How We Think - John Dewey - ebook

At a time when we are incessantly bombarded with factoids and infomercials, John Dewey's How We Think advises us to step back from the noisy clutter of the information age. The acquisition of information, no matter how voluminous, by itself, is neither knowledge nor critical thinking. In How We Think, Dewey provides a clear but profound philosophical analysis of how we transform ideas into instruments to solve our personal, social, and political problems.

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How We Think

John Dewey




§ 1. Varied Senses of the Term

Four senses of thought, from the wider to the limited

No words are oftener on our lips than thinking and thought. So profuse and varied, indeed, is our use of these words that it is not easy to define just what we mean by them. The aim of this chapter is to find a single consistent meaning. Assistance may be had by considering some typical ways in which the terms are employed. In the first place thought is used broadly, not to say loosely. Everything that comes to mind, that "goes through our heads," is called a thought. To think of a thing is just to be conscious of it in any way whatsoever. Second, the term is restricted by excluding whatever is directly presented; we think (or think of) only such things as we do not directly see, hear, smell, or taste. Then, third, the meaning is further limited to beliefs that rest upon some kind of evidence or testimony. Of this third type, two kinds—or, rather, two degrees—must be discriminated. In some cases, a belief is accepted with slight or almost no attempt to state the grounds that support it. In other cases, the ground or basis for a belief is deliberately sought and its[Pg 2] adequacy to support the belief examined. This process is called reflective thought; it alone is truly educative in value, and it forms, accordingly, the principal subject of this volume. We shall now briefly describe each of the four senses.

Chance and idle thinking

I. In its loosest sense, thinking signifies everything that, as we say, is "in our heads" or that "goes through our minds." He who offers "a penny for your thoughts" does not expect to drive any great bargain. In calling the objects of his demand thoughts, he does not intend to ascribe to them dignity, consecutiveness, or truth. Any idle fancy, trivial recollection, or flitting impression will satisfy his demand. Daydreaming, building of castles in the air, that loose flux of casual and disconnected material that floats through our minds in relaxed moments are, in this random sense, thinking. More of our waking life than we should care to admit, even to ourselves, is likely to be whiled away in this inconsequential trifling with idle fancy and unsubstantial hope.

Reflective thought is consecutive, not merely a sequence

In this sense, silly folk and dullards think. The story is told of a man in slight repute for intelligence, who, desiring to be chosen selectman in his New England town, addressed a knot of neighbors in this wise: "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." Now reflective thought is like this random coursing of things through the mind in that it consists of a succession of things thought of; but it is unlike, in that the mere chance occurrence of any chance "something or other" in an irregular sequence does not suffice. Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence—a consecutive ordering in such a way that[Pg 3] each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something—technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

The restriction of thinking to what goes beyond direct observationReflective thought aims, however, at belief

II. Even when thinking is used in a broad sense, it is usually restricted to matters not directly perceived: to what we do not see, smell, hear, or touch. We ask the man telling a story if he saw a certain incident happen, and his reply may be, "No, I only thought of it." A note of invention, as distinct from faithful record of observation, is present. Most important in this class are successions of imaginative incidents and episodes which, having a certain coherence, hanging together on a continuous thread, lie between kaleidoscopic flights of fancy and considerations deliberately employed to establish a conclusion. The imaginative stories poured forth by children possess all degrees of internal congruity; some are disjointed, some are articulated. When connected, they simulate reflective thought; indeed, they usually occur in minds of logical capacity. These imaginative enterprises often precede thinking of the close-knit type and prepare the way for it. But they do not aim at knowledge, at belief about facts or in truths; and thereby they are marked off from reflective thought even when they most resemble it. Those who express such thoughts do not expect credence, but rather credit for a well-constructed plot or a well-arranged climax. They produce good stories, not—unless by chance[Pg 4]—knowledge. Such thoughts are an efflorescence of feeling; the enhancement of a mood or sentiment is their aim; congruity of emotion, their binding tie.

Thought induces belief in two ways

III. In its next sense, thought denotes belief resting upon some basis, that is, real or supposed knowledge going beyond what is directly present. It is marked by acceptance or rejection of something as reasonably probable or improbable. This phase of thought, however, includes two such distinct types of belief that, even though their difference is strictly one of degree, not of kind, it becomes practically important to consider them separately. Some beliefs are accepted when their grounds have not themselves been considered, others are accepted because their grounds have been examined.

