Thinking and Acting



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.’
(Ray Bradbury)

‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’
(Samuel Beckett)

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.


Thinking twice about Relationships: How Can we Learn to See the Whole Picture?


Tony Bevan. Heads Horizon. Copyright Tony Bevan.

Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London


‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald


Keeping two opposite, contradictory views in mind at the same time is a difficult task; however, if we are able to do this, the rewards are manifold. Such thinking is surely situated at the heart of creativity. Yet, so often, people opt for one side or another, choosing to ignore the fact that the world, and life, are just not that simple.

For example, when a couple divorce, how often do friends and family take sides? In actuality, marital breakdown is about two people; it is an interaction. Even though it might appear as if one partner is ‘at fault,’ that partner is always unconsciously expressing something for the other. 

The couple represent two parts of a whole; they created the entity of the marriage and they both have a part in its demise. Apportioning blame to one partner or another represents a way of thinking that is limited and incomplete. It is the product of a one-sided mindset, a way of thinking that cannot recognise the validity of two different viewpoints. The result is half-truths and biased versions of reality.

‘My experience with couples in conflict over divergent subjective experiences inspired what I call the “You’re Both Right Intervention”: The therapist points out that while both people seem to assume that there can be only one correct way to see a situation, in fact, both can be simultaneously correct. When making this postmodern point, I mention a situation, familiar to all, of two people reacting very differently to the identical movie.’


Partial ways of thinking have their roots within our own minds, acknowledging only one side of ourselves and denying the existence of the ‘bad’ side. Jung called this our ‘shadow’ side, a part of us all:

‘Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ Jung’s shadow refers to the darker parts of the personality of which we tend to be unaware.

If we are remain in denial about the existence of our own shadow, we will tend to project that darkness onto others.


Rubens. ‘Old Woman and Boy with Candles.’

‘When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’ Ursula Le Guin

Such paranoid ways of thinking involve unconscious projection onto the other of one’s own unwanted or unacceptable fears. This involves the mechanism of splitting, of black and white thinking, where the world is divided into people who are wholly good, (often great, powerful leaders), and the utterly evil, who will be vilified and scapegoated as outsiders.

Condemnation of another as dishonest, grasping or lazy might, for a short time at least, leave one feeling smugly virtuous. However, the negative feelings inside, unresolved and ignored, will return, ready to be projected out onto some other unwitting victim.

This way of thinking abhors difference, hates, yet needs ‘the enemy.’ Then we are unable to see the self in the other, cannot recognise that in all of us lies the potential for evil.

There is an old saying which urges us to remember that ‘when you point the finger at someone, remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you.’


‘The Gossips.’

Thus, instead of regarding the other as all bad and the self as good or faultless, we might pause a moment to look at how easy it is to denounce another, rather than to admit that all is not perfect inside oneself. The Spanish proverb ‘An optimist is a person who has a depressed friend’ illustrates my point perfectly. It is easier to deny one’s own pessimism if one can focus on another’s depression or misery.

If we can first make a connection between the various inner aspects of ourselves, begin to admit into consciousness thoughts and feelings previously repressed and denied, then we might get in touch with the stranger inside, the part of ourselves hitherto unconsciously regarded as alien.




In his book, Strangers, Gods and Monsters,  Kearney refers to the fact that ‘foreigners’ and strangers are most liable to be burdened with the negative projections of others:
‘The ‘alien’ is revealed accordingly as that most occluded part of ourselves, considered so unspeakable that we externalise it onto others. The more foreign someone is the more eligible they are to carry the shadow cast by our unconscious. Strangers become perfect foils since we can act out on them the hostility we feel towards our own strangers within.’ (Kearney)

In next week’s post, we will continue to develop this theme, with special reference to hospitality, immigrants and ‘the other.’

(Please scroll down on PC/Mac to leave a comment about this post)