In the “anthropology” category, I post entries that have to do with man considered generally—the broad meaning of anthropology. The academic discipline may be about Pacific island cultures and the enlarged gourds that they wear on their genitals, but I am more concerned with the big picture.
Beginning with the phrase “big picture” allows me to qualify what follows. Catchy phrases, slogans, scriptural passages, pithy witticisms, and clichés provide a useful tool in communicating ideas. If two speakers are already on the same page, they provide shorthand ways to convey what otherwise would necessitate several sentences, arguments, and perhaps even entire conversations. I do not wish to criticize these phrases as such; they provide a useful service to mankind.
However, I propose that “phrase thinking” is an intellectual disease that affects most if not all people when they evaluate arguments and make judgments.
In the dialogues, Plato’s characters sometimes discuss and criticize image thinking, which is the mode of thinking, or lack thereof, where one cannot rise above the faculty of the imagination. The human tendency towards image thinking is deeply entrenched; questions that require rational thought that cannot be imagined prove too difficult for most people most of the time—and I fear that it is really most people all of the time. Mathematics, contemporary physics, and metaphysics are disciplines where one has to free the mind from image thinking, and they are not intellectual terrains conducive to most wayfarers. Images and imagined models serve as useful analytical and educational tools—they offer our minds, not accustomed to the heights of pure reason, some earthy rest—but they cannot reach non-imaginable truths on their own. Plato, after all, was a master craftsman of images, and, in the midst of a full-scale attack on image-making, Socrates in the Republic enthusiastically proclaims himself a lover of images. However, such images can only serve as pointers to that which cannot be reduced to images. The task of philosophy is to be able to follow such signs to the signified.
Materialism is a fine example of how image thinking reduces even intelligent and insightful minds to inanity. “Scientific materialists”—at least the ones who are actually scientists—are no stupid lot. Yet, they hold to stupid ideas that are obviously incoherent because they refuse to rise above image thinking when analyzing their own non-image thinking. If everything that is real is merely material, the undiscovered atoms (since what we customarily call atoms are in fact not atoms, or indivisible things, but rather divide into “subatomic” particles) are the only thing that really exist. Atoms in combination, as the materialists tell us, account for all reality. However, what are these combinations—the very combinations that make the universe what it is? Are these combinations, as combinations, material? For the order—the structure—of the combinations allows for the plenitude of diversity in observed phenomena. Yet, we cannot conjure such an order from the material itself. The formal principle of observed matter is not reducible to matter itself. It is immaterial. Similarly, we could not even speak of the atoms (or whatever subatomic particle you will) without acknowledging that they are atoms, and we could not differentiate between the various types of atoms (or subatomic particles) without noting their relative structures. Knowing that XYZ are all atoms and knowing that the peculiar characteristics of X differ from Y that also differ from Z are examples of knowledge of non-material things. Moreover, this does not even begin to deal with the foolishness of materialist epistemology; for isn’t all knowledge, as knowledge, immaterial? Aristotle states all of this in his lecture notes from twenty-three centuries ago, and, yet, our best and brightest do not consider the idiocy of their own ideas. Materialist metaphysics cannot account for itself or anything else; it is an absurdity that exists only because the tendency towards image thinking—even among educated men who habitually transcend image thinking in mathematics—is so prevalent among human beings. I attribute this tendency toward the fall of man, but such is merely a personal theologoumenon.
I think that phrase thinking is even worse and less human than image thinking. At least in image thinking, a person is actively processing information, though sometimes at an intellectual level inappropriate to the object. With phrase thinking, the mind refuses to work beyond a switching on of what my friend Andrew calls the script. The script is an internal set of arguments, perhaps never even understood by the person who has absorbed the script into his soul, that resurfaces once something triggers it. Andrew gives as an example the common occurrence of two people’s arguing past each other in a discussion. Neither one is truly arguing because neither one is even listening to the arguments of the other. Rather than hearing, considering, and judging the other person’s arguments, each man simply plays out a script of how he thinks that the argument on a given subject must go. If you pay attention to people’s arguments on matters where they already would have an opinion, you will likely see the script in action. Andrew, therefore, encourages script interruptions . . . you have to find a way to approach a person’s reason without triggering the script response. Then, real dialogue can occur. Otherwise, you simply appear as the straw man of your interlocutor’s script.
Phrase thinking is somewhat like an argument from authority without ever bothering to consider or to assert why such an authority should matter, but it is worse than even that. When serious people argue from authority, they refer to those whom they consider wise, experienced, divinely instructed, or some such qualification, and then such authority adds weight, for them, to the positions or opinions that the authority favors. Yet, these folks still understand what they mean when they discuss the arguments. Authority is not a substitute for the argument but rather additional “evidence” in the argument.
Phrase thinking, by contrast, is an unthinking invocation of a phrase that counts as an argument for those inclined. I find it disturbingly widespread. Socrates is right when he condemns the many as opiners rather than knowers, but their opining is worse than image thinking. They do not even think. They merely repeat stock phrases that have somehow become fixtures for them of inviolable truth. The herd can do no more than belch up some lines from the poets as their offering to public discourse.
Besides the young, I wonder if the most egregious offenders of phrase thinking in our society are so-called fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps, cultic Leftists may be worse. With both groups, it is difficult to move beyond phrase thinking, as if their religious or political indoctrination consisted only of the continual repetition of their respective slogans. Like Bacon’s idols of the tribe, these phrases serve as beacons in the dark to such beasts, though they offer no real light. To return to images, they simply portray flickering shadows to men enchained in a cave.