Aristotle, Metacognition, and Why You Should Think About Thinking

Thinking about thinking. Sounds a bit convoluted, but the premise is an intriguing one.

Understanding how we think, why we think, and using that knowledge to improve our thinking is a valuable skill to have.

Although it has become a huge area of research in psychology today (now known as metacognition), this idea was first explored in depth by Aristotle in his treatise On The Soul.

Let’s explore what exactly Aristotle was able to discern about this subject and why it matters.

Thinking is Thoughts, Thoughts are Thinking

Aristotle doesn’t mess around, coming out of the gate with this profound observation: the mind and the thoughts are one in the same.

What thinks and what is thought are identical.

Aristotle from On The Soul

When you deconstruct his statement, it makes a lot of sense. Everything you think about on a daily basis, is done in your mind, you are using your mind to construct images and ideas that become your thinking.

Nothing you are doing is physically manifest. Thinking is happening in that instance, in your mind, which brings us to the next point.

Thinking is not Sense or Imagination

The next realization comes from the distinction that thinking is different from sense-perception and imagination. In terms of our senses, the argument is that they can never lie, what we sense is what we sense, while thinking is abstract and can be false.

At the same time, imagination is just a manifestation of things we have sensed, but not original thoughts or ideas.

Thinking is something of its own unique accord.

There Are Two Faculties of Thinking

Finally, Aristotle explores how thinking actually occurs. He begins by explaining that there are two parts of the process. The first part is composed of the previous knowledge and information acquired by the mind. These are the facts that we believe to be true.

The second part is the combination of this knowledge and information into new and unexplored ideas.

…objects of thought where were given separate are combined…

Aristotle from On The Soul

This is literally the act of thinking, as we explore the new thoughts that don’t exist anywhere else, but in our minds.

Aristotle had some powerful observations about this subject and the general workings of the mind, but the real value has been derived more recently in the world of metacognition.

As it is defined today, metacognition is the awareness of thinking that is used in learning or problem solving situations. What’s surprising is how little we seem to leverage this powerful tool.

Even so, there’s a lot of value that we can derive from metacognition and it begins with awareness.

1. Metacognitive Awareness

First and foremost is having the knowledge to ensure your success in any situation. This is broken down into three areas.

Knowledge of Self: It begins with an understanding of your self. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is your learning style? What environments do you thrive in? Do you work better at night or in the morning? Do you prefer music or silence? And so on.

Although we may not take the time to think about these factors, they all come into play when it comes to the act of thinking. Making a conscious effort to become aware of how we work best, can go a long way to better results.

How to: take tests like Myer’s Briggs, understand your learning style, be mindful of what you’re good at and where you fall short, be conscious of when/how you work best.

Knowledge of Doing: The next area is an understanding of the work. What tools do you use? How do you use them effectively? What strategies should be utilized?

Having a clear understanding of the actual procedure can help you achieve a state of flow. You can think less about the process and more about the bigger problems at hand.

How to: This ultimately takes time, but eventually the tools and your understanding of them will grow through practice.

Knowledge of Situation: Finally, having a clear understanding of the situation helps you determine when to use what strategies and approaches.

This leads to the most efficient use of time and resources for the task at hand. We may be equipped to solve a problem or think about an answer, but if we don’t know when to use a tool in our toolbox, it becomes worthless.

How to: Quickly knowing when to use what tool, strategy, or approach is developed through experience. To know what works and doesn’t takes time, but the more you do it, the faster you’ll acquire this ability.

These three areas of knowledge are what can create a powerful level of awareness for any endeavor.

2. Metacognitive Regulation

The second piece of the puzzle is regulating the actual process, as to understand when things are working and when they need to be adjusted. This also consists of three parts.

Planning: Having a clear approach and plan in place is key for the regulation process. Without defining this, it becomes more difficult to gauge progress and success on the decided path.

Monitoring: After an approach has been decided, it is vital to monitor your progress. There is a need to measure and track how things are going so they can be acted upon.

Evaluating: Finally, the approach is evaluated to understand its effectiveness in that situation. This is when the individual can decide whether to mover forward with the initial plan or adjust accordingly.

In essence, metacognitive regulation is a cycle of sorts, that moves between the planning, monitoring, and evaluating phases, being adjusted along each turn. It is a fairly easy idea to implement, if you have the discipline to implement each step.

When these two components are leveraged together, the true power of metacognition comes to the fore.

Individuals can reap these benefits in many ways:

  • Maintain motivation to take tasks to completion
  • Become aware of and overcome distractions
  • Improve their ability to find the right tool for the job
  • Identify barriers and adapt accordingly
  • Understand their strengths and weaknesses
  • Overcome challenges from lack of knowledge
  • Quickly get into a state of flow

More importantly, the skill of metacognition is not tied to any particular subject. Once you acquire this ability, it can be used in any domain to great effect.

This point shouldn’t be overlooked. The power of having this self-control on how to think improves all aspects of your cognition.

It might just be worth it to invest a little more time thinking about how you think.



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Aly Juma

Aly Juma

Writer that designs — or is it the other way around? Digital executive, author, creator of t-shirts, and lover of books.