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The Function Of Thinking

All true thinking is for the purpose of discovering relations between
the things we think about. Imagine a world in which nothing is related
to anything else; in which every object perceived, remembered, or
imagined, stands absolutely by itself, independent and self-sufficient!
What a chaos it would be! We might perceive, remember, and imagine all
the various objects we please, but without the power to think them
together, they would all be totally unrelated, and hence have no

MEANING DEPENDS ON RELATIONS.--To have a rational meaning for us, things
must always be defined in terms of other things, or in terms of their
uses. Fuel is that which feeds fire. Food is what is eaten for
nourishment. A locomotive is a machine for drawing a train.
Books are to read, pianos to play, balls to throw, schools
to instruct, friends to enjoy, and so on through the whole list of
objects which we know or can define. Everything depends for its meaning
on its relation to other things; and the more of these relations we can
discover, the more fully do we see the meaning. Thus balls may have
other uses than to throw, schools other functions than to instruct, and
friends mean much more to us than mere enjoyment. And just in the degree
in which we have realized these different relations, have we defined the
object, or, in other words, have we seen its meaning.

thinking that these relations are discovered. This is the function of
thinking. Thinking takes the various separate items of our experience
and discovers to us the relations existing among them, and builds them
together into a unified, related, and usable body of knowledge,
threading each little bit on the string of relationship which runs
through the whole. It was, no doubt, this thought which Tennyson had in
mind when he wrote:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower--but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Starting in with even so simple a thing as a little flower, if he could
discover all the relations which every part bears to every other part
and to all other things besides, he would finally reach the meaning of
God and man. For each separate thing, be it large or small, forms a link
in an unbroken chain of relationships which binds the universe into an
ordered whole.

NEAR AND REMOTE RELATIONS.--The relations discovered through our
thinking may be very close and simple ones, as when a child sees the
relation between his bottle and his dinner; or they may be very remote
ones, as when Newton saw the relation between the falling of an apple
and the motion of the planets in their orbits. But whether simple or
remote, the seeing of the relationships is in both cases alike thinking;
for thinking is nothing, in its last analysis, but the discovering of
the relationships which exist between the various objects in our mental

Thinking passes through all grades of complexity, from the first faint
dawnings in the mind of the babe when it sees the relation between the
mother and its feeding, on to the mighty grasp of the sage who is able
to think God's thoughts after Him. But it all comes to the same end
finally--the bringing to light of new meanings through the discovery of
new relations. And whatever does this is thinking.

CHILD AND ADULT THINKING.--What constitutes the difference in the
thinking of the child and that of the sage? Let us see whether we can
discover this difference. In the first place the relations seen by the
child are immediate relations: they exist between simple percepts or
images; the remote and the general are beyond his reach. He has not had
sufficient experience to enable him to discover remote relations. He
cannot think things which are absent from him, or which he has never
known. The child could by no possibility have seen in the falling apple
what Newton saw; for the child knew nothing of the planets in their
orbits, and hence could not see relations in which these formed one of
the terms. The sage, on the other hand, is not limited to his immediate
percepts or their images. He can see remote relations. He can go beyond
individuals, and think in classes. The falling apple is not a mere
falling apple to him, but one of a class of falling bodies. Besides a
rich experience full of valuable facts, the trained thinker has acquired
also the habit of looking out for relations; he has learned that this is
the method par excellence of increasing his store of knowledge and of
rendering effective the knowledge he has. He has learned how to think.

The chief business of the child is the collection of the materials of
thought, seeing only the more necessary and obvious relations as he
proceeds; his chief business when older grown is to seek out the network
of relations which unites this mass of material, and through this
process to systematize and give new meanings to the whole.

Next: The Mechanism Of Thinking

Previous: Different Types Of Thinking

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