Tuesday, July 5, 2016


There is a world of difference between what usually passes for thinking and what I want to call cogitation (mostly because it sounds important). What we usually do includes among other things (a) announcing our opinions as they pop into our heads and (b) expressing how we feel in our tummies when we notice it. But cogitation requires actively working through an issue while double-checking logic and biases as we go. This takes substantial mental effort on our part and we often avoid it.

The problem with (a) simply announcing our opinions as they pop into our heads is that they may or not be relevant, may or may not be correct, and for the most part are not original, anyway. Our opinions often come from parents, friends, favorite news stations, or other sources that cannot be characterized as freethinking. Even the opinions we've formed ourselves after careful deliberation may not be relevant to the issue at hand. It's hard to put our opinions aside (temporarily) to figure out a reasonable position, but that is what cogitation requires.

The problem with (b) simply expressing our feelings as we notice them is that feelings are chemical and owe as much to what we've eaten or how well we slept as they do to their importance for the issue at hand. We can feel quite differently about an idea suggested by a stranger than we do about the very same idea when it comes from a trusted friend. Feelings do not seem to be very reliable. Sometimes it's hard to put our feelings aside (temporarily) to figure out a reasonable position, but that is what cogitation requires.

Cogitation involves focus: pick a question or issue to analyze and then stay on that one topic until some sort of conclusion begins to takes shape. How often do we let ourselves be distracted by technological toys or random thoughts? We have to interrogate the idea in question. Is it logical? Are the arguments for it relevant or would it take a long explanation to see the connection? Why do other thinkers subscribe to the opposite view? And so forth.

I wish I was better at this; I should be. After my philosophy degree, I was lucky enough to study under Richard Paul, Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking and Chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. The late Dr. Paul was an internationally recognized authority on critical thinking and held titles such as Distinguished Philosopher (Council for Philosophical Studies), O.C. Tanner Lecturer in Humanities (Utah State University), and Lansdown Visiting Scholar (University of Victoria). His work is carried on by a community led by his wife, Linda Elder.

I later did doctoral studies under Gareth Morgan, Distinguished Research Professor at York University and Associate Fellow at the Said Business School of Oxford University. Dr. Morgan is an internationally recognized authority on organizations and metaphor and he holds honors such as the Trailblazer Award (from the 19,000 scholars at the Academy of Management) and an honorary doctorate from Syddansk Universitet (University of Southern Denmark). His work continues under the branding of Imaginization.

Cogitation is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking that attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. It requires thinking rationally, reasonably, and with empathy; remaining keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked; striving to diminish our own egocentric and socio-centric tendencies; and using intellectual tools diligently to develop intellectual virtues. No matter how skilled we are at cogitation, we know we can always improve our reasoning abilities; at times we will fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, and/or self-interest.

Thus, cogitation is hard work. And it is not very common. But it seems like an essential component of being a freethinker.