How We Think We Think

by Philip W. Jackson - 2012

Background: The intellectual context of this essay is the nature of human thought as examined by philosophers and psychologists past and present.

Focus of study: The study focuses on the treatment of thinking by John Dewey in his two editions of ‘How We Think’ and by William James in his ‘Talks to Teachers’.

Research Design: This is a philosophical/interpretive essay.

Conclusions: The essay concludes that both James and Dewey addressed the nature of thinking too narrowly. A broader conception of thinking is urged. The implications for teachers are briefly discussed.


As all well-informed students of the writings of John Dewey know, especially if they are K-12 teachers or teacher educators, Dewey wrote a book entitled How We Think in 1909 (Dewey, 1910). A revised and expanded version came out in 1933 (Dewey, 1933). The book was written specifically for teachers because a large part of their work is so obviously devoted to the cultivation of clear thinking in their students.

The difference between the two editions of the book is instructive. Viewed quite concretely, it reveals an important shift in Dewey’s own way of thinking. It shows him moving toward a more moral view of thinking, augmenting one that is almost exclusively instrumental in its orientation. Viewed more abstractly, however, which is the outlook I shall adopt here, the difference between the two versions raises an important question about the normative nature of human thought in general. It asks, in effect, whether and how our thinking about thinking (and, by implication, about all other weighty matters whose content can be condensed to no more than the letters of a single word) can ever become truly definitive. The question, in a nutshell, is this: Is there a final conception to be reached with respect to any concept whatsoever, or is there only the latest or most recent conception?


In his preface to the second edition of How We Think, which bears the subtitle: “A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process,” Dewey notes three ways in which the revised version of his book differs from the original. He says,

“In the first place, although some material found in the original edition has been excised, there has been considerable expansion. . . . In the second place, the revision has been made with a view to increased definiteness and clearness of statement. . . . In the third place, changes will be evident in the parts devoted to teaching. These changes reflect the large changes that have taken place in schools, especially in the management of teaching and studying, since 1910 [sic], when the book first appeared.” (p. i)

He concludes his preface by thanking the many teachers whose experience in using the first edition of the book was put at his disposal.

The first two of those three kinds of change sound as though they were basically editorial in nature. They ostensibly have to do with expanding upon and clarifying what was said in the first edition. We will return to them in due course. The third kind of change, however, hints at a deeper reason for undertaking the revision. It remarks on “the large changes that have taken place in schools” since the book’s first appearance, some twenty-odd years earlier. Those changes, Dewey avers, have chiefly affected “the management of teaching and studying.” He then goes on to say that some of the teaching methods that he had earlier criticized “have now practically disappeared from the better schools.” As a result, adjustments have been made in the text. The chapter on “The Recitation,” he points out, is now practically all new. He offers that as illustration of changes made necessary by the march of time.

Let us start our exploration of those three acknowledged reasons for the revisions by looking a little more closely at what might have been going on to bring about the dramatic changes in teaching methods that Dewey mentions.

The preface to the first edition of How We Think begins by noting that “Our schools are troubled with a multiplication of studies, each in turn having its own multiplication of materials and principles.” It continues:

“Our teachers find their tasks made heavier in that they have come to deal with pupils individually and not merely in mass. Unless these steps in advance are to end in distraction, some clew of unity, some principle that makes for simplification must be found.” (Dewey, 1910, p. iii)

I would guess that what Dewey was referring to with his comment about the “multiplication of studies” was occasioned in large part by the popularity of the so-called child-study movement that attracted the attention of many educators around the turn of the century. Key to that movement was its advocacy of undertaking studies of individual children. That widely practiced recommendation had been initially propounded, coincidentally, by the writings of one of Dewey’s own former professors at Johns Hopkins: G. Stanley Hall. Dewey appears to be responding to what he sees as the possible ill effects of trying to comply with what had become a somewhat faddish educational activity. He seeks to simplify the task of teachers as a way of offering some relief from the many demands made upon them.


