On Positive Thinking by Alessandro Capone



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On Positive Thinking

by Alessandro Capone

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To think is to have thoughts about the physical world, about oneself, about others. To think is not always to have knowledge representations, but it typically is. We sometimes indulge in mental representations that represent worlds as we wish them to be, albeit we know well that those worlds are separated from the real one (in which we live and act). To think is sometimes to engage in a rational activity that is not tightly connected with representations of the words as it is. We can have reasonings of this type:


Suppose I have got ten thousand euros. I am a very generous person. Mary is in need. Thus, I would probably lend her ten euros.
I can go on to argue like this, even if I have got no money in my pocket. My mental activity is surely “thinking” (or an act of thinking) and the object of these thoughts is, in a sense, the world, as, by thinking rationally, I can make predictions on the basis of my general dispositions (to act in such-and-such a way). I think about myself in an abstract way – not by observing my actions (or the facts in which I am engaged) but by speculating on the basis of my inferential powers. Arguing like this, we can also think of possible worlds, to check the way we would act in them.
I may abstractly speculate about my behaviour in case I were in Jim’s situation (I am obviously thinking of “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad). What would I do if I were an officer of a sinking ship and there were available some safety boats (not spacious enough for all passengers)? Would I stoically wait on the ship until the vessel has been evacuated (despairing that I will be able to save my life) or would I immediately jump, like Jim, into one of the boats and leave the ship to its destiny? I am sceptical that questions such as these can be answered by rational speculation, in the sense that rational speculation can offer a foolproof answer.
I would like to confront you with the following paradoxical situation. I have got a student of mine – I think that, without my help, he will go astray (he has bad friends) and I do my best to help him paternally. There is a possible world, I think, in which I deny my help, and he perishes (metaphorically speaking). There is another possible world, I think, in which I volunteer my help and he does not perish. Given these thoughts, I actually help him. With my help, assistance and guidance, he thrives. Yet, he is not properly grateful, because he is not aware of the dangers that awaited him in the possible worlds in which I did not help him. He just knew the possible worlds in which I helped him, which coincide with the real world. I cannot even boast with my colleagues, saying “I must be credited with the fact that I put him on the right track and he did not perish”, because they may deny that the possible worlds in which I did not help him are worlds in which he perished. Despite the fact that I did not help him in those worlds, he may have found in himself the (moral) resources to resurrect. We are confronted with very abstract speculation – yet I think we all have a grasp of what the world would be like if we did not act, if we did not intervene. I know well enough that if J.H. had not helped me, but had left me in the hands of my previous tutor, my thesis would have been failed. My previous tutor never had that thought (either before or after J.H.’s intervention), but I feel confident that this is what the world would have been if J.H.’s intervention had not arrived.
Normally enough we think of the world, we have thoughts about it – when these thoughts are normal enough to be shared by other people (anyone who has the empirical evidence we have must come to similar thoughts) then they have the character of “facts”, propositions that are true, and which we happen to know.
The importance of having thoughts is that we act on them. Thoughts and actions are inextricably linked. Acting (voluntarily) in such-and-such a way is proof that the Actor thought the action was good or necessary. Pragmaticists (I am among them) insist that having correct (or faithful) representations of the world (having knowledge, in other words) is a basis for action, since actions that are based on misrepresentations of the world turn out to be unsuccessful (or turn out to be successful by mere chance). John told me that Mary loves me. With this information at hand, I go to Mary and declare my love for her. If the information I received is false, she will slap me on the face, and my action will turn out to be unsuccessful. On the other hand, if this piece of information is correct, I go to her and tell her that I love her, and she will kiss me (in return). My action has been successful, because it has been based on a good (valuable) piece of information (a piece of knowledge). There is the marginal – but not altogether unimportant – case in which John imparts me the information that Mary is in love with me, which is not true; I go to her and tell her I love her: she gives me a kiss in return. The action has been successful by pure chance, given (despite) the false piece of information on which it was based.
I said that actions and thinking are inextricably related. Actions very often provide evidence that one thinks in a certain way. If my tutor has pornographic materials in his office, I deduce that something is wrong about his attitude to teaching and to life (as he departed from the decency of showing himself in a normal teaching situation to his students). Of course, liars may exploit this connection between actions and thoughts to show themselves in a favourable light. Thus, the passenger opposite me in the train may read a pamphlet on St Pius, from which I deduce that he (the passenger) is a Christian and he also has good moral qualities. Should he overthrow his suitcase by mistake and should I see that he has got pornographic materials inside it, then I would deduce that there is a discrepancy between what he does and what he is.
