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Lesson Explainer: What Is Thinking? Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to explain the meaning and importance of thinking.

Are you thinking right now?

If you are reading this, then you must be thinking. Thinking is necessary to understand words and their meanings.

Thinking is any activity of the mind. For example, when we are trying to solve a problem or even just to make sense of the world, we are thinking.

 a woman thinking
Figure 1: A woman thinking.

Key Term: Thinking

Thinking is any activity of the mind, such as the activity involved in making sense of the world or solving problems.

Key Term: Ideas

Ideas are what thinking produces. When a person thinks, they have thoughts, or ideas.

Are you thinking about anything besides what you are reading?

Sometimes, people get distracted. A person might be distracted by their regret about something they said to one of their friends or they might be worried about an upcoming exam.

Sometimes, it can be hard to focus on, and only think about, one thing.

Whether you are distracted or very focused on reading, there is no doubt that you are thinking.

Example 1: An Example of Thinking

Which of the following is an example of thinking?

  1. Planning for the future
  2. Training for a race
  3. Wandering around town
  4. Shopping for a shirt
  5. Playing with a soccer ball

Answer

Any of our activities may involve thinking.

For example, if someone is training for a race, they might be thinking about whether they should be pacing themselves or going into a sprint.

However, they may be able to clear their head of all thoughts so that they are not thinking at all.

There are also activities that require thinking.

For example, no one can shop for a shirt without deciding which shirts they like and finally choosing a favorite. Decisions and choices are impossible without thinking.

However, only one of the activities listed is itself an example of thinking: planning for the future. Planning for the future is just thinking and nothing else. Therefore, the correct answer is A.

Thinking is an ability that is shared by all people.

We possess the ability to think by nature. That means that we do not need to be taught to think.

Example 2: The Nature of Thinking

Fill in the blank: Thinking is .

  1. a habit we acquire from our culture
  2. an ability possessed only by a few geniuses
  3. a natural human faculty
  4. a skill that needs to be taught
  5. an ability we have lost in the technological age

Answer

Humans think without having to be taught how or having to acquire the habit from the cultural context we grow up in.

It is an ability that belongs to all humans, not just to a few geniuses.

Although the technological age has changed the way that we think, it has not made us lose the ability to think.

Thinking is an ability that belongs to humans by nature. Therefore, the correct answer is C.

Thinking is such a fundamental part of what makes us human that biologists classify the human species as Homo sapiens, which is Latin for “wise man.”

Older traditions in philosophy identify humans as “rational animals” because we are the animals that are capable of reason and thinking.

It is not easy to say whether humans are the only animals that think. In part, that is because it depends on how we define thinking.

However, what is certain is that humans surpass other animals in the complexity of our thinking.

We also surpass other animals in our ability to communicate complex thoughts to each other through language.

A group of chimpanzees
Figure 2: A group of chimpanzees. Many animals communicate with each other, however the complexity of human communication through language is unique.

Example 3: Thinking and Human Nature

Fill in the blank: Humans are called Homo sapiens because is essential to human nature.

  1. making tools
  2. war
  3. thinking
  4. agriculture
  5. laughing

Answer

There are many things that humans do, including laughing, making tools, going to war, and engaging in agriculture.

Nevertheless, we could imagine humans that did not do any of those things, and they would still be humans.

However, it would be impossible to imagine humans that do not think. That is because thinking is essential to human nature; we could not be what we are without it.

It is because thinking is essential to human nature that biologists classify the human species as Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man.” Therefore, the correct answer is C.

Our thinking is affected by features of our experiences. What we perceive and feel in the moment affects our thoughts, but so do our past experiences and existing knowledge.

Our thinking is also affected by our own particular needs, motives, habits, and values. For example, if it is your habit to eat dessert after every meal, you may start to think about dessert whenever you have a meal. You could be eating Koshary but thinking about the chocolate bar you are going to eat afterward.

Thinking also affects aspects of our character, such as our habits. If we have dessert after our meals, we will think about dessert more, and thinking about dessert will make us more likely to eat dessert, rush through our meals, and buy sugary foods.

Even though thinking is in many ways what is most private and personal to each of us, thinking is not done in a vacuum. What we think is influenced by the world we are in and the lives we live.

Example 4: Thinking and Individual Character

Thinking is something people do, and people have habits, feelings, values, desires, and past experiences. What is the relationship between these aspects of their character and their thinking?