His response echoes a concern similar to the one expressed by William James a decade or so earlier in his famous Talks to Teachers. Warning of the possible deleterious effects of too much emphasis on child-study, James had said,

“The worst thing that can happen to a good teacher is to get a bad conscience about her profession because she feels herself hopeless as a psychologist. Our teachers are overworked already. Every one who adds a jot or a tittle of unnecessary weight to their burden is a foe of education . . . yet I know that child-study, and other pieces of psychology as well, have been productive of bad conscience in many a really innocent pedagogic breast. . . The best teacher may be the poorest contributor of child-study material, and the best contributor may be the poorest teacher. No fact is more palpable than this.” (James, 1899, pp. 13-14)

James’s remedy for that condition was to talk to teachers about psychology in a very low-key, down-to-earth manner. He aimed to put their anxieties to rest by assuring them that for most teachers a general view of psychology was quite enough. He even claimed that such a view “might almost be written on the palm of one’s hand.” (James, 1899, p. 12). Dewey’s remedy for treating a similar condition, at least as announced in the first edition of his book, reflects his conviction “that the needed steadying and centralizing factor is found in adopting as the end of endeavor that attitude of mind, that habit of thought, which we call scientific.” (Dewey, 1910, preface). He doesn’t go so far as to claim, as did James, that all that is needed for the adoption of that scientific attitude can be written on the palm of one’s hand, but he does insist that its content is quite relevant to teaching children and youth. He further claims that its “recognition in educational practice would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste.”(Dewey, 1910, preface).


The Table of Contents that immediately follows Dewey’s Preface to the first edition of How We Think presents the book’s structure in outline form. It is divided into three parts under the headings: I. THE PROBLEM OF TRAINING THOUGHT, II. LOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS, and III. THE TRAINING OF THOUGHT. Cursorily described, the first part explains why the training of thought is necessary, the second introduces a number of logical terms that describe different aspects of thinking, the third explains how to make use of those distinctions in promoting what Dewey calls ‘reflective thought’. That tripartite structure of the book is retained in the second edition.


The Table of Contents of James’s Talks to Teachers makes no mention of the word ‘thought’ or the word ‘thinking’ but it does cover much the same ground that Dewey subsequently traverses. Its fifteen chapters begin with one entitled “Psychology and the Teaching Art” and end with one entitled “The Will.” Separating them are chapters with titles like “The Law of Habit,” “The Association of Ideas,” “Attention,” “Memory,” and so forth. Their textbook-ish character closely resembles the chapter titles in James’s famous Principles of Psychology which had appeared in 1890.

In sum, both books, the one by James and the one by Dewey, offer a mixture of psychological and philosophical ruminations on the nature of human cognition. Both are aimed at an audience of teachers. James speaks mainly of psychological matters, broadly considered; Dewey focuses more narrowly on the activity of thinking. Both authors proffer their expositions with an air of consummate authority.


Perhaps it is now time to turn at least preliminarily to an explication of the two ‘we’s that appear in the title of this essay. They obviously refer to two different groups of people, which necessitates the pronoun’s repetition.

The second ‘we’.

The second ‘we’, which echos the ‘we’ that stands alone in the title of both editions of Dewey’s book, is best read, I would say, as referring to humans in general. It includes us all. Its broad inclusiveness, however, remains limited. Its coverage leaves the door open to the possibility of there being other organisms, either here on earth or elsewhere in the universe, who also might be said to think and whose mode of thinking could possibly be investigated and described. That possibility aside, the universality of Dewey’s solitary ‘we’ stands unchallenged.

The first ‘we’.

The first ‘we’ in the title I am employing here, however, poses a quite different interpretive problem. Its reference is ambiguous to the point of causing genuine puzzlement. Its readiest interpretation is probably something like: ‘we today’ or, a bit more expansively, ‘we in this day and age’. Thus read, it refers to how all well-informed persons presently think, or should think, about how ‘we humans’ think.

‘We’ historically considered.

