What do we mean by ‘thinking’?

Currently I’m working on a textbook called Tools for Thinking. It’s based on a series of activities that I’ve been using with my third year Japanese university students for the last few years. As well as being a language skills textbook, it also aims to provide practice in a range of critical thinking skills which can be applied to real-world personal and professional situations.

As I was reworking the contents and structure of the book, it occurred to me that ‘Tools for Thinking’ implies that something called ‘Thinking’ exists and can be understood as something that can be improved upon in some way by using ‘Tools’. That opened up a can of worms for my rather uncritical thinking on that issue up to now.

I had pretty much equated ‘thinking’ with any kind of cognitive process, but clearly that is a over-broad definition which is a little problematic. For example, it ignores the distinction between what might be called conscious thinking and subconscious thinking. It also gives equal status to visualization and auditory processing as it does to verbal reasoning. Even spatial and bodily movement fall into cognitive processing, so are they also forms of ‘thinking’?

A quick Google search turned up a 2010 article published in Psychology Today titled “What do we mean by thinking?” In the article, the author suggests that thinking must have a verbal component or at least an ‘inner speech’ component where that inner speech can be a reduced or simplified form of ‘external speech’. The article makes sense to me, at least within the borders of its own definitions. If we define thinking to be verbal, then yes, it must have a verbal component.

It is not a critical issue for the ‘Tools for Thinking’ book because most of the tools utilized will actually involve language, but it is an interesting question as to what we mean by ‘thinking’. I’m going to need to ‘think’ about that a while 😉


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