Growing and making Good thinkers: What makes a good thinker? (part 2)

by Anna Blanch on August 1, 2009

What makes a good thinker? This is a question i’ve posed before…and it seems to be on the minds of a number of visitors to this blog – after all, it is one of the most popular searches on Google that lead people to this blog.

One of the things i enjoy the most about being part of an intellectual community is feeling like i can ask others to help me come to a concrete understanding of difficult or complex ideas. I asked a group of friends (lots of them are academic-types from a variety of backgrounds including literature, religion, history, philosophy, and mathematics) across two continents to help me think through what it means to be a good thinker.

This post details the process of this discussion and the next post will try and offer some kind of concrete statement without all the preamble. For background, go read the original post where i asked “What makes a Good Thinker?”

Are good thinkers born or grown?

From the general consensus of the dialogue, i think that we can all agree that good thinkers are moulded. But we are born with the ability to reason – i guess the growth comes in improving the facility with which we undertake the reasoning and thinking.

How do we measure what makes someone a Good thinker…?

At the heart of this question is a pragmatic one – is there a series of objective standard which we can follow?

Lastwordsmith began by protesting my desire for definition –

Oh dear. Must you really ruin intellectuals’ fun by asking them to define their terms?

Off the top of my head, I would say that some marks of a “good thinker” are as follows:

  1. Analytical ability (to distinguish discrete parts of a whole)
  2. Synthetical ability (to place parts into a whole)…
  3. Rational ability (to induce and deduce valid conclusions from premises)
  4. Rhetorical ability (to articulate thoughts cogently)
  5. Attention span (ability to sustain thought across many related concepts in sequence)

These qualities are related indirectly to characteristics like intuition, memory, observational abilities, and factual knowledge, without which sustained thought is not possible. In other words, the process of thought must have some raw material to work on.

There is, of course, a cultural element too. Someone who has all the qualities of what we consider a “great thinker” but who a) comes to culturally unacceptable conclusions or b) has too little material to work on.

DMW responded to my question:

Intriguing. Obviously, you’ve asked me to write as an outsider to the whole topic of good thinking. I can be the “before” example to someone else’s “after.” It can be a […] Dialogue in the style of the Greeks or Augustine!

Rose Bexar ( weighed in:

I think you did hit on an important point when you mentioned articulation; as Lewis says in “Christian Apologetics,”

“I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your
thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”

What I often find myself saying about non-fiction authors I really like is along the lines of “… That’s the best explanation of X I’ve read in a long time” (or “ever read”), and by best I usually mean clearest and most concise. For example, I once read an argument (I’ve forgotten the topic) as written by Aquinas and by Duns Scotus. It took me to the end of the Duns Scotus piece to figure out that he’d just said exactly the same thing Aquinas did, but half as clearly in twice as many words. To this day, I’d rather read the Dumb Ox than the Subtle Scot. And of course that’s what I love best about Lewis and Chesterton, too.

At this point I entered the conversation again to ask a few questions:

  • So am i right to place Rose’s persuasive promotion of the importance of the ability to articulate into Steve’s category “rhetorical ability”?
  • Does anyone have a problem with LastwordSmith’s categories?Are there other (slightly less academic) terms that could be used for your categories Steve?
  • DMW, why do you consider yourself an “outsider”?

LastWordSmith intejected with a hearty encouragement for a strident dialogue:

By all means, argue with me! I don’t do my best thinking at the keyboard. Three cheers for dialectic.

Which is great, seeing as that was the plan! Rose Bexar (a medievalist) responded to LastWordSmith and took the discussion in a slightly different direction:

I would say yes, though in my experience people (not including LastWordSmith) who applaud “rhetorical ability” usually mean “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Abelard was a great rhetorician, but Bernard had the more sound theology.

Rose Bexar hit on something that motivated this dialogue to begin with – the desire to assess rhetoric as expression of the quality or facility of “a thinker” had led me think about seeking out some other terms….At this point Dr. Cooper jumped in (she was unfortunately not “hanging” with us until now);

Geez, LastwordSmith, it’s like your smart or something. That was really well done! I’d like to highlight the last part of what LastwordSmith wrote, that “good thinking” is very culturally defined.

So there are brilliant thinkers whose conclusions are what the culture would define as immoral (one could postulate Mein Kampf as an example of this), or “good thinkers” who come from cultures that embrace concrete rather than abstract thinking. I only underscore Steve’s point here because academia is often (legitimately) criticized for failing to calculate morality in its definition of thinking, and equally failing to recognize the legitimacy of good thinking in less abstract cultures.

The only possible addition addition to LastWordSmith’s list I could make is intuition, the ability to extrapolate from known concepts to arrive at new or fresh concepts.

Mr Hill interceded to offer a clarification on quantity of qualities vs quality of qualities replete with “tangential story”:
Another issue is that the categories are those required for a “thinker,” and we have simply assumed that to be a “good thinker” one would need nothing more than to possess these characteristics in abundance.

tangential story I would suggest that character traits also must figure in. Odin was not the leader of the Norse gods because he was the most analytically clever or most rational, but because he was willing to give his eye in exchange for just a drink of wisdom. THEN he was counseled by the ravens Thought and Memory./tangential story…

i.e.- perhaps greatness in (anything)-thinking requires qualitative additions to those inherent in the nature of the activity.