However, that reading, so easily reached, raises other questions that emerge almost immediately. To begin, we quickly realize that how ‘we’ think about thinking today is by no means the same as how it was thought about in generations past. Times change and our thinking about almost everything changes with them. (This likely accounts for some of the methodological changes that Dewey referred to as having occurred in our present day management of teaching and studying.) Moreover, it follows from that general observation that the way we think about thinking today is surely not the way we will think about it in the not-too-distant future. Our present thinking, in other words, is always historically conditioned.

Thus the How We Think of Dewey’s title, which sounded so very confident when first proclaimed, begins to lose some of its appeal. As soon as we acknowledge its temporal confinement we come to realize that its foundation rests on shifting sands.

To make matters worse, that’s just the beginning of our coming to grips with the ambiguity of the meaning of that first ‘we’ in my title. Other difficulties await and do not take long to emerge.

‘We’ as a select group of today’s population.

It could be, for example, that my first ‘we’ refers not to all who inhabit a particular historical epoch but only to a very circumscribed subset of those individuals. Keeping in mind the difference between Dewey’s and James’s professional orientations, which has already been mentioned, the first ‘we’ of the title could, on the one hand, be announcing ‘how we philosophers think we think. That would bring it closer to Dewey’s intention. Or it could, on the other hand, be announcing ‘how we psychologists think we think’, which would be closer to what James seems to have intended. One might anticipate considerable overlap in those two outlooks, as has been said, but they hardly need be identical.

Or as a subset of that select group.

Greater ambiguity lies in store. For the difference between philosophy  and psychology, broadly considered, may still be far too gross to catch what either author truly intended. There are several different kinds of both philosophical and psychological outlooks. We sometimes even refer to the proponents of those different outlooks as belonging to particular ‘schools’ of thought. A Freudian view of thinking, for example, differs quite dramatically from a behaviorist view, though both might be called psychological in a generic sense. Within philosophy, a Kantian view differs from a Hegelian view, though both are properly classified as philosophical. And so on.

Dewey’s intellectual precursors.

Dewey’s view in How We Think, as an instance, is heavily influenced by the perspectives adopted by leading British empiricists, logicians, and natural scientists. He mentions by name: Bacon, Locke, Mill, Venn, Darwin, and Jevons. He does not, however, name any of the famous German philosophers, such as Kant and Hegel, nor any of the most venerated Greek thinkers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. At the same time, to be perfectly fair, he does make abundant use of philosophical terms and ideas that owe their origins to both the Germans and the Greeks. So his philosophical outlook is considerably broader than his cited references allow.

James’s intellectual precursors.

James seems far more eclectic than Dewey in the sources he draws upon. He does at least mention Plato and Aristotle, along with Spinoza, which is clearly a nod in the direction of philosophy, but in the main he mostly attends to empirical investigations undertaken by his fellow psychologists or ones that he himself has conducted. He also, incidentally, makes use of far more concrete examples of psychological phenomena drawn directly from teaching than does Dewey, which may seem a bit odd, given Dewey’s lengthy immersion in the world of educational practice.

The important point is that each author is giving his initial audience, or in Dewey’s case his readers, a particular take on the ‘we’ who is addressing the question of how we think. This raises the further question of whether the first ‘we’ in my title is best read as not referring to a specific group of people at all, nor even to the possessor of a broadly shared ‘outlook’. What it comes down to, in effect, is that the first ‘we’ of my title inevitably turns out to be a thinly veiled ‘I’, a solitary individual (in the cases of Dewey and James, both men of note, of course) who is telling his listeners or his readers how he, John or William, influenced by his knowledge of what certain other people say and do, thinks we think. That cannot help but be the case if we assume that both authors stand behind their words. They both, we may presume, are stating something that they truly and deeply believe.

From how ‘we’ think to how ‘I’ think.

