How to Think -- A blog in which I Toot My Horn too much
At a linguistics conference at Georgetown University some years ago, a guy who had given a very nice talk came up to me after I had given my talk and fielded questions, and said something like, "I wish I could think like you MIT people." I was somewhat taken aback but the fact is that the MIT experience, at least for the first few groups that went through the program -- entering in '62-'66 or so -- and possibly later groups as well did give us an unusual opportunity to develop some pretty high powered intellectual skills, specifically the skill to create valid arguments (which may not lead to true conclusions, of course) and the skill to defend and critique arguments.
When I entered MIT there was almost no existing literature in linguistics deemed relevant to the development of Chomsky's radically different, mathematically based, scientific approach to the theory of language. It was argued, for instance, that the grammar of a language should consist of explicit, formalizable rules. Since traditional and structuralist grammarians did not have these goals, they did always or even often ask the kinds of questions that we wanted answered we didn't spend time reading but spent it instead on trying to create new knowledge. Given that there wasn't much such knowledge at the time, it wasn't too hard to come up with new proposals if you were resaonably imaginative.
So, we were asking new kinds of questions and had to develop new kinds of descriptions of languages. Fortunately, we graduate students were clustered together in several very large rooms with lots of desks and blackboards. A healthy, friendly competition developed to try to come up with new ideas (rules of English usually and properties of said rules as well as linguistic universals, i. e., rules and principles that apply across languages) . I don't know what others did but I frequently busted my butt at night to try come up with something new to contribute. The drill was to tell people you had this great new idea, go to a blackboard and write down the proposed generalization about language, or, more commonly, just some English rule or condition on the applicability of the rule, and defend it. The others would start firing objections and not infrequently one would be lead to change one's proposal. If it concerned just English, others might point out that the generalization did or did not apply to languages they knew or knew about. One had to become very critical of one's own ideas to survive the cross-examination without getting too bloodied.
So critically examining one's own ideas was essential to survival. Moreover, applying one's critical skills to the proposals of others, was necessary if one was to be a good citizen. I would advise anyone concerned about developing better critical skills to adopt an adversarial view towards one's own ideas as well as those of others. Don't believe anything anyone tells you unless you can confirm it yourself. This skeptical point of view doesn't amount to cynicism about knowledge since one ends up believing quite a lot of things to be true, at least tentatively. Skepticism requires sharply honed intellectual skills. Cynicism requires no intellectual skills at all.
Learning to defend positions one believes to be true is a very hard thing to do. There are two things that one ought to do. One is to carefully study good examples of arguments and try to emulate them. Another is to subject your arguments to criticism from others. This latter activity is particularly important, as important as submitting any creative writing you might do to experts for criticism.
Learning to be a critical thinker and learning to construct valid arguments in support of one's ideas are necessary conditions on intellectual success. They are not, however, sufficient conditions. One must also develop a capacity for imaginative thinking if one is to have ideas that are worth defending. So, how does one come up with new ideas? Here is my "recipe."
1. Every field will have one or more intellectual cliques, sets of people who share fundamental assumptions. Learn from these cliques but don't ever become a "true believer." Early on I was a Lone Ranger who worked inside one of the two main cliques and was able to make an impact by doing work that was inconsistent with one of the major assumptions of this clique in my work on English adverbial clauses. Interestingly, that work has survived some 36 years later, as a googling of my 1970 doctoral thesis shows. However, later on I went to the linguistic dark side for a theoretical linguist and wrote a book on TV advertising. This had a huge impact outside of theoretical linguistics (where is was totally ignored). (False) modesty prevents me from elaborating just how big an impact it had. In any event, if you go the safe route, question the basic assumptions of your clique to try to find their flaws. Its the best way to go about having an impact on the field. It is more exciting, however, to strike out on your own. I had to do it to keep my sanity. I hated the idea of doing just one kind of thing for 30 years.
