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An Intellectual Entertainment: Thought and Thinking

  • P. M. S. Hacker


This dialogue is on the nature of thought and thinking. The five disputants are Socrates, an imaginary neuroscientist from California (whose opinions reflect those of contemporary cognitive neuroscientists), an Oxford don from the 1950s (who employs the linguistic analytic techniques of his times), a Scottish post-doctoral student, and John Locke (who speaks for himself). The discussion takes place in Elysium in the late afternoon. They examine the idea that thinking is an activity of the mind or the brain, whether the medium of thought consists of words or ideas, whether thoughtful speech is speech accompanied by thought, whether thinking, i.e. reasoning and inferring, is a process, and what is meant by the claim that ‘thinking is the last interpretation’. The dialogue ends when the protagonists go to dinner, but will be resumed after the meal.



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1 Susan Greenfield, in one of her television broadcasts, pointing at a brain image on a fMRI scanner, remarked, ‘Here, for the first time, we can actually see thinking.’

2 Leibniz, Principles of Nature and Grace, §4.

3 Sir Matthew Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind (1677).

4 Blakemore, C., ‘Why does the inner eye see so little? It gives us only a tiny glimpse, and distorted at that, of the world within. Much of what our brains do is entirely hidden from consciousness. … Most of the actions of the human mind are beyond the gaze of the inner eye of consciousness.The Mind Machine (BBC books, London, 1988), 14; Koch, C., ‘Much of what goes on in the brain bypasses consciousnessThe Quest for Consciousness (Roberts, Englewood, Colorado, 2004), 3. See also Crick, F., The Astonishing Hypothesis (Touchstone, London, 1995), 266 and passim.

5 A view briefly adopted by Wittgenstein in the early 1930s but later abandoned.

6 Plato, Theaetetus 189e.

7 Plato, Sophist 263e.

8 Sophocles, Ajax, ll. 365–8.

9 Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, III-i-2, III-ii-1.

10 Hobbes, Leviathan, chap. iv.

11 Hobbes, Human Nature, chap. 5, §14.

12 Arnauld, The Art of Thinking, Part II, chap. i.

13 Locke, Essay, III-ii-1 (abbreviated).

14 Geach, P. T., ‘What do we think with?’ in God and the Soul (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1969), 31.

15 Schroeder, Severin, ‘Is Thinking a Kind of Speaking?’, Philosophical Investigations 18 (1995), 146 .

16 E.g. Johnson-Laird, P. N., Mental Models (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Jackendorff, R., Consciousness and the Computational Mind (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

17 Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers [1785] (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002), 20.

18 Schroeder, ‘Is Thinking a Kind of Speaking’, 148.

19 James, W., The Principles of Psychology (Holt, New York, 1890), vol. I, 239: ‘Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Words such as ‘train’ or ‘chain’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.’ Thomas Reid anticipated James. He wrote: the stream of thought flows like a river, without stopping a momentEssays on the Intellectual Powers of Man [1775] (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002), 420.

20 Locke, Essay, III-ii -7.

21 Levelt, W. J. M., ‘Accessing words in speech production: stages, processes and representations’, Cognition 42 (1992), 122 . See also Coltheart, M., Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R., and Ziegler, J., ‘A dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloud’, Psychological Review 108 (2001), 204–56.

22 James, Principles of Psychology, I, 185.

23 I am indebted to Hanoch Ben-Yami, Parashkev Nachev, Hans Oberdiek, Herman Philipse, Dan Robinson, Amit Saad, and David Wiggins for their encouragement and kind comments on earlier drafts. I am grateful to Keith Thomas for his corrections to my seventeenth century English, and to my son Jonathan Hacker for his excellent advice on the dialogue form.

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An Intellectual Entertainment: Thought and Thinking

  • P. M. S. Hacker


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