The Difference between Reading and Thinking

We take for granted that reading is good for us. We think that we will grow and become better through reading. Beginning from this common opinion I wish to make a perverse suggestion: if reading is not approached with the right disposition, it will not benefit one very much or contribute to growth.

A Nietzschean question emerges: what are the uses and disadvantages of reading for life?

I will begin by sketching a few common but flawed types of ways to approach books and at the end will make a suggestion about how we might make a better beginning, through a common sense consideration of what thinking is.

The narrow minded reader vs the “open” minded reader

In an early essay by Leo Strauss, “The Religious Situation of the Present” (1930), he calls to mind two different kinds of readers, one with a narrow mind and one with too open of a mind: “Now there are two types of readers. Some are narrowminded; they have a fixed and ready opinion; they read only in order to confirm their opinion: should the book not be of their opinion, they have enough arguments ready-at-hand to dismiss the book. For, what aren’t there arguments for; certain fundamental insights of Kant’s, which today any jackass has or believes has, were ‘refuted’ with sovereign superiority by jackasses among Kant’s contemporaries. This type of reader is harmless and innocuous.”

We might ask ourselves: is it so bad to have a narrow mind? That is, if I think I know the truth, shouldn’t I readily reject lesser alternatives? Isn’t it good to resolutely reject degenerate falsehoods and shame the person who utters them? Perhaps. But, I don’t think that Strauss has in mind someone who has searched for the truth. Rather, he is thinking of the kind of shallow dogmatist who rejects great thinkers out of hand as incorrect. Rather he calls to mind a shallow person who cannot even conceive of the immense effort and talent required to arrive at the position that a Nietzsche or a Kant arrives at. The jackasses Strauss has in mind primp and preen themselves on “refuting” alternatives that threaten their own puny view. Most people have their moral taste completely formed by the time and place they live in. They can’t articulate clearly why they think what they think, but they believe it deeply enough to kill or ostracize those who think otherwise. That is the way it has always been. So you can see that there is a lot at stake for some in needing to believe they can refute Kant or Nietzsche. “Will to power is a stupid idea; I know that I don’t want power, I just want to love my family and help out in my community.” Is there any way that Nietzsche hasn’t thought of that objection and a million others beside?

By the way, I am not saying that Kant and Nietzsche are equals or that you should respect every view you encounter. Ultimately, you do have to determine if Kant, Nietzsche, God, or someone else is right about the fundamental questions. But by all means, please discern the difference between a mountain and a molehill, and respect the former and dismiss the latter.

On “open” minded readers, Strauss says: “More harmful is the second type. To this type belong people who are stimulated by the books, who are open to everything new; these people are easily excited; they adopt one book’s conclusions and then again another’s. Since they are precisely not narrow, they cannot resist the conflicting theories. The theories can be formulated in certain keywords; these keywords can easily be adopted. One reads and reflects while reading; it occurs to one how things are related; one sits down and writes. The result of this very entertaining activity is a synthesis, that is, a book or a pamphlet or an essay.”

The open minded reader is more dangerous inasmuch as he is likely to appear more competent and reflective than the narrow minded reader. He can reduce Kant to the “categorical imperative” and Nietzsche to the “will to power” and show how they fit together in some other broad and all encompassing theory. But, this is the temptation of a pluralistic and democratic age. These open minded readers blind us from seeing the crucial differences between great thinkers. They blur things and make them yeasty or less distinct.

We might imagine another kind of open minded reader who is more respectable than the type that Strauss describes above, but who is nevertheless problematic. These are St. John’s or great booksy types. This kind of reader sits at the feet of the Western Canon and tries to understand each thinker as he understands himself. This is without doubt, a laudable beginning. But eventually, we have to judge for ourselves what is true and what is false. We can’t sit around and merely compare Nietzsche’s view of nature to Plato’s view of nature. We have to be either courageous or resolute enough to offer an answer or to take a stand. To take this step is to begin to subordinate the act of reading to the act of thinking.

What is thinking?

Thinking is different than reading, inasmuch as reading is trying to hold onto the thoughts of another. One might object, and say: surely when one reads, one thinks! This is a fair point. However, when we think about what we read, we generally elaborate on or extend the thinking that the writer has already done. In other words, we reason on the basis of presuppositions that have been erected by another. The alternative kind of thinking that occurs while reading, is the attempt to destroy the presuppositions of the writer. We sniff out contradictions, faulty examples, and outright lies. In so doing, we rely on some kind of presupposition that we have already arrived at, as a standard by which to shred what we read.

So what is thinking, by itself, independent of reading? One way to approach the question is to ask: how much of a difference is there between our awareness of the world and thinking about the world? It seems that, without really exerting any effort, our mind instinctively or naturally breaks up the world into discrete beings each with their own integrity (i.e., the tree is touching, but distinct from the soil out of which it grows; the lamp is on the table, but distinct from the table). Is thinking, then, our willful selection or concentration on one of the beings, giving it some kind of articulation? Maybe thinking is the articulation of that of which we are aware. That is, thinking goes beyond experiencing the sentiment of our existence.

