A boatman waits for the fog to lift on the Thames, London. November 1931. Photo by Topical Press/Getty
By learning to question and clarify your thoughts, you’ll improve your self-knowledge and become a better communicator
by Tom Chatfield
A boatman waits for the fog to lift on the Thames, London. November 1931. Photo by Topical Press/Getty
is an author and tech philosopher, with a special interest in critical thinking. His most recent book is How to Think (2021). He lives in Kent, UK.
Edited by Nigel Warburton
Sometimes, when I’m grappling with a tricky topic, I pretend that I need to explain it to a child. For example, here is my attempt at explaining the purpose of this Guide to a notional nine-year-old:
I want to help people work out what they really think and mean, and then to share the results with other people. This is surprisingly hard. It’s easy to talk about what you want and like. But it can be really difficult to work out why you want or like particular things – and why other people should pay attention. I’m going to set out a three-part process that can help with this.
As the parent of two young children, I often get to skip the pretending part of this exercise. But I’d recommend giving it a try, no matter what your domestic situation. It can be both challenging and powerful to talk someone else through an idea, step by step, in terms that take as little as possible for granted. Often, it’s only when I try to explain something in this way that I discover that I don’t fully understand it myself.
As it happens, there’s a subreddit devoted to precisely this principle. It’s called ‘Explain Like I’m Five’, and features tens of thousands of attempts at explaining complex ideas as simply as possible. Question: how can archaeologists translate ancient scriptures or languages? Answer: ‘It’s basically a giant jigsaw puzzle.’ Q: how do conferencing programmes such as Zoom handle so many different screens? A: ‘Everyone has one connection to Zoom’s central servers.’ Q: if carbs are sugar, why can’t we just eat sugar? A: ‘It would be a bit like replacing the firewood in your fire pit with a tub of gasoline …’ And so on.
I enjoy browsing ‘Explain Like I’m Five’ partly because it isn’t interested in perfection. Instead, it’s packed with comments, debates and works-in-progress; with points and counterpoints, gags and squibs. Much like the business of explaining something to an actual five-year-old, it’s full of distractions and dead ends. But it’s also relentlessly committed to dispelling errors and unexamined assumptions; and in privileging honest questions and confessions of uncertainty over any performance of expertise.
All of this emphasises a fundamental point about clarifying your thinking. It asks you to admit your thoughts are unclear to begin with – and thus, that certain elements within them need to be rethought, or placed upon more secure foundations. It’s as if you’re shedding layers of preconception, misconception and false consciousness. And the ultimate prize isn’t being right, gratifying though this might be. It’s being understood.
Why should anyone care about any of this? Without wishing to be grandiose, I’d argue that seeking clarity is both humane and life-enhancing. To idealise, it entails the mutual and respectful pursuit of knowledge. To be more pragmatic, it can help us know ourselves a little better, dispel prejudices and misapprehensions – and communicate more richly and persuasively amid the 21st century’s tumult.
Aspiring towards clarity is also inexorably iterative. Whenever you set out to clarify your thinking, you’re not aiming to articulate an ultimate truth. Rather, you’re aiming at a process, the result of which will always be an act of communication, complete with all the imperfections and contingencies this implies.
In this Guide, I want to help you think about what this process looks like for you. As promised, I’ll do this in three stages (preceded by a pause). The first stage entails reflecting on why you believe something to be true or important. The second entails teasing out the assumptions this reasoning relies upon. The third entails acknowledging what you do and don’t know, where you’re uncertain – and what it might mean to redress these things.
Before you begin…
To start with, let’s take a moment. Draw a breath. Slow yourself down. What’s going on? What are you thinking and feeling? What most deserves your attention? There’s a great line in Robert Poynton’s book Do Pause (2019) that speaks to the significance of taking stock in this way:
In a pause you can question existing ways of acting, have new ideas or simply appreciate the life you are living. Without ever stopping to observe yourself, how can you explore what else you might do or who you might become?
Inviting people to pause is among the easiest advice in the world to give, and the hardest to take. Yet it’s foundational to clarifying your thinking, because this is where it all begins: with a moment of self-reflection. Without pauses, there can be no second thoughts and no self-interrogations. There is no process until you take the time to embark upon it.
You might think that this point is too obvious to be worth making. Yet, in my experience, it’s where most of us fall down. We all carry around countless unclear, confused, contradictory thoughts and feelings. And precisely because we have neither the time nor the tools to sort them out, they mostly stay this way.
