Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Tips for Better Thinking

Go to the library and you’ll find whole bookcases full of books on how to write better. But look for a book on how to think better and you’ll be busy for a while. (The only major book I could find — Crimes Against Logic — was a dreadful little series of basic logical fallacies dressed up in political polemic.)

It can’t be that writing is more important than thinking. While I’ve met many people who can’t exactly write, it seems that just about everyone has to think — even writers. Nor do I think it’s that the task is really harder. We know very little about the internal process of writing, so writing guides consist mostly of good and bad examples, along with some general rules. Surely one could do the same for thought.

Perhaps the answer is that there isn’t such a thing as good thinking. But the case for it seems even stronger than the case for good writing. Good thinking is that which better helps us approximate reality — avoiding fallacies, missteps of judgment, faulty assumptions, misunderstandings, and needless fillips and loops.

And yet the subject’s plain importance, I can find scarcely an article that takes up the topic. Where is the piece that savages bad thinking the way Mark Twain savaged Fenimore Cooper’s aimless writing or the way Orwell went after political abuses of English or, for more modern readers, Matt Taibbi’s dissection of Thomas Friedman’s latest book? It seems like it would be just as fun — if not more — to watch a gifted writer slice and dice up a convoluted thought until it becomes apparent that it’s actually meaningless.

The closest I can think of is Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner (an unfair match-up if there ever was one — a bit like using a blow torch to clear off a dust mite). But Chomsky’s attacking Skinner’s ideas rather specifically (and, more generally, exposing the political implications behind bogus science); the essay is certainly not one in a series of examples of how to think better.

As one gets more skilled, the opportunities for improvement become less available — apparently because fewer people are interested in improving. The library gives free courses in how to read better, but these are for people who have trouble reading long books, not for those who already can but want to continue to improve. And there are courses in improving your writing, but they generally only get you from awful to serviceable, and not from serviceable to great. The same seems true of thinking — there are many books on fairly blatant logical fallacies to avoid, but few on more subtle improvements to thought.

And yet, at least with writing, people try. There are English courses in schools, taught by some of the greatest writers of the generation. And journalists can semi-apprentice themselves by freelancing before great editors, who slice and dice their prose until it shines. Yet I’ve never seen a class or an apprenticeship in thinking, except perhaps incidentally.

The reason, I think, is because no one is thinking bigger. But that means there’s plenty of opportunity. The field’s wide open, folks.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 15, 2006


Maybe it’s because it’s hard to work with thought alone that we need to give it form. It’s difficult to collaborate and share with others without some kind of notation. It’s also hard to gauge improvement without comparison.

Philosophy courses (with a good teacher, anyway) can help improve your thinking, but mostly by way of improving your writing. Good writing is good thinking.

The Tao Te Ching is helpful in considering these tensions between form and the formless.

posted by John on December 15, 2006 #

I’ve seen the book you’re looking for. It’s a 99 cent composition book.

When I write, it doesn’t just come out. Sometimes I rewrite dozens of times. 500 words can take a day. Sometimes I change my mind about the topic entirely in the process. Peter Elbow, in Writing Without Teachers, says you should throw away your first draft. Delete it and start over. Then, if it’s not great the second time, throw that out. Because writing is thinking, you’ll have learned something between drafts. Starting over, you get to explore what you learned in previous drafts, with the untrammeled potential of an empty page.

Maybe, in the larger sense, I’m proposing that the part of your brain that would learn to think is not going to do it by reading a book about thinking. Maybe it needs to engage itself with some output mechanism—writing, for example.

posted by Carl Tashian on December 15, 2006 #


posted by pjz on December 15, 2006 #

I second Carl’s mention of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. And Elbow’s Writing With Power. Books on thinking? Edward de Bono. (http://www.edwdebono.com/) Marilyn vos Savant’s Brain Building. And there’s the classic, How To Solve It, by G. Polya. Drive Yourself Sane, by Kodish and Kodish (general semantics primer). Basic texts in cybernetics? Systems thinking? Phenomenology? Philosophical skepticism/pyrrhonism/zetetic?

posted by Reg Aubry on December 15, 2006 #

I find the skeptic literature, starting with Francis Bacon’s “idols” but now often influenced by cognitive science, is very good for learning how to avoid mistakes in thinking, though not so great for learning how to come up with great ideas.

