The rules of thought

I have recently started thinking about thinking, and more specifically, where does our way of thinking come from? It seems, that across boarders and geographical boundaries, our western culture has spread far enough to make sure we all think along similar lines. Of course, we don’t think the same things, we don’t even think the same ways, yet the rules guiding our thoughts appear to be very similar across the planet. These rules are so deeply embedded in us, they are so unconscious that we are not even aware of using them, or letting them rule our thinking. So, what are they, and where did they come from??

This is where it gets a touch complicated. If I agree to what I just wrote, then how on earth can I claim to know these rules. Obviously, I cannot. So, how then do you think about thinking when all the while there are certain boundaries and directions you use without knowing? Tricky, at the best of times, impossible at the worst…or?!

Of course, what do I mean by rules of thought: I refer to what most people think, and the way their actions reflect their thinking. While I am thrilled that some philosophers, spiritual teachers, and scientists are moving beyond that, it does not mean that their moving has had any impact on us, the mass. The exceptional thinkers who suggest new rules are few, and sadly, their models have not caught on…at all.

From what I can understand so far, there seem to be two distinct places to look: Ancient Greece, and the 18th century.

Aristotle and his philosophy and observations have shaped out culture to an extent that is frightening. By laying down, what he saw as rules of thought, he might well have embedded them in our psyche. (more on him soon, suffice to say he was big in categorizing and classifying things) The next stop then is the age of enlightenment. Suddenly, and without warning, everything had to be rational, scientific, measurable, all these and more. Suddenly, we reduced nature and man to the scientific model, and everything that did not fit it was deemed “hullabaloo” (indeed, a technical term!).

Of course, after the age of enlightenment came the romantics, marxists, modernists, etc. yet none of them really changed what happened in the age of enlightenment. They all certainly had their impact at the time, yet, in my humble opinion, we still use enlightenment values in all of our society today, even more strongly so than at other times. Why? Because out of the enlightenment and with it came what dominates the world today: Economic theory! Indeed, economic theory single handedly changed the way we think today, the way we view money and relationships, the way we do business and treat our friends.

What is funny to me about that is that we know economic theory to be fatally flawed. We know that human beings are irrational, we also know that the reductionist approach to the way markets work is wrong, and we also know that current economic thinking will sooner or later kill us all. Does that mean though that all this critique has translated into actual changes in the way we think: not as far as I can see. While we do shift and allow for ecological awareness, we always just move within the boundaries of the values we hold so dear.

At this point usually somebody will ask me how exactly these values are transmitted that makes them so powerful. The answer lies in one simple word: presuppositions. This refers to ideas that need to be true in order for things around us to make sense. These ideas are never really discussed or mentioned openly, yet without them what we do is senseless to us. Just look at education: There, everything is taught rationally and consciously. Every subject has its own class and time, and in 8 years of my high school education (that is how long it is in my home country) we never once had a cross over between subjects. we are led to believe that everything exists in its own little bubble. And let’s not forget the success this approach has in teaching languages: After nearly 10 years (!!!) of learning english (1st foreign language in my country), most people still cannot speak it properly, let alone write. Yet, recent research suggests that with conscious practice it takes 10 years to become a master at something. Interesting, no?!

Am I rambling yet, or does this make sense to you? The rules of thought we use do change in certain fields or in certain people, but this change has not influenced the way we are taught to think. In fact, for people to arrive at their new models, they have to consciously leave behind everything they learned and embark on a journey that scares most people…yet, we need change on a much larger scale than just an individual, or not?!


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