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How to think for yourself | Psyche

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Guide

How to think for yourself

Schopenhauer and Proust can help you find inspiration from your favourite writers while also retaining an independent mind

Photo by Byron Barrett/Flickr

Need to know

Each of us has, I hope, at one point in time discovered a thinker whose writing captures exactly what we think, or have been trying to think, but couldn’t find the right words to say. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1711, in self-fulfilling lines: ‘True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d …’ Regular readers of Aeon+Psyche will be familiar with the dilemma that such a discovery poses: the powerful influence of this great mind, who promises to broaden the horizons of your thinking, is at the same time so potentially overwhelming that it threatens your ability to think for yourself. What was supposed to help expand your mind may, in fact, close it. How, then, to keep it open?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – who was, as it happens, this sort of discovery for me – placed the highest value on thinking for yourself. (There is, of course, a single German word for this activity: Selbstdenken, which is also the title of one of Schopenhauer’s essays.) For him it was, above all, an intellectual virtue: it is the only way for us to make our knowledge truly secure. But it appears also to have had an existential dimension for him: if we lose the ability for independent thought, then we miss out on a key opportunity to become our authentic, original selves. And then there is a straightforwardly practical consideration: if you fail to think for yourself, how will you know what you should do, as opposed to the things you are simply told to do?

For these reasons, Schopenhauer was surprisingly critical of the value of reading; if we read too much, he thought, then we will fail to think for ourselves. His stance on reading is surprising in a couple of ways. First of all, it is a paradoxical piece of advice from anyone who expresses themselves in writing and therefore, presumably, hopes to be read. Secondly, Schopenhauer was himself extremely well read. Turn to any page of Schopenhauer’s works and you will likely find him quoting from ‘great books’ in all traditions – ancient and modern, East and West. I just tried it myself and landed on Lucretius.

The novelist Marcel Proust, who admired Schopenhauer and noticed the same ‘dangers of erudition’ as him, also noticed how Schopenhauer’s own approach to book-learning offered an exemplary solution to the problem. One solution – not Schopenhauer’s – would have been to suppress his erudition and contrive or pretend to be as little well read as possible; the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, prided himself on how little philosophy he had read (although he too had been an avid reader of Schopenhauer). However, Schopenhauer, says Proust, ‘offers us the image of a mind whose vitality wears the most enormous reading lightly …’ In other words, Schopenhauer never pretended to be anything other than extremely well read, but he was always, clearly, his own ultimate authority.

And Proust, in his own reading of Schopenhauer, is of course an exemplary case study himself. Apart from the fact that he evidently read Schopenhauer very carefully, it will be obvious to anyone who reads his novels that Proust, like Schopenhauer, was deeply bookish – especially with his characters’ tendency to produce verbatim quotations from Jean Racine or Victor Hugo. There’s a reason, after all, that Proust devoted an entire essay to the topic of reading and the important role it had played in his intellectual development, which is where we can find his remarks on Schopenhauer. And yet, no one will deny that Proust was, or became, a truly original writer and thinker.

So, apart from leading by example, what advice did these two great minds have for being highly erudite, on the one hand, while still thinking for yourself, on the other?

Think it through

Don’t use reading as a substitute for thinking

Schopenhauer was very clear: ‘Reading is a mere surrogate for one’s own thinking’ and, for this reason, ‘erudition makes most people even more stupid and simple than they already are by nature’. We have already discussed the irony of this coming from a man as erudite as Schopenhauer, but what exactly was his problem with reading? Two main things seem to concern him. The first is a sort of opportunity cost: when you are reading, you could be thinking for yourself. But this is only a problem if the kind of thinking you do while you are reading – because reading is at least some form of thinking – is significantly different from, and lesser than, the kind you do when you are not reading. This leads to Schopenhauer’s second and deeper concern, which is to do with originality. Reading, he thinks, inserts ‘foreign and heterogeneous’ thoughts into our own, which never truly belong to us. Characteristically, Schopenhauer draws on a range of images to illustrate this point: reading is like ‘the seal to the wax on which it presses its imprint’; it ‘sticks to us like an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose or at best one formed by rhinoplasty from another’s flesh’; the book-learner ‘resembles an automaton put together from foreign materials,’ while the independent thinker ‘resembles a living, begotten human being’, because ‘what is acquired through one’s own thinking resembles the natural limb’.