Thomas Gilovich How we know what isn’t so

Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini Inevitable illusions: how mistakes of reason rule the mind

Richard Nisbett, Lee Ross Human inference

Michael Shermer Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time

posted by Joseph Reagle on December 15, 2006 #

In school, the two most influential courses on my ways of thinking were those relating to formal logic, and those relating to methodology in the social sciences. Just learning about ‘conceptualization’ and ‘operationalization’ of the concepts in language was enough to shake up half of my worldview.

posted by Antonio on December 16, 2006 #

I agree that some of the recent literature ostensibly about skepticism might be at least part of what you’re looking for. They might include more examples of bad thinking than good, but not exclusively. In addition to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, I recommend Carl Sagan’s last two books, The Demon-Haunted World and Billions and Billions.

posted by Peter Collopy on December 16, 2006 #

Well, the academic discipline you’re groping for is Philosophy. But I think you’re missing — or at least misphrasing — the point. Pretty much all courses in anything are courses in thinking first and their ostensible subject second. Many of them may be bad courses in thinking — many may indeed be courses in bad thinking — but the processes of learning and thinking are so closely interwoven there will never be a rule that splits one from the other.

The way to learn to think, is to think; practice doesn’t make perfect, but it clumsily strives in that general direction. And because thinking about thinking gets tediously circular, the practice often involves learning about other stuff and thinking about that.

Certainly, there are lot of structures for thinking that have already been mapped out that it would be foolhardy to ignore — philosophy again — and an inquiring thinker might well want to investigate those. But thinking is — for all its highfalutin’ qualities — profoundly empirical. You just have to think it and see.

posted by matt on December 16, 2006 #

I would argue that Richard Feynman spent the latter part of his career trying very hard to teach people how to think better. His essay on skepticism and scientism (“Cargo Cult Science”, http://wwwcdf.pd.infn.it/~loreti/science.html), his participation on textbook committees, and his participation in the Challenger inquest were all at least as much attempts to show the value of rationality and penetrating thought to the larger public as anything else. He had a very hands-on view of how the work of theoretical physics is done, which is probably a large part of why he was so successful (on his blackboard at his death: “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”).

Which leads me to a very useful little book and the larger idea it points towards: How To Solve Mathematical Problems by Wayne Wickelgren (http://www.amazon.com/Solve-Mathematical-Problems-Wayne-Wickelgren/dp/0486284336). My dad once gave me an earlier edition of this work (called, more simply, How to Solve Problems), and it’s become something of a touchstone of mine over the years. The larger idea is that mathematics is, in its way, crystallized thought, and that time spent mastering the intricacies of mathematics generally makes one a better thinker and writer. I’m still sort of mathtarded, but I’m gradually (re)learning a lot of math, and I find it’s very helpful both in my software work and in my ability to think clearly about the world.

In the Classical Greek worldview, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics were all inextricably linked. I don’t think they were wrong.

posted by Forrest L Norvell on December 16, 2006 #



posted by William Loughborough on December 16, 2006 #

Hmm… to me, it seems, a good way to think better is to not fall in love with your own way of thinking. To learn to share. To learn to reflect.

Our (sic) school systems can be of great help in learning that skill. Just throw a bunch of kids together, and see how they learn to cope with themselves.

