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The Absurdity of 'Thinking in Language'
the author's site ^ | 1972 | Dallas Willard

Posted on 05/23/2003 3:59:51 PM PDT by unspun

The Absurdity of 'Thinking in Language'
This paper has been read to the University of Southern California philosophy group and the Boston 1972 meeting of the American Philosophical Association, as well as to the Houston meeting of the Southwestern Philosophical Society. Appeared in The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, IV(1973), pp. 125-132. Numbers in "<>" refer to this journal.

Among the principal assumptions of major portions of philosophy in recent decades have been: (1) That philosophy somehow consists of (some sort of) logic, and (2) that logic is a study of and theory about (some sort of) language. There, of course, follows from these a third assumption: (3) That philosophy is a study of and theory about (some sort of) language--though this implication should not be taken as representing any phase of the historical development of recent philosophizing. Instead of listing these three points as assumptions, it would probably be more correct to regard them as categories or complexes of assumptions; or perhaps, more vaguely still, as 'tendencies' or proclivities of recent philosophical thinking. But precision of these points need not be put in issue here, as this paper does not seek any large-scale resolution of the problem area in question.

The aim here is to examine only one proposition which plays a role in the clearly existent tendencies referred to: Namely, the proposition that we think in or with language. I hope to show, first, that we do not always think in or with language; and then, second, that the very conception of thinking in or with language involves an absurdity. What implications this has for broader philosophical assumptions or tendencies will not be dealt with here, though the implications in question seem to me to be extremely important ones.

That human beings think in language is explicitly stated in such diverse places as ordinary newspapers, the more sophisticated popular magazines and journals, and serious discourse in the humanities and the social sciences, as well as in the technical writings of philosophers. To prove this broad range of consensus would be idle; but, in order to have the philosophical context clearly before us, we may give a few brief quotations. <126> 

     (1) Man, like every living creature, thinks unceasingly, but does not know it: the thinking which becomes conscious of itself is only the smallest part thereof. And, we may say, the worst part:--for this conscious thinking alone is done in words, that is to say, in the symbols for communication, by means of which the origin of consciousness is revealed. (Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom, sub-sec. # 354)

     (2) Let no one be contemptuous of symbols! A good deal depends upon a practical selection of them. Furthermore, their value is not diminished by the fact that after much practice, we no longer really need to call forth a symbol, we do not need to speak out loud in order to think. The fact remains that we think in words or, when not in words, then in mathematical or other symbols. (Frege, Mind, Vol. 73, p. 156)

     (3) It is misleading then to talk of thinking as of a 'mental activity'. We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. This activity is performed by the hand, when we think by writing; by the mouth and larynx, when we think by speaking; and if we think by imagining signs or pictures, I can give you no agent that thinks. If then you say that in such cases the mind thinks, I would only draw your attention to the fact that you are using a metaphor, that here the mind is an agent in a different sense from that in which the hand can be said to be an agent in writing. (Wittgenstein, Blue Book, pp. 6-7)

     (4) ... The woof and warp of all thought and all research is symbols, and the life of thought and science is the life inherent in symbols; so that it is wrong to say that a good language is important to good thought, merely; for it is of the essence of it. (C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers, II, p. 129)

     (5) Words only matter because words are what we think with. (H. H. Price, Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol. XIX, p. 7)

     (6) Theorizing is an activity which most people can and normally do conduct in silence. They articulate in sentences the theories that they construct, but they do not most of the time speak these sentences out loud. They say them to themselves.... Much of our ordinary thinking is conducted in internal monologue or silent soliloquy, usually accompanied by an internal cinematograph-show of visual imagery.... This trick of talking to oneself in silence is acquired neither quickly nor without effort.... (Ryle, Concept of Mind, p. 27. See also pp. 282-83 and 296-97) <127>

     (7)This helps to elucidate the well-known difficulty of thinking without words. Certain kinds of thinking are pieces of intelligent talking to oneself. Consider the way in which I 'thinkingly' wrote the last sentence. I can no more do the 'thinking' part without the talking (or writing) part than a man can do the being graceful part of walking apart from the walking (or some equivalent activity). (J.J.C. Smart, Philosophy and Scientific Realism, p. 89)

These quotations will suffice to establish the context within which philosophers speak of thinking in language (or with language). Many other quotations could be added from the literature.1 It is not assumed here that the persons quoted all occupy the same position with reference to the relationship between thought and language. Yet it would be interesting to see what any of these thinkers, or others who suppose that human beings think in language, could save of their position from the critique which follows.

