The Lonely Thinker’s Path

Nowadays, we strongly emphasize emotion. Our IQs seem to matter little while our EQs loom large. I thought it would be useful to remind ourselves of what it means to be a thinker.

Plato as Imagined by Raphael

With the emphasis now on feelings are we, as a society, losing sight of the value of thinking? (Image: public domain)

The Desire of Knowledge

French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges writes: “The desire of knowledge defines our intelligence as a vital force … it is the thinker’s special characteristic to be obsessed by the desire for knowledge.”

In other words, for the thinker, the acquisition of knowledge is an emotionally important idea. It is what American psychologist Carl Rogers would call a “subjectively formed guiding principle.” This means acquiring knowledge is one of the primary objects of the thinker’s authentic will. The activity is not an add-on, an external “interest” he has acquired; it is a fundamental part of his self and personality. The behaviour will have been there from early childhood remaining unrecognized until the thinker matures and turns to matters that are more serious and noteworthy.

We All “See” Differently

The French philosopher and political theorist Félicité Lamennais had this insight while standing on the seashore in a storm: “Everyone looks at what I am looking at, but no one sees what I see.”

The statement expresses the reality of individual subjectivity. Lamennais might have said, “… but no one feels what I feel.” Each of us has his own unique set of feeling tones (moods), and no two people will respond to a situation – or knowledge – with exactly the same feeling tone. This reality makes every thinker (and every person) unique. Since the human brain stores data in structures that combine idea with feeling tone, no two thinkers will approach an idea or a problem in quite the same way. Their every memory and thought is irrevocably “coloured” by mood.

The Thinker as Filter and Recipient

Sertillanges: “A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.”

This is true for everyone. Thinkers just do it so much better than the rest. They expose themselves to higher quality material or deliberately seek out experiences that will enhance their understanding. Each book they read, each experience they encounter, leaves a little something behind, adds something to their growing store of knowledge, their cache of precious understanding. Each book, each experience, means there is more illumination in the psyche. The filter is catching the residue. Eventually, the thinker makes these captured emotion-tagged ideas, memories, and insights their own as they consciously or unconsciously integrate them with their personal worldview. Because of the feeling tone phenomenon, any other worldview would be useless. An imported worldview would likely clash with the thinker’s own formative values and ideas. The whole structure would become theoretical rather than truly believed. This artificiality is the fate of pseudo-intellectuals. Rather than thinking for themselves, these people simply swallow some pre-packaged ideology and spend their days glibly spouting the party line.

Sertillanges: “One finds what one is looking for. Only to him that hath is given.”

That is to say, earlier studies and problems already solved prepare the mental ground for further insights. Great ideas are born in well-prepared, seeking minds.

The Thinker’s Time

Sertillanges: “The time of a thinker, when he really uses it, is in reality charity to all; only thus do we appreciate it properly. The man of truth belongs to the human race with truth itself; there is no risk of selfishness when one has isolated oneself jealously to serve this sublime and universal benefactor of mankind.”

This is the best justification for the “life of the mind” I have ever met with. It neatly addresses the guilt that assails so many who walk the rather lonely thinker’s path and is a prime example of the benefits of taking the broader view. The insight places the often-solitary thinking individual in his societal context.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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