When we say, "Men used to think the world was flat," or, "I thought you went by the house," we express belief: something is accepted, held to, acquiesced in, or affirmed. But such thoughts may mean a supposition accepted without reference to its real grounds. These may be adequate, they may not; but their value with reference to the support they afford the belief has not been considered.

Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. They are picked up—we know not how. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. 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. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not[Pg 5] judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.[1]

Thinking in its best sense is that which considers the basis and consequences of beliefs

IV. Thoughts that result in belief have an importance attached to them which leads to reflective thought, to conscious inquiry into the nature, conditions, and bearings of the belief. To think of whales and camels in the clouds is to entertain ourselves with fancies, terminable at our pleasure, which do not lead to any belief in particular. But to think of the world as flat is to ascribe a quality to a real thing as its real property. This conclusion denotes a connection among things and hence is not, like imaginative thought, plastic to our mood. Belief in the world's flatness commits him who holds it to thinking in certain specific ways of other objects, such as the heavenly bodies, antipodes, the possibility of navigation. It prescribes to him actions in accordance with his conception of these objects.

The consequences of a belief upon other beliefs and upon behavior may be so important, then, that men are forced to consider the grounds or reasons of their belief and its logical consequences. This means reflective thought—thought in its eulogistic and emphatic sense.

Reflective thought defined

Men thought the world was flat until Columbus thought it to be round. The earlier thought was a belief held because men had not the energy or the courage to question what those about them accepted and taught, especially as it was suggested and seemingly confirmed by obvious sensible facts. The thought of Columbus was a reasoned conclusion. It marked the close of study into facts, of scrutiny and revision of evidence, of working out the implications of various hypotheses, and of[Pg 6] comparing these theoretical results with one another and with known facts. Because Columbus did not accept unhesitatingly the current traditional theory, because he doubted and inquired, he arrived at his thought. Skeptical of what, from long habit, seemed most certain, and credulous of what seemed impossible, he went on thinking until he could produce evidence for both his confidence and his disbelief. Even if his conclusion had finally turned out wrong, it would have been a different sort of belief from those it antagonized, because it was reached by a different method. 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, constitutes reflective thought. Any one of the first three kinds of thought may elicit this type; but once begun, it is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.

§ 2. The Central Factor in Thinking

There is a common element in all types of thought:

There are, however, no sharp lines of demarcation between the various operations just outlined. The problem of attaining correct habits of reflection would be much easier than it is, did not the different modes of thinking blend insensibly into one another. So far, we have considered rather extreme instances of each kind in order to get the field clearly before us. Let us now reverse this operation; let us consider a rudimentary case of thinking, lying between careful examination of evidence and a mere irresponsible stream of fancies. A man is walking on a warm day. The sky was clear the last time he observed it; but presently he notes, while occupied primarily with other things, that the air is cooler. It occurs to him that it is probably going to[Pg 7] rain; looking up, he sees a dark cloud between him and the sun, and he then quickens his steps. What, if anything, in such a situation can be called thought? Neither the act of walking nor the noting of the cold is a thought. Walking is one direction of activity; looking and noting are other modes of activity. The likelihood that it will rain is, however, something suggested. The pedestrian feels the cold; he thinks of clouds and a coming shower.

viz. suggestion of something not observedBut reflection involves also the relation of signifying

So far there is the same sort of situation as when one looking at a cloud is reminded of a human figure and face. Thinking in both of these cases (the cases of belief and of fancy) involves a noted or perceived fact, followed by something else which is not observed but which is brought to mind, suggested by the thing seen. One reminds us, as we say, of the other. Side by side, however, with this factor of agreement in the two cases of suggestion is a factor of marked disagreement. We do not believe in the face suggested by the cloud; we do not consider at all the probability of its being a fact. There is no reflective thought. The danger of rain, on the contrary, presents itself to us as a genuine possibility—as a possible fact of the same nature as the observed coolness. Put differently, we do not regard the cloud as meaning or indicating a face, but merely as suggesting it, while we do consider that the coolness may mean rain. In the first case, seeing an object, we just happen, as we say, to think of something else; in the second, we consider the possibility and nature of the connection between the object seen and the object suggested. The seen thing is regarded as in some way the ground or basis of belief in the suggested thing; it possesses the quality of evidence.[Pg 8]

Various synonymous expressions for the function of signifying

This function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, is, then, the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking. By calling up various situations to which such terms as signifies and indicates apply, the student will best realize for himself the actual facts denoted by the words reflective thought. Synonyms for these terms are: points to, tells of, betokens, prognosticates, represents, stands for, implies.[2] We also say one thing portends another; is ominous of another, or a symptom of it, or a key to it, or (if the connection is quite obscure) that it gives a hint, clue, or intimation.

