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Anarchistnews.org Topic of the Week: Clear Thinking

Submitted by Ant in discussion

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While contemplating this TOTW I shared one of my favorite quotes about clear thinking in an online discussion:

"The process of sound philosophizing, to my mind, consists mainly in passing from those obvious, vague, ambiguous things, that we feel quite sure of, to something precise, clear, definite, which by reflection and analysis we find is involved in the vague thing that we started from, and is, so to speak, the real truth of which that vague thing is a sort of shadow." --Bertrand Russell

The general consensus of the conversation was a bit different than mine: "This quote sucks!"

Oh well, you can't please everyone! It is still my favorite quote. To me, clear thinking means getting specific about terminology (i.e., what the words you are using 'mean'), refining concepts and their relationships with other concepts until they are consistent with each other, and making explicit the logical and/or real-world implications that these terms and concepts have.

And I really think this point is important practically and not just philosophically. Clear thinking is a critical foundation not only of good theory-building but also of having productive communication with others. Meaning is slippery. It depends on context and that context is not always shared between two people. Things usually seem to make more sense than they actually do once you try to explain them carefully. Few things are more frustrating than going around in circles in a conversation with someone whose definitions are constantly changing.

I think some people take issue with Russell's statement when he references a "definite... real truth"--as if he is implying that a definite real truth exists and can be solidified into permanence through analysis. I don't think he believed this, but I also don't think that would be necessary for clear thinking. It is possible to treat words as having a specific meaning that remains constant from sentence to sentence without believing that we have now brought into being a permanent construct that represents the idea in question. Conversation depends on it. Without assuming some level of immutability to the meaning of words, conversations go in circles.

What are your (hopefully clear!) thoughts about clear thinking? Is clear thinking important? Is it possible? What are some ways that you try to make either your own thinking and/or writing clear, or that you try to make clear the ideas of others when you are talking with them or reading their work? If the kind of analysis described by Russell misses the mark, what are some other meaningful ways to refine ideas?

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