Once you’ve paused, a common psychotherapeutic exercise can help you take a first step towards clearer thinking. It’s about observing yourself as neutrally as possible. You make yourself comfortable, relax, then try to notice the flow of your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental way: the flickers of anxiety, anticipation, regret; the memories and ideas bubbling into consciousness.
These are the raw materials that any process of clarification must work with. The more carefully you’re able to attend to them, the more likely you are to tease out their complexities and contradictions. And the less likely you are to mistakenly assume that whatever seems obvious to you will necessarily seem obvious, or compelling, to someone else.
What are you claiming, and why?
When I perform the above exercise, I notice one thing that’s on my mind is a nagging question around what I eat. Should I become a vegetarian, or a vegan, for ethical and environmental reasons? And if not, why not?
In philosophy, what’s known as standard form is often used to set out the essentials of a line of thought as clearly as possible. Expressing your thinking in standard form means writing out a numbered list of statements followed by a conclusion. If you’ve done it properly, the numbered statements should present a line of reasoning that justifies your final conclusion. For example, here’s a first attempt at organising my thoughts around diet:
If I believe all of the above to be true, I should thus adopt a vegetarian or a vegan diet.
You might have seen examples of this approach before, or used it in your own work. You might also have encountered a great deal of discussion around logical forms, reasonable and unreasonable justifications, and so on. What I find most useful about standard form, however, is not so much its promise of logical rigour as its insistence that I break down my thinking into individual steps, and then ask two questions of each one:
When it comes to clarifying my thoughts and feelings, the power of such an approach is that anything relevant can potentially be integrated into its accounting – but only if I’m able to make this relevance explicit. Here’s how a few further thoughts might fit into my example:
If I want to clarify my thinking around this issue, I need to investigate the divide between my apparent beliefs and my actions.
How might you apply such an approach yourself? As you’ll have noticed, the thoughts I’ve just added bring further complexities and qualifications into focus. They take what was once a relatively straightforward conclusion and turn it into something more complex – and revealing.
Paradoxically enough, this is a vital component of clarifying your thinking: stripping away oversimplifications, no matter how compelling or appealing, and replacing them with an honest acknowledgment of circumstances. The logic of my initial argument might have seemed admirably clear; but this clarity doesn’t correspond as closely as I might wish to reality.
Honest self-examination and iteration are vital, here. Even now, reading back my own words, I’m not sure I’ve managed to describe my state of mind accurately – or the issues at stake. Is it really true that there’s no ethical way of eating meat or of using animal products? Are there shades of meaning I’ve neglected in an effort to establish clear categories of right and wrong? Or am I simply failing to act on my beliefs because of a combination of inertia and self-indulgence?
These are just a few of the questions my scenario begs. And behind them is a fundamental point: that it’s only by repeatedly questioning both the why and the what of our claims, and the claims they in turn rely on, that we can hope to strip away the layers of habit, confusion and self-justification that all too often typify everyday thoughts.
What have you taken for granted?
Upon what basis can I justify any claims? Some will rely on external evidence; some on personal preferences and experiences; some on a combination of these factors. But all of them will at some point invoke certain assumptions that I’m prepared to accept as fundamental. And it’s in unearthing and analysing these assumptions that the most important clarifications await.
Assumptions are those things we take for granted: whatever we don’t explicitly spell out, but that our thinking relies upon. Assumptions are also extremely important. Indeed, it’s the existence of shared assumptions that makes communication (and much else) possible. As I write these words, I’m assuming they mean approximately the same thing to you as they do to me. It would be incredibly tiresome if I tried to explain every word in a sentence. It would also, in the end, be futile. I’d still have to explain my words via other words, my ideas via other ideas, and so on. Without some shared assumptions, there would be no way of building either common understandings or meaningful disagreements.
While common understanding and meaningful disagreement might sound like opposites, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. No matter how self-evident they might seem to us, the assumptions that our ideas rest upon might need spelling out to others. Some people could, for example, view animal suffering as a non-issue, on the grounds that human experience is all that counts when it comes to ethics. Some could believe that no further justification of veganism is required beyond the self-evident evil of inflicting unnecessary suffering on our fellow creatures. And some (among whom I tentatively count myself) might believe that most forms of industrial farming and fishing are abhorrent, but that there are some circumstances under which animal products can be ethically and sustainably sourced.
Our assumptions, in other words, aren’t just unexamined ideas. They’re also the roots of identity and allegiance; the stuff of our personal and shared histories; of our communities and our morality. They are the sources of much of the greatest good and deepest harm we do to one another. That which we take as ‘given’ is nothing less than the bedrock of what we believe the world to be.