Reflection and belief on evidence

Reflection thus implies that something is believed in (or disbelieved in), not on its own direct account, but through something else which stands as witness, evidence, proof, voucher, warrant; that is, as ground of belief. At one time, rain is actually felt or directly experienced; at another time, we infer that it has rained from the looks of the grass and trees, or that it is going to rain because of the condition of the air or the state of the barometer. At one time, we see a man (or suppose we do) without any intermediary fact; at another time, we are not quite sure what we see, and hunt for accompanying facts that will serve as signs, indications, tokens of what is to be believed.

Thinking, for the purposes of this inquiry, is defined accordingly as that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce be[Pg 9]lief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former. We do not put beliefs that rest simply on inference on the surest level of assurance. To say "I think so" implies that I do not as yet know so. The inferential belief may later be confirmed and come to stand as sure, but in itself it always has a certain element of supposition.

§ 3. Elements in Reflective Thinking

So much for the description of the more external and obvious aspects of the fact called thinking. Further consideration at once reveals certain subprocesses which are involved in every reflective operation. These are: (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or to nullify the suggested belief.

The importance of uncertainty

(a) In our illustration, the shock of coolness generated confusion and suspended belief, at least momentarily. Because it was unexpected, it was a shock or an interruption needing to be accounted for, identified, or placed. To say that the abrupt occurrence of the change of temperature constitutes a problem may sound forced and artificial; but if we are willing to extend the meaning of the word problem to whatever—no matter how slight and commonplace in character—perplexes and challenges the mind so that it makes belief at all uncertain, there is a genuine problem or question involved in this experience of sudden change.

and of inquiry in order to test

(b) The turning of the head, the lifting of the eyes, the scanning of the heavens, are activities adapted to bring to recognition facts that will answer the question presented by the sudden coolness. The facts as they[Pg 10] first presented themselves were perplexing; they suggested, however, clouds. The act of looking was an act to discover if this suggested explanation held good. It may again seem forced to speak of this looking, almost automatic, as an act of research or inquiry. But once more, if we are willing to generalize our conceptions of our mental operations to include the trivial and ordinary as well as the technical and recondite, there is no good reason for refusing to give such a title to the act of looking. The purport of this act of inquiry is to confirm or to refute the suggested belief. New facts are brought to perception, which either corroborate the idea that a change of weather is imminent, or negate it.

Finding one's way an illustration of reflection

Another instance, commonplace also, yet not quite so trivial, may enforce this lesson. A man traveling in an unfamiliar region comes to a branching of the roads. Having no sure knowledge to fall back upon, he is brought to a standstill of hesitation and suspense. Which road is right? And how shall perplexity be resolved? There are but two alternatives: he must either blindly and arbitrarily take his course, trusting to luck for the outcome, or he must discover grounds for the conclusion that a given road is right. Any attempt to decide the matter by thinking will involve inquiry into other facts, whether brought out by memory or by further observation, or by both. The perplexed wayfarer must carefully scrutinize what is before him and he must cudgel his memory. He looks for evidence that will support belief in favor of either of the roads—for evidence that will weight down one suggestion. He may climb a tree; he may go first in this direction, then in that, looking, in either case, for signs, clues,[Pg 11] indications. He wants something in the nature of a signboard or a map, and his reflection is aimed at the discovery of facts that will serve this purpose.

Possible, yet incompatible, suggestions

The above illustration may be generalized. Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another.

Regulation of thinking by its purpose

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection. Where there is no question of a problem to be solved or a difficulty to be surmounted, the course of suggestions flows on at random; we have the first type of thought described. If the stream of suggestions is controlled simply by their emotional congruity, their fitting agreeably into a single picture or story, we have the second type. But a question to be answered, an ambiguity to be resolved, sets up an end and holds the current of ideas to a definite channel. Every suggested conclusion is tested by its reference to this regulating end, by its pertinence to the problem in hand. This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and[Pg 12] will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

§ 4. Summary

Origin and stimulus

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on "general principles." There is something specific which occasions and evokes it. General appeals to a child (or to a grown-up) to think, irrespective of the existence in his own experience of some difficulty that troubles him and disturbs his equilibrium, are as futile as advice to lift himself by his boot-straps.