A little bit hamstrung as a consequence of time difference JS entered the conversation with the following:
Anna this is a good topic. I would have to agree with Mr Hill. I think the difference between a ‘good thinker‘ and a ‘good logician’ is the ability to identify what is essential; what is really important. Logic can help with this but I think an over reliance on logic can be turn out ‘clever’ of ‘clear’ thinkers but not what I would call ‘good’. Logicians seem to often miss the wood for the trees. There is something more to it – wisdom is a good candidate.
If I may raise another issue… What grounds are we using to define it as ‘good’? Is it just efficiency or clarity? We really need to think a bit about what is the purpose of thinking.
(p.s. Thinking about thinking is so cool – the subject is the object!)

PGE then interjected to offer a “systematic” approach to the problem and begins to help clarify a definition of the qualities and the content with which a “good thinker” is concerned:
A good thinker, eh? Well, someone in any room is concerned with the problems, wants to know the plans, thinks of the unintended consequences, requests clarifications, considers motives, etc.

This is as much a matter of disposition as anything, and can be true for a variety of reasons–wanting to appear judicious, fear of betrayal, ambition, compassion, a sense of obligation to the giver of resources, etc.

When that person uses skillful means to unfold and respond to these concerns, and achieves results that others think are socially useful, then (until the next ad comes on) that person will be well thought of.

When that person’s concern for what we might call “systematic consequence,” skillfully pursued, is received as grace from God among the givenness of all things, and not allowed to languish before tracing the objects of concern back to “Him with whom we have to do,” then that person will begin to be like Christ, who said, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.”

NL appropriately brought those of us with our heads in the cloud bad down to earth with a thud and a sobering observation or two:
I think… you all make my head hurt!
Why must one quantify a good thinker? If one doesn’t fit the mold of “good thinker” are we (and yes, I use the term we purposefully) then automatically a “bad thinker”? Is thinking always an intellectual pursuit or can it contain “gut feelings” that can be expressed in concrete terms?

JK then brought us back (hermeneutically appropriate) to the beginning by addressing LastWordSmith’s original categories:
LastWordSmith, I love your categories, but let me throw out another suggestion to mix things up. What you’ve listed are skills that can help a person get from data to good conclusions, and to communicate those conclusions, but it seems like what makes a person a good thinker, what makes these skills the useful ones, is that these are the skills that get us to the goal we want to get to. If different things were considered good thoughts, then different skills would be necessary to get us to those thoughts, and so different skills would make us ‘good thinkers’. That makes me think that the best way to define a good thinker is in terms of ends rather than means. The good thinker is the one who gets to the end or purpose of thought. So, say for argument’s sake that truth is the object or end of thought. In that case, the good thinker is the thinker who gets to truth, plain and simple, and whatever strategies help get to truth make us good thinkers, whichever hinder us imply bad thinking.

JS responded to this line of thinking:
I agree that the idea of the ends defining the whole problem here. I think that is what Anna was picking up in the post that started this whole thing off. Being a ‘good thinker’ as Heidigger was at some level (though not if clarity of expression is your criteria) does not make for a ‘good person’. This is certainly a problem for rational, thoughtful types (like myself). If the cleverest, most rational people can end up as nazis, what hope is there? What role does rational argument and thought have in shaping us and directing us or is it mostly just justifications after the fact? What about something like the Socratic notion of the examined life? – Does good thinking have a role to play in being a good person?

Now we are getting somewhere! PGE then responded with his own definition.
It sounds like many are thinking of the “Bach at Auschwitz” problem as the final solution for inconvenient thoughts, ones which prolong our cognitive dissonance rather than permitting us to proclaim the eschaton immanent in what we now hold true.Saying “good thinkers are good people” ignores the number of good farmers who don’t know Revelation 3:20 isn’t about Jesus asking to come into unbelievers hearts. And saying “good thinking is what gets us to truth” just begs the question, “and how, pray tell, shall we get to truth?” It is not that these questions cannot be answered. But the answers will require thought.If pressed for a single sentence, I would say that what makes a good thinker *as such* is this: “A good thinker is concerned for the systematic consequences of his beliefs.”

I have to say – I like it when push starts coming to shove!
LastWordSmith came back to clarify his position and respond to the progress of the dialogue –
JK, yes you’re reading me aright. I was speaking of “thinking” largely in terms of means rather than ends. But if I may be permitted to revise my comments slightly, I wonder if a “good thinker” must have good beginnings, means, and ends. That is, he or she should start with true premises (so as Dr. Cooper said, Mein Kampf is out), proceed by way of valid logic, and arrive at sound conclusions. In reply to JS, I’d just like to suggest something G. K. Chesterton said in his bio of St. Thomas Aquinas (a GREAT thinker, if ever there was one): there is nothing in the world but logic. And fallacies.

TheOtherSteve piped in with his own Augustinian inspired contribution:
Playing with the Augustinian notion of evil (“badness,” to use the terms under consideration) as perverted good, allow me one comment: A good thinker is one whose thinking isn’t twisted – one who sees the Ultimate Good as the ultimate goal and who thinks in terms to reach toward that goal. To that end, logic (and ethos and pathos and all other supportive nonsense) can help us think through the pieces of goodness that have filtered into our limited sensibilities. Now, if that’s twisted at all, realize that my goal was good – but that, alas, I may have tangled my thinking and produced “bad” thinking instead.

PGE sought clarification from TheOtherSteve questioning his distinctions:
I wouldn’t agree that ethos and pathos are “supportive” of logos. As appeals, they are all united in any sound argument. logos without ethos, for example, has a time-honored name: sophistry.

The Other Steve responded with this clarification:
Sorry, I wasn’t clear – I meant logos and ethos and pathos, without intending any comment on the connections or lack of connections between the three…

I am going to try and distill this further, but i’d be interested in further conversation….so comment away!

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