Do you let clichés and slogans do the thinking for you?

Unthinkable: We all use ‘potted thinking’ but it carries added risks in this social media age

 Potted thinking, Donald Trump-style. File photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Potted thinking, Donald Trump-style. File photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters


As the second World War approached, the British philosopher Susan Stebbing wrote of “an urgent need to-day for the citizens of a democracy to think well”. She said: “ Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.”

Her words are as relevant in 2018. Stebbing explored the way people use “potted thinking” – compressed statements of belief – which could be harmless or dangerous, depending on whether they were underpinned by genuine thought.

Stebbing has since become a figurehead of what’s known as analytic philosophy. While this discipline has no fixed boundaries, “analytic philosophers try to get as clear as they can about the philosophical issues that they address, to express their ideas as precisely as possible, and to present their arguments with the maximum degree of rigour,” explains Prof Michael Beaney, an expert on the subject who teaches in Berlin and London.

Beaney’s Analytic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press, and it works as both a useful primer on the subject and a lively cognitive work-out. Not many authors will open a book cautioning readers to “slow down, re-read, and even stop at times to reflect before going on”. But that, in a nutshell, is what analytic philosophy is about. It commands us to stop skimming over stuff, and to instead scrutinise our own potted thinking and that of others.

Such thinking could be a type of cliché or slogan, like: “Make America great again”, “Let’s build a republic of opportunity”, “It’s good to share”, or “Things can only get better”.

This week’s Unthinkable guest, Beaney, says: “In today’s world of text messaging and tweeting, there is a greater need than ever before for the kind of interpretive analysis characteristic of analytic philosophy, in making sense of potted thinking – whether it unpacks the fresh thoughts that were indeed condensed or, instead, shows up its confusions, simplifications, or pretensions.”

Analytic philosophy puts a premium on accuracy in language, and unravelling or exposing muddled thinking. As an expert in the field, do you find that people tend to speak a lot of nonsense?

Michael Beaney: “I wouldn’t put it as strongly as saying that people tend to speak a lot of nonsense, but I do think that, on the whole, people don’t say what they mean as clearly as they could or should.

“Sometimes this is intentional, of course. You might not want to offend someone, for example. Politicians, especially, may be deliberately evasive to avoid losing support among a particular constituency.

“In everyday conversation a certain amount of looseness may not matter much, if the general gist comes across, or one can rely on context or shared understandings to fill in any gaps. In academic subjects, however, it is much more important to be as clear and precise as possible, to reduce the dependence on local context, to avoid ambiguity and hence potential misunderstanding, and so on.

Wittgenstein once said, ‘Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense’

“That said, there is an especial tendency in philosophising to utter nonsense – and by ‘philosophising’ I include the attempts that all of us make at one time or another to ask and answer certain kinds of question. I begin my book with some examples of what I have in mind, questions such as ‘How many things are there in the world?’, ‘Where was I before I was conceived?’, ‘Do numbers exist?’, and ‘Do I have free will?’

“Both in asking such apparently simple questions, and in attempting to provide answers to them, it is very easy to talk nonsense. But it is not enough simply to point this out. One needs to explain why and how such nonsense arises, and genuine philosophical understanding can be achieved in doing so.

“Wittgenstein once said, ‘Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.’ Whether this advice is nonsense or not, it is certainly worth heeding.”

Give me an example of how an analytic philosopher would approach a question differently to another thinker?

“Well, one thing an analytic philosopher might do is first get clearer as to what exactly is being asked. This was certainly characteristic of G. E. Moore’s approach to philosophy.

“In your question, for example, there is perhaps the assumption that the differences between thinkers can be manifest in their answers to the same questions. But it might be that they are asking and offering answers to different questions, even where it might look as if they are the same questions. So we might need to establish just what someone is actually asking.

“We are probably all familiar with cases of people answering a different question to the one that the person asking them intends, again whether deliberately or not. (Perhaps I am doing that a bit with your questions!)