Suggestions and past experience

Given a difficulty, the next step is suggestion of some way out—the formation of some tentative plan or project, the entertaining of some theory which will account for the peculiarities in question, the consideration of some solution for the problem. The data at hand cannot supply the solution; they can only suggest it. What, then, are the sources of the suggestion? Clearly past experience and prior knowledge. If the person has had some acquaintance with similar situations, if he has dealt with material of the same sort before, suggestions more or less apt and helpful are likely to arise. But unless there has been experience in some degree analogous, which may now be represented in imagination, confusion remains mere confusion. There is nothing upon which to draw in order to clarify it. Even when a child (or a grown-up) has a problem, to urge him to think when he has no prior experiences involving some of the same conditions, is wholly futile.[Pg 13]

Exploration and testing

If the suggestion that occurs is at once accepted, we have uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection. To turn the thing over in mind, to reflect, means to hunt for additional evidence, for new data, that will develop the suggestion, and will either, as we say, bear it out or else make obvious its absurdity and irrelevance. Given a genuine difficulty and a reasonable amount of analogous experience to draw upon, the difference, par excellence, between good and bad thinking is found at this point. The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.[Pg 14]



Man the animal that thinks

To expatiate upon the importance of thought would be absurd. The traditional definition of man as "the thinking animal" fixes thought as the essential difference between man and the brutes,—surely an important matter. More relevant to our purpose is the question how thought is important, for an answer to this question will throw light upon the kind of training thought requires if it is to subserve its end.

§ 1. The Values of Thought

The possibility of deliberate and intentional activity

I. Thought affords the sole method of escape from purely impulsive or purely routine action. A being without capacity for thought is moved only by instincts and appetites, as these are called forth by outward conditions and by the inner state of the organism. A being thus moved is, as it were, pushed from behind. This is what we mean by the blind nature of brute actions. The agent does not see or foresee the end for which he is acting, nor the results produced by his behaving in one way rather than in another. He does not "know what he is about." Where there is thought, things present act as signs or tokens of things not yet experienced. A thinking being can, accordingly, act on the basis of the absent and the future. Instead of being pushed into a mode of action by the sheer urgency of forces, whether[Pg 15] instincts or habits, of which he is not aware, a reflective agent is drawn (to some extent at least) to action by some remoter object of which he is indirectly aware.

Natural events come to be a language

An animal without thought may go into its hole when rain threatens, because of some immediate stimulus to its organism. A thinking agent will perceive that certain given facts are probable signs of a future rain, and will take steps in the light of this anticipated future. To plant seeds, to cultivate the soil, to harvest grain, are intentional acts, possible only to a being who has learned to subordinate the immediately felt elements of an experience to those values which these hint at and prophesy. Philosophers have made much of the phrases "book of nature," "language of nature." Well, it is in virtue of the capacity of thought that given things are significant of absent things, and that nature speaks a language which may be interpreted. To a being who thinks, things are records of their past, as fossils tell of the prior history of the earth, and are prophetic of their future, as from the present positions of heavenly bodies remote eclipses are foretold. Shakespeare's "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks," expresses literally enough the power superadded to existences when they appeal to a thinking being. Upon the function of signification depend all foresight, all intelligent planning, deliberation, and calculation.

The possibility of systematized foresight

II. By thought man also develops and arranges artificial signs to remind him in advance of consequences, and of ways of securing and avoiding them. As the trait just mentioned makes the difference between savage man and brute, so this trait makes the difference between civilized man and savage. A savage who has been shipwrecked in a river may note certain things which[Pg 16] serve him as signs of danger in the future. But civilized man deliberately makes such signs; he sets up in advance of wreckage warning buoys, and builds lighthouses where he sees signs that such events may occur. A savage reads weather signs with great expertness; civilized man institutes a weather service by which signs are artificially secured and information is distributed in advance of the appearance of any signs that could be detected without special methods. A savage finds his way skillfully through a wilderness by reading certain obscure indications; civilized man builds a highway which shows the road to all. The savage learns to detect the signs of fire and thereby to invent methods of producing flame; civilized man invents permanent conditions for producing light and heat whenever they are needed. The very essence of civilized culture is that we deliberately erect monuments and memorials, lest we forget; and deliberately institute, in advance of the happening of various contingencies and emergencies of life, devices for detecting their approach and registering their nature, for warding off what is unfavorable, or at least for protecting ourselves from its full impact and for making more secure and extensive what is favorable. All forms of artificial apparatus are intentionally designed modifications of natural things in order that they may serve better than in their natural estate to indicate the hidden, the absent, and the remote.

