Friday, December 31, 2010

On the Size of a Thought

How "big" is a thought? Nicholson Baker thinks "most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product" Perhaps we'd better ask, what makes for a "unit" of thought? Or still better: is there a unit of thought? Is it a concept or a word, or a sentence, a paragraph or a document?

Locke would have had no problem saying "yes." It's an idea—most likely a complex idea. In other words, it's something expressed by a word. Others, like Kant, have argued that a thought requires a proposition, judgment or sentence (and that a concept is something like an abbreviated thought).

Ranganathan, inventor of faceted systems and the five laws of library science thought that a "document" was an "embodied micro thought" on paper "or other material, fit for physical handling, transport across space, and preservation through time."

I myself like Collingwood's idea that "the true 'unit of thought'" is not "the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question." So for him a thought always presupposes a question and represents an answer to such a question.[1] I would add that such answers usually require more than a sentence, and that at least a paragraph is necessary for anything that approaches "the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine." My paragraphs usually are between 200 and 500 words long.[2]

If you need more than a paragraph to answer a question, you probably need more than one thought for the answer.

Whether thoughts come in chunks or objective units of meaning, like the seven (or ten) digits that make up a telephone number and knowledge has a granular structure is an entirely different question. I am skeptical about our ability to identify the beginnings and ends of particular thoughts.[1] That skepticism does not imply, however, that we should not try to formulate one thought at a time.

1. If a "unit of thought" presupposes a question, it presupposes other units of thought, whether they be clearly expressed or not.
2. The paragraphs in this blog are therefore not quite representative.


rik said...

This may lead to interesting ideas about organizing your notes as a question and answer sequence.

MK said...

Yes, see Collingwood on the Gestation of Thought, please.