Are thinking and acting separate facilities and can they function independently? Does the one precede the other or are they interlinked, even blended? Should we think or act first?
Is thought in itself an action?
Some might say it is, for when we think, our minds are often described as ‘active.’ Asimov said ‘Writing, to me, is thinking with my fingers.’ Similarly, Michelangelo stated that ‘A man paints with his brains, not with his hands.’
However, some people, such as Goethe, regard thought and action as separate entities. He felt that ‘thinking is easy, acting is difficult and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.’ He obviously did not regard the two as part of a smooth continuum.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet thought similarly, although he regarded thought and conscience as negative manifestations of fear. For him, thinking robs him of the courage to act, leaving him a coward:
‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.’
(Hamlet, Act 3 scene 1 83-88)
This is not an uncommon way of seeing thinking, one which regards action as creative and heroic and thought as stultifying and weak:
‘Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.’
‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’
However, in an interesting paper called Creative Action in Mind, Peter Carruthers makes the point that thought may not always accompany, or indeed precede, action. For example, when a person mirrors another’s physical actions during a conversation, they often do so without conscious thought or planning.
The trumpeter Miles Davis said ‘I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.’
Carruthers highlights ‘act-first accounts of creativity,’ such as jazz improvisations. These sometimes surprise even their musical creator; Carruthers refers to the book by Berliner entitled Thinking in Jazz:The Infinite Art of Improvisation , which highlights the fact that there is often no planning or thought preceding spontaneous acts of musical creativity:
‘So when a jazz improviser is surprised by the sequence of notes that he hears himself play, that is evidence that he didn’t have a prior expectation (whether conscious or unconscious) that he would play a sequence of notes of that sort. And that means that he had not formulated a creative thought in advance of performing the creative action. ‘
I do take issue , though, with the above statement about ‘conscious or unconscious ‘expectation.’ Surely an expectation is, by its very nature ‘conscious’? The unconscious represents the part of our mind of which we are largely unaware; therefore I do not think we can actually have an ‘unconscious expectation,’ as Berliner implies.
What we can have is unconscious brain activity. This might involve us being surprised by what suddenly surfaces into consciousness, such as memories, dreams and, yes, musical improvisations. Thus the jazz improvisor mentioned above may, in fact, to my mind, have a store of unconscious musical sequences, garnered from a multiplicity of past experiences, that might pop out and surprise him at any moment. Berliner’s above-mentioned ‘evidence’ is therefore a little shaky.
It is possible to think and act simultaneously. This is amply illustrated in Donald Schon’s book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action .
He uses the term reflection-in-action to describe a process whereby people think and know about their work whilst they are actually doing it. He also calls it knowing-in practice. This is a considerable skill, honed through intelligence and experience.
It is something we all do, not only at work, but in our everyday lives:
Phrases like “thinking on your feet,” “keeping your wits about you,” and “learning by doing” suggest not only that we can think about doing, but we can think about doing something while doing it.
In fact, thought and action can be, and are, creative partners. Buddha said ‘with our thoughts we make the world,’ and ‘what we think, we become.’ He saw the creative power of thought as crucial to constructive action, a parts of the same process.
Many see thought as necessarily preceding action. Beethoven carried his thoughts in his head ‘ for a long time, often for a very long time, before writing them down.’ Freud said that ‘Thought is action in rehearsal.’
This ‘rehearsal’ time is regarded by others as crucial. Scientific research by Dr Stephen Fleming reveals that, often, the quick-fire decisions that are encouraged in our current society, do, in fact, mean that we might sometimes increase our chances of getting it wrong. In an article in Aeon in 2014 entitled ‘Hesitate!‘ he states:
‘The agonising feeling of conflict between two options is not necessarily a bad thing: it is the brain’s way of slowing things down….
When people do come to speedy conclusions, there is less opportunity to gather and assess the necessary evidence to form a good decision. The ‘neural flip-flopping’ between options is regarded as ‘the brain’s weighing of evidence for and against decision………..We should allow some indecision into our lives.’
It is a pity that Shakespeare’s Hamlet could not have known of these findings. Then he might have felt less cowardly in relation to his indecisiveness and he might have seen his hesitation as a constructive mechanism.
However, the play would have been far less attractive to the audience and much less of a tragedy.