Nevertheless, given that he was reading a Christian pamphlet, his action is, without doubt, a proof that he wanted to do it (we may remain agnostic as to the possibility that his visible action is a step in a plan to deceive us).
I would now like to raise the following question. Is thinking an action? Surely we are ready to concede that thinking is an activity of some kind. But would we go on to conceive thinking on a par with (physical) actions?
When we act, we generally plan our actions (unless we act on immediate mental impulses, in a rash, and without premeditation). So actions, are preceded by thinking activities and may very well be accompanied by thinking activities (Brutus, who killed Caesar, surely had a sense of repugnance all the while, while he was acting, and that may very well be called thinking; alternatively, the last time he stabbed him (while he was doing the stabbing) he was assailed by remorse: he acted in a way and thought in a different way (this is not to be excluded)).
But is thinking an activity? Can we set out to think, in the same way in which we can set out to do something (go on a trip, for example)? My answer is that, surely, we can set out to think, in the same way in which we can set out to write a novel (which is an action that involves thinking, after all), or to go for a picnic in the park near at hand. Preparations can be made. If we think that thoughts can take a certain turn, unless we make the necessary preparations, then we had better make them. Suppose I know that, in a public exam, I will be assailed by fear or anguish if I do not have a glass of water near me: then it would be stupid not to make the following preparation: arranging for a glass of water to be on the table around which the exam takes place. The bold, but correct claim, which I am making is that, if we are careful enough, we can prepare our thoughts, guide them in a certain direction, preventing them from going astray by taking precautions or by preparing guidelines (for thought) to be strictly obeyed. Suppose I know that if I panic, I am not able to do well in the written maths test. Then I must take all necessary precautions to avoid the event of my panicking. I refuse to concede that taking a pill is the right way to ensure that panic is avoided, as that at most it will act on my nerves in a way that has nothing to do with guidelines of thought behaviour. That is a good remedy, but not a remedy to be advocated in a paper which devises strategies for positive thinking, for good thinking, for correct thinking, strategies that are strictly mental, not physiological. If I want to influence my behaviour in such a way that I will be able to think rationally and lucidly (and calmly) throughout my written maths test, then I must devise a way to calm myself up that rests on self-persuasion, that is to say on (good) thought(s). What I probably have to do is to brainwash myself in the following way:
if I do not pass the test, I can try it again (and again until I pass it); I have studied a lot and I could not have studied more; thus, having done my best to pass the test, I should not be afraid of failing, because even if I fail there is nothing else that I could have done (but I did not do).
I call these guidelines for thought self-persuasion acts based on good thinking. In the same spirit, when I am confronted with an English exam, I may take some guidelines with me: read the text four times; write the composition; revise it four times; check for missing subjects (in English subjects cannot be omitted, as a rule), check for irregular verbs in the dictionaries, check that I have obeyed the rule “nothing must intervene between the object and the verb” (coupled with the necessary exceptions). In other words, before tackling a test, I bring with me a number of guidelines (mental guidelines). I could also bring with me a written check-list (with the injunction to check my most frequent mistakes, of which I have made a list). Analogously, good thinking needs guidelines and preparations. If I know that people yelling and shouting will have a negative effect on my thinking activities, I will go and study (or write) in a desolate place or I will fit my windows with double panels. Suppose I know that reading hard philosophical and logical books requires, in addition to concentration, the removal of stress, then I will use a loud stereo and listen to classical music to defeat stress. Suppose I know that by my making frequent pauses, I defeat anxiety (I am pretty anxious as a person) and stress and thus obtain my best results in studying, then I will try to remember that I must make pauses (if I forget, I can set my computer to inform me at regular intervals or I can more simply stick notes on my notice board (or my wall). Suppose, I have a very important exam, and I am persuaded that by writing logical formulae on the walls of my room (instead of writing them on a blackboard) I can obtain my best results, then I will do so (and be prepared to have the walls painted again later on (and pay for the expenses)). If I know that my memory is weak and that one strategy I can follow to remember things easily is to associate new pieces of information with old ones, then I will associate an ancient Greek battle with my uncle Filippo. Furthermore, on the consideration that my memory is weak, I will use reasoning to offset my (cognitive) limit and I will continually raise problems, devising replies to such questions, while I study. I think I have demonstrated, making use of examples that are pretty obvious and, thus, unassailable, that we can use guidelines to steer thinking in a certain direction, to ensure that our mental activities constitute good thinking.
