James Harvey Robinson: 'On Various Kinds of Thinking'

'We do not think enough about thinking," writes Robinson.

James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936).

A graduate of Harvard and the University of Freiburg in Germany, James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936) served for 25 years as a professor of history at Columbia University. As a co-founder of the New School for Social Research, he viewed the study of history as a way to help citizens understand themselves, their community and "the problems and prospects of mankind."

In the well-known essay "On Various Kinds of Thinking" from his book "The Mind in the Making" (1921), Robinson employs classification to convey his thesis that for the most part "our convictions on important matters...are pure prejudices in the proper sense of that word. We do not form them ourselves. They are the whisperings of 'the voice of the herd.'" In that essay, Robinson defines thinking and that most pleasant type of it, the reverie, or free association of thoughts. He also dissects observation and rationalization at length.

About 'On Various Kinds of Thinking'

In "On Various Kinds of Thinking" Robinson says, “The truest and most profound observations on Intelligence have in the past been made by the poets and, in recent times, by story-writers.” In his opinion, these artists had to hone to a fine point their powers of observation so that they could accurately record or recreate on the page life and the wide array of human emotions. Harvey also believed that philosophers were ill-equipped for this task because they often displayed “…a grotesque ignorance of man's life and have built up systems that are elaborate and imposing, but quite unrelated to actual human affairs.” In other words, many of them failed to grasp how the average person’s thought process worked and separated the study of the mind from a study of emotional life, leaving them with a perspective that did not reflect the real world.

He notes, "Formerly philosophers thought of mind as having to do exclusively with conscious thought." The flaw in this, though, is that it doesn't take into account what's happening in the unconscious mind or the inputs coming from the body and outside the body that influence our thoughts and our emotions. 

"The insufficient elimination of the foul and decaying products of digestion may plunge us into a deep melancholy, whereas a few whiffs of nitrous oxide may exalt us to the seventh heaven of supernal knowledge and godlike complacency. And vice versa, a sudden word or thought may cause our heart to jump, check our breathing, or make our knees as water. There is a whole new literature growing up which studies the effects of our bodily secretions and our muscular tensions and their relation to our emotions and our thinking."

He also discusses all that people experience that has an impact on them but that they forget—just as a consequence of the brain doing its daily job as a filter—and those things that are so habitual that we don't even think about them after we've become accustomed to them.

"We do not think enough about thinking," he writes, "and much of our confusion is the result of current illusions in regard to it."

He continues,

"The first thing that we notice is that our thought moves with such incredible rapidity that it is almost impossible to arrest any specimen of it long enough to have a look at it. When we are offered a penny for our thoughts we always find that we have recently had so many things in mind that we can easily make a selection which will not compromise us too nakedly. On inspection, we shall find that even if we are not downright ashamed of a great part of our spontaneous thinking it is far too intimate, personal, ignoble or trivial to permit us to reveal more than a small part of it. I believe this must be true of everyone. We do not, of course, know what goes on in other people's heads. They tell us very little and we tell them very little....We find it hard to believe that other people's thoughts are as silly as our own, but they probably are."

'The Reverie'​

In the section on the reverie of the mind, Robinson discusses stream of consciousness, which, in his time had come under scrutiny in the academic world of psychology by Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries. He again criticizes philosophers for not taking this type of thinking into account as important: "This is what makes [old philosophers'] speculations so unreal and often worthless." 

"[Reverie] is our spontaneous and favorite kind of thinking. We allow our ideas to take their own course and this course is determined by our hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration; by our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates and resentments. There is nothing else anything like so interesting to ourselves as ourselves....[T]here can be no doubt that our reveries form the chief index to our fundamental character. They are a reflection of our nature as modified by often bidden and forgotten experiences."

He contrasts reverie with practical thought, such as making all those trivial decisions that come to us constantly throughout our day, from writing a letter or not writing it, deciding what to purchase, and taking the subway or a bus. Decisions, he says, "are a more difficult and laborious thing than the reverie, and we resent having to 'make up our mind' when we are tired, or absorbed in a congenial reverie. Weighing a decision, it should be noted, does not necessarily add anything to our knowledge, although we may, of course, seek further information before making it."