Thinking for yourself will make your thoughts your own

As is clear from Schopenhauer’s attack on reading, the primary intellectual virtues that derive from thinking for yourself, apart from originality, include authenticity and ownership. We can see this in Schopenhauer’s tendency to think of the book-learner as being like an artificial composite of foreign elements, as opposed to the natural and organic unity of the independent thinker. Thinking for yourself also enables a special kind of spontaneity, variety and responsiveness to one’s surrounding: ‘the intuitive environment’, Schopenhauer says, ‘does not force one specific thought on the mind, like reading; instead, it provides the mind with material and occasion to think what is in accordance with its nature and present mood’. The world we encounter in reading has already been organised according to the mind of the author, whereas our own direct experiences of the wider world demand that we impose some order on it for ourselves. If all goes well, the ultimate result of thinking for yourself is what Schopenhauer calls ‘the maturity of knowledge’, a state of total organic integration between thoughts and experiences:

an exact connection has been brought about between all of his abstract concepts and his intuitive apprehension, so that each of his concepts directly or indirectly rests on an intuitive basis … and likewise that he is able to subsume every intuition coming before him under its correct and suitable concept.

‘This maturity,’ Schopenhauer adds, ‘is entirely independent of the remaining greater or lesser perfection of anyone’s capabilities.’ In other words, it’s not to do with the power of one’s intellect, but the organisation of its contents.

For Schopenhauer as for Proust, thinking is, at the very least, paying attention; it is taking a look at things for yourself. Above all, it avoids putting an alien concept between the mind and the world, otherwise the two will not make contact. This is not to suggest that we should aim at seeing the world as it is without concepts – whatever that would mean – but that we must find, or sometimes create, just the right concepts in order really to see it at all. When Proust said that with Schopenhauer ‘each new item of knowledge [is] at once reduced to its element of reality, to the portion of life that it contains’, he meant that, as if authenticating a work of art, Schopenhauer always checked the provenance; anything he found in books was assimilated only if he could trace it back to experience.

Combine your reading with thinking for yourself

Of course, Schopenhauer was never totally against reading. Some parts of the case he makes against reading could even be presented as its virtues rather than its vices: it’s important to be introduced to thoughts and experiences that, from your perspective, are alien and foreign. Seeing the world as arranged by someone else is precisely what many readers are looking for; it brings to our attention things that we simply wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Schopenhauer’s real point, then, is that reading is best when it is at least accompanied by thinking for yourself. It’s always better to read a little and read it well than to read a lot but read it poorly. Once again, Schopenhauer illustrates his point with a well-chosen analogy:

Just as the largest library when not properly arranged does not provide as much use as a very moderate but well-arranged one, so the greatest amount of knowledge, if not worked through by one’s own thinking, has much less value than a far lesser quantity that has been thought through in various ways.

Read for company and encouragement in your thinking

Schopenhauer even had some directly positive things to say about reading. In some ways, he admits, it’s a purer way of engaging with the mind of another person: a writer’s works may be ‘incomparably richer in content than his company’ because they are ‘the quintessence of a mind … the result and fruit of all his thinking and studying’. When explaining his own tendency to quote liberally from the authors he had read, Schopenhauer positions himself in their intellectual company: ‘Often I was pleasantly surprised afterwards to find formulations in ancient works by great men of propositions that I had hesitated to bring before the public because of their paradoxical nature.’ He takes courage from them, that is, but not content.