Uneasiness about the conception of thinking in or with language has been expressed by a number of writers, but only over limited aspects of it.2 Here we shall consider arguments which purport to call the conception into question entirely and in principle. First, consider a reason for rejecting the view that we always think in language. It consists in the fact that thinking often occurs without the production, manipulation, or perception of sense-perceptible signs, without which there is no use of language. Such occurrences often provoke offers of 'A penny for your thoughts.'

Thinking: Whatever we may decide to call them, and however it is that we are conscious of them, there are intentional states of persons, more or less fixed or fleeting, which do not require for their obtaining that what they are about or of be perceived by, or be impinging causally upon, the person involved. In order to think of3 Henry the Eighth, <128> of the first auto one owned, of the Pythagorean theorem, or of the Mississippi River, it is not required that they should disturb my nervous system. Such states (t-states) of persons are often called 'thoughts', especially in contrast with 'perceptions', and being in such a state is one of the things more commonly called 'thinking'. One no more needs to be going through a change of such states in order to be thinking, than he needs to be changing his bodily position in order to be sitting or lying or sleeping. Rarely if ever--as is alleged in the case of mystic contemplation--are these t-states unchanging. Usually they flow, at varying rates, intermingled with person states of many sorts, governed by such transitional structures as inference, goal orientation, objective structures given in perception or in other ways, and elemental association of 'ideas', among others. In what follows, we shall use 'thinking' to cover both the single t-state and the flow of such states, without regard to how intermingled with other person states.

Language: Sense perceptible signs or symbols are an essential constituent of language. It is always false to say that language is present or in use where no signs are present or in use. And, whatever else a sign may be, it is something which is apprehendable via its sensible qualities. That is, it is something which can be either seen, heard, felt, tasted or smelled. Moreover, the use of language requires some level of actual sensuous apprehension of the signs which are in use on the occasion. (Confusion or distortion of this sensuous feedback can render a subject incapable of writing or speaking; and, of course, without perception of the sign-sequences emitted, one cannot understand the person emitting language.)

Now cases can be produced almost at will where thinking occurs without language being present or in use. This, of course, is something which everyone--including the proponent of thinking-in-language--very well knows. It is these cases which, together with the assumption that we always think in language, create what in (7) was called "the well-known difficulty of thinking without words." If, as in (3), "thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs," then when there are no signs--and when, consequently, the means by which we produce, manipulate, or perceive signs are not functioning--we do have a difficulty. In fact, a difficulty so severe that it amounts to a proof that thinking is not essentially the activity of operating with signs, and that often we think entirely without language. One cannot operate with signs where there are no signs. <129> 

As the above quotations indicate, the most common move made to save 'thinking in language' at this point is the shift to 'silent soliloquy,' as in (6), or to 'pieces of intelligent talking to oneself,' as in (7). These are latter-day shades of John Watson's 'sub-vocal language.' Of course one can talk to oneself or write to onself. But talking and writing to oneself require the production and perception of sensuous signs just as much as talking and writing to another. The realization of this is what drives the thinking-in-language advocate to silent soliloquy or to nonvocal speaking--the written counterpart of which would be invisible writing. That is, they are driven to flat absurdities. A silent soliloquy--that is, silent speaking--is precisely on a par with a silent trumpet solo, for example, or silent thunder. A poet may say:

       Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

            Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

       Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

            Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone;...

               (Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn)

But there are in fact no unhearable melodies, no ears other than the "sensual," no ditties of no tone.

