“Don’t think, but look.”
A quote by Ludwig Wittegenstein, my Dad’s favorite philosopher. I recognize that not everyone’s Dad has a favorite philosopher, but mine did. Dad was a philosophy student as an undergrad at Dartmouth, despite the ribbing he got from the electricians he worked with over the summers who asked if he was going to open a philosophy store. My father went on to Yale seminary where he got to study more philosophy before he left in favor of employment that would better provide for his growing family.
When I brought my now husband (and current seminarian – yes I see the echoes and prefer not think about it too much) to meet my Dad, they quickly discovered their common undergraduate pursuit and began the “who’s your favorite philosopher” conversation. I quickly went from being nervous about the meeting to being a little annoyed that they were getting along so well and everyone had lost interest in me, because it is all about me after all.
At any rate, the point isn’t that moment, although I appreciate your indulging me in sharing it. It is one of my favorite memories of the two of them. All of this to say that when I hear the name Wittgenstein, my antenna are up. I am listening, which ironically is exactly what I think Wittgenstein would want. I stop thinking about whether or not I have a favorite philosopher, and pay attention.
Not many philosophers start with: “Don’t think,” but this is where Wittgenstein starts.
And having grown up as I did, in a household where rationality was very highly prized, the command to not think makes me uneasy. The irony of my Dad favoring this particular philosopher is startling to me. In times where the world and the people on it seem to need some serious attention, the command to not think feels almost irresponsible, until you consider the rest of the quote.
It’s not just don’t think. It is LOOK.
I can’t say that I know what Wittgenstein was trying to say because I was NOT a philosophy student, but here’s what I’m picking up from what he was laying down, my life coach spin on the whole idea.
When we think first, we rely on everything we already know, everything we assume, all of the decisions, suppositions, and assumptions we’ve already made. What this does is that it narrows our vision.
Because this is how the brain works friends. Our brains prefer efficiency. There is SO MUCH information available to us. Our brains have had to develop ways to filter all of that information. It’s a lot like the internet, right? I occasionally remind my husband when he is deeply engrossed online in a way that promises to last into the wee hours that he is not going to get to the end of the internet. There is no way to see it all.
Social media sites know that there’s no way to even see everything all of our friends and acquaintances post, so they filter it for us. They develop algorithms (formulas) to filter what we see. These are based on our preferences, the information they have about us. And this is exactly how our brains work.
We think, we have an idea about something. And then our brains, when faced with all of the information in the world, filter that information based on our idea. We don’t SEE everything. We see the things that support what we already believe, what we assume, what we know. It doesn’t matter whether we’re right or not. We see evidence that helps us be sure that we are. This is called confirmation bias. It’s a real thing. Google it if you don’t believe me. When faced with a situation, when we think first (and bring in all of our old thoughts and assumptions), what we see is limited.
The suggestion not to think is not a suggestion to stop thinking for all time, but to prevent that filtering from happening and look. Look to see what is in the world. Notice what is happening. See it with fresh eyes and take in the facts. See the situation as others might see it. See the situation the way nobody has seen it yet because everyone is burdened by the ideas they showed up with.
And THEN, after you’ve seen, after you’ve given the situation fresh eyes, THEN you think again. You use that new information. You access new feelings based on what you saw. And then you think about all of that. You make adjustments. You chart a course. You make demands. You act based on what is actually happening rather than a limited view of reality based on your brain’s attempts to make life easier for you.
Don’t think, but look.
Who knows what you will see?