He stresses that this still does not mean that we can import admirable literary qualities into our own writing simply by reading them (‘for instance power of persuasion, wealth of imagery, gift of comparison, boldness, or bitterness, or brevity, or grace, or ease of expression, nor wit, surprising contrasts, laconism, naïveté and so on’). But these qualities, if we latently possess them already, and are willing to work on developing them, can be awakened in us by their example: ‘the only way reading shapes us for writing’, Schopenhauer says, is that ‘it teaches us the use we can make of our own natural gifts …’ In this way, reading can summon our true literary selves – while still not telling us exactly what to think.

Allow beautiful writing to entice you to think for yourself

Proust was just as conscious of the limits of reading as Schopenhauer, but he also thought that these very limits could be productive. At his most pessimistic, Schopenhauer sees reading as a mere surrogate for thinking for yourself, while Proust, on the other hand, sees it as an enticement to do so. He describes the experience of reading a novel by Théophile Gautier:

In it I loved before all else two or three sentences which seemed to me the most beautiful and original in the book … But I had the feeling that their beauty corresponded to a reality of which [he] allowed us to glimpse only a small corner once or twice in each volume.

The reader, in Proust’s experience, is always left wanting more; they long to see the rest of the world that the great writer has managed, teasingly and tactfully, only to intimate:

The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist only succeeds in raising partially for us the veil of ugliness and insignificance that leaves us incurious before the universe. Then does he say: ‘Look, look’ …

Beautiful writing, at its best, invites us to look at the world again.

Make your thoughts known

The beauty that called out to Proust was not limited to his experiences of reading the writers he admired; it’s clear that this beauty called out from the world around him too. There’s a good example of this in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (1913), which is not an autobiography but certainly incorporates experiences from Proust’s own life. The young narrator Marcel is feeling miserable about his prospects of one day becoming a great writer. A local doctor invites him and his parents on an impromptu carriage ride back to their holiday home on the northern coast of France, which will first call at a nearby town. Marcel catches sight of some distant church steeples glistening in the sunlight, which appear to rotate and switch places as he journeys around them. The beauty of the scene strikes him not simply as an aesthetic experience but also as an intimation of some secret of reality that he can reveal only if he writes it down, and fast:

Without saying to myself that what was hidden behind the steeples of Martinville had to be something analogous to a pretty sentence, since it had appeared to me in the form of words that gave me pleasure, I asked the doctor for a pencil and some paper…

Marcel’s intuition that the structure of reality mirrors well-turned-out sentences is something for philosophers of language to chew over. For our purposes, the key point is that thinking for yourself does not have to mean keeping it all in your head. Often, in fact, our original thoughts simply demand to be put in the right external form if we are to grasp their content at all. This can take the form of writing – perhaps for Marcel it must – or something else; it might take the form of conversation, or even non-linguistic forms of expression such as visual or musical arts. As the latter case makes clear, thinking for yourself doesn’t have to take the form of theorising either.

Key points – How to think for yourself

  1. Don’t stop reading. After all, the thinkers and writers you admire were probably bookish themselves. The point is not to stop reading them – far from it – but to read them well.
  2. Thinking for yourself will make your thoughts your own. Avoid using reading as a substitute for thinking for yourself. Selbstdenken, as the Germans say: thinking for yourself means being intellectually attentive to the raw material of life.
  3. Combine your reading with thinking for yourself. See where things fit with your own outlook on life; or if they fail to fit, ask yourself whether they need to be rejected, or revised, or if you need to rethink your way of looking at things.
  4. If you can’t read much, at least read well. A vast but disorganised amount of information is less useful than a moderate but well-ordered amount. In the spirit of thinking for yourself, however, how you organise your thoughts is up to you.
  5. When you do read, get critical. You don’t have to agree with the writers you admire. You can even disagree with them on some fundamental matters.
  6. Read for company and encouragement in your thinking. Writers can provide us with company because they are like-minded. But even if they are not like-minded, they can give us the courage to find our own voice.
  7. Allow beautiful writing to entice you to think for yourself. Use the limits of reading to your advantage. Start from where your favourite writers left off. Let them inspire you to look at the world with new eyes.
  8. Make your thoughts known. Write about what you think; write as a form of thinking. Write about what you read – after all, it’s the only way we know the thoughts that Schopenhauer provoked in Proust. If not by writing, then just make sure to get it out somehow.

