Pose Questions to Yourself & Make an Exercise Out of Answering Them | On Thinking
The Capacity to Think
If the scores of psychoanalytic literature that exist heretofore agree on anything, it is that the mind is ceaselessly active. This reality is plain to us, and we could even venture so far as to say that the mind is active independent of our own volition. We know this when we fail to direct our attention to a matter at hand or we let our minds “wander”, acting as strangers that sit in on the cinema of our thoughts and recollections. Even so, the ability to “think” is yet another remarkable feature of human mental activity. For the purpose of this essay, I am not concerned with the kind of thinking that analyzes — that searches what is materially available and historically known—or the thinking that memorizes — that converts into knowledge what was once unassimilated information — nor am I concerned with the thinking that synthesizes — that allows for ideas and lines of thought to cohere together. Instead, I seek to explore the generative capacity of thinking. The kind that is done with two fingers on the chin or a hand in the hair.
Our thinking is generative when we define only its starting point. It is not the kind of thinking whose goal is an epiphany, or a moment of triumphal resolution. It is a mode of thinking that only seeks to increase in its resolution — that seeks not to produce conclusive answers, but instead more material for further thought. This kind of thinking is the progenitor of philosophy, in the sense that philosophers begin with an idea or a question whose bounds are unknown. They explore it as far as they can manage. Like a voyage, their hope is to eventually return to port, to the domain of the known. Their exploration involves danger, in all probability, should a tempest consume them or the hand of misfortune intervene in a manner contrary to their expectations. For their success, though, a new route of thought is traced. It is mapped out in order to be retraveled, either by themselves or by others. The fruit of explorative thinking is philosophy, and the fruit of philosophy is collective knowledge. The grandest of ideas are not thought all at once, but over periods of time spent thinking. Explorative thinking, for the individual, yields no shortage of advantages.
Premise questioning, as I call it, is a method of thinking that bears much semblance to Socrates’ dialectical style. At bottom, it rejects propositional dogmatism and charges that any idea or claim can be further explored through an analysis of its presuppositions.
Here is an example of an idea that I was thinking through this week:
Question: What is the value of attending a university?
Answer: A university is a place where you can realize your potential.
Premise Question: Why does the university need to be a place?
Premise Answer: Because transformation happens within the domain of the unknown. Our release from the personal moorings of our old, familiar environment allows for change.
Premise Question: What is the right way to understand value, in this context?
Premise Answer: Is it monetary? Probably not, because people refuse to pay for certain universities over others. It must be that the value from university is to be found in the experiences. While universities no longer are the sole brokers of information, but they have a monopoly on transformative experiences.
Premise Question: And how are we to understand our potential?
Premise Answer: Our potential can be understood as what we have the capability to be, and that latent talents and abilities that lie within.
Conclusion: So, the value of a university must be that it is a place of transformation where we confront the unknown, realize the potential inside of us, and have experiences that make us unique individuals.
In the exercise above, I demonstrated how one could pose a single question, “What is the value of attending a university?” and explore the question in a multitude of ways. In fact, it might not escape your analysis that the premise questions I chose followed no obvious logical progression. They were completely arbitrary, insofar as they lacked a conclusion that tied them all together, which I provided later on. Premise questioning is most optimally used when you are not pressured to make a determinate conclusion, as it can often lead to entirely new questions or ideas that beg exploration unto themselves. However, when a conclusion is sought, premise questioning can still be useful in producing in answer that is capacious and extensive. If premise questioning can be thought of as an exercise in thinking, the next strategy ought to be thought of as a practice of thinking.
This practice of thinking, as I call it, involves turning things into thought exercises. The best thinkers that I have met, at university and environments beyond, revel in asking themselves questions and spending time working out the answers in their own heads. These questions do not need to be philosophically sodden, but simple questions whose answers would warrant a degree of creative thinking. All told, anything that is apprehensible by any of the human senses or accessible by the mind can be fashioned into a question.
Thinking is of no expense to us, and the way that we become better thinkers is by thinking through as many problems and ideas as possible, so that the individual demands of each might cause our idiosyncratic style of thinking to continually adapt itself.
I will provide another list of examples that I have thought through recently:
What are the disadvantages of a showmanship?
I came up with this question while backstage at TEDxPSU’s 2022 conference. For all eleven of the speakers, we only had one opportunity to have our talk recorded, and it was during the conference itself — in the presence of 180 strangers and all the nerves associated with important performances. While these factors allowed for some speakers to produce an intrepid and boldly delivered speeches, there were other speakers whose performances were visibly hampered by the pressure. While the daring nature of showmanship is glorified when it is successful, it is hard to ignore that performances that fail to do justice to all the preparatory work that was its antecedent.
What are the conditions under which organizations transform?
I came up with this question while having a conversation with a friend about a student organization we were part of. Our student organization for quite time had been limited in resources of a specific kind, and while we had tried to innovate underneath that ceiling, it seemed to us that we were running out of runway. Was our wont for the way things are a consequence of lack of resources, or people’s creative capacity only rising to the level of what was required of them (the performance of a pre-determined set of responsibilities)?
How do some people know early on that they are destined to be great?
Over the last few days, I’ve watched the Netflix series jeen-yuhs about Kanye West, documenting a time in his life where he was very much a sidelined record producer. Though he wanted to become an emcee, the executives around him refused to extend an opportunity for a record deal. Presciently, Kanye decided to have his friend record this frustrating period of his life, knowing that he was going to become the artist that he imagined himself capable of becoming. In the end, he was right.
What are the things that happen when a group of creative people gather together?
I developed this question after watching a mini documentary on YouTube about the making of the Revenge of the Dreamers II album by Dreamville. The creative process for the album went this —they invited the best producers, rappers, and R&B singers from their genre to Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta, Georgia for 10 days. Over that span of time, all they did was create and collaborate. What resulted was an extraordinary album, replete with lyrical flamboyance and musical prowess.
Simply, all of these questions (and many more like them) came from fashioning questions out of different aspects of my experience. At times, these questions may arise out of need to problem solve, but more often than not, I pose the questions only to practice thinking.
Use your free time to think. Not only will it make you sharper, but it will make you a deep well — in the truest sense. Explorative thinking produces knowledge. You will be someone who can formulate powerful responses to almost anything posed to you, and that is power. That is effectiveness. What is more, you can direct your capacity to think towards the good, and build up the world around you.