Thinking about Thinking (about Thinking)

We recently read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in my philosophy class (“Philosophy and the Ethical Life”, the first of three required philosophy courses at my school). Among many other interesting topics, in Book K, Aristotle discusses the “contemplative life”, i.e. the life of a philosopher, and argues that it is the happiest and highest life possible to man – indeed, it approaches the divine.

This is, for obvious reasons, an argument I’d like to find persuasive. Thinking as the highest form of activity? Sounds good to me. But… something troubles me about it. Actually, a few things.

First of all, in my mind, thinking is a linear process – you start with a premise and argue towards something. Once you’ve shown what you want to show, then, what are you going to think about? It would be like claiming learning was the highest activity – if that’s so, how does it make sense that at a certain point (unreachable by men, granted) you can no longer learn?

Of course, Aristotle’s definition of contemplation is somewhat different – you first learn something, through a rational sequence of thoughts, but then you just kind of dwell on what you have learned and don’t think about anything else. Aristotle’s God is the first mover who eternally thinks himself. Here, thought is basically a circle, not a line. (Interestingly, since contemplation is the highest activity, the bes thing to contemplate is, well, contemplation – so God ends up being thought about thought about thought about…)

Something bugs me about this circular definition of thought, though. It seems kind of, well, pointless. I suppose that, really, it has to be pointless – if it has a point, then that point is higher than it, and it cannot be the highest. But since it seems that thought, usually at least, clearly does have a point, it’s cheating to say that, despite that fact, true thought doesn’t.


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