In a way the whole blogosphere reminds that same scenario. Self-organizing systems, and all that…

posted by Tommi Raivio on December 16, 2006 #

You have obviously not looked very hard for books on the subject; Ed de Bono has written dozens of them. His entire subject is “thinking better”.

posted by Mike on December 16, 2006 #

Aaron there is always, Baron’s “Thinking and Deciding”. If you want more a laundry list of human errors in thinking there is “Judgment under Uncertainty”

posted by Eric Leons on December 16, 2006 #

The book you are looking for is The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving by Morgan Jones. Jones and his team teach from this book at their Critical Thinking seminars. I re-read chapters every few months. Another good book is Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge by William Poundstone. Just search for them at Amazon and order them up. These are both on Critical Thinking and Decision Making whereas a lot of Ed de Bono’s works focus on team thinking and brainstorming—also good but different.

posted by Ashley Grayson on December 16, 2006 #

Ok, lots of books are mentioned already. I’ll add some more sources for consideration: Goldratt’s Thinking Processes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_process http://www.focusedperformance.com/articles/toctp2.html

posted by Ivan Kurmanov on December 16, 2006 #

Don’t assume nobody has had your idea just because you can’t find any books on it at the library. No matter what your idea is, it’s very likely that someone’s had it before you. And that’s especially likely when your idea is very general in nature, such as Aaron’s idea of a “book on how to think better.” As others note, logic is the discipline that covers that ground. If you can’t find any books on logic in your library, you need to check to make sure you actually are in a library. Step one: Examine your surroundings. Are there canned goods and grocery carts around? That’s the supermarket, not the library! Look for the exit and try again.

posted by david on December 17, 2006 #

Lookup Edward de Bono. He’s written several books on thinking.

posted by ucf on December 17, 2006 #

ET’s started a thread on this.

posted by Niels Olson on December 18, 2006 #

The books about thinking are under Philosophy.

posted by Eric Bieschke on December 19, 2006 #

Aaron, the subject you’re looking for is “Critical Thinking.” And libraries (and amazon) have many books on this subject. More generally, philosophy at its best is the discipline concerned primarily with thinking critically and examining the unexamined. More generally still, a university education is supposed to teach the art of thinking first, as applied to some specific discipline of thought (second).

posted by gill bates on December 20, 2006 #

Few courses teach much about better thinking. At best they select for better thinkers. Often they simply select for the best breeding. This isn’t a ready-to-wear tip, but, if you want to learn how to think better, the best advice I can offer to a bright, motivated young person is to find someone who will work with you on a Moore Method course.

posted by Niels Olson on December 21, 2006 #

Not exactly what you are thinking of, but still a useful thinking tool, is “Strong Inference”


posted by Eadwacer on December 22, 2006 #

I love that Matt Taibbi review of The World is Flat! Here’s more Taibbi on Friedman:



…there are any number of at least superficially plausible ways of saying that you need civilization and education before you can have the vote. But Friedman, desperate to seem like the hip computer-age priest of globalization he has worked so hard to market himself as, decides instead to say that you need software (free institutions) before you can have hardware (elections).

But in the real world, does software naturally come before hardware? Does that make sense? You’re still scratching your head over that one when Friedman zooms into his next mangled metaphor. “With Saddam’s iron fist now removed,” he writes, “the U.S. must help an authentically Iraqi moderate center emerge and sink roots.” The correct word here is “lifted,” not “removed.” Friedman has left a giant Iron Saddam, minus one fist, hovering over Iraq, while the half-vegetable, half-human Iraqi center first “emerges” and then “sinks roots.”

posted by david mathers on December 26, 2006 #

Where is the piece that savages bad thinking? Well, anything in Plato. Socrates spent his life savaging bad thinking. Also, a great deal of the research literature in any academic discipline. Along the same lines, the Crooked Timber blog regularly does the same thing.

posted by Kragen Sitaker on December 26, 2006 #

Check out any number of books by Gerald Weinberg: An Introduction to General Systems Thinking is the book used in college courses.

posted by Dave R on December 28, 2006 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.