The possibility of objects rich in quality

III. Finally, thought confers upon physical events and objects a very different status and value from that which they possess to a being that does not reflect. These words are mere scratches, curious variations of light and shade, to one to whom they are not linguistic signs. To him for whom they are signs of other things,[Pg 17] each has a definite individuality of its own, according to the meaning that it is used to convey. Exactly the same holds of natural objects. A chair is a different object to a being to whom it consciously suggests an opportunity for sitting down, repose, or sociable converse, from what it is to one to whom it presents itself merely as a thing to be smelled, or gnawed, or jumped over; a stone is different to one who knows something of its past history and its future use from what it is to one who only feels it directly through his senses. It is only by courtesy, indeed, that we can say that an unthinking animal experiences an object at all—so largely is anything that presents itself to us as an object made up by the qualities it possesses as a sign of other things.

The nature of the objects an animal perceives

An English logician (Mr. Venn) has remarked that it may be questioned whether a dog sees a rainbow any more than he apprehends the political constitution of the country in which he lives. The same principle applies to the kennel in which he sleeps and the meat that he eats. When he is sleepy, he goes to the kennel; when he is hungry, he is excited by the smell and color of meat; beyond this, in what sense does he see an object? Certainly he does not see a house—i.e. a thing with all the properties and relations of a permanent residence, unless he is capable of making what is present a uniform sign of what is absent—unless he is capable of thought. Nor does he see what he eats as meat unless it suggests the absent properties by virtue of which it is a certain joint of some animal, and is known to afford nourishment. Just what is left of an object stripped of all such qualities of meaning, we cannot well say; but we can be sure that the object is then a very different sort of thing from the objects that we perceive. There[Pg 18] is moreover no particular limit to the possibilities of growth in the fusion of a thing as it is to sense and as it is to thought, or as a sign of other things. The child today soon regards as constituent parts of objects qualities that once it required the intelligence of a Copernicus or a Newton to apprehend.

Mill on the business of life and the occupation of mind

These various values of the power of thought may be summed up in the following quotation from John Stuart Mill. "To draw inferences," he says, "has been said to be the great business of life. Every one has daily, hourly, and momentary need of ascertaining facts which he has not directly observed: not from any general purpose of adding to his stock of knowledge, but because the facts themselves are of importance to his interests or to his occupations. The business of the magistrate, of the military commander, of the navigator, of the physician, of the agriculturist, is merely to judge of evidence and to act accordingly.... As they do this well or ill, so they discharge well or ill the duties of their several callings. It is the only occupation in which the mind never ceases to be engaged."[3]

§ 2. Importance of Direction in order to Realize these Values

Thinking goes astray

What a person has not only daily and hourly, but momentary need of performing, is not a technical and abstruse matter; nor, on the other hand, is it trivial and negligible. Such a function must be congenial to the mind, and must be performed, in an unspoiled mind, upon every fitting occasion. Just because, however, it is an operation of drawing inferences, of basing conclusions upon evidence, of reaching belief indirectly, it is[Pg 19] an operation that may go wrong as well as right, and hence is one that needs safeguarding and training. The greater its importance the greater are the evils when it is ill-exercised.

Ideas are our rulers—for better or for worse

An earlier writer than Mill, John Locke (1632-1704), brings out the importance of thought for life and the need of training so that its best and not its worst possibilities will be realized, in the following words: "No man ever sets himself about anything but upon some view or other, which serves him for a reason for what he does; and whatsoever faculties he employs, the understanding with such light as it has, well or ill informed, constantly leads; and by that light, true or false, all his operative powers are directed.... Temples have their sacred images, and we see what influence they have always had over a great part of mankind. But in truth the ideas and images in men's minds are the invisible powers that constantly govern them, and to these they all, universally, pay a ready submission. It is therefore of the highest concernment that great care should be taken of the understanding, to conduct it aright in the search of knowledge and in the judgments it makes."[4] If upon thought hang all deliberate activities and the uses we make of all our other powers, Locke's assertion that it is of the highest concernment that care should be taken of its conduct is a moderate statement. While the power of thought frees us from servile subjection to instinct, appetite, and routine, it also brings with it the occasion and possibility of error and mistake. In elevating us above the brute, it opens to us the possibility of failures to which the animal, limited to instinct, cannot sink.

