I've been thinking about thinking. In general, there are two different kinds: there's thinking within the moment and there's thinking about the moment. When a crazed lunatic physically assaults me on the street (as he inevitably does), I am not thinking about a crazed lunatic physically assaulting me. I'm much too immersed in the experience of being stabbed in the jugular or punched in the stomach to bother reflecting upon the experience from a safe psychological distance. The moment, as it were, owns me. I am fully inhabiting my consciousness, without intermediary, and thinking directly, probably even without language.
Some people would be reluctant to call this immediacy of consciousness 'thinking'—because we tend to think of thinking as something communicable, something we can translate into approximate words. In this sense, if I am kicked to the ground in a dark alley and thrown into a dumpster, they would say that I am not thinking properly, but merely reacting—operating on a purely instinctual level that doesn't require the agency of human thought. Admittedly, this is a gray area—probably shaded as much by semantics as by real difference of opinion, but it is difficult, I think, to imagine the waking mind doing nothing at all. Even if it isn't consciously aware of itself, it's still locked into some experience, processing it either in ordinary words or in some native, untranslatable language. By this definition then, what the waking mind is always doing is called thinking. Right now I am thinking about thinking—I am strategizing a way to make my thoughts apparent to you, the reader. You, as a reader, are either apprehending what I say and immersed in the unreflected ideas contained herein, or else you're thinking about something else entirely. Maybe you are thinking about yourself reading this. Now that I have introduced the idea and put it front and center in your mind, chances are that you'll think about yourself thinking at least for a moment—to test the waters of reflected thought, so to speak—to be the efficacious embodiment of the idea. The idea insists upon itself, however briefly.
Here, we have touched on the other kind of thinking: reflected thinking. If I enter a room—let's say it's a grand ballroom, opulently decorated, and it's crowded with people in formal attire—if I enter this room, and suddenly all conversation stops, the players in the string quartet still their bows, and everyone turns to look at me, then there's a good chance (after the initial shock, the insistence of the experience) that I will reflect. What is it about the person that I am representing to these people in this manner (i.e., these clothes, this haircut, this physical bearing, this demeanor, this identity itself) is causing them to take such dramatic notice of me? (Other than being incredibly gorgeous, of course.) In other words, I start to think about myself as something other than myself. It's as if I'm looking at myself from another vantage, outside myself. I recognize myself as an object for others, an object that can be judged and understood without recourse to the intimacy of my selfness. I know myself in a specific way, but when I reflect, I remember that there are other ways of knowing and seeing myself—some of which are contradictory to my own way. My consciousness is one perspective among many—none of which is authoritative. I have more information about myself than any other person in the world (except perhaps in the case of extreme mental illness or incapacity), but what I do with this information is only interpretation. I use my reflective thought to create a story about the self that I am, but often these stories are myths or fantasies or a misunderstanding of facts and how they relate to who I am.
Who am I? What is it that defines me or sufficiently guarantees the me-ness of me? Am I more fully myself when I am engaged in non-reflective or reflective thought? Who is the real me? The one who is experiencing things firsthand—or the one who is watching or thinking about myself in relation to the experience? But then again, we could say that reflected thought is also non-reflected thought because it's the immediate experience of our thoughts about ourselves. I think that might be taking things too far though. Non-reflective thought should, by definition, be the kind of thought that ignores the thinker. For example: 'The sunset is beautiful.' Am I thinking about myself looking at the sunset or am I experiencing the sunset and letting it overwhelm me with its sunsetness? Is it possible to characterize the sunset as beautiful without the aid of reflective thought? I think so. After all, we don't usually analyze our aesthetic standards when we go around the world describing this or that as beautiful. We don't compare this sunset to other beautiful things we have seen; we don't set up an explicit contrast that enables us to judge the soundness of our claim that this particular sunset happens to be beautiful. Beauty is, in most everyday cases, a shorthand. We don't need to resort to critical insight to assert our sense of beauty.
But wait. When we speak, when we process thoughts into words, doesn't this necessarily involve reflective thought? I mean, this reflection is so automatic, so abbreviated, so wordless in itself that our attention isn't called to it, but isn't it there nonetheless? On the other hand, isn't the fact that we don't notice the reflective process indicative of its immediacy? In this sense, we could claim that when a deranged lunatic shivs me behind the check-cashing place, I am reflecting back on the experience—instantaneously, without notice—in order to react to it in some way? What confidence should we place in the human mind's ability to reflect upon its experience without our being aware of it or noticing it? Isn't this lack of awareness itself the criterion of non-reflected thinking—because we are talking about conscious processes here, not some unconscious underworld which motivates our actions in an unintelligible way? But am I just using a cheap semantical distinction as a way of getting out of an undesirable assertion that all thinking is in fact reflected thinking?
If I say that all of my thinking is reflected thought—even if I'm not always immediately aware of the reflection involved because it's accomplished in an abbreviated, non-linguistic spasm of sorts—haven't I arrived at an essentially religious position? I am then putting faith in a hunch that the interstices of my experienced thought contain an entire world of compressed reflection—but on what basis? How can I be convinced that my consciousness is haunted by my past experiences in such an immediate way that I don't even need the time to extrapolate from them?
Clearly, this thinking about thinking is more involved and problematic than I originally anticipated. I was intending to set up a clear distinction, if not necessarily corresponding to reality, then offering a model of the way we experience or interpret reality. For instance, Freud thinks that boys have a latent and innate desire to murder their fathers and marry their mothers. The motivation for this theory is to explain frequent egoistic conflict between sons and fathers that was observable. The underpinnings Freud offers—the Oedipal Complex—are not in any way observable—so might we not just as well create any theory (neither provable or disprovable) which seeks to explain the reality without contradicting observable fact? What Freud created—whether he was aware of it or not—was not a plausible explanation, but just a model. This model allows us to cope with a problematic reality in such a way that we glean some sense of understanding from it; that the understanding may not or does not correspond to reality is irrelevant—because nothing strictly speaking can disprove it. We only encounter problems with models when they contradict reality or the explanation they offer does not yield satisfactory results.
This writing was an attempt at building a model (—not a theory). It is presently being abandoned, due to the complexities involved in navigating the demands of reality.