Donata Schoeller, Vera Saller (Eds.): Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection Book Cover Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection
Schriftenreihe der DGAP
Donata Schoeller, Vera Saller (Eds.)
Verlag Karl Alber
Hardcover 30,00 €

Reviewed by: Étienne Pelletier (University of Montréal)

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection, edited by Donata Schoeller and Vera Saller, is a collection of essays that reflect on the very process of reflection. The topics revolve around the activity and the experience of thinking. As such, the nine authors address questions related to language-use, the body as source of meaning, and subjective experience. They offer a broad picture of contemporary discussions and debates in phenomenology, philosophy of language, and psychotherapy.

In a way, each essay points toward theoretical constructions and attempts to define their epistemological blind spots. The phenomenological postulate stating that what is described is tightly linked to the way it is given and to the experience of the subject for whom it is given lies at the root of every contribution. The “logical, syntactical and semantic structures of propositions (11)” are insufficient to account for the complexity of thought-in-process. Furthermore, it is the contributors’ conviction that these habitual conditions of thinking leave aside the vitality of the process. This implies that we should consider the embodied processes and the preconscious dimension accompanying thinking.

Claire Petitmengin’s chapter invites us to take account the corporeal experience of the scientist at work. The author collected a series of scientists’ descriptions of their ideational processes to clarify a source of pre-reflective meaning. In so doing, she provides interesting epistemological considerations regarding the relation between lived experience and the genesis of new ideas. In this perspective, “non-rational” tasks such as walking and drawing prove to be decisive in many researchers’ methods of investigation. Albeit underexamined, this “shifting of the center of attention from the head to the body (34)” should be considered. By turning away from discursive modes of thinking, the scientist can open to a “‘felt’ dimension of experience which seems to be…the very dimension of meaning (37).” The skeptic is tempted to question the probity of a so-called felt meaning. But we should keep in mind that such questioning weakens the moment we give up rigid distinctions between body and mind.

In her chapter, Susan A. J. Stuart similarly situates bodily experience at the center of her investigation, this time in explicit relation to language. Discussing Thomas Reid’s theses on artificial language and natural language, she argues for a priority of kinaesthetic, perceptual, and especially “enkinaesthetic” (i.e., the affects we have of our neuro-muscular processes) determinants at the origin of language and considers them as “artificial.”

Eugene Gendlin also approaches an implicit dimension of cognition. He argues that this “background” is not as vague as we might suppose. From the outset, it has a certain “precision” and is decisive, for example, in the formation of concepts. The author suggests various analytic possibilities for this “thinking with the implicit.” Referring to a similar notion of “background,” the prime concern of Donata Schoeller’s chapter is the “thoughtful process of articulation.” She argues that “what is said clarifies aspects of a background that functions in the meaning of what is said (112).” In other words, she examines the cultural and biographical ‘contexts’ that come into play when we formulate and articulate any experience through language. The essay is particularly interesting for its discussion of new possibilities in the methodology of scientific inquiries. These possibilities extend to the theory and practice of psychotherapies.

Both Terrence W. Deacon and Vincent Colapietro’s chapters examine the role of language in relation to the process of thinking. The former offers a neurologically-oriented account of language as “a variation on the emergent dynamics of mental processes in general (157).” He argues that this best fits with our experience of language (i.e., not as a construction and analysis following rules). As for Colapietro, he discusses Peirce’s fallibilism and the experience of ignorance and error as constituent of self-knowledge.

Language is also central in the last chapter, that of Steven C. Hayes’. He examines the relation between knowing and its verbal-symbolic correlate. His thesis is that “human language and cognition…fundamentally alters and shapes our subjective experience and the perspective from which we view it (209).” However, despite the ostensible simplicity of this statement, the author shows clearly that this commonplace appearance arises from our failing to question the meaning of the very terms and concepts used in its formulation. The concern of Hayes’ contribution is the specific meaning of language, cognition, symbols, and perspective-taking, as well as our use of them. This is especially relevant if we are to manipulate them in theoretical investigations concerning their role in our subjective life.

Vera Saller’s contribution addresses the notion of abduction, understood as the “creativity within the framework of rational thinking (182).” Peirce argued that abduction was the “only logical operation which introduces [a] new idea (183),” and should be distinguished from hypothesis. The author also points out that Peirce compared abduction and perception (201). As to the possibility of new ideas, Saller stresses the importance of everyday thinking in their formation: “it is in the problem solving of everyday life, that new thoughts arise (186).”

Remember the story of a Buddhist monk whose disciple urgently asks him about a serious spiritual issue. The master answers with a question: “Have you finished eating?” “Yes,” answers the impatient disciple. The master then replies: “Then go wash your bowl!” In short, there is no better way of solving a preoccupying reflective problem than going about our everyday tasks hoping for the “momentary but significant flash (190),” i.e., the abductive moment. This moment of understanding is clearly not of an exclusively cognitive nature, the more so that it “comes along with a pleasant bodily emotion (202).”

But Saller’s contribution is also interesting as she compares this process with the detective metaphor in psychoanalysis. The literature examining the detective leitmotif in psychoanalysis sometimes commits a crucial error: neglecting the patient’s own work. This is often in favor of a misguided image of the analyst as the sole investigating instance in the cure. The analyst is thus constantly chasing the truth of the subject lying on the couch. Moreover, in this conception of the analyst, he or she attributes to the patient a knowledge that can only come from him/herself. The author points out this mistake and brings forth the “abductive inferences” that the method of free association is supposed to facilitate.

Thinking Thinking: Practicing Radical Reflection serves multiple purposes, including theoretical inquiry (scientific and philosophical), as well as practical concerns (psychotherapy and other social practices). Combining numerous perspectives, notably phenomenology and the philosophy of language, it is relevant to a broad range of researchers and practitioners.