That being said, it now looks as though my initial “how we think we think,” which began as a qualified rewording of Dewey’s How We Think, has morphed by stages into the far more modest: “how I think we think.” We started off by treating our first ‘we’ in historical terms, then as a position taken by members of a guild or profession, then as one taken by a subset of such members. Now we have reduced it to a very personal reference: a single individual. Is that a problem? Should that far more modest reference arouse our alarm?

It need not if we make certain assumptions about the individual to whom it refers. If we assume that the individual is speaking as an expert, as someone credited or credentialed with considerable knowledge and experience concerning the matter at hand, we need hardly be concerned at all. Indeed, we may be extremely pleased to hear from just such a person. The word of the expert is always welcome. This comes close to what goes on all the time in teaching. Teachers speak as individuals whose status is somewhat elevated, which gives them the right to expound their own views. They at least profess to know more than their students.

What this means insofar as the topic of thinking is concerned is that each of the two authors is expressing his own subjective opinion, albeit a very informed one, which is itself open to change. Indeed, Dewey’s opinion about how we think must have changed between the years 1909 and 1933 or he would not have undertaken a revision of his book.

The editorial changes in Dewey’s second edition.

But was it just his opinion about the book’s content that had changed or did he come to think differently about how we think? This question, which may sound a bit odd at first, returns us to the initial two reasons that Dewey gives in his Preface for undertaking his revisions. Recall that he reported that some material found in original edition had been excised and that its content had also undergone “considerable expansion.” He further  explained that the revision had been made “with a view to increased definiteness and clearness of statement.” He concluded by thanking “the many teachers” whose experience in using the first edition had been put at his disposal.

Those changes, along with the thanks, sounded basically editorial to me in both their thrust and their substance, as I remarked at the start, They therefore can be easily dismissed as relatively unimportant, one might assume, or so my remark implied. Now it is time to take a closer look at that easy dismissal in order to consider what it might have inadvertently  prompted us to overlook.

The question is this: can changes in a manuscript (or even in a single sentence, for that matter) that are readily describable as ‘editorial’ ever be merely that? Are they not changes in the expression of the ideas conceived? If so, are they not, thereby, changes in how someone currently thinks the manuscript or statement should be or should have been expressed? Are they not, in a word, proposed improvements of the original?

When the changes are made or approved by the author who wrote the original statement how can they but help reflect a change, albeit a very subtle one at times, of course, in how that person presently thinks of the matter at hand? It is quite possible, I suppose, that an author may look at a rewritten sentence or even an entire manuscript and say something like, “Well, that’s obviously more clearly expressed than it was at the start but it hasn’t really changed my fundamental way of thinking about the matter at hand. I still contend that such-and-such is the case. I haven’t changed my mind on that.” But is that so? Is that author being totally honest with himself or herself? I tend to think not. I would say that if the author is responsible for those changes or accepts them with approval, his doing so constitutes a change in his own way of thinking not just about the niceties of expression but also about the matter at hand. Yes, he may still believe such-and-such to be the case, but his contention of clinging firmly to his original position strikes me as a bit defensive in tone. He seemingly seeks to underplay the importance of striving for more effective communication. But why? When we communicate more effectively to others, aren’t we also communicating to ourselves?

The ubiquity of thought.

My wife has three hobbies, none of which I share. She knits, she does crossword puzzles (using a pen!), and she reads detective stories, almost voraciously. Is she thinking while doing any of those three things? You’d better believe she is. Her thoughts are going a mile a minute when she is so engaged, as is evident from her slight frown and her look of complete concentration. Yet, she’s also in a state of relaxed comfort under those conditions most of the time. That too is evident. Watching her while so engaged on countless such occasions, got me to thinking recently about the narrowness of Dewey’s conception of the forms that thought takes.

Dewey’s taxonomy of thought.

