Thinking and David Foster Wallace

I was reading the commencement address Mr Wallace gave at a particular liberal arts school entitled “The Meaning of Water“. I understand what he was trying to say, up to a point, but he lacked the ability to really understand thinking. I suppose understanding really comes with the passage of time and much thought. Experience lends a hand to our understanding of life and that elusive thing called wisdom.  Yes, he started well and brought the discourse to a middle level but that was about it.  There is more to understanding than the simple postulation that thinking is something innate and easy to accomplish.  One may believe that the who, what, where, when, why, and how is the hallmark of critical thinking, but that is to deceive oneself of the importance of content, of beliefs, and of bias.

We all know how to think or at least believe we do. After all, we do this everyday. We make choices, have flashes of insights, and solve problems. Every man, woman, and child does this every day. For some, the brain activity is low level, meaning that we do not examine every thought or idea, we simply make some decision based on a minimal amount of informational input. We may see the that the sky is cloudy this morning or that the trees seem to be swaying in a more vigorous manner than usual and form an idea as to what the weather conditions will be in the next hour or two. Or perhaps a tune from some old forgotten experience pops into our head at the moment an odd thought comes to mind by way of memory association with an advertisement we now see. This is thinking on the most basic level and we all engage in it every day.

But Mr Wallace had something more in mind when he wrote down those few words in preparation for a speech. To the men and women were graduating that day the question was what advice could he give them.  All commencement addresses fall into that category and offer up some vision of the future and hope for change and success. But what exactly does one tell a group of graduating liberal arts graduates? Does the world really belong to them now? Will each and everyone ride forth like a knight of the round table and do battle with evil and wrongdoing? Will they change the world for the better now that they are in charge? I don’t think it quite works that way and besides, mostly it is a fiction.

What he had in mind was that their education had taught them something about thinking even if they were not readily cognizant of that activity. True, we attend the classes, take the tests, and then believe we know something but all too pathetically we seldom question what it is that we believe we know. If one wants to think clearly one must know something about that particular subject and question that knowledge. If my knowledge of the moon is that it is a man’s face and made of green cheese then my ability to think about the moon is necessarily limited. This is the point I would have made in that speech. All that wonderful knowledge that they have found in books and extolled by their professors is not necessarily true or wise. In point of fact, the student is wise not to strongly question the professor’s knowledge or understanding no matter how obviously wrong it may appear to be. If one wants the piece of paper conferred upon graduation one must conform to the necessary beliefs to obtain it.

That brings us to the main point of life. Those who wish to think well and perhaps love thinking must question what they hold as true. One may believe that the world is flat but the truth of that matter is open to question. Does the Higgs Boson particle exist? To the man who digs ditches for a living it is not a matter of importance. But for the particle physicist the existence of such a particle is extremely important. What we believe tends to determine how and what we think and colors out thinking accordingly. Hence, we may believe that raising the minimum wage is an absolute essential in life for those with low incomes. But does such a belief really hold under the scrutiny of supply and demand theory? If not then our desire for a “living minimum wage” has little to do with an economic truth and more to do with a social wish. I say wish because there are very few social truths, such things are the figments of our wants, needs, and desires. So if we wish to construct our society in some manner according to our beliefs then we must question those beliefs. Would a society that provides a minimum living standard be workable? If so, how? This is that question of water Mr Wallace tried to answer.

Socrates always demanded that his opponents define their terms. When one attempts to define those terms one is forced to think about what an idea really means, what bias does to one’s beliefs, and why truth is not always that thing we believe it to be. It is not enough to question authority, as the old late sixties slogan goes. One has a duty to question what one knows and why one holds to any beliefs.  A piece of paper may give one authority but authority is not wisdom let alone knowledge.  This is what formal education fails to teach the student.  There is no formula for knowledge or wisdom, only questions that must be asked and must be answered answered honestly.


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