Forcing Thought

There is a sense in which thinking is about breaking through the cliches of your general mental activity. You have a particular set of cached thoughts—a specific pattern of ideas that goes from A to B to C and so on, not necessarily because you are right, but rather because that is what you are used to.

There are two ways to make yourself think.

The first way is to open yourself up to something that is of sufficient complexity that is difficult to easily integrate into your mental schema. The more direct your encounter with it, the more you are able to shake up your apparatus of thought. The implication is that secondary sources can find themselves inhibiting thought to the extent that they domesticate or neuter the otherness of the field or thinker. At best, the explication is a propaedeutic to further study; at worst it is a way to fool yourself that you are thinking.

The alternative—which overlaps with the previous method—is to go back to the source of the cached thoughts themselves. What we have inherited from popular culture is a confused mixture of Freudianism, ego psychology, positivism, materialism, liberalism, Marxism, Christianity etc., regardless of whether we accept or reject these, we know them only second-hand or third-hand, transmitted to us by osmosis. It is these caches that direct and organise our ideas, despite our ignorance of them. What was originally cutting-edge theory has become pamphlet and from then to slogan (to loosely quote and paraphrase Stalin on the understanding of Marxism in the Soviet Union, from the generation of the Revolution to the generations born after it.)

We cannot ignore this history, as we have been shaped by it already—all except the most “formal” of our concepts (and perhaps even them) have their own processes of historical genesis. It is on these that we have built our edifices of knowledge and ideas. A third-rate Darwin, a fifth-hand Nietzsche, a dimly remembered Plato. (If there is any goal to reading the canon, it is not to acquiesce to the dead past, but to attain freedom from within it, almost, by realising our influences, to upset the caches that we have inherited—even, or especially, if those dead thinkers are wrong.) There’s something of freedom and power in this solicitation to thinking.

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