In How We Think Dewey divides various forms of thought into four categories. He first mentions an “uncontrolled coursing of ideas through our heads” (Dewey, 1933, p. 4), which he labels “The Stream of Consciousness.” He next lists “successions of imaginative incident and episodes,” which, he explains, “often precede thinking of the close-knit type.” These “imaginative enterprises,” he goes on to say, form “a mental picture of something not actually present” (p. 5). In third place he posits thoughts that are “practically synonymous with belief”(p. 6). These, he says, “grow up unconsciously. They are picked up — we know not how”( p. 7) Where do such thoughts come from? Dewey’s answer: “Tradition, instruction, imitation — all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion — are responsible for them” (p. 7).

Those three rudimentary forms of thought bring us, or at least they brought Dewey, to reflective thinking, which he formally defines as: Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends (p. 9). In short, reflective thinking consists of “a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of evidence and rationality”(p. 9). That effort, when properly undertaken, constitutes the scientific method.

Dewey’s brief stab at a rough-and-ready taxonomy of thought has some merit as a heuristic device, one must say. It at least gets us thinking, as the saying goes, which is all to the good. But it remains terribly crude and hastily drawn all the same. It has nowhere near the explanatory power of Kant’s famous distinction between understanding, on the one hand, and reasoning on the other. Indeed, if anything, it tends to blur that useful distinction. Nor does it leave room for Hegel’s valuable addition to Kant’s conception of rationality — his emphasis on the importance of speculative thought and dialectical reasoning.

Yet when it comes to a full appreciation of thought’s richness, all such broad classifications, including those of Kant and Hegel, fail to do thought justice. They overlook the incredible variety of forms that thought can take. To better appreciate that variety calls for our coming to see that all of human action, which includes everything we do with conscious intent, is guided or at least accompanied by thought of one kind or another. The sports fan watching a ball game, the players on the field, the woman knitting or sewing, the stroller walking through the park, all are engaged in thinking, though we may not want to call it that when deliberating on thought’s logical contours. We watch, we guess, we wonder, we picture, we wish, we puzzle, we joke, we judge, we worry, we pray. Each of those cerebral activities constitutes a form of thinking made distinctive by its particular content.

The ‘how’ of thinking

Let us now turn, rather belatedly perhaps, to the first word of Dewey’s title, the tiny word: how, which I have also employed as the first word of my title. How we think, is what Dewey purports to explain. But what does that ‘how’ mean?

It appears to mean something like: how thinking works in a technical or mechanical sense. For that is what Dewey winds up describing. He offers several key illustrations of how thinking proceeds, or how it should proceed, when the thinker is faced with an empirical problem of one kind or another. He outlines the steps to be taken in solving such problems. All of Dewey’s illustrations of thought in action reduce to examples of ‘reflective thought’ analytically considered, or so Dewey would have us believe.

The trouble I have with the ‘how’ of thinking thus interpreted is that it closes more doors than it opens. It depicts thought as a kind of game that abides by a rather narrow set of rules. It moves in the direction of saying: “When faced with a problem, here’s what to do — STEP 1, STEP 2, STEP 3.” Dewey never becomes that simple-minded in his advice-giving, of course, but the tendency to reduce thinking to a mechanical operation is there, all the same.

I said near the start that, in the second edition of How We Think, Dewey moves toward a more moral view of thinking than the one he takes in the first edition, “augmenting” as I put it, “one that is almost exclusively instrumental in its orientation.” He does so by newly emphasizing the importance of a set of attitudes or dispositions that are essential to the effective execution of thought yet are far from mechanical in nature. Those to which he gives special attention he refers to as “open-mindedness,” “whole-heartedness,” and “responsibility.”(Dewey, 1933, p. 33). He also calls them “traits of character.” After briefly explaining what each of those terms stands for, he points out that:

“They are not the only attitudes that are important in order that the habit of thinking in a reflective way may be developed. But the other attitudes that might be set forth are also traits of character, attitudes, that, in the proper sense of the word, are moral, since they are traits of personal character that have to be cultivated.” (p. 33).

They thus have far less to do with how we should think in some mechanical, step-by-step, fashion than with how we should live our lives as moral agents if we are to think effectively.

