The Sociology of Thinking

Richard Swedberg begins his paper Thinking and Sociology by recognising that there may be “good reasons” why these two things are rarely discussed together. Though “all of us think” and “we all know the intensely private character of our thoughts”, these thoughts are fleeting and ephemeral when considered next to things that we say and things that we know. These phenomena have been the closest sociology has tended to come towards looking at thinking itself and the reasons for this are both epistemic (they relate to things that are more or less open to others and tend, by their nature, to use terms that are understandable to others) and genealogical (Durkheim was the founding father most interested in thought yet also the most strongly committed to studying it through its objectification in social facts). Given that social facts are a product of collectivities, ”the individual plays a very subordinate role in Durkheim’s work, and most of what goes on in his or her mind belongs to the science of psychology, not sociology”. He understood the categories of thought, collective representations, as gifts of society which should be analysed as social facts. So while sociologists have often looked at the products of thinking, the process itself has tended to be ignored or even dismissed in principle as a possible object of study.

For reasons that are intuitively obvious but nonetheless rewarding to explicate, this has not been true of philosophy. Swedberg considers Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger as three philosophers, amongst many, whose work could provide insights for a nascent sociology of thinkingKant’s essay “What is the Enlightenment?’ can be understood as a short and purposefully accessible treatise on thinking: “what it means to think, why we should think, and what the consequences of thinking are”. It also discussed how people avoid thinking through falling back upon established authorities, directly or through their cultural products, as a substitute for addressing their own questions. Kant also offered practical guidance on thinking, for instance suggesting that one should avoid thinking deeply while eating and that thinking while walking should be a matter of letting the imagination wander. Kierkegaard was concerned with the relationship of thinking to existence as a particular individual. For him thinking is part of existence: “a human being thinks and exist”. Thinking does not dominate existence but can fit harmoniously with it. This however is an achievement and one not enjoyed by the ‘objective thinker’ whose generalising and systematising thought ignores his own particularity in spite of it being bound up with this thinking. Instead, we ought to think inwardly and thus avoid the ‘stuntedness’ of the objective thinker who is not interested in his or her own existence. For Heidegger all human beings canthink but many do not. He distinguishes between the thinking we all have the capacity to engage in and the thinking which we usually engage in: the ‘one-track thinking’ and ‘thoughtless chatter’ which our everyday lives in a technological society provoke. Instead of thinking, for Heidegger, we too often have opinions. But we can also learn how to think. For Heidegger this is a practical competency which is learned through doing:

We are not simply born with a certain capacity to think. But how can one learn to think? Heidegger’s answer is that it is a bit like swimming: you learn it by doing it. You cannot ‘read a treatise on swimming’: you have to open yourself up to the ‘adventure’ and ‘leap into the river’.

If you read a book by a philosopher, you can learn thinking by studying the way that the author asks questions. Summarizing and repeating the ideas in a book does not represent thinking. One should also try to locate and work with what the author does not say – what has been left ‘unthought’. And once this exercise is over, and you have ‘found’ the thinking of the author, you have also to ‘lose’ it. Freeing oneself from somebody’s thinking, Heidegger says, is harder than to find it.

Associated with this notion of thinking as a practical competency which can be learned is an understanding of thinking as action rather than being opposed to it. Heidegger was concerned that ”action has often replaced thinking” and sought to overcome the “common notion that thinking is simply what comes before action and that it lacks value unless it is followed by action”. Instead he sought to cultivate an understanding of thinking as a craft:

The carpenter cannot learn his craft in some abstract manner; he must develop his skill by working on wood and by sensing what he can make of this material. The wood contains shapes, Heidegger says, and it is the carpenter’s task to sense these and bring them out in the wood. The idea of hidden forms means that the person should use thinking to understand Being.

However Swedberg is well aware that these arguments lack a sociological dimension. The first two authors lived before there was a sociology, while the latter was explicitly critical of sociology (as a science). But his suggestion that philosophy can be a potent source for a sociology of thinking is surely plausible and his impulse to turn their thought in a ‘sociological direction’ is one which I find deeply appealing. Other potential sources are the sociology of knowledge, the economics of information, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. But Swedberg’s most pressing concern is with the contribution of philosophy:

Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger all agree that thinking represents its own special activity or, to phrase it different, that one should focus the analysis directly on thinking. This is an approach that sociology may want to follow. It would also appear that sociology should try to study thinking which is a process, rather than thought which is a product. Heidegger’s argument that thinking should be independent of knowing as well as of action raises further interesting questions for sociologists.

One shared concern of all three philosophers he discussed were the ”forces that prevent the individual from thinking on his or her own”. Kant looked towards a reliance on established authorities, Kierkegaard towards the force of routine while Heidegger blamed technological society. These concerns naturally provoke sociological questions given the empirical referents of such claims. However these thinkers also raise important practical questions about the activity of thinking. Given that “it is easier to think in certain places, just as it easier to think in certain postures” we might ponder the existence of “an architecture of thinking as well as a body technique”. Such ruminations naturally connect the sociology of thinking to the existential concerns of sociologists of thinking:

My own way for how to think is to spend one hour early in the day sitting still and focusing on some topic that needs to be thought through. I do not write, and I do not try to empty my mind so much as to focus it. It is an exercise in thinking, not in meditation. I usually find that my thinking proceeds step by step, and it comes natural to memorize each step.

For a long time I was puzzled by Kierkegaard’s insistence that thinking has an existential dimension. I first began to understand what he meant by this when I started to set aside some time for thinking also at the end of the day. It was impossible to engage in thinking when the day was over, I found, without directly connecting broader issues to personal ones. The link between thinking and subjectivity was in this way established in a very natural fashion. A day that has passed in your life – what does this mean?

My “own way for how to think” is to blog. I like the notion of a sociology of thinking in part because it gives me a novel frame of reference within which to ponder my own use of blogging. I like it for many other reasons as well though. What do other people think?


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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