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).