Why it matters

Schopenhauer needn’t have worried that his readers would fail to think for themselves. One of his unlikely admirers was the philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir. This was so unlikely because Beauvoir, on the one hand, was a foremost feminist philosopher, among other things, while Schopenhauer was a barely repentant sexist, who wrote a regrettably misogynistic essay, ‘On Women’ (1851). This has given Schopenhauer an ironic afterlife: some say that Beauvoir took the title of her masterwork The Second Sex (1949) from a phrase in Schopenhauer’s essay.

And in addition to Beauvoir and Proust, Schopenhauer’s other artistic admirers are legion, especially among writers and musicians: Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, D H Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Iris Murdoch (as author and philosopher), Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. They were impressed by different things in Schopenhauer’s philosophy: for Tolstoy, it was the central place of compassion; for Beckett, the unrelenting despair; for Borges, the marvellously all-encompassing system; for Wagner, the redemptive possibilities of art. But it wouldn’t be accurate to describe Schopenhauer’s best readers as Schopenhauerian; they’re original and distinctive enough in their styles of thinking to deserve their own adjectives: Tolstoyan, Beckettian, Borgesian, Wagnerian. To borrow from Schopenhauer’s most intensive philosophical reader, Friedrich Nietzsche, we can say they learned the lesson of ‘how to become who you are’ – a phrase itself purloined from the Greek poet Pindar.

Nietzsche is yet another interesting case study. In his early period, under the additional influence of Wagner, he seemed happy enough to consider himself as some sort of Schopenhauerian. In his book Untimely Meditations (1876), there is a long essay, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, on the importance of having exemplars like Schopenhauer, as well as an essay on Wagner. Towards the end of his working life, however, he reconceived what he was up to in those essays; to the Danish critic Georg Brandes (who was responsible for bringing Nietzsche to greater public awareness), Nietzsche wrote in 1888:

The two essays on Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner are, it seems to me now, confessions about myself – above all, they are avowals to myself, rather than, say, real psychological accounts of those two masters, to whom I felt as much kinship as I felt antagonism …

Nietzsche wasn’t always quite as respectful in the way he considered his erstwhile ‘masters’ – at around the same time, he wrote about them as if they were a sort of sickness: ‘I needed a particular form of self-discipline … to take sides against everything sick in myself, including Wagner, including Schopenhauer …’ But, importantly, he doesn’t find it inconsistent to say that Schopenhauer was ‘the last German who was worthy of consideration’ and still ‘wrong about everything’. It goes to show that part of thinking for yourself is the freedom and integrity to disagree even with those whom you most admire.

Links & books

In addition to all the links included above, Aeon+Psyche have many more articles related to Schopenhauer, on topics as diverse as mental health, happiness, fatherhood, mid-life crises, and the sublime.

You can also learn more about Proust and involuntary memory, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love, Samuel Beckett’s Schopenhauer-inflected philosophy of suffering, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of dance and his cynicism.

Visit the Five Books website for my guide to reading Schopenhauer, or the Philosophy Bites podcast to hear me talk about Schopenhauer on compassion. For a companion to reading Proust, I recommend the Proustian Paths podcast by James Holden.

You should, of course, also read Schopenhauer and Proust for yourself. You can find Schopenhauer’s essay ‘On Thinking for Yourself’ (as well as his regrettable essay ‘On Women’) in the Penguin Classics collection Essays and Aphorisms (2004), translated by R J Hollingdale. You can pick up Proust’s essay ‘Days of Reading’ in one slim Penguin volume of the same name (2008), translated by John Sturrock.

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27 July 2022

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