What follow from this? When it comes to clarifying your thinking, it means that you need to be very clear about the difference between what follows from your assumptions and the status of those assumptions. To take things step by step:
Working out the implications of your assumptions is, in other words, far from the same thing as being definitively correct; and grasping the difference between these lies at the heart of honestly and persuasively articulating your views.
Embrace dialogue – and know your limits
What do you make of my attempts to clarify my thinking about meat-eating, thus far? Hopefully, even if you disagree with every single word I’ve written, you’re more likely to understand where I’m coming from than if I just blurted out: ‘I think that maybe I ought to stop eating meat.’ I certainly feel more confident about what’s going on in my head. And this suggests that, if we ever end up discussing these things in person, we’re more likely to be able to debate our differences constructively. We’ll perhaps be able to work out where we do and don’t disagree – and why – rather than falling back upon blanket assertions or aspersions. In the end, we might even arrive at a new, clearer understanding together.
This, I’d suggest, is the most precious thing about clearly presenting the thinking behind any point of view: not that it proves your rightness or righteousness, but that it volunteers your willingness to participate in a reasoned exchange of ideas. At least in principle, it suggests that you’re prepared to:
This approach is underpinned by what’s known as the principle of charity: a phrase that can sound strange in the context of disagreements, but that embodies one of our oldest and most practical guides to constructive debate. It exists in various formulations, all rooted in the same idea:
So far as possible, you should try to extract the maximum truthful and reasonable content from what others say, especially if they disagree with you.
Importantly, the principle of charity extends not only to what someone is saying, but also to your assumptions around why they are saying it:
Unless you have decisive evidence to the contrary, you should start off by assuming that someone else’s position is reasonable and sincerely held, rather than that they’re malicious, ignorant or mistaken.
Why? In both cases, the answer isn’t because this is a nice thing to do, but because it’s only by beginning with charitable assumptions that you can get to grips with the underpinnings of someone else’s perspective – and ensure that any judgment you eventually pass is based on a careful, fair-minded assessment.
All of which brings us back to the most important point of all: that clarifying your thinking means being as honest as possible about what you don’t know, and then putting a frank engagement with these limitations at the heart of your account.
Indeed, perhaps the most important tool in any attempt at clear thinking is the capacity to test (and to keep on testing and refining) your ideas as if they belonged to someone else: as acts of reasoned persuasion that must stand, or fall, on their own terms.
What does it mean to make the kind of process I’ve outlined above habitual – and what might it mean, for you, to apply it effectively in different areas of your life?
This is the point at which your personal preferences come into play. For me, the props and routines of clear thinking include (in no particular order) strong cups of coffee, directionless neighbourhood strolls, a desk surrounded by heaped books and scrap paper, and as much serendipitous reading as I can squeeze in between school runs.
For you, the twin realms of the possible and the desirable might look very different. But the same principle applies. We both need to take a close interest in the times, places, habits and contexts that bring out the best in us – and that give us permission to contemplate, then try to explain, what’s really going on when it comes to the questions that matter most.
Another way of putting this is that willpower is overrated. Among all the potted insights I’ve drawn from social science, this is perhaps the handiest and most humbling. Unless you seek out contexts, routines and environments that support your best self, you’ll struggle to be that self at any but the very best of times.
Aim to interrogate and audit your habits in the light of this insight. Find ways of thinking and working that work for you. Be as ruthless as possible about identifying the ones that don’t work, and why; and how far you can minimise the toll they take. Try to take a lively and systematic interest in your own blind spots and limitations. Be honest about what you do and don’t know, where you’re uncertain; and what kind of conversations, investigations, predictions and discoveries might reduce this uncertainty.
Above all, don’t forget to ask for help when you need it – and to offer it whenever you can. When it comes to clarity and communication alike, this is perhaps the simplest and most important thing any of us can do: keep talking to one another, and try to truly listen to what’s being said in response.
The Critical Thinking course from the University of Auckland is available, for free, online, and covers everything from evidence and reasoning to law and morality.
The Philosophy Bites podcast offers an extensive archive of bite-sized interviews with world-leading thinkers, and is hard to beat for insights into big ideas.
Mary Midgley’s book What Is Philosophy For? (2018) accessibly explores what it means to think clearly about the questions that matter most.
Oliver Burkeman’s weekly column ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ ran in The Guardian from 2006 until 2020, and is a wise, witty treasure trove full of practical, humane advice about thinking and working well – and cutting yourself some slack along the way.
My own book How to Think (July 2021) addresses clear thinking in the context of everyday experience, with an emphasis on habits and practical skills.