The suggestion that a thinker might benefit by adopting a set of moral attitudes or dispositions raises the question of whether the relationship might be reciprocal. Might morality and thinking, in other words, be somehow mutually reinforcing? It makes sense to suspect that they might be. For if traits of personal character operate like habits “that have to be cultivated,” one would expect them to be strengthened through practice. Thus, thinking with what Dewey calls: an “open-minded” attitude, let’s say, ought to increase one’s open-mindedness. That possibility leads rather naturally to the larger question of what other benefits the activity of thought might be said to deliver. That question, which reduces to: Why bother to think?, is the one to which we now turn.

The benefits of thought

Suppose Dewey had titled his book: Why We Think instead of How We Think. How might its contents have differed from that of either edition of the book he actually wrote? Its focus would certainly have changed. The shift from ‘how’ to ‘why’ is basically a move from process to purpose, or as philosophers might say, from ontology to teleology. That switch would have been bound to make a difference. Yet there likely would remain a strong family resemblance between the differently titled versions. Why so? Chiefly because purpose and process are intimately interconnected. They cannot help but affect each other. That said, approaching the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions separately remains a useful exercise. Doing so helps to highlight some of the key shortcomings of Dewey’s book. It also, however, helps to reveal some of the book’s strengths, which might otherwise go unnoticed. What follows, therefore, are six answers to the question: why think at all?

1) Thinking as necessary for the survival of the species. To start, thinking is biologically determined. We think because we have to. We have no choice in the matter. We can’t help it. We enter the world hardwired as thinkers. We are endowed by nature to do so. Were we unable to think, we would have disappeared as a species long ago.

This is what might be called ‘a Darwinian’ account of thought. It explains in teleological terms thought’s primacy as a human trait. Its orientation is basically naturalistic. It is the kind of explanation favored by today’s evolutionary biologists.

Dewey was strongly attracted to that naturalistic point of view. He admired Darwin as a scientist whose work and writings demonstrated, in Dewey’s words, “how scientific notions make explicit the systematizing tendency involved in all use of concepts.” (Dewey, 1933, p. 153). Dewey, in short, was a closet Darwinian throughout most of his life. He was biologically and evolutionarily oriented, though he also maintained strong humanistic interests which emerged most clearly in his post-retirement years.

2) Thinking as practically beneficial. Thinking helps the individual. It delivers us, one by one, from many of the fixes we get into. It helps us solve immediate problems, such as what to do about a flat tire or how to work out a balanced budget.

This is the type of benefit that Dewey tends to emphasize. It fits his temperament as a down-to-earth New Englander who liked to see things get done in the here-and-now. It explains his embrace of pragmatism as a philosophical position. Yet thinking as a problem-solving activity, where ‘the problem’ one faces is chiefly one of navigating one’s way in a practical sense, tends to downplay its many other benefits.

3) Thinking as sport, as an immediate source of pleasure. The engine of thought brings joy even when idling. We delight in thinking sheerly as an intellectual exercise. We often go out of our way to indulge in thought for its own sake. Consider the amount time people spend working on puzzles, doing Double-Crostics, and solving riddles. Why do they spend time at such useless tasks? Principally, because it’s fun, I would say. Moreover, we don’t always need an external stimulus such as a crossword puzzle to elicit such profitless yet enjoyable thinking. Even with our eyes closed, we often entertain daydreams and reminiscences for no other reason than the pleasure they bring.

Dewey, I fear, was not very tolerant of this kind of playful, undisciplined thinking, though he does acknowledge that it takes place and even consumes much of our time. He observes, almost ruefully I would say, that  

“More of our waking life than most of us would care to admit is whiled away in this inconsequential trifling with mental pictures, random recollections, pleasant but unfounded hopes, flitting, half-developed impressions.” (Dewey, 1933, p. 4)

He then quickly adds: “In this sense, silly folk and dullards think.” The italics added to the word ‘think’ in that statement are obviously intended as a touch of irony. He then goes on to tell a joke about a politician who tells his constituents, “I hear you don’t believe I know enough to hold office. I wish you to understand that I am thinking about something or other most of the time”(p. 4).

