I’m a materialist, more or less convinced that the apparently irreducible qualia of my consciousness are an epiphenomenon of the biological functioning of my organism. I’m also heavily invested in what is traditionally called “the life of the mind”: in literature, in the history of ideas and aesthetic forms, and in the personal cultivation of an “inner life.” In other words, I live more or less in service to something I consider an epiphenomenon.
As a result, I don’t view the life of the mind as something out there, some superliminal current of thought which sweeps up the individual thinker. Instead, it seems to me contingent; it seems an agglomeration of historically embedded and artefactually externalized thoughts sustained only by the voluntary and continued participation of new minds. It is a project, in other words, that depends at every moment upon us — upon you and me, who are invested in it — to carry it forward or even keep it in memory. People who pay lip service to “the life of the mind,” by, for instance, reading and writing about books, often subscribe in practice to the idea that this life exists outside them, in the texts they read and write, or, at the very least, in the conversations they have. But I believe you don’t “participate” in the life of the mind unless you lend your solitary thinking to that life, like logs to the fire, a significant amount of the time. If you want to participate in the life of the mind, you have to make your mind a stage for thoughts, and that involves more than the artefact-focused acts of reading and writing (or the other-focused acts of listening and speaking, etc).
I first arrived at this conclusion in grad school. At the time, I was not a materialist, but I was concerned with that typical preoccupation of new philosophy grad students everywhere: how to be, and not merely act like a philosopher. I was looking for some kind of Hadotian Philosophy as a Way of Life thing. The focal activities of philosophy in modern academia are reading and writing, delivering conference papers, teaching: but what, I wondered, does the inside of the philosopher’s consciousness look like, on an everyday basis. When they’re not writing an article or delivering a speech or teaching a class or arguing with a colleage. What do they do with their thoughts?
I lived several miles from campus, and I had not-so-cleverly found an apartment with no public transport nearby. So I walked about three hours each day, along the same urban route. My desire to live like a philosopher and the boredom of retraversing the same sidewalks combined to inspire a series of conscious experiments in concentrated thinking.
First I tried memorizing as I walked. That was quickly tiresome.
Then I tried rehearsing the plots or arguments of the books I had been reading. That was a good idea. I can still remember the contents of those books and now consider that I haven’t fully read a book until I’ve gone over in detail, away from the book, everything I can recall from it.
I also tried ideating along a line, as I called it to myself. I’d pose a problem or question (or, when I began writing fiction, I would propose a theme or image) and think of as many possible answers (or characters / settings / plots) as I could. The trick was to both generate many thoughts and also recall them. When I reached the end of the walk, I would scribble them down as fast as I could.
Eventually — particularly when I began teaching, and then when I was writing my dissertation — these acts of rehearsal and ideation became a fully formed dialectic. I looked forward to each walk, because it was an opportunity to clarify my thoughts by working through various positions and their conflicts, deciding what needed more work, what I needed to research, and where I was simply impeded by the muddiness of my definitions or by internal contradictions.
From these experiments in concentrated thinking — in using my mind for thoughts without the crutch of an artefact — flow nearly everything I like about my life today. They flowed back into the creation of artefacts and the appreciation of them, of course, but now writing and reading felt like rivers flowing in or out from the main stream of my own thinking. I began to keep a thinking journal, just to mark the development of my increasingly coherent and unified project of thinking. (Yes, that’s the origin of my notebooks of hyper and deep attention.) I even began to attract other people looking for a certain kind of conversation — conversation that unfolds across meetings and the vagaries of talk, held together by the supple stitch of thinking together and returning to those thoughts to expand or amend them. This was not a unity imposed from without, by curriculum or some marvelous social context, it was a simple by-product of devoting time away from artefacts to the life of the mind.
These days, since my mind’s life is mostly taken up with stories — reading them and attempting to write them — I often find myself concentratedly thinking about language or visualizing a scene.
I can’t imagine my life without this dedication to concentrated thinking. Not to musing or errant daydreaming, but to doing the work of thought even when my mind isn’t powered by page or pen. But I think it’s rare. It’s not hard, but it’s rare. Because no one teaches it. Because its value is not expressed in accountable profit. And I think the failure to teach or describe this hidden part of the iceberg of the life of the mind is one of the reasons I’ve seen so many aspiring young intellectuals end up dissatisfied with their lives, suspicious they’re doing it all wrong, unfulfilled by academia but uncertain of an alternative. I’m not sure what the solution is. What form teaching would take. Perhaps the imposition of boredom. Perhaps every grad student and aspiring writer should be required to walk along a boring road for three hours a day until they find out how to do things with thoughts. I certainly shudder to think of my own life without the benefit of that boredom.