Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

The Simplified Curriculum

When we think of curricula, we tend to think of classes or subjects and materials to read or study in those subjects. That’s a very fine thing to do and we should keep doing it. I want to suggest that there might be more to think about and it’s one of those “mores” that make things over all “less” – that is, less confusing, less work, less anxious.

The more that I’m referring to is logic.

But wait! Don’t go so fast. Let me explain myself.


Look at it this way. A lot of subjects, especially in the sciences, end with “logy.” Why is that? Because “logy” comes from logos, which means word, or reason, or idea (or quite a few other things). If the Greek word logos has a core meaning (and I’m not sure it does), it would be something like “a unifying principle or reason.” Thus, the unifying principle of “biology” is “bios” or life. The unifying principle of physiology is “physio” but I’m not sure what that is. It’s obviously got something to do with the physical body.

In other words, each subject has a unifying principle that makes it the subject that it is. Strictly speaking, classical educators used to call these subjects “sciences,” which meant, to them, a domain of knowledge or inquiry. To us, science usually refers only to what they called the natural sciences or even natural philosophy. So, with your permission, I am going to use the old language, and refer to subjects that are ordered around a unifying principle “sciences” instead of subjects. You’ll see why in just a moment.

The main point I’ve made so far is that each science has a unifying principle or idea that makes it what it is. (life for biology, God for theology, etc.)

I should point out that this is true even for those sciences that don’t end in logy. For example, some subjects end with “nomy,” such as “economy,” “astronomy,” etc. In this case, the ending comes from “nomos” which means laws or customs, the main point being that something happens regularly. “Economy” comes from a funny Greek word: oikonomos, and I would argue that it literally means “household customs.”

You can see how words can lose their attachment to their heritage! Astronomy is already a Greek word. It means the laws of the stars. Some sciences are very precise, like astronomy, which strictly follows the laws of physics. Others are much less precise, like economics, which strictly follow only one law: “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

At this point, you may have noticed something very interesting. Given all these “logies” and “nomies” and other endingies (the accent goes on the second syllable in that very subtle AGreek word), and given that some are known more precisely than others, it seems that each of them needs to be studied differently! I will not study the customs of the household the same way I study the movement of the stars. I will not study literature and history the same way I study chemistry and physics. Each science asks a different set of questions. Each gets answers to its questions in a different way. Each has its own logic.

Bang! That’s it! I told you it would be worth it if you stayed.

At the beginning I pointed out that when we think about the curriculum, we need to think about the subjects we study and the materials we use to study them. Now I hope we can see that we also need to think about the logic of the subject (or science) that we are studying. Until we get the logic of a science we don’t get the science, no matter how well we know the content of the science. That’s why when you teach, no matter what you are teaching, you always want to teach your students how to think in the given science you are teaching.

Now here’s where it gets especially exciting. I said above that this “more” would make things “less” confusing, less work, and less anxiety. But at this point you might be thinking, “What!? Now I have to teach logic too!? Augghh!!!!”

Be still, oh restless heart!

Above I pointed out that the “logy” ending comes from logos, and that logos, at least in that context, means a unifying principle or what we can now call “the logic of a science.”

Think about this: what would you have if you dropped all the particular sciences and started studying the “logies” themselves? That’s right, you’d have logic. As every particular science has its own logic, so all the logics combined make up Logic itself. In the same way, as every particular science has its own unifying principle, so every science combined has one common unifying principle or Logos. And that is Christ. He truly is the one in whom all things are held together, not only physically but in their very essence.

There are a number of ways we can apply these facts to our thinking, teaching, and curriculum development, most of which I haven’t thought of. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, either here or in the CiRCE forum.

Here are some thoughts on relating this to our curriculum, and this is where I’ll keep my promise up above, when I assured you that you would see why I call subjects “sciences” in this essay. Subjects has become a bit of a lazy word. We throw everything we study into that category. So art is a subject, music is a subject, gymn is a subject, as are math, science, literature, history, etc. By calling everything a subject, we are enabled to not think about important distinctions between types of subjects.

That doesn’t mean we should never call anything a subject, it just means we also need to learn ways to distinguish types of subjects. And the way we distinguish them is by, one, their purpose, and two, the logic each employs.

To bring this into the classroom, the classical theorists distinguished first of all between arts and sciences. An art is a way of doing something. A science is a domain of knowing. This is an amazingly important distinction if only for this somewhat obvious reason: to know something you have to do something: you have to study it. May I add that you have to study it correctly, according to its nature, using the sort of logic that is native to that subject.

So if I’m going to learn physics, I first need to learn math. If I’m going to learn biology, I need to become skilled at inductive logic. If I’m going to learn literature, I need to learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

In this sense, math and the trivium are not merely subjects; they are arts. They are the arts that enable us to gain the knowledge that makes up the science. Historically, they have been recognized as the arts that are universally necessary for study of every science, for leadership, and for human excellence. They have been called the humanities (Cicero’s term) and the liberal arts. They are the necessary foundation for civilized society and culture.

The fulness of this idea can be seen when we look at it at its highest level of abstraction and its most immediate level of concrete application. At the highest level of abstraction, we see that every object of study (every science) is united by a common unifying principle that we call the logos and that the scriptures and experience identify as Christ. At the most immediate level, we can see that the foundation of all learning is mastery of the tools of thinking. These can be divided into the seven liberal arts. I would suggest that those seven are then bound together by the central art of the trivium and the art that links the trivium with the quadrivium, then binds the seven into a unified package, and, in turn, bridges learning with experience and with the development of the soul. That unifying art is, just as the unifying science is, logos, which in its concrete unifying activity, we call logic.

Perhaps you can see that the only way to really integrate a curriculum is through the trivium, understood not only as psychological stages, but also as the tools of learning that Dorothy Sayers wanted us to restore. The arts of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Every subject has its object, the thing you are thinking about when you study it. Every subject also has its logic, the way you think about the subject. And the object of every study and the logic of every study is contained in the unifying study of logic itself.

If I’m able to, I will describe how logic needs to be taught if this potential is to be fulfilled. Let me add that it is an awesome, transforming potential.