§ 3. Tendencies Needing Constant Regulation

Physical and social sanctions of correct thinking

Up to a certain point, the ordinary conditions of life, natural and social, provide the conditions requisite for regulating the operations of inference. The necessities of life enforce a fundamental and persistent discipline for which the most cunningly devised artifices would be ineffective substitutes. The burnt child dreads the fire; the painful consequence emphasizes the need of correct inference much more than would learned discourse on the properties of heat. Social conditions also put a premium on correct inferring in matters where action based on valid thought is socially important. These sanctions of proper thinking may affect life itself, or at least a life reasonably free from perpetual discomfort. The signs of enemies, of shelter, of food, of the main social conditions, have to be correctly apprehended.

The serious limitations of such sanctions

But this disciplinary training, efficacious as it is within certain limits, does not carry us beyond a restricted boundary. Logical attainment in one direction is no bar to extravagant conclusions in another. A savage expert in judging signs of the movements and location of animals that he hunts, will accept and gravely narrate the most preposterous yarns concerning the origin of their habits and structures. When there is no directly appreciable reaction of the inference upon the security and prosperity of life, there are no natural checks to the acceptance of wrong beliefs. Conclusions may be generated by a modicum of fact merely because the suggestions are vivid and interesting; a large accumulation of data may fail to suggest a proper conclusion because existing customs are averse to entertaining it. Independent of training, there is a "primitive credulity"[Pg 21] which tends to make no distinction between what a trained mind calls fancy and that which it calls a reasonable conclusion. The face in the clouds is believed in as some sort of fact, merely because it is forcibly suggested. Natural intelligence is no barrier to the propagation of error, nor large but untrained experience to the accumulation of fixed false beliefs. Errors may support one another mutually and weave an ever larger and firmer fabric of misconception. Dreams, the positions of stars, the lines of the hand, may be regarded as valuable signs, and the fall of cards as an inevitable omen, while natural events of the most crucial significance go disregarded. Beliefs in portents of various kinds, now mere nook and cranny superstitions, were once universal. A long discipline in exact science was required for their conquest.

Superstition as natural a result as science

In the mere function of suggestion, there is no difference between the power of a column of mercury to portend rain, and that of the entrails of an animal or the flight of birds to foretell the fortunes of war. For all anybody can tell in advance, the spilling of salt is as likely to import bad luck as the bite of a mosquito to import malaria. Only systematic regulation of the conditions under which observations are made and severe discipline of the habits of entertaining suggestions can secure a decision that one type of belief is vicious and the other sound. The substitution of scientific for superstitious habits of inference has not been brought about by any improvement in the acuteness of the senses or in the natural workings of the function of suggestion. It is the result of regulation of the conditions under which observation and inference take place.[Pg 22]

General causes of bad thinking: Bacon's "idols"

It is instructive to note some of the attempts that have been made to classify the main sources of error in reaching beliefs. Francis Bacon, for example, at the beginnings of modern scientific inquiry, enumerated four such classes, under the somewhat fantastic title of "idols" (Gr. ειδωλα, images), spectral forms that allure the mind into false paths. These he called the idols, or phantoms, of the (a) tribe, (b) the marketplace, (c) the cave or den, and (d) the theater; or, less metaphorically, (a) standing erroneous methods (or at least temptations to error) that have their roots in human nature generally; (b) those that come from intercourse and language; (c) those that are due to causes peculiar to a specific individual; and finally, (d) those that have their sources in the fashion or general current of a period. Classifying these causes of fallacious belief somewhat differently, we may say that two are intrinsic and two are extrinsic. Of the intrinsic, one is common to all men alike (such as the universal tendency to notice instances that corroborate a favorite belief more readily than those that contradict it), while the other resides in the specific temperament and habits of the given individual. Of the extrinsic, one proceeds from generic social conditions—like the tendency to suppose that there is a fact wherever there is a word, and no fact where there is no linguistic term—while the other proceeds from local and temporary social currents.

Locke on the influence of

Locke's method of dealing with typical forms of wrong belief is less formal and may be more enlightening. We can hardly do better than quote his forcible and quaint language, when, enumerating different classes of men, he shows different ways in which thought goes wrong:[Pg 23]

(a) dependence on others,