Dewey intends the politician’s statement to evoke a guffaw or at least an indulgent smile on the part of his readers. And I suppose for many it does just that. But there is a sense in which the statement is no joke at all. In fact, it describes the human condition almost perfectly. We all are “thinking about something or other most of the time.” We are just not doing so in a way that Dewey considers proper. We are not engaged in what Dewey calls “reflective thought,” by which he means thought that is carefully and assiduously undertaken. That state of affairs, for Dewey, constitutes a shortcoming to be overcome.

Is Dewey’s intolerance on this point to be read as a shortcoming of its own, a defect in his own way of thinking about thinking? Yes, I believe it has to be so considered, though it is by no means a shortcoming unique to Dewey. Rather, it is the way “most thinkers and scholars,” according to Nietzsche, look upon thinking. “They think,” Nietzsche continues,

“of every necessity as a need, a painstaking having-to-follow and being-forced; and they consider thinking itself as a something slow and sluggish, almost a toil and often enough “worth the sweat of the noble. Not in their wildest dreams would they think of it as light, divine, and closely related to dance and high spirits! “Thinking” and “treating an issue seriously,” “with gravity”—these belong together, according to most thinkers and scholars: that is the only way they have “experienced” it—.”(Hortsmann & Norman, 2002, p. 108).

Without crediting Nietzsche with having hit the nail on the head, we must admit that he does have a point. It is certainly the case for most of us, whether or not we rank with those considered to be “thinkers and scholars”, that when in our everyday affairs we accuse others of “not thinking” we usually mean that they are not thinking logically or carefully. We too, in other words, tend to limit thinking to thinking of a certain kind. There are, however, other ways of thinking, not all of which deserve to be greeted with derision. It is possible to think playfully as well as seriously, imaginatively as well as literally. Dewey’s insertion of a joke in his otherwise serious exposition makes just that point, though he seems to be unaware of having done so.

4) Thinking as a quest for ultimacy. Under certain extreme conditions thinking can begin to resemble a mountain climber’s assault on Everest. Those who push thought to its limits actually  enjoy reaching for the possibly unattainable. They like to breathe deeply where the air is thin. Consider, as an instance, the Blessed Man mentioned in the first verse of Psalm One of the Hebrew Bible. He delights in the Law of the Lord, the psalmist proclaims; he enjoys meditating on that law, not just once in a while but day and night. Moreover, he does so not simply because thinking, when positively oriented, is almost always intrinsically pleasant. His delight is far more focused than that. It emanates from the content of his thoughts. His mode of thinking brings him ever closer to that content, he believes, which for him is of ultimate importance.

To think about what is of ultimate importance to us is, then, for most of us, to focus on a topic whose content occupies our thoughts for long stretches of time. It is not just the religious person meditating on the Law of the Lord who thinks in that way. It is the chemist thinking about chemistry, the doctor thinking about medicine, the mathematician thinking about mathematics. It is anybody thinking about whatever matters most to them. It is thought that has become infatuated, obsessed by its content, thought that has turned into something of an occupation, whether or not it becomes the actual source of a person’s livelihood. It is, in short, thought that has fallen in love with its object from afar. The ‘from afar’ has to be added because what the thinker is really in love with turns out to be a chimera, an idealized image of her object, one that she will never encounter save as fantasized.

5) Thinking as a means of enriching quotidian experience. We think in part because it enriches our everyday lives. It changes our perception of our surroundings. Indeed, it is what allows us to perceive the world, rather than simply see it. It refreshes us by endowing that world with new meaning. As Dewey puts it:

“The great reward of exercising the power of thinking is that there are no limits to the possibility of carrying over into the objects and events of life, meaning originally acquired by thoughtful examination and hence no limit to the continual growth of meaning in human life” (Dewey, 1938, p. 21).

He continues:

“A child today may see meanings in things that were hidden from Ptolemy and Copernicus because of the results of reflective investigations that have occurred in the meantime” (p. 21).