What those who speak of silent discourse have in mind is, no doubt, the fact that interlaced with our thinking of or about things is a great deal of imaging of linguistic entities. (This is especially true of academics or intellectuals in general, because of their great concern with expression of thought. Probably an adequate phenomenology of thinking would exhibit great contrast between them and other classes of persons precisely at the relation between thinking and degree of activity in imaging linguistic entities and events.) But imaging a word is not using a word, any more than imaging a horse is using a horse. Moreover, imaging a word, phrase, or sentence is not producing or perceiving a word, phrase, or sentence any more than imaging a horse is producing or perceiving--or otherwise 'having'--a horse. To image a linguistic sequence is not to have it in a special sort of place--the mind--nor is it to have a special sort of linguistic sequence. To image is to exemplify a certain sort of thinking or intentional state, and a sort which does have interesting relationships with other kinds of thinking. But there is no reason at all to suppose that all kinds of thinking necessarily involve or are accompanied by this kind of thinking (imaging) directed upon language segments. And if there were, it still would not follow that all thinking requires language, since this kind of thinking about language segments is not itself language at all. Nor does it require any <130> language present in order for it to come to pass, since intentional inexistence applies to mental events when language segments are the objects, as well as when sticks and stones and animals are.

Having considered a reason for rejecting the proposition that human beings always think in language, let us now consider whether they ever do. In fact, the difficulty is not, as Smart (above) and others have thought, in seeing how one can think without language, but in seeing how one would think with it. Thinking with or in language must consist in doing something with symbols, and so necessarily involves doing something to them--e.g., producing, altering, or perceiving them. If we would do something with the knife (e.g., cut the bread), we must do something to the knife, (e.g., clasp it in our hands). But, as we have seen, thinking occurs where nothing at all is being done to or with signs, there not being any signs in these cases. The power or act of having or changing t-states--that is, the power or act of thinking--is, then, not a power or act of having or altering linguistic symbols. (It is not, in fact, a power of doing anything with or in anything at all. The profound difference in kinds of powers and acts involved here is what Wittgenstein calls attention to in the last sentence of (3) above.) Thought is, of course, practical, in that it exercises an influence upon, or makes some difference in, the world of sense particulars. But it alone is not capable of acting with the sorts of particulars used in linguistic behavior as its immediate instruments. It is just this incapacity which makes it impossible for the advocates of thinking-in-language to give any account of the mechanisms or the 'how' by which the words in which we, allegedly, think are produced, manipulated, and gotten rid of--though they must be produced (or stored and hauled out), manipulated, and, in some sense, gotten rid of, if we are to think with and in them as our tools or instruments.

Merely to ask the question of how, in detail, this is done in the course of thinking reveals, I believe, the absurdity of 'thinking in language'. Mere thinking can do nothing to signs which might be used in a language, and hence it can do nothing with such signs, or in the act of modifying the conditions of such signs. It is absurd to suppose that one can do x with y without in some way bringing about a change in the condition, state, relations, or properties of y. It is this and only this that I put by saying that it is absurd to suppose that one can do something with y while doing nothing to y.

If it is replied that, of course, the mind or thought does not do these things, but that when we write, speak, hear, see, and otherwise relate to actual words in the actual employment of language, we then are thinking, with bodily parts managing the symbols involved, then it <131> must be pointed out that, while we may indeed also be thinking in such cases, we are not simply thinking. The total event here, to which language certainly is essential, is not thinking. Correct use of language can even occur, as has been pointed out by Wittgenstein, without the occurrence of any peculiarly relevant t-states. On the other hand, thinking does occur without the use of hands, mouth, ears, eyes, fingers in any appropriately relevant manner. Hence, what can only occur by the use of these is not the same as thinking, though it may somehow involve or influence thinking.

