Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What is thought?

After doing a little reading in preparation for the upcoming Cafe Philo NYC discussion on "What is the difference between thought and fantasy?", I'll offer my own synthesized definition of "thought":

Thought is the collection of mental processes which are active in the conscious mind, operating on images, some of which come from the real world via the perception of our senses and some of which are created within our minds though imagination.

Some points:

  1. I would not consider dreams to be thought.
  2. Perception is a "conduit" for information from the real world into the conscious mind. Or, perception is the passive mental process of accepting "images" from our senses and making that raw information available to our conscious minds.
  3. Even "abstraction" is "thought" based on images. There are two forms of abstraction: aggregation and generalization. With aggregation we see an image of the parts of a whole and how they come together - an image of the whole linked to images of the parts. With generalization we see the commonality of a number of different images and construct categories.
  4. I would suggest that imagination and fantasy are not "thought" or "thinking" per se since "thought" requires images to be present, while imagination and fantasy are mental processes which create images. Or, thought is the reflection on images, whether those images were perceived by our senses or created by our imagination.
  5. The "sources" of imagination are... mysterious and unclear -- simply not visible to our conscious minds directly and not available for direct observation and reflection. Sometimes, conscious thought is able to intentionally "will" new images into the mind. Other times, images appear to simply "pop" into the mind, unwilled, unbidden, and possibly even unwelcome. Maybe it is those unwilled images that constitute "fantasy." Or, maybe our "will" simply plants a seed in the mysterious "source" of unbidden images and the imagined image "grows" from that seed, once again in a mysterious process. Maybe the point is that the "source" for imagination is not the mental processes that we are consciously aware of.
  6. Mind would appear to consist of both conscious and unconscious mental processes. Thought is the activity in the conscious processes. Creativity is a result of the unconscious mental processes.
  7. My definition of thought does not require that imagination be a conscious mental process, at least not a mental process for which we have self-awareness of its operation. We can only "see" its results - images.
  8. We sometimes refer to "thought vs. action", which would suggest that thought would include imagination, but maybe that is more of a casual misnomer or lack of precision in speaking. I would suggest that we really mean "mental vs. action", and that "mental" includes both conscious thought (an oxymoron) and unconscious mental processes of the mind which includes imagination.

I am refraining here from delving into fantasy per se.

-- Jack Krupansky


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