A few words need to be said to define what good thinking is – and alas I am persuaded that our (intuitive) ideas may diverge at this point. Tentatively, we could say that a good piece of thinking is one that guides our conduct towards good ends or consequences (helping us to achieve positive goals) – but this kind of proof – precious though it is – can be obtained only a posteriori; thus, it is of little use in advance of action (and thinking activities).
Another tentative solution is to say that we could allow ourselves to be guided by those who know more – wise people who have got institutional roles (presumably obtaining them through actions that were the result of good thinking).
My intuition is that good thinking must be a piece of thinking that is shared by a number of people not in virtue of the fact that they have some convenience in accepting it (suppose someone bribes them into contemplating a certain thought and all, thus, insist that that is good thinking), but in virtue of their rational powers’ discerning that it is a good thought (distinguishing it from the opposite, presumably bad proposition). If there is a discipline which guides good thinking, that is logic, with its insistence on coherence and on the principle of non contradiction (a person cannot truly say “P and not P” at the same time (in the same utterance)). This paper, however, is not about logic (about abstract logic) but about reasonings one makes in interacting with (other) people. Since encounters with other people are governed by some kind of logic (and the thoughts determined by such encounters need to follow a logic of some kind), the task I set myself in this paper is to expatiate on the logic of good thinking (or what I more appropriately call “positive thinking”) in social episodes (encounters/interactions with others). Much of what I say derives from the interaction between myself and my students. I discussed my logic of Positive Thinking with them and they remained sceptical about it (albeit they gradually advanced towards my position).
The example I used was the following. Suppose that we set out (as a matter of having guidelines of conduct or of good thinking) to mistrust others. Then, as a result of this we have to give up the habit of receiving information from them. Consequently, we would not watch the news nor would we listen to what our friends tell us. We would not even learn from teachers, since, after all, what is to prevent them from imparting us the wrong information (suppose their memories systematically fail when they lecture)? I had a positive stance to people, whereas my students had a negative stance to people. The solution, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle. Instead of having a naïve optimism about other people’s good faith it is best to produce reasonings that finely distinguish between situations. Only a mad man (or the inveterate liar) would tell us lies, if he did not have advantages to glean. Thus, a good rule for positive thinking would be (in the light of a moderate form of scepticism about other people’s honesty):
Take other people to tell you the truth (unless they have a conspicuous compelling reason for telling you a lie).
What would my reasons be for doubting that Mary, who insists that it is raining outside of the school, is lying, if the raining has no consequences on my current actions, nor on what I intend or plan to do in the future? Suppose I ask a passer-by for directions to the hospital: what reasons would I have for mistrusting him, apart from the generic ones that he may himself be incompetent (without knowing it)? Surely only a very wicked person would lead you astray intentionally giving you bad directions to the hospital, someone who is either demented or has accumulated a lot of resentment (for society in general) in his life, which you would very well be able to see by looking at his face (looking for feelings of anger and estrangement from life)).
In any case, I am now persuaded that some compromise must be reached between a positive thinking logic and a negative one – giving room to the possibility that we can meet all sorts of people, such as sadists, wicked ones, enemies, antagonists (whose goals are at odds with ours), inveterate liars and, also, people who, despite all their good will, are wrong about what they say, fail to remember things well, etc. So I think that while a positive thinking logic is necessary, because otherwise we will end up avoiding talking to others in fear that they may deceive us (becoming paranoid), it must be moderated and balanced by a presumption of being mistaken in one’s judgement (about oneself and about others).
Gricean pragmatics sees communication as a rational enterprise – one in which rationality guides both production and interpretation. It guides production, as speakers are under constraints of informativeness, orderliness, relevance, truth, etc. But it also guides interpretation when these constraints seem to have been flouted, utterances are interpreted under the presumption that the Gricean maxims are nevertheless obeyed. The Gricean enterprise operates on the premises that communication proceeds under the constraint of rationality and that not only speakers, but hearers as well, have to act on the presumption that what goes on is rational, even when appearances make one think otherwise.