Dewey is certainly right about one of the great rewards of thinking being the extension of meaning, but his extension of that insight misses the boat, I would say. Today’s students may indeed see meaning in things that were hidden from Ptolemy and Copernicus centuries ago, but that is not the source of their delight. What pleases them most of all, as every teacher knows, is being able to see what they themselves failed to see but minutes before.

Thinking that enriches quotidian experience satisfies what might be called our ‘idle’ curiosity. It informs us of something we didn’t know and might never have previously inquired into in any penetrating sense. It thus is quite unlike the thinking of the specialist who seeks to extend the boundaries of the known not only for himself but for the world at large. It is sort of like the thinking that goes on when reading a magazine in an airport or a dentist’s office.

6) Thinking as an exercise of freedom. Finally, thinking, properly conceived, is the consummate act of human freedom. As humans, we are not only free to think, we are most free when thinking. Only then are we fully exercising our distinctly human potential. Both Dewey and James come to that same conclusion.

Dewey says,

“The discipline that is identical with trained power is also identical with freedom. For freedom is power to act and to execute independent of external tutelage. It signifies mastery capable of independent exercise, emancipated from the leading strings of others, not merely unhindered external operation” (Dewey, 1933, p. 87).

He concludes:

“Genuine freedom, in short, is intellectual; it rests in the trained power of thought, in ability to ‘turn things over,’ to look at matters deliberately, to judge whether the amount and kind of evidence requisite for decision is at hand, and if not, to tell where and how to seek such evidence” (p. 90).

James ends his Talks to Teachers with a lecture entitled ‘The Will.’ As he explains, “Since mentality terminates naturally in outward conduct, the final chapter in psychology has to be the chapter on the will.” (p. 169). In the midst of that chapter, after spending considerable time discussing what he calls ‘the law of ideo-motor action,’ James turns to the teacher’s task, which he says “is to build up a character in your pupils.” That task, which he calls “a moral effort,” consists in teaching students to hold fast to an appropriate idea. He further explains:

“If, then, you are asked, ‘In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest form?’ you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory” (James, 1899, pp. 186-187).

To think is the secret of will, James concludes. It is what makes ‘willing’ possible. Whereas to ‘will’ is to break free of circumstance. It is to escape from the clutches of fate, at least partially.

James ends his Talks to Teachers with the following sentiment:

“I cannot but think that to apperceive your pupil as a little sensitive, impulsive, associative and receptive organism, partly fated and partly free, will lead to a better intelligence of all his ways. Understand him, then, as a subtle little piece of machinery. And if, in addition, you can see him sub specie boni, and love him as well, you will be in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers” (p. 196).

The dual task of understanding one’s pupil as “a subtle little piece of machinery” but also looking upon him “sub specie boni”, which is to say: with a loving eye, calls for a kind of thinking that is not always easy to enact. It brings to mind the difficult task facing today’s physician who has been forced to become increasingly objective as a result of great advances in medical science yet who must remain compassionate and subjective in dealing with her patients. Teachers, fortunately, do not face conditions quite as extremely objective as those faced by today’s physicians. Perhaps they never will, which may be what led James to suggest that all the psychology they need know can be written on the palm of one’s hand.

Yet teachers, I would insist, must aspire to do more than turn their students into well-oiled thinking machines whom they may also (“in addition,” as James says) look upon lovingly. They must consider the ‘why’ of thinking, not just its ‘how’. Moreover, they must do so with generosity. To that end, they need adopt a favorable attitude toward the many benefits of thinking, all of which a well-balanced and morally attuned education is virtually obliged to further.


Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston: DC Heath and Company.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston, New York & London: Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.

James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: and to students on some of life's ideals. New York: H. Holt & Co.

Hortsmann, R-P., & Norman, J. (2002). Nietzsche: Beyond good and evil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 2, 2012, p. 1-17 ID Number: 16243, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:01:32 PM

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