This essay is an exploration of not just how philosophers think but how laypeople like us think, talk and behave (which is without rigorously thinking through ideas). The essay begins by celebrating philosophers: “Philosophers are the most rigorous thinkers I know.
Like intellectual boxers; they come to understand ideas by making them fight with each other. Their style of analysis is effective because it’s so bloody. One friend calls his style “violent thinking.” He talks about thinking like a soldier talks about interrogation. He subjects ideas to ruthless torture, shaking them and grabbing them by the throat until they can no longer breathe and, eventually, reveal their true nature.
The way he dissects ideas reminds me of something the smartest kid in my middle school class used to do. On the weekends, he’d take computers apart and put them back together, so he could understand how they work. He rarely reconstructed them in the same way he dismantled them, though. For the joy of play and the pursuit of efficiency gains, he searched for new ways to reconfigure the machines. Every now and then, he’d find a performance improvement that even the designers didn’t consider. But usually, his risks didn’t pan out. Even when he reached a dead end, he always learned something about why computers are made the way they are.
Good philosophers are like my friend from middle school. But instead of playing with computers, they play with ideas.”
The article then explains how philosophers develop their toolkit for thinking through ideas: “Writing takes them a long time not because they’re finger-happy keyboard warriors, but because they rip ideas apart until they’re left with only the atomic elements. Once the idea has been sufficiently deconstructed, they put it back together. Usually, in new ways.
That thinking process happens through writing, where we navigate the hazy labyrinth of consciousness. Most roads lead to a dead end. But every now and then, the compass of intuition leads to a revelation that the top-down planning mind would’ve never discovered. To that end, most of the time a philosopher spends writing doesn’t involve typing. Rather, it’s a form of intellectual exploration—following intellectual embryos and running into various roadblocks on their way to discovering an idea’s mature form.
The point is, you can read all the Wikipedia summaries you want, but they won’t give you a holistic understanding of an idea. That only happens once you have a layered, three-dimensional perspective, which writing helps you achieve.
Charlie Munger calls this the difference between “real knowledge” and “chauffeur knowledge.” He tells an apocryphal story about Max Planck, who went around the world giving the same knowledge about quantum mechanics after he won the Nobel Prize. After hearing the speech multiple times, the chauffeur asked Planck if he could give the next lecture. Planck said, “Sure.” At first, the lecture went well. But afterwards, a physics professor in the audience asked a follow-up question that stumped the chauffeur. Only Max Planck, who had the background knowledge to support the ideas in the talk, could answer it.
From the chauffeur’s story, we learn that you understand an idea not when you’ve memorized it, but when you know why its specific form was chosen over all the alternatives. Only once you’ve traveled the roads that were earnestly explored but ultimately rejected can you grasp an idea firmly and see it clearly, with all the context that supports it.”
So what’s the ROI on all of this time-consuming, intellectual hard work? Why not blast off on Twitter your random thoughts on, say, the state of Indian politics? Here is what David Perell has to say: “The faster you jump to conclusions, the more likely you are to default to fashionable thinking. People who don’t have the tools to reason independently make up their minds by adopting the opinions of prestigious people. When they do, they favor socially rewarded positions over objective accounts of reality. A Harvard anthropologist named Joseph Henrich laid the empirical groundwork for this idea in his book, The Secret of Our Success. In it, he showed that evolution doesn’t prioritize independent thinking. Humanity has succeeded not because of the intelligence of atomic individuals, but because we’ve learned to outsource knowledge to the tribe. One study found that the people who feel the most authentic are, in fact, the more likely to betray their true nature and conform to socially approved qualities.
In one example, researchers found little difference between the brains of chimpanzees and two-and-a-half-year-olds on various subsets of mental abilities, such as working memory and information processing. Social learning is the glaring exception: humans are such prolific imitators that they even copy the stylistic movements of people they admire, even when they seem unnecessary. Most of this happens outside of conscious awareness. And they don’t just copy the actions of successful people. They copy their opinions, too. Henrich calls this “the conformist transmission” of information. All this suggests that social learning is humanity’s primary advantage over primates and, in Henrich’s words, “the secret of our success.”
But sometimes, that conformity spirals out of control. Our ideas become as ridiculous as the fashion trends of a bygone era. I suspect that the Internet has accelerated the rate at which new ideas become trendy, compounding this risk. Given that, our culture needs people who can reason independently and stand like sturdy steel beams in the winds of social change. They serve as a counterweight to those who default to socially rewarded positions, which often look appetizing on the menu of potential perspectives.”

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