirely under compulsion from without; it is driven to think this or that, though for the moment it may not have the slightest impulse or inclination to do so.
This is troubling to almost any kind of educational theory because education, typically conceived, involves reading books pertaining to the field a person studies and becoming acquainted with the evidence, research, and sources from which the field draws. Yet for all that, for Schopenhauer, “Reading is thinking with some one else's head instead of one's own.” Schopenhauer's worry about reading is quite similar to parental worry about advertisement geared toward children or ordinary citizens' concern about the concentration of news sources under the aegis of only a few corporations. The worry is, in broad form, that when you merely accept what you read or hear, you are not thinking for yourself. In contrast,
when a man thinks for himself, he follows the impulse of his own mind, which is determined for him at the time, either by his environment or some particular recollection. The visible world of a man's surroundings does not, as reading does, impress a single definite thought upon his mind, but merely gives the matter and occasion which lead him to think what is appropriate to his nature and present temper.
Schopenhauer believes that it is better for a person to think for herself, even if she arrives at the same conclusion that others before her have reached. He thinks the benefit of thinking for yourself, whether or not you arrive at what people have thought before you, is that you come to know what you know more intimately than someone who has only read it or heard about it—that is, you come to have a richer understanding of what you know if you have worked it out for yourself, an understanding you are unlikely to forget, and thus it is better to learn through the experience of thinking something through and working it out yourself.
A man may have discovered some portion of truth or wisdom, after spending a great deal of time and trouble in thinking it over for himself and adding thought to thought; and it may sometimes happen that he could have found it all ready to hand in a book and spared himself the trouble. But even so, it is a hundred times more valuable if he has acquired it by thinking it out for himself. For it is only when we gain our knowledge in this way that it enters as an integral part, a living member, into the whole system of our thought; that it stands in complete and firm relation with what we know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of our own way of thinking; that it comes exactly at the right time, just as we felt the necessity for it; that it stands fast and cannot be forgotten.
Perhaps Schopenhauer's view entails impractical demands. Wouldn't it be better for someone to discipline his mind by being instructed in the fundamentals of a subject, and then begin thinking within that framework? According to Schopenhauer, it is fine to become acquainted with a subject but only after you have done your own thinking about it because when you have given it some thought yourself, your mind will be more easily triggered to assimilate the knowledge contained within a subject. Schopenhauer writes, “The body assimilates only that which is like it; and so a man retains in his mind only that which interests him, in other words, that which suits his system of thought or his purposes in life.” If given time to think, one can experience the growth of a system of thought, and consequently will be ready for exposure to what the experts have written or said. Apropos this point, he writes, “The man who thinks for himself forms his own opinions and learns the authorities for them only later on, when they serve but to strengthen his belief in them and in himself.”
Schopenhauer makes it clear that he does not have any problem with reading per se or getting one's knowledge from external sources. In fact, he thinks it is necessary if a person is to do any kind of reasonable inquiry, let alone make contributions or advances in the sciences. Nevertheless, this ability to read or learn widely and yet think for oneself, knowing how best to take in the information learned, is a skill that comes only with time and after one establishes habits of independent thinking.
The really scientific thinker . . . has need of much knowledge, and so must read a great deal, [but] his mind is nevertheless strong enough to master it all, to assimilate and incorporate it with the system of his thoughts, and so to make it fit in with the organic unity of his insight, which, though vast, is always growing. And in the process, his own thought, like the bass in an organ, always dominates everything and is never drowned by other tones, as happens with minds which are full of mere antiquarian lore; where shreds of music, as it were, in every key, mingle confusedly, and no fundamental note is heard at all.
Like that of a weak composer, the mind of a person who reads or learns a lot but has not acquired the habit of independent thinking does not know how to process anything that has been learned and so produces a strange cacophony of notes.
Imagine if educators took seriously a plan like Schopenhauer's to encourage and foster the practice of independent thinking among students. Where would it begin, and how would it work? And how would it compare to the current educational system? I'll leave it to readers to think this through themselves before they pursue the matter further.
NOTE: The author has been an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for over five years. He has a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a Master's degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
s. wallerstein says
Schopenhauer was a very educated person and had the tool needed to “think for himself”. You need to read and to listen to others in order to get those tools. Children are not born with those tools and some uneducated people never acquire them at all. Schopenhauer, however, from what you say, seems unconscious that from far starting from zero and thinking for himself, he was already the product of the best education of his time. He’s like rich kids who don’t realize that it’s easy to be “free” if there’s a trust fund to fall back on.
Billie Pritchett says
Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m quite skeptical about Schopenhauer’s proposal myself and not sure how he seriously he took what he wrote. If he did, you would think he would have considered what the implications of his view are. By Schopenhauer’s own admission, the mind needs to be kindled, and it can’t be kindled unless by some body of knowledge and some frameworks for making sense of the world.
Vasiliy B. says
I really enjoyed reading this Billie. I think that Schopenhauer is right. You need to be able to get information from outside sources but also be able to think for yourself and come to some conclusions by yourself. It would be analogous to finding proofs for some mathematical equations yourself instead of just plugging and chugging. If students do the latter they would have a much more deeper understanding of what they are studying and would be able to (with the critical thinking they have learned from doing this) make their own contributions to specific fields of interest.
