As George Orwell said, "If people cannot write well, they cannot think well. And if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them" (Schlafly, p. 192). This quest to enlightenment has been a theme across the work of great thinkers for millennia, dating back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the metaphor, prisoners are born in a cave, chained down to the darkness of false beliefs, unable to escape into the light of true knowledge. When one freed prisoner tries to convince them to leave the cave, they refuse, preferring the comfort of their false beliefs, just how many of us today (myself included) would respond when their opinions are questioned. In this essay, I will discuss how one cannot think well without deliberately practicing the craft, and how writing provides a medium to ponder our ideas clearly, reveal the limits of one’s knowledge, and show us how to take the first steps up the hill towards the sun of the truth.
In order to show that writing helps liberate from the cave, I first will explain a chain that holds us captive inside. One cannot escape the cave without deliberately devoting time to the practice of philosophy. No one is a great thinker by default, but deliberate practice the craft is necessary to master it. Without philosophy, one "goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his nation," as philosopher Bertrand Russell writes. This is a problem because as Plato believes, the majority of society is in the cave; hence, the habitual beliefs of the people around you are likely to be false. In order to reach a true belief, it is necessary brutally question your ideas like philosophers do, to tear them apart like interrogators questioning prisoners of war until they crumple and reveal their true nature (Perell). Philosopher Simon Blackburn, retired professor at the University of Cambridge, describes his work as doing "conceptual engineering," because "just as the engineer studies the structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought." Only by doing this work can one recognize which ideas contain inklings of the truth while others are false beliefs disguised in pretty words.
Over the millennia that it has existed, philosophy has been criticized left and right. According to Blackburn, the word "philosophy" is even associated with being impractical (p. 11). After all, we all have jobs, family to take care of, and errands to run on our never-ending to-do lists. Philosophy doesn't bake bread, so why spend time on it? However, people who believe this are mistaken as the ability to reason has benefits spilling over to all areas of intellectual work, as I will demonstrate (Blackburn, p. 15).
In order to think deeply about any substantial topic, the ideas you’ll encounter are messy and have multiple threads dangling out linking to other subjects. As human short-term memory can only hold a maximum of 5-9 items at once, our working memory is not sufficient to hold the entirety of a complex idea while interrogating it (Mcleod). By writing down the idea and all its points, one can stop committing effort to keeping the whole idea in mind and focus solely on analysis. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Feynman did his thinking on paper. Historian Weiner once walked into Feynman's office, looked at the hundreds of notebooks piled around his desk, and called them a wonderful “record of his day-to-day work.” "No, no," Feynman had replied, "it’s not a record, not really. I actually did the work on the paper" (Thompson, p. 10). This is the first way that writing helps clear thinking.
A second way is in revealing gaps in one's own thinking. When writing an argument for an essay, one must write a solid line of reasoning of the belief. If one does not have a good understanding of why they believe what they do, or if they do not have much evidence for their belief because it's inherited from their culture, age, or society (as Russell says of the beliefs of non-philosophers), then they will not be able to write a sufficient justification for their claim, forcing them to clearly see the gaps in their own knowledge. Socrates knew that awareness of the edge of one’s knowledge is very important, and prided himself on that instead of how much he knew. For example, I had a strong conviction in my belief that writing helps me think better. But when I first tried to explain my reasoning in this essay, I realized I didn't have much evidence to support this claim, much less enough knowledge to write a thousand intelligent words about the topic. When my ideas were tangled up in my head, it was difficult to spot their holes. However, with the arguments in cold hard writing, I could point to the exact sentence at which logic breaks apart, and hence, do research to establish the links better.
One final idea I'd like to present is how writing can help one start their way up the hill to knowledge. In the Allegory of the Cave, an unnamed external figure pulled the freed prisoner out of the cave. The prisoner was not able to free himself without external help, which naturally leads to wondering, how can we even begin stepping out of the metaphorical cave when we don't know which direction the truth lies? This is where writing comes in. To share my personal experience, I did this by writing down every question I was curious about. A lot of things I wrote at first were stupid, but that's the point. Once every few weeks, I would revisit my list of questions. The key thing is that my past answers were written down, rather than trusted to the feeble human memory. With new experiences I had accrued, I could see my past answers in a new light. I could point out holes that I didn't see in the past, and iterate upon my thinking. Over many months, I am starting to come to conclusions to my questions, which although not the definite truth, are closer than the default ignorant beliefs I had.
Like this, writing allows us to develop our ideas over time instead, having our new insights accumulate like compound interest rather than fading into the abyss of lost memories. Just like for the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave, the path to knowledge is a difficult one. However, by residing in the comfort of our current beliefs, it is impossible to find the truth. If one hopes to be liberated from this shackle of ignorance, there is no shortcut but to ruthlessly interrogate the ideas currently residing in the mind. This can be aided by the process of writing, which forces one to painfully admit gaps in knowledge. It is this eternal quest to bettering our mind that is the fuel for the works of countless philosophers.
Originally written March 2022 for a philosophy course.
Blackburn, Simon and Warburton, Nigel. “Think.” Philosophy Basic Readings, Routledge, London, 2005, pp. 11–16.
Mcleod, Saul. “Short Term Memory.” Short-Term Memory | Facts, Types, Duration & Capacity, Simply Psychology, 2009, www.simplypsychology.org/short-term-memory.html. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
Perell, David. How Philosophers Think. 12 Jan. 2022, perell.com/essay/how-philosophers-think/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
Russell, Bertrand. “The Value of Philosophy.” Philosopher's Forum.
Schlafly, Phyllis. The Power of the Positive Woman. Arlington House, 1979.
Thompson, Clive. Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. William Collins, 2014.
Exploring a "coherent philosophy of life"