The approach is based on goodwill and on good thinking (or positive thinking). Goodwill is involved in transforming otherwise irrational conversational products into coherent and rational sequences; positive thinking is involved in the tenet that one should do one’s best to amend texts which fall short of the criterion of rationality, by imposing on them the presumption that they abide by the rationality constraints, and by providing interpretations that diverge from the literal meaning and ‘save appearances’.



Rationality implies the ability to maximize efficiency and to handle information in such a way that neither too much nor too little is given, taking into account the needs of the recipient. It also means that every cost must be balanced by a commensurate cognitive effect. The Gricean approach may be seen as partially dependent on (more) general principles of good thinking (or positive thinking), as outlined below:
Attribute meaningfulness
Assume that what a person does has a meaning, unless you have serious cogent reasons for thinking otherwise;
If you do not understand an action, suspend your judgement about it or, if you have doubts, ask the person doing the action why she/he did it.
Show goodwill
Contextualize an action in such a way that it can be interpreted positively (attributing positive intentions to the Actor); if you do not find a context in which it can be interpreted positively, then at least allow for the possibility of finding a context in which the action can be interpreted positively.
Be constructive
Repair your coparticipant’s mistakes by attributing positive interpretations to her actions; in particular, adjust any interpretations of her actions by taking into account the intentions that can be plausibly attributed to her.
Be understanding
If you cannot understand an event, allow for the possibility that the coparticipant is following a different kind of logic (mentality, etc.).
The maxims above are motivated by the assumption that human beings, in so far as they act as agents, are rational. The presumption of rationality will lead you to find motivations for their actions in spite of what ‘prima facie’ may look like meaningless or irrational behaviour. This presumption will lead you to the conclusion that if your reasoning has sufficient depth, then you will be able to see a motivation for an action x; alternatively, if you cannot find a motivation for an action x, surely you would be able to find it, if the broader context in which that action occurs were accessible to you. After all, linguistic behaviour is behaviour of some kind, and as such it is to be viewed using the logic of positive thinking. The inferential work undertaken by a hearer rests on the assumption that the speaker is rational, that is, follows a logic of some kind, and that by being able to situate an utterance in the appropriate context, one may achieve a number of cognitive effects.
The objections to be anticipated are the obvious one – are there limits to our charity (in allowing for peculiarly odd but nevertheless meaningful conducts)? How much should we suffer and put up with? Is not there a chance that by being too positive in interpreting other people’s behaviour, then we can easily be deceived? I think that the first mistake made by the maxims above is to lead to solipsism. The maxims tell us to stretch our flexibility in interpreting all sorts of strange (or unordinary) events, but they do not tell us how to stop, and they do not tell us take into account the person whose behaviour we try to interpret (except for one maxim). Thus, we run the risk of attributing the coparticipant intentions that, in effect, come from our own view of the situation, without even contemplating the possibility of checking with her our understanding. Thus, it is indispensable to add one maxim:
Faced with a person’s puzzling conduct, stretch your charity to allow for meaningful interpretative options, checking your understanding (or view of the event/action) with her by asking for her view of your representation of the event.
The account presented above can be objected to on the grounds that it allows too much optimism in interpreting other people’s conduct, while it has no way of detecting deceit, ill will, and irrationality. Thus, I think that the maxims above must be balanced by one further maxim:
Stop attributing a positive meaning to an action if there are specific grounds for believing that the person producing it is acting out of ill will, spite, resentment, or an egotistical goal.
I believe that the major conclusion of the paper is that good thinking is a social kind of activity: it is something that to be such must be shared by most rational people or, if not shared, such that most people should admit that it is not unreasonable to engage in such a thinking activity. Good thinking, being social, is subjected to some norms (of conduct) that allow us to avoid acting (or thinking) in a paranoid or intolerant way when confronted with events that fall outside our range of experience. We have established just a few norms, and I suspect that we have met just the tip of the iceberg, for surely more specific maxims could be worked out. So, a piece of thinking, in addition to abide by the laws of logic (that are the most important indication of rationality) must take into account social parameters. Thinking, in other words, is never a solitary action, but is a social activity in that it shares with other people what is common to them all: certain socially established guidelines.
I conclude with a feeling of perplexity, since I am aware that, while we have talked about norms of good thinking, we have not been seriously able to define good thinking independently of certain (social) norms. Surely good thinking must produce good effects (on someone’s life), but since the effects are only the aftermath of good thinking there is little hope to define good thinking in terms of good effects (a conditional linking good thinking with good effects is no good, because there is no way of proceeding at time T from the falsity of the consequent (which can be assessed only at time T1) to the falsity of the antecedent at time T; the other difficulty lies in the fact that, despite the tight relation between good thinking and positive outcomes, this relation is somewhat weakened by accidental facts (despite good thinking, the outcome may be bad as a result of chance).
It would be much better to find a link between good thinking and feeling good. Someone with a good conscience feels good. Someone who has engaged in good thinking has been rewarded by the immediate consequences of good thinking: a sensation of feeling good, at peace with oneself. Bad thinking, on the contrary, may cause nervousness, feeling unwell, a sense of dissatisfaction. Such a correlation, if it existed, would be a good thing – but I doubt that one is immediately aware of good thinking in the same way in which one is aware of pleasure (or pain). Sometimes good thinking may cause great distress. I explain why shortly.

A criminal is taking the decision of leaving his previous life of crime and of converting to a good life. His choice is a difficult one: he may face prison, retaliation on the part of his accomplices, poverty, etc. The rewards of good thinking are just a good conscience, and are counterbalanced by considerations about uncertainty (an uncertain future), sorrow (prison), and pain (retaliation). In this case, good thinking leads to a tortuous and painful choice – certainly not to feeling good. And yet, in a sense one feels good (despite all material impediments), as one has a good conscience.


I propose to leave the matter as it is – aware that the boundaries between good and bad thinking are not easy to mark. Each one does his best to engage in a piece of good thinking – when he leaves out the option of considering good the material consequences deriving from dishonesty.

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