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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

er, 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.