  1. Thinking and the character of the thinker have nothing to do with each other.
  2. Thinking affects and is affected by the thinker’s character.
  3. Thinking is affected by the thinker’s character.
  4. The thinker’s character is affected by their thinking.
  5. The relationship between thinking and the character of the thinker depends on the thinking and on the thinker’s character.

Answer

There is a relationship between thinking and the character of the person doing the thinking.

The relationship is one that goes both ways. That is, thinking both affects and is affected by the thinker’s character.

Therefore, the correct answer is B.

We do some of our most focused thinking when we are attempting to understand or explain things and when we are solving problems.

When we are faced with something that we do not understand and cannot explain, only thinking can help us understand it. Often, facing something we do not understand will stimulate our thinking.

Problem solving requires some of our most focused and deliberate thinking. By thinking, we are able to solve some of the problems we face.

Example 5: An Example of Explanation

Which of the following is an example of explanation?

  1. I am annoyed that I did not get a good grade.
  2. If I study harder, I can get a good grade.
  3. Dina got a better grade than I did.
  4. I do not really care about grades.
  5. I did not get a good grade because I did not study.

Answer

Not everything that we might think in response to a stimulus is an explanation.

After receiving a bad grade, a person might notice that they are annoyed, reflect on the fact that a classmate got a better grade, or tell themselves that they do not really care about grades. They may also tell themselves that they need to study harder in order to get a better grade. However, none of these provide an explanation.

Of the above options, only noticing that they did not get a good grade because they did not study constitutes an explanation.

Therefore, the correct answer is E.

Although thinking is something we do naturally, it can be improved. By making ourselves better thinkers, we can understand the world better and solve our problems more effectively.

There are many ways to improve our thinking abilities. For example, we can study the great philosophers, scientists, artists, and religious thinkers. This will expose us to new and challenging ideas.

It is worthwhile to improve our thinking because thinking has many benefits for the individual and society.

Let’s examine some of the benefits of good thinking.

Thinking can improve a person’s mental health. By thinking about the challenges we face in our lives, we are often able to understand them better. Sometimes, a better understanding of the challenges we face enables us to solve or adapt to them.

Thinking can improve a person’s chances of professional success. Whatever job a person does, thinking well can help them do it better. Indeed, for many jobs, excellent thinking is a necessity.

two women discussing in office
Figure 3: Two women having a discussion in a professional environment. Highly developed thinking abilities are crucial to a person’s ability to communicate and solve problems at work.

Thinking can help us reflect critically on the thoughts and opinions we are presented with. Good thinking empowers us to analyze the ideas we are presented with, assess their value, and criticize them when needed. This capacity for critical thinking enables us to avoid being influenced by appealing but ultimately bad ideas.

Society functions better when the people that belong to it think well. Society needs people who are excellent problem solvers and can exercise good judgment.

Figure 4: Some of the benefits of good thinking.

Example 6: Individual Benefits of Thinking

Why does thinking analytically and critically benefit individuals?

  1. It enables them to avoid being influenced by bad ideas.
  2. It enables them to immediately reject unfamiliar ideas.
  3. It enables the individual to prove that they are always right.
  4. It enables them to avoid having to think about new ideas.
  5. It enables them to discover the truth.

Answer

We can only think analytically or critically about an idea if we take the time to understand it. Because we cannot understand an idea if we reject it immediately or avoid thinking about it, the answer cannot be B or D.

Thinking critically may allow an individual to prove that they are right, but it can also reveal to an individual that they are wrong. That is because criticism should be applied to one’s own beliefs as well as to the beliefs of others.

Thinking critically may allow us to discover the truth. However, sometimes the truth can escape even the most excellent thinkers.

Thinking critically can be counted on to enable us to avoid being influenced by bad ideas, whether they are our own or the ideas of others and whether they are old or new. Therefore, the answer is A.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • Thinking is any activity of the mind.
  • Thinking is an ability that is shared by all people.
  • Humans possess the ability to think by nature.
  • Humans surpass other animals in the complexity of our thinking.
  • Thinking is communicated through language.
  • Thinking often occurs in response to stimuli.
  • We think to understand and explain things.
  • We think to solve problems.
  • The course of our thinking determines and is determined by features of our personality and experience.
  • Improving our thinking is worthwhile because thinking has many benefits for the individual and society.
  • Thinking can improve a person’s mental health.
  • Thinking can improve a person’s chances of professional success.
  • Thinking can help us reflect critically on the thoughts and opinions we are presented with.

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