Thinking as a Science

By Henry Hazlitt

Synopsis: Originally written in 1916, this book was the product of the genius mind of Henry Hazlitt while he was still only 21 years old. It is his first published work, and deals specifically with how to think in a productive way to best solve problems and come to an understanding of the truth.

Strong Points: This is an interesting book on a sometimes neglected topic. It trains its reader to approach thinking, questions, and problems in a systematic fashion that will allow them to use their intellectual capacities to the fullest. I think that those on the political left, and others not used to hard thinking, could benefit greatly from this book. Not only does the book advocate the importance of serious and systematic thinking, but it also provides practical instruction about how to go about such thinking, without providing answers to controversial questions.

Weak Points: The book is a reprint from a very old copy of the book, and as such looks a bit like it was pounded out with a typewriter. This is not entirely problematic, although it is a little odd that the book was printed in the size that it was, because the pages have huge margins and a small area that actually has the text. One thing that could have helped the book would have been a summary of key concepts at the end of each chapter, or a list of terms, sort of like a modern instructional text. But this book was written rather early before such devices were found in instructional texts. Also, there was no index.

Interesting: 4/5

Must Read: 3/5

Overall: 4/5

Pages: 251

Selected Quotes: “Every man knows that there are evils in the world that need setting right. Every man has pretty definite ideas as to what these evils are. But to most men one in particular stands out vividly. To some, in fact, this stands out with such startling vividness that they lose sight of other evils, or look upon them as the natural consequence of their own particular evil-in-chief. …
“I, too, have a pet little evil, to which in more passionate moments I am apt to attribute all the others. This evil is the neglect of thinking. And when I say thinking I mean real thinking, independent thinking, hard thinking.” (p. 1-2).

“No watchmaker would expect to construct a perfectly accurate timepiece unless he had the most delicate and accurate tools to turn out the cogs and screws. Before any specialist produces an instrument he thinks of the tools with which he is to produce it. But men reflect continually on the most complex problems – problems of vital importance to them – and expect to obtain satisfactory solutions, without once giving a thought to the manner in which they go about obtaining those solutions; without a thought to their own mind, the tool which produces those solutions. Surely this deserves at least some systematic consideration.” (p. 5).

“Our ship is headed for the port Truth. Our mind is the engine, the science of thinking the propeller, and logic the rudder. Without our engine, the mind, the propeller of the science of thinking, which transforms our mental energy most effectively into motion, would be useless. Without the propeller, which gives motion, the rudder of logic would be useless. But all three are needed to reach our goal.” (p. 10).

“Our first step, then, is to get our problem or problems clearly in mind, and to state them as definitely as possible. A problem properly stated is a problem partly solved. …
“Our next move was to classify. This is essential not only to systematic reasoning but to thinking of any kind. Classification is the process of grouping objects according to common qualities.” (p. 17).

“The absurdity is obvious. If we started out merely to observe, with no definite purpose in mind, we could keep it up forever. And get nowhere. Nine out of every ten observations would never be put to use. We would be sinfully wasting our time. To observe most profitably, just as to think most profitably, we must have a definite purpose. This purpose must be to test the truth of a supposition.” (p. 26).

“It is almost possible to sum up the whole process of thinking as the occurrence of suggestions for the solution of difficulties and the testing out of those suggestions. The suggestions or suppositions are tested by observation, memory, experiment. Supposition and observation alternate.” (p. 29-30).

“Knowledge furnishes problems, and the discovery of problems itself constitutes and intellectual advance.” (p. 48).

“It has been frequently said that many of the world’s greatest inventions were due to accident. In a sense this is true. But the accident was prepared for by previous hard thinking. It would never have occurred had not this thinking taken place. It is said that the idea of gravitation came to Newton because an apple fell on his head. Perhaps. But apples had falling ever since there were apple trees, and had probably been falling on men’s heads ever since men had acquired the habit of getting their heads in the way. The idea of the steam engine is supposed to have come to Watt while observing a tea kettle. But how many thousands before him had not seen steam coming out of kettles? The idea of the pendulum for regulating time occurred to Galileo from observing a swinging lantern in a cathedral. Think how many others must have seen that lantern swinging! It is probable that in all these cases the invention or idea had been prepared for, had been all but formed, by downright hard thinking in previous periods of concentration.” (p. 96-97).

“If this [popular opinion] is the most prevalent form of prejudice it is also the most difficult to get rid of. This requires moral courage. It requires the rarest kind of moral courage. It requires just as much courage for a man to state and defend an idea opposed to the one in fashion as it would for a city man to dress coolly on a sweltering day, or for a young society woman to attend a smart affair in one of last year’s gowns. The man who possesses this moral courage is blessed beyond kings, but he must pay the fearful price of ridicule or contempt.” (p. 117-118).

“Learning to think by reading is like learning to draw by tracing. In each case we make the work of another man our basis, instead of observing directly from Nature. The practice has its value, it is true; but no man ever became a great artist by tracing, and no man will ever become a great thinker by reading. It can never become a substitute for thought. At best, as John Locke says, ‘Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge, it is thinking [that] makes what we read ours.’” (p. 137-138).


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