2. Do not underestimate the value of ignorance. My doctoral thesis grew out of work I began my first semester at MIT when I wrote a paper in a course Noam Chomsky taught that violated one of Chomsky's basic assumptions, which, fortunately, he did not discuss that semester until after I had come up with an analysis that violated it. My paper changed people's minds about the assumption and I ended up with my first ever footnote a few months later in a 1964 book by Paul Postal and Jerrold Katz (in which my last name was misspelled!).. Pretty heady stuff for a beginner. But it does show that ignorance can lead to intellectual bliss.
I think that the widely accepted view that mathematicians do their best work when they are quite young may be because they are ignorant to some degree of conventional mathematical wisdom. I had a cousin in a graduate mathematical course in which the prof gave out ten prolems to solve over the weekend. My cousin solved none of them but on Sunday, he ran across a fellow student who said he had managed to solve three. It turns out that the prof had given them 10 "official" unsolved problems. My cousin's classmate didn't know they were genuinely difficult problems and managed to take a novel view of three of them that happened to work out. So, I advise you to work your butt off when you are young and ignorant.
I will confess that in most cases in my life, when I addressed a new problem, I did not read the literature on it until after I had given the problem a try. Afterwards, I did look at the literature to see if someone else had come up with my ideas on the matter, which rarely happened. I suggest you try this approach, at least provisionally. But don't tell anyone you do this since you are supposed to read the literature first. Unfortunately, reading the literature first can put you in that box we are told to think outside of if you aren't careful.
3. Read the literature in related disciplines. It may lead you to ideas that are of cross-disciplinary interest. Just for fun, I decided to Google my book ["Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction" philosophy] and found some citations in course syllabi in philosophy and several references in papers in Computer Science (Cognitive Science). I also found a reference to it in a paper on "axiology," a perspective the existence of which was totally unknown to me until now -- it is probably pretty nutty. There was also a reference in a course in anthropologyat Florida State. This saved me from doing a lot of separate searches. In fact, I majored in philosophy and worked closely with a philosopher at Ohio State who moved on to the University of North Carolina, worked with a very talented OSU colleague in communications at Ohio State and read some things in that field; read a lot in the area of Conversational Analysis in Sociology, worked with a computer Scientist at Ohio State and read some of the literature in artificial intelligence, and read in the area of psychology. I probably skipped a field or two. Unfortunately, while interdisciplinary research is often said to be a desideradum in academia, it is not often rewarded as my philosophic OSU and UNC colleague, Bill Lycan, and I discovered. MIT press was willing to publish a book we did on conditional sentences (propositions) but it was clear from the comments we were getting that we would be flamed by a lot of reviewers from both fields so we withdrew it. As I was retiring, Bill decided to revise it into a book of primarily philosophical interest and he published it as Real Conditionals. Philosophy tolerates mavericks much more than linguistics does. The book includes a joint paper we published in a journal, and gives me plenty of credit so he's happy and I'm happy. In any event, this paragraph demonstrates that if you step way out of the box and actually read relevant material in other fields some wild ass stuff may result, some being successful (my Cambridge Press book on speech acts and conversation and Bill's Oxford Press book on conditionals once it had been "purified" a bit) and some not successful (the aborted original version of the joint book Bill and I originally wrote). True interdisciplinary research is a crap shoot.
Okay, enough tooting of my horn. I tooted it to show how that a Lone Ranger can force Cliquists to acknowledge the quality and importance of their work even if they don't like it themselves. The work does have to be well-received by some highly regarded people even if they are in other fields. The fact is if you don't strike out on your own you will likely create easily forgettable work unless you focus on questioning the foundations of your field or becoming a true maverick. My conclusion is, then, that you try learn to think critically and learn to defend and critique ideas whether they are your ideas or the ideas of others, and try to stimulate your imagination by questioning the basic assumptions of your field (which can be very hard work even for advanced scholars), working on problems before you look at how others have treated them, and reading work in related fields and trying to see if it might impact on problems that interest you. I hope this was useful for some of you younger people. With some embarassment at my horn tooting I hereby launch this into the internet stream.