Peter W says
The ‘weak composer’ analogy works for math research too (probably other sciences as well). Somehow, even if the end result is “new” (and even “good” by some criteria), it will only be a mashup of snippets from others’ brains.
Thinking for yourself is more fun, IMHO. Too bad life’s too short (and I’m not smart enough) to rediscover the gems of human understanding 😀
[insert something clever about “standing on shoulders of giants”]
Indeed the question of “thinking for one’s self” is a tricky one. One I faced when I first read his Aphorisms. Nevertheless, as a response on previous comments, I believe Schopenhauer took this question very seriously. Thinking for one’s self is not meant for children, it is the duty of mature thinkers. What he’s worried about here is the situation of the so called thinkers of his time, and in addition, of coming times.
To clarify, I quote Nietzsche: “How can anyone become a thinker, if one does not spend at least one third of each day without passions, people and books?”. How can we be expected to create anything when we’re stuffed with questions we never asked, and solutions we never sought?! The creation of the genius is what concerns him, not kindergarten education. We should only seek authority, as the name sugests, to reinforce our own intelectual drivings. As he said: “What separates the inauthentic philosopher from the authentic is the fact that for the latter, the perplexity comes from the vision of the world itself, as for the first, simply from a book, a pre-existing system.”
In our early years, he believed we should only learn the basics; how to read, how to write, poetry, literature and etc,. Critic thought is the product of several years, experience, effort and is not to be “given” to adolescents (both of age and mind) who can barely put a few sentences together.
To conclude, the reading Schopenhauer reffered is the one the spares us of any effort. And for him, to think is to climb a mountain by yourself instead of using a helicopter to get to the top. We should only have the tools to climb not the transportation. I hope I clarified a few aspects of the topic.
What an interesting a blog post! I teach reading at a small community college. One of the most important things I’ve learned from my colleagues trained in reading theory is how very active a reader’s mind must be to comprehend texts.
A challenge we have on my campus is to get students to believe their independent thoughts, unique connections, and personal questions are absolutely necessary to engaging a text. In that respect, I think Schopenhauer gets reading wrong (I mean based on what I read in this blog).
If a reader’s mind doesn’t show up with some authenticity, creativity, and inquiry no meaning gets made. In fact readers who are willing to read quickly with miscues and making wrong guesses have better comprehension than the by rote reader who carefully reads each word and looks up those that are unfamiliar.
Anyway, thanks for the post.
There’s lots of different people, what they are inclined to in the way of helping themselves, and what they feel an affinity to in how others relate to them.
Some just are so capable at absorbing conventional knowledge, and this is how they mainly help themselves, since there really is so much such valuable knowledge already. Only latter might they get an appetite for other kinds of thinking, such as creative-explorative thinking, and the having of more their own questions.
On some opposite extreme from such thinkers is me. All through grade school, I couldn’t have cared less about what, for me, was just so much menial mental chores. I wanted to explore, and to learn real, hands-on things like how to build a really big boat, or an airplane, and, in the process, learn facts that I would find important, and learn how think about problems I would face in the task of engineering and geometry and math. This was not math like a wholesale course in mathematics-as-such. This was math-as-needed-and-felt, math as personally-felt-engineering problem.
I didn’t even begin to get into any thorough-going philosophical effort until I had managed to get back my own human autonomous mental space from the Anxiety Brokers in social and educational culture. Then I was very glad to happen upon a couple of a certain thinker’s personal-journal-compilations (John Caldwell Holt’s How Children Fail and How Children Learn, and that inspired me to realize that there may be more things for me to find in the world of others words (not that academic textbook swill that always lefty me feeling empty for how damn impersonal such texts have tended to be).
“Like that of a weak composer, the mind of a person who reads or learns a lot but has not acquired the habit of independent thinking does not know how to process anything that has been learned and so produces a strange cacophony of notes.”
My thinking is like that anyway! LOL Except for the cacophony. I think globally, and I hate it when people seem to want me to think in some narrow sense, such as “mathematically” to a degree of symbolic narrowness before I have finished chewing even my first bite of my own preferred real-world or otherwise personally meaningful problem.
“Imagine if educators took seriously a plan like Schopenhauer’s to encourage and foster the practice of independent thinking among students. Where would it begin, and how would it work? And how would it compare to the current educational system?”
Too simplistic. If one had to judge on any small selection of Schopee’s writings, he could seem to be a complete ignoramus on what sorts of reasonably-and-rightly different kinds of people there have always been. The excellent academics in third grade cannot rightly be the standard toward which parents aspire for all their children, otherwise it becomes a rat race driven by the Used Car Salesmen of Misplaced Envy, in which every animal that fails to be rat is an animal that is unjustly forced to act like a rat anyway. Anecdotal successes within a rat race are no proof that the only good animal is a rat.
It is fortunate that we cannot all care less about some one variety of what a normal animal is.
Wojciech Stefaniak says
Law schools impose the Socratic method of teaching but to be quite frank this teaching style should be imposed as early as high school education.