Thinking is a big challenge. The most straightforward test of the clarity of our thinking is whether we can manage to explain complex ideas as simply as possible. When you try it, you immediately notice where our thoughts are unclear and which elements need to be reconsidered or put on a more secure basis. It’s like exposing our thoughts beneath layers of prejudice, misunderstanding, and false awareness. However, the goal of clear thinking is not to be correct, as pleasant as that may be. It’s about understanding.
The pursuit of clarity, therefore, does not reach an endpoint. Whenever we set out to clear our thinking, we are not aiming for the ultimate truth. Instead, we set in motion a process that usually ends with an act of communication, which in turn will never be completely free of imperfections and eventualities.
There are three steps to clear thinking:
1) We need to think about what we are saying and why we think it is accurate or essential.
2) The second is to find out the assumptions on which our reasoning is based.
3) The third is to identify what is unsafe – and which would result in the elimination of those ambiguities.
Clear thinking: before you start
Let’s think about it for a moment. Let us breathe deeply and become aware of what is going on within us. What’s happening? What do we think and feel? What needs our attention? In such an inventory, we can question patterns of action, develop new ideas or just enjoy our life for a moment. How can we find out what else we could do or what kind of person we could become?
Inviting people to pause is one of the easiest pieces of advice and one of the hardest to follow. However, it is fundamental to clear thinking. Clear thinking begins with a moment of self-reflection. There is no clear thinking until we take the time to do it.
You may find this self-reflection trite. But we all carry around with us countless unclear, confused, contradicting thoughts and feelings because we neither take the time nor have the means to organize them. Because of this, most of our thoughts remain confused and unclear.
Clear thinking: make yourself comfortable
When we have taken a break, a simple exercise can help us take the first step towards clearer thinking. It’s about observing yourself as neutrally as possible. Make yourself comfortable, relax and try to perceive the flow of your thoughts and feelings without judgment, e. g. the rise of fear, anticipation, regret – memories and ideas bubble into consciousness. They are the raw materials that every clarification process has to work with. The more carefully we perceive them, the more likely we will uncover their complexities and contradictions. And the less likely we will mistakenly consider something obvious that is neither obvious nor imperative to others.
Clear Thinking: Step 1 – What We Think
In philosophy, the so-called standard form is often used to present the essentials of a train of thought as clearly as possible. To put our thinking in a standard way is simply to write down a numbered list of premises from which a conclusion is drawn. If we got it right, the numbered statements would justify our conclusion.
Here’s an example:
1. Both the consumption of meat and animal products are associated with unnecessary suffering for animals.
2. They also consume more energy and resources than most herbal alternatives.
3. It is entirely possible to eat healthily and lead a fulfilled life without eating meat or using any other animal products.
4. As far as possible, I should avoid unnecessary animal suffering, excessive energy consumption, and excessive consumption of resources.
If I accept the above as correct, I will have to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The advantage of the standard form is not so much its logical rigour, but the breaking down of our thinking into individual steps and the formulation of two questions for each of them:
1. Why should a sane person accept this claim?
2. What follows from this assertion if it is accepted?
When it comes to clarifying our thoughts and feelings, the strength of such an approach lies in the fact that everything essential can find its way into our deliberations – but only if we can put this meaning into words.
So wholly different thoughts could fit into the example:
5. However, I am currently neither a vegetarian nor a vegan.
6. So I think e Neither do I believe the above reasons are valid, or I think they’re correct, but somehow still find them unconvincing.
7. If I want to clear my thinking on this issue, I need to examine the gap between my beliefs and actions.
As you can see, the thoughts just added are confusing our previous conclusion. Our beautiful simple conclusion gets trickier – but also more revealing.
Paradoxically, this is an essential step towards clear thinking: over-simplifications, no matter how compelling or seductive they may be, are replaced by honest acknowledgement of the facts. The logic of the initial reasoning in the example may have seemed admirably clear, but this clarity does not correspond to reality.
Honest self-examination is vital to clear thinking. Have we accurately grasped our state of mind – or the problems that are at stake? (For example, is it true that there is no ethical way to eat meat? Are there nuances of meaning that we have neglected to establish clear categories of right and wrong? Or are we just too lazy to act on our beliefs?)
Behind this is a fundamental point: only by repeatedly questioning the “what” and “why” of our arguments and the claims on which they are based can we hope to remove all layers of habit, confusion and strip away the self-justification of our everyday thoughts.
Clear thinking: Step 2 – what we assume
How can we justify arguments? Sometimes we resort to evidence or personal preferences and experience – individually or in any combination. But at some point, we have to rely on certain assumptions that we are willing to accept as fundamental. But no matter how self-evident they may seem to us, the premises on which our ideas are based must also be clearly stated if necessary. And uncovering and analyzing these assumptions provides essential clarifications.
We take for granted assumptions: everything that our thinking is based on without us explicitly naming it. Such beliefs are essential. It is common assumptions that make understanding (and much more) possible at all. It would be incredibly tiresome to explain every word in one sentence. It would also be pointless in the end. We’d have to define our terms with other words, ideas with different ideas, and so on. Without some common assumptions, there is no possibility of mutual understanding or even constructive disagreement.
So, our assumptions are not just untested ideas. Above all, they reflect our convictions. Our identity and our feeling of belonging are rooted in them. They provide the material for our stories about ourselves and our community, also about our morals. What we take as “given” is nothing less than the foundation of our worldview. What follows from this? Clear thinking must clearly distinguish between our basic assumptions and what we build on them.
How we proceed step by step?
• Every train of thought is based on certain assumptions: the things that we take for granted. No matter how deep we dig, we will not find a perfectly self-evident and undisputed claim.
• Careful analysis reveals where our assumptions come from and what follows if we assume they are true or correct.
• If different arguments are based on various assumptions, they are likely to lead differently.
• So, let’s try to formulate our basic assumptions and check what results from them.
• We do the same with counterarguments
• If we are sufficiently open-minded, we discover common assumptions and can question opposing beliefs on both sides. In this way, we also understand alternative points of view and can deal with them.
Understanding the inferences and differences in our assumptions is at the heart of formulating our views honestly and convincingly.
Clear Thinking: Step 3 – Insecurities
Clear thinking clarifies our point of view: not to be correct, but to sharpen our position and show our willingness to exchange ideas. We base our work on evidence and analysis. We listen to other opinions and learn from them. We accept that given sufficiently convincing arguments or evidence, it may be reasonable to change our minds.
As far as possible, we should try to get the most truthful and reasonable content out of what others say, especially if they disagree with us.
Hence, in the absence of decisive evidence to the contrary, let us first assume that an opposing position is sane and sincere rather than mistaken, ignorant, or false. Why? Not because it’s nice, but because only with benevolence can we grasp another’s perspective and ensure that our judgment is based on a careful, fair assessment.
All of this brings us back to step 3: clear thinking means honestly recognizing what we don’t know and then placing those limitations at the centre of controversy.
Indeed, the most crucial tool of clear thinking is our ability to question (and further test and perfect) our ideas as if they were alien. Every belief stands and falls solely on its terms, not depending on whether a thought is brought forward by ourselves or by others.