Smart remarks in (7) that, when he thinkingly wrote the sentence, "Certain kinds of thinking are pieces of intelligent talking to oneself," he could "no more do the 'thinking' part without the talking (or writing) part than a man can do the being graceful part of walking apart from the walking." This may be true of thinkingly writing the sentence (whatever that means). But it does not follow that one cannot think that certain kinds of thinking are pieces of intelligent talking to oneself without the use of language, though Smart clearly thinks that it does. Of course one cannot thinkingly write without writing. But that is nothing to the point of whether or not we can and do think with or without words. Also, the comparison to graceful walking is not apt. We do, as above shown, sometimes think without words or symbols, while no cases of grace without behavior are known.

Now it is very certainly true that some processes clearly involving thinking as described above depend for their occurrence upon linguistic behavior and the sensible signs which it involves, for example, the processes of learning algebra or the history of the Basques, or learning how to counsel emotionally upset persons. But it is to be noted that these are not themselves processes of thinking, but rather are extremely complex processes involving all kinds of events and entities other than language and other than thinking--e.g., feelings, perceptions, buildings, other persons, days and nights, books, and so on. None of these processes is a process of thinking; and for that reason alone it is invalid to infer from them that thinking is linguistic behavior, or that one thinks with language. What is essential to things or events of a certain sort must be shown essential to them taken by themselves, not in combination with many other things. With reference to the involved processes in question, it might be more appropriate (though it would still be wrong) to say--as some have said in recent years--that we live in or with language. Nevertheless, it is certain that some kind of dependence relation--probably similar to feedback mechanisms--exists between linguistic processes and their sensuous signs, on the one hand, and certain sequences of t-states on the other. What, exactly, this relation <132> of dependence is continues to be veiled by, among other things, a priori assumptions about what thinking and language must be and do. One such assumption is that which holds thinking essentially to be an operation with signs or symbols, or doing something with--or in--linguistic processes or entities.

The view that we (necessarily) think without language is, today, regarded as so outlandish as not to merit serious consideration. But this is not due to a lack of arguments to support it. My object here has been to focus upon certain arguments purporting to show the absurdity of thinking in language. The main points in these arguments are: Thinking does occur without any accompanying language whatsoever, and thus shows itself not to be a power or act of managing linguistic signs, once it is clear what such a sign is. Thinking, as distinct from behavioral processes involving it, can do nothing to signs or symbols, and hence can do nothing with them.


  1. See for example, Ramsey's Foundations of Mathematics, p. 138, and Kneale's remarks in Feigl and Sellars, Readings in Philosophical Analysis, p. 42. Return to text.
  2. See S. Morris Engel, "Thought and Language," Dialogue, Vol. 3, 1964, 160-170; Jerome Shaffer, "Recent Work on the Mind-Body Problem," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. II, 1965, esp. p. 83; R. Kirk, "Rationality Without Language," Mind, 1967, pp. 369-368; G. Ryle, "A Puzzling Element in the Notion of Thinking," in Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action, P. F. Strawson, ed., (Oxford: 1968), pp. 7-23. Interesting remarks on the issues here are also found in Bruce Aune's Knowledge, Mind and Nature, chap. VIII and H. H. Price's Thinking and Experience, Chap. X.  See also Wm. James, "Thought Before Language; A Deaf Mute's Recollections," Mind, Vol. I, 1892; and see Wittgenstein's comments on this in Philosophical Investigations, No. 342. Return to text.
  3. I use only think here, for simplicity; but think that and other structures of such intentional states (and sequences thereof) might also be mentioned. Specifically, I would also wish to hold that instances of thinking that, in the sense of inferring or puzzling something out, occur in the absence of appropriate linguistic entities or activities. Return to text.

TOPICS: Philosophy
KEYWORDS: consciousness; dallaswillard; epistemology; faithandphilosophy; godsgravesglyphs; intelligence; intention; intentionality; language; linguistics; metaphysics; mind; ontology; psychology; semantics; semasiology; semiotics; sense; thinking; thought; willard
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To: Consort
Your thoghts are very provocative. They, however, do not fit into the reality of my life. I am not challenging what you have to say, I only offer that my experience of time do not fit with what you have described. I will say that your definition, if usable, would provide a far greater life experience than what we have realized thus far.
281 posted on 05/24/2003 6:54:42 PM PDT by fifteendogs
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To: fifteendogs
"Thank you for your input."