“Take an apparently simple philosophical question such as ‘What is time?’ An analytic philosopher might tackle this question with reference to debates, say, about the relation between time and change (‘Can there be time without change?’), or about whether statements about the future can be regarded as either true or false. A phenomenologist, such as Edmund Husserl, on the other hand, might be more concerned with time as we experience it.

“There is also an assumption in your question, I think, that there is a single approach to philosophical questions that characterises analytic philosophy. There may be some things in common, but also many differences, especially when one gets down to details.

“Take the question ‘What are numbers?’ Both Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, paradigm examples of analytic philosophers, were concerned with whether numbers are objects or not, and if so, what kind of object. But while Frege thought that numbers were logical objects, Russell came to think that numbers were logical fictions. This resulted in quite different approaches in answering the question.

“In considering the nature of numbers in his later work, Ludwig Wittgenstein focused much more on our practices of counting and measuring. Although some have disputed whether he still counts as an ‘analytic’ philosopher in his later work, I regard him as just a different kind of analytic philosopher, and hence as illustrating just what different approaches to philosophical questions can be found within analytic philosophy.”

Are metaphors, parables and allegories obstacles to clear and rational thought?

“Metaphors, analogies, and so on can be very useful in thinking, and certainly play an important role in explaining ideas. They are also far more pervasive in thinking than one may realise. Indeed, you have used an interesting metaphor in your question in asking whether they are obstacles to thought.

“Something is an obstacle if it impedes movement or vision, which suggests that there is some more direct route to what we want to reach or see. Perhaps there is, and we should try to express ourselves without the metaphor, but sometimes a well-chosen metaphor may convey our thought in just the way we want, and then it won’t really count as an ‘obstacle’.

Susan Stebbing's book was one of the very first works of what we now call critical thinking

“The key point is that we need to become more self-conscious about this aspect of our thinking, and recognise the limits of the applicability of the various metaphors, analogies, and so on, that we use. This is something that Susan Stebbing emphasised in her wonderful book, Thinking to Some Purpose.”

“Her book was one of the very first works of what we now call critical thinking, something that is needed even more than ever in our world of texting and tweeting, excellent examples of what Stebbing termed ‘potted thinking’ (itself a metaphor, of course).

“In the final chapter of my book, I explain how our talk of ‘analysis’ has been infused - and indeed confused - by various metaphors, and the metaphor of ‘decomposition’, in particular. As I hope my book shows, ‘analytic’ philosophy is far richer and more creative that this crude metaphor might lead someone to think.”

Some philosophers have tried to produce answers to scientific, political and ethical questions that apply for all ages. But can philosophical problems be divorced from their historical context?

“Many analytic philosophers have indeed thought that philosophical problems can be divorced from their historical context and solutions found that, if correct, are somehow correct eternally. This has never struck me as plausible.

“If there is one thing that has governed my own work since I was a postgraduate in the 1980s, it is that analytic philosophy itself has a history, which needs to be appreciated and elucidated.

“Looking back over the development of analytic philosophy even in my own lifetime, I can see that there have been fashions, some problems and questions dropping out of focus and others taking their place. And even where there is continuity, the problems and questions get subtly transformed as different philosophers try to answer them.

The biggest blind-spot in analytic philosophy is its lack of historical self-consciousness

“Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth in the ahistorical view, though it needs careful extraction and articulation. Any attempt to understand a past philosophical problem lifts it out of its context and gives it a fresh formulation, using later concepts, and if this has any legitimacy at all, then there must be a sense in which it still counts as the ‘same’ problem, even when reformulated.

“I raise the general issue here in discussing the paradox of analysis in chapter three of my book. Towards the end of the final chapter, I suggest that the biggest blind-spot in analytic philosophy is its lack of historical self-consciousness, and that analytic philosophy might turn to ‘continental’ philosophy for help in correcting this. This is exactly what I am working on at the moment.

“I am currently reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, for example, which is a magnificent resource for thinking about how we understand past texts. Perhaps you should interview me again in a couple of years’ time, to see if I have made any progress in getting clearer about the difficult issues involved here.”


Ask a sage:

Question: Can we know anything for certain?

Susan Stebbing replies: “For all x, if x is an economist, then x is fallible.”

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