Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

William James and a Theory of Thinking

Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

William James and a Theory of Thinking

Article excerpt


This paper provides a pragmatic example of a theory. It is the one provided by James on tough and tender thinking. The need for such a theory for complex social problems is discussed, two applications outlined and the theory summarized.


Troubled times cry out for extraordinary minds. They hunger for extraordinary individuals that can think boldly and act decisively. For make no mistake about it; these are extremely troubled times. Our intellectual and moral compasses are broken. They are beyond patching. We are adrift. We must think and act anew. The intellectual and moral foundations, the basic premises and assumptions about thinking, upon which all of our organizations and institutions are based, have crumbled. They are in need of reexamination and rebuilding. We need a new philosophy of thinking that will not only guide business and government, but our personal lives as well.

Thinking and ethics are intertwined. The pursuit of rampant and uncontrolled greed aided and abetted by cleverness and ruthless ambition is not a viable moral and intellectual base that can sustain any society. Indeed, they are antithetical to the very concept of society. Society requires not only enormous amounts of trust and integrity in order to function, but it requires them merely to exist in the first place. Erode trust and integrity and one erodes the very idea of society itself. These sentiments are neither abstract nor purely academic.

The sheer numbers and the scope of recent corporate scandals and major crises (Ford/Firestone, 9/11, Enron/Andersen, FBI, CIA, The Catholic Church, NASA, Martha Stewart, Worldcom, etc.) demonstrate that all organizations and institutions are either suspect or under attack. Neither business nor government can be trusted to act responsibly, to ensure the collective good and to protect us from danger. The kind of thinking that has gotten us into this problem will not get us out of them. More of the same only makes things worse, not better. The starting point is to reassess our outmoded assumptions about thinking and problem solving.

Outmoded Assumptions

The 19th and the 20th Centuries developed a view of problems that influenced profoundly the nature of education and work. This view is best stated in terms of the key assumptions upon which it was based:

1) In order for something to be or to count as a problem, it had to be stated (defined) unambiguously and precisely; unless one could state or define a problem in this manner, then one did not know what the problem was, and hence, one would not know what a solution to it was, if one existed; in other words, it had to be stated in "grounded, tough-minded" terms;

2) The best (superior) language for stating problems was mathematics; the ideal model in this regard was Euclid's geometry where one started with intuitively obvious or self-evident ideas (axioms and postulates) such as the definitions of points, lines, triangles, etc., and from these one derived rigorously (deductively) a potentially infinite set of interesting and important conclusions known as theorems (this point still holds even with the invention of non-Euclidean geometries for even they can be stated axiomatically); in the more extreme versions of this philosophy of problems, unless something could be expressed in the rigorous and exacting language of mathematics, then it was not even worthy of the term "problem;"

3) All complex problems were in principle decomposable into a finite set of separate and simpler problems; the "sum" (synthesis) of the solutions to the separate and simpler problems was then the solution to the complex problem; in fact, for something to even be considered as a problem in the first place, then it had to be decomposable into its simpler problems or "atoms;"

4) Different disciplines owned different atoms; different disciplines owned different types of problems; as a corollary, the different disciplines were clearly separable from one another; finally, there was a strict hierarchy between disciplines; some disciplines were better than others; "better" meant that one discipline could state its problems more rigorously (e. …

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