You owe me.

Of course, you knew that.
282 posted on 05/24/2003 6:56:40 PM PDT by headsonpikes
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To: headsonpikes
Sometimes my limit of understanding of your language puts me at a disadvantage. Could you please explain what it is that I owe you?
283 posted on 05/24/2003 6:59:39 PM PDT by fifteendogs
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To: fifteendogs
They, however, do not fit into the reality of my life.

I see what you are saying, but if the given definition is true, then it is the reality of your life, and mine, whether we like it or not. Once we accept only one possibility, then we stop growing. It's important to keep an open mind and be willing to consider new possibilities.

284 posted on 05/24/2003 7:10:22 PM PDT by Consort
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To: Consort
Your understanding is welcome. I hope that we can communicate further without the static of the uninformed. There are many things that I would love to share with you but I am not willing to expose myself to the inferior intellect that frequent this environment. If you are interested, please contact me thru private email.
285 posted on 05/24/2003 7:23:31 PM PDT by fifteendogs
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To: fifteendogs
"...what it is that I owe you?"

I gave you something of value; someday I would like something of value in return.

That's what you owe me.

But you knew that.
286 posted on 05/24/2003 7:26:38 PM PDT by headsonpikes
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To: headsonpikes
I hope that in some way that I am able to repay all my debts.
287 posted on 05/24/2003 7:30:02 PM PDT by fifteendogs
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To: TaxRelief; Billthedrill
Furthermore, since thought, like emotion, is universally experienced, if not by all of mankind, then at least by all those participating in this philosophical discussion, there is currently no one (including Wittgenstein) truly impartial enough to determine how "people" in general actually think.

It is likely in general that the functioning of human beings is similar among them. Just as it is apt to say that people's fingerprints consist of roughly parallel, curved ridges. Psychologists have studied these things.

288 posted on 05/24/2003 7:32:58 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: Alamo-Girl
You brought up the phrase I AM which God gives to Moses as a "nickname" for Himself. It is a profound sentence and a most excellent way to begin meditation and worship - to enter the domain of thought where language fails.

Right on. That's where it begins.

289 posted on 05/24/2003 7:34:01 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: tpaine
"Now God-and-me, there is autonomy."

That is like trying to knock a hammer into the breeze.

No, that is like feeling the breeze and breathing and being thankful for it.

290 posted on 05/24/2003 7:36:06 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: Hank Kerchief; Paul C. Jesup; RightWhale
What is an "untrue" thought: a thought you do not have? a thought about something that is untrue? or a thought you believe is true, but about which you are mistaken?

I was speaking about inaccurate thoughts, thoughts that do not convey reality.

I haven't said that thoughts are things that happen to us. (But I allow that there are thoughts conveyed by the Holy Spirit or by demonic spirits. That is because I believe what I am told by One whose authority is infinitely greater than mine. And of course, it does not affect my understanding that would demand scientific evidence of this.)

291 posted on 05/24/2003 7:45:06 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: fifteendogs
You got it kid.. 'Profound' is me middle name.
292 posted on 05/24/2003 7:46:53 PM PDT by tpaine (Really, I'm trying to be a 'decent human being', but me flesh is weak.,)
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To: Hank Kerchief; FITZ; Alamo-Girl; js1138; Lorianne
demands truth

To demand truth is more like insanity, especially when one refuses the truth one has been shown.

293 posted on 05/24/2003 7:47:16 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: Roscoe
And what happens in your mind just before you arrive at the symbols you relate to the impetus your mind generates?

Do you arrive at the symbol or do you form your mind into approximate analogy with the thoughts of others?

Excellent question. I think both seem possible, also both at once.

294 posted on 05/24/2003 7:48:59 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: f.Christian; Alamo-Girl; William Terrell
Churchill said ... "1st we build our architectire --- then our architecture builds (( prisons )) us" ! Language is shorthand (( notation )) ... but then we forget the translation --- message // theme !