I suspect that most of us are somewhat uncomfortable with thinking by ourselves. The modern world does its best to provide us with distractions so that we never have to sit with ourselves. But, I wonder if even a noble activity like reading can get in the way of thinking, for, we often feel more “productive” after reading than after thinking. We can speak with our friends about a book we have read. From the outside, thinking looks lazy, and unless we are outstanding thinkers, we may have little to share about our exploits in thought. Thinking is less likely to help us flatter our vanity.

As BAP points out in BAP-cast 9, it is very rare to meet a human being who genuinely makes contemplation their principle business. Some classicists and scholars of political philosophy will say things like: “in the Ethics, Aristotle says that contemplation is the highest form of human action. Politics is puny and small from the perspective of contemplation.” And yet, has one of these scholars ever actually spent weeks, months, or years trying to articulate the structure, character, or features of the beings present to us in experience? Not likely.

Let’s take up an example of a thought. In Book Three of Xenophon’s Anabasis, Xenophon becomes the leader of a group of 10,000 Greeks who find themselves stranded deep in Persian territory. Right before he becomes the leader, he writes the following: “immediately upon his awakening, a thought struck Xenophon: ‘Why I am lying here? The night advances, and it is likely that the enemy will arrive together with the coming of day. If we fall into the King’s hands, what is to prevent us from being killed, victims of insolence, after looking upon all that is harshest and suffering all that is most terrible? As for defending ourselves, no one is making preparations or showing any care; rather, we are lying here as if it were possible to stay at peace. From what city do I expect a general who will carry out these measures? And as for myself, what age am I waiting for? I will not get any older, if I give myself up to the enemy today.'” (Buzzetti trans. Bk 3 Ch 1).

I will comment in a moment on the importance of the thought “striking” Xenophon; let’s work through his thought first. His thought begins with a question. It seems to say, why am I here on the ground, instead of doing something about my situation? He then turns to the night, or to the relentless movement of time; that is, he notices a necessity, and seems to see that his actions are inconsistent with the requirements imposed by necessity. He then poses a likely hypothetical situation to himself: if the King catches us, we are probably screwed. Xenophon sees that no one is preparing for the likelihood of the King approaching. Interestingly, Xenophon supposes that the soldiers lying on the ground all possess some kind of hope for an impossible miracle or assistance that will come to them–to lie on the ground without such a hope would make little sense. But inasmuch as this hope is infinitely less reliable than the preparations one can make for oneself, Xenophon asks: what am I waiting for?

Speaking generally, then, Xenophon’s thought grasps clearly what cannot be otherwise (necessities) and that which can be otherwise, actions in accordance with necessity. He sees that which cannot be moved and that which can. We might also say that Xenophon’s thought is suffused with or guided by, a concern with what is best for him and his fellow soldiers.

It is striking that Xenophon says that the thought we have examined above “struck” him. On the basis of this description, we might worry that we are at the mercy of some force that is beyond our control when it comes to having thoughts. Indeed, we can find partial confirmation of this notion in many common experiences. If you are in a classroom or at work, someone will ask a question; an answer usually immediately pops into your mind, OR, it does not. It is not as if YOU searched around in the cave of your mind looking for the right chest.

It is worth noting, then, that thinking seems both active and passive. Sometimes we direct our mind, and sometimes sparks seem to jump into our mind. And we have not even mentioned the unconscious mind. That we can be in the shower and suddenly think of a rebuttal to an argument or think of an obscure passage of text that will bolster our writing project, indicates that our mind is working on things without our being aware of it.

Perhaps, then, it is incumbent on us to cultivate the right soil for our thoughts to grow in. We need to take care of our bodies so that we aren’t slowed down. We need to read widely, about wildly divergent things, so that our mind has a great deal of material to play around with. We have to practice our active thinking so that we don’t entirely depend on passive inspiration to strike our mind, as if from outside.

We ought to view reading with an eye toward becoming better thinkers. Don’t just memorize arguments in order to trot them out for your friends. It might feel cool to walk around with a bag of arguments, but it means very little if one can’t see clearly which arguments are in accord with reality. In other words, our goal is to live well, and it may be that thought about the fundamental questions is required in order to do that. But, we might also wonder: can thinking lead us astray? What is the relation between instinct and thought? What are the core obstacles to thinking well? What is the relationship between emotional convictions and thought? Is there any difference between sound judgment and thought?

One thought on “The Difference between Reading and Thinking

  1. Humm, interesting essay. I used, in my hot youth, to keep notebooks. ‘just thoughts, really.’ Was absolutely useless because I never worked them up into applied essays. Later I did a lot of painting, which was also useless as far as creating change went. A painting , the idea for which would Strike me, takes some kind of Form in the mind, but being ungrammatical it remains dumb, even when actualised. More recently I’ve got into keeping an essay blog. Ideas for essays strike in the same manner as paintings – as forms or structures. What I’ve found, not an original observation, is that having an essay in the go has a dramatic effect on attention – relevant ideas fly up all over, it becomes like flypaper.
    Question is, what is doing the striking? A pattern in the world part-matches a pattern in the mind. What is the shape of the essay that gets struck? This seems mysterious. I have no faith but now wonder if there is a will to achieve certain patterns, external truths..


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