What makes us special

Short answer: thinking. Why? Turning to analytic philosophy, you’ll find reasons stretching across consciousness and souls in why thinking makes us special. Evolutionary scientists explain how cognition and the ability to reflect, contemplate and ponder let humans overcome obstacles and struggle against nature. Thought transcending the surroundings of the world around us into truth, validity and other principles of reason seems nowhere in nature and, instead, only in our minds. “I think, therefore, I am human” resonates. Israeli philosopher Irad Kimhi begs to differ. That humans separate themselves from nature using thought is not only misguided but leads to false conclusions throughout philosophy, Kimhi argues in “Thinking and Being.”

Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides argued it’s impossible to think or say what is not. In his poem “On Nature,” he meant that what is not is nothing. To think nothing is to not think at all, and the “not”-ness of thought doesn’t differentiate it from nature and the universe itself. To think that the Earth is flat is to think from nothing in the world because there is nothing in the world that would let you think that. Though nothingness would continue in debates among thinkers including French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument that our nothingness gives rise to consciousness, Parmenides’ reasoning that thought cannot follow from nothing doesn’t seem so appealing.

We think about what is “not” all the time. Negating anything to figure out what something isn’t is key in many lines of reasoning to figure what something is. Rejecting hypotheses and determining truth mean testing theory and detecting falsehood. But, even if we rejected Parmenides’s conclusion, we still need to figure out how to think of the “not.” Kimhi says understanding the nature of thought reveals why it doesn’t make humans so special after all.

How the sophist differs from a real philosopher, explored through Plato’s dialogue Sophist, that the Eleatic Stranger and Theaetetus discuss how discovering falsehoods let you figure out who we are. What makes thought special to the sophist is categorizing and systematizing what something is through clarifying what it is not until you figure out what it is. Thinking about what something is not is eliminates the confusion. Sophistry, then, is a productive art, the Eleatic Stranger concludes, involving imitating and copy-making to deceive and communicate with insincerity.

Philosophy in the analytic tradition means overcoming confusion similar to the way sciences do. German philosopher Gottlob Frege and British mathematician-philosopher Betrand Russell established its methods through logic. Yet the principles of logic and the appeal to science have, Kimhi believes, locked away thought’s specialness from philosophy. Frege’s belief that thought itself is fundamentally the same as nature meant thought exists independent of humans. These “propositions” stand on their own, lending credence to the idea that thought itself is part of nature just the same way “The Earth is flat” is false. Thinking, then, doesn’t set humans apart from the universe. When a philosopher debates Parmenidean’s question, her thoughts of what is “not” are false, not nothing.

Kimhi believes, however, Frege’s method of thinking about propositions is flawed. Kimhi’s argument rests on the negation of propositions. If she wanted to argue that it is raining, a philosopher could draw a picture of the sky and say “Things are as this picture shos.” To indicate that it is not raining, though, she couldn’t just draw a sky without rain. She would need the picture of rain and say “Things are not as this picture shows.” The picture, a metaphor for the proposition, needs this negation to clarify so you might conclude the picture itself, like a proposition, doesn’t say anything about how things are. Propositions mean nothing by themselves as far as stating things about the world. Kimhi attacks this idea, and believes that the picture expressing both the affirmation and the negation means a proposition says things are a certain way without having someone assert them. The same way we can’t say “Yes” or “No” to a claim without having the claim be there to begin with, Kimhi argues the propositions Frege promotes cannot be.

From a scientific perspective, if nature were an investigation of things that, by themselves have no meaning, then meaning itself is not part of nature. As Kimhi explains, thought’s place in the world doesn’t follow as separating humans from nature. Thoughts can be asserted and unasserted as a philosopher can say “It is raining, and it is not raining,” but there must be something both propositions have in common. Thinking, Kimhi believes, means representing how things are by combining elements like “the Earth” or “raining,” but the ability to put these elements together is also thinking of what these things aren’t. The difference between “It is raining” and “It is not raining” comes from our ability to think of it raining right now. Negating the claim doesn’t add any content to the thought. The two claims have a repeatable sign in common between them.

Kimhi further argues that, the same way negating a thought doesn’t add content to it, attributing thoughts to people doesn’t add content either. Though the judgments between “It is raining” and “It is not raining” differ, the claim is either affirmed or denied. Language doesn’t convey things in the world, but conveys the different ways we claim those things in the world. Thought itself is unique this way. The human capacity for language is part of the capacity to think. Language is the method of understanding the world and sets humans apart from everything else.

I sit and meditate on what makes us who we are. That thought runs so close to language makes intuitive sense. Language is the foundation for communication and expression. It’s role is inherent and to remove language from thought would be to lose thought itself. I worry that separating thinking from nature doesn’t do justice to the question Parmenides raised.

Though thinking isn’t something in nature, Kimhi believes, the linguistic form of human life constitutes thinking. Different from the austerity of “I” in German Idealism, philosophy is the apprehension of humans creatures of nature and thinkers not of nature. Thinking of what is not, though, remains a puzzle, but, by Kimhi’s views of thought, it doesn’t arise. Philosophy progresses through getting rid of confusion in clarifying what we already knew in some way or another.

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