Saturday, August 29, 2015

Thinking as a Science book review

In his latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, cartoonist Scott Adams describes the ways he has found to to hack his wet computer, ie his brain, for success, health and happiness. His advice is a bit spooky as it goes the grain of established wisdom and because of, as he readily admits, the source. However, its a fine book and the contents appear as they might work.

I bring that up as excuse to mention Thinking as a Science by Henry Hazlitt. This one too, helps one get hold of the resources of one's own mind but in an organized, rational way. In a sense: hack it too. Somehow, this gem has fallen out of the attention of the wider public, and deserves to be brought more to the forefront. The goal of it is to bring method to the thinking process and this geared towards the solution of practical problems.

Here's the table of contents:

I The Neglect of Thinking
II Thinking With Method
III A Few Cautions
IV Concentration
V Prejudice and Uncertainty
VI Debate and Conversation
VII Thinking and Reading
VIII Writing One's Thoughts
IX Things Worth Thinking About
X Thinking as an Art
XI Books on Thinking

Chapters 2 & 4 are the core of his system. Chapter 2 spells out the different thinking methods one can unfurl at a given problem and how to thread them together. Chapter 4 is of particular interest are his recommendations on concentration, which jibe well with the views of William James, neuroplasticity and zen practice. By itself, this one is worth its weight in gold.  Other chapters reinforce the method like nos. 3 and 5 while  chapter 6 extends the method to include other persons. This area has been explored and expanded by other authors independently, so you might also want to check out other books devoted to it.

All throughout, but on chapter 7 in particular, this book is surprisingly against reading. Drawing heavily from Schopenhauer's essay On Thinking for Oneself, Hazlitt believes that reading actually is an excuse for not using one's own mind and offers remedies.  This part reminds me about Brottman's Solitary Vice which also assails reading as an act but from a different angle. Despite his apparent aversion, he obliges and shares his advice on tackling texts. Another virtue of his advice on reading is that it is easier to apply than others, such as Adler's of which we talked recently.

I admit it:  I too usually shoot from the hip when faced with problems, rather than taking a more rational stance as a Hazlitt proposes. If you're anything like me, you  are likely to do likewise. Why shortchange ourselves, when there's help at arm's reach? As I see it, there are two aspects to habitual use of thinking as a science: 1) the acquaintance with the techniques, starting from actually being aware that there are such; and, 2)  getting into the habit of using them when needed, which I feel is the most difficult part (more on this related to chess on a previous post). Good ol' Harry Lorayne used to stress this point. Hazlitt retakes it on the second to last chapter and offers guidelines.

A further reading section is included at the end (with commentary).

The book stands on its own, but Hazlitt made a retrospective comment on it on a later book, The Wisdom of Hazlitt, which rounds off his system. Here, a mellowed Hazlitt relaxes his  stance against reading and gives further advice . The further reading section is now greatly expanded.

One of the best books I've read over the last couple of years, because, if anything, challenges ones viewpoints. Bring out pen and paper.


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