Excellent observation, fC. Analagous to what WT described as getting used to the miraculous so much that it becomes very difficult to realize it's wonderment.

295 posted on 05/24/2003 7:52:36 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: unspun
unspun wrote:

"Now God-and-me, there is autonomy."

-and -

"That is like trying to knock a hammer into the breeze."


"No, that is like feeling the breeze and breathing and being thankful for it."

-and -

"I haven't said that thoughts are things that happen to us. (But I allow that there are thoughts conveyed by the Holy Spirit or by demonic spirits. That is because I believe what I am told by One whose authority is infinitely greater than mine. And of course, it does not affect my understanding that would demand scientific evidence of this.)"

[I feel a lotta 'breeze', -- and, - I rest my case.]
296 posted on 05/24/2003 7:57:32 PM PDT by tpaine (Really, I'm trying to be a 'decent human being', but me flesh is weak.,)
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To: D-fendr
Hank, as you likely know, reason/logic requires the subject to be limited, in order to apply the rules of logic. In other words, it can only be used to "know" a subset of reality.

It is true, reason does not make one omniscient. But, if we are to know anything about reality (which I define as all that is, the way it is), reason is the method we must use.

...more than we can know by using pure sense data/empiricism, but less than we can know of reality it total.

This is a little confusing to me, but what I think you mean is that we can be conscious of a great deal (for example, I can see at night a vast universe) but by reason can only reach a partial understanding of all that we are conscious of. If this is what you mean, I think it is a mistake to use the word "know" for that which we are only conscious of. I understand it is a common use of the word, but in an epistemological sense, we only know what we have conceptually non-contradictorily identified and integrated with everything else we know.

I think this answers the rest of your comment as well. (By the way, I do not agree that an insane person can use logic perfectly. They might use logic correctly in some specific area of cognition. If they were completely logical about everything, of cousrse, they would make no mistakes, and would be perfectly sane.

Thanks for the comments.


297 posted on 05/24/2003 8:01:54 PM PDT by Hank Kerchief
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To: ijcr; RightWhale; KayEyeDoubleDee; betty boop; Alamo-Girl; Lorianne; r9etb; William Terrell
The concept of one singular human thought process has been around for ages.It is simplistic to lump biological and hard wired human characteristics such as Greed,Lust,Pride, Envy,Anger,and Sloth (often refered to as the seven deadly sins)as shared thinking.

Frankly I don't see a requirement for uniformity or complete accuracy in human understanding, in order to say that the processes of humans at large are human processes and may be described as such. Also, the relationship between truth to humans is always that of infallible master to fallible student. Here is how A.W. Tozer explained that:

Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers [meeting] together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become 'unity' conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.

But have we all acceded at least that human thought is not the stuff of language? If so, I do also suggest a stroll through this: (on what science and the study of God are each suitable for).

298 posted on 05/24/2003 8:08:43 PM PDT by unspun ("Do everything in love.")
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To: unspun
I read once that there are two types of thinking: active and passive.

Active thinking is the intentional concentrated thinking on a given subject until the subject is known or until the thinking is distracted or turned to another subject.

Passive thinking is done without definite intent and is invoked by a fleeting thought or a sensation or idle play or day dreaming.

299 posted on 05/24/2003 8:09:06 PM PDT by Consort
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To: unspun
We're in a train wreck --- derailment ... side track !

The switchman // conductor is the undertaker --- they are robbing --- killing us !

"Conservatives have lost their mind. Not their minds, but their ... mind (( soul )) * * . What the late Russell Kirk called “the conservative mind” seems to have disappeared from our political landscape."

... * * ... I see it everyday on the FR --- it is alarming !

300 posted on 05/24/2003 8:10:23 PM PDT by f.Christian (( apocalypsis, from Gr. apokalypsis, from apokalyptein to uncover, from apo- + kalyptein to cover))
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