Thinking and Knowing

Knowing and thinking reinforce each other.

A lot “philosophy” comes down to a game of language.

There’s no objective, God-given, clear-cut definition of words – including the words I just used like “philosophy”, “argument”, “words”, “game”, “definition”, “objective”.

Pick a word, any word, and you can always define it in a way that suits your argument.

And you can just as easily oppose anyone else’s definition.

That’s why good arguments are rare.

Most remain at the lowest levels of the disagreement hierarchy.

You can always avoid the periphery and just dispute the rules of the game, without even getting into the game.

It’s like avoiding playing a chess opponent, and instead quibbling about which piece is a pawn, or how a bishop will be allowed to move.

This might look like a bad thing, because it means you can waste a lot of time running in circles if you spar with the wrong person.

If I wanted to refute the point I just made, that a lot of philosophy is a game, all I have to do is claim that this isn’t true “philosophy”, and define the word in a different way that suits my purpose.

And this itself is just playing the same game, fighting on the definition of words.

But I still think this game has its importance, because there’s no point engaging deeper on an issue if you disagree on the rules itself.

Underlying Assumptions

I remember a class that was one of the most useless forms of organized stupidity I’ve had the misfortune to encounter in my life.

Everyone had to speak for a couple of minutes on a trite and overdone topic while everyone else slept or spent the entire class on their phones.

Many of us had a topic that went like, “Democracy is the best form of government”.

And of course, people just jump into the game blindly.

Like jumping straight into a task without thinking about the task itself, except how to implement it.

You get Lincoln’s “government of the people”, and Churchill’s “worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

But I don’t get how you can talk about a topic like that without even wondering what the hell it implies.

What does best even mean?

Best for whom? I don’t think it’s best for Kim Jong Un. Or a dictator.

Best at what? Economic growth? “Happiness” – if you could ever measure it?

This is just a different game.

Like asking who the best student in a class is. The one with the highest grades? Or the most followers on Instagram?

Pick your measure, and game your best to be whoever you want it to be.

And you can play the game of language even more if you’re up to it.

Democracy – what exactly qualifies?

Is it just about elections – even if free and fair?

Even here, you can ask what’s free and fair – does every candidate really start from the same position?

If you sidestep that, you can drill deeper into “elections” – would you call ancient Athens a democracy, because it had limited franchise?

If you withhold that title, might not future generations withhold the same from us, because those below 18 aren’t allowed to vote today?

And of course, whenever you use an extreme word like “best” – it implies all other options are inferior.

Have you tried every other alternative? Is there any option that’s not even come into existence yet?

Maybe all of this sounds like overkill, nitpicking on trivialities and ignoring the “main” point of the question.

I think it’s the other way around.

It’s thinking about the rules of the game that’s more beneficial.

Any idiot can, and most probably will, come and speak without thinking on “Democracy is the best form of government”.

It adds zero value to either the speaker or the listener, assuming actually listens.

All it does is show the speaker can lift and regurgitate something he read somewhere.

It’s when you think about the rules of the game you become aware of so many assumptions you simply take for granted.

Things you never even thought about, things you didn’t stop to consider – yet things that are the foundation of whatever you’re claiming.

Without their support, your structure falls to pieces.

Like speaking on “Democracy is the best form of government” – in front of an assembly of dictators.

Or to a bunch of economists.

The notion of best you took for granted becomes explicit now – it means different things to different people.

Language and Thought

And why does being aware of the nuances of language matter?

I think language literally circumscribes thought.

You can’t express something you can’t think.

And anything you think, you can express, even if you don’t have an exact word for it.

Like you can still understand what taking happiness in another’s misfortune is, without knowing what schadenfreude means.

In that sense, whatever you think will be a subset of whatever you can express.

There are many things you could express, but you’ve never thought about them (area B in figure).

Maybe it’s one of these essays; none of these ideas are beyond most people’s vocabulary, but there might be many who’ve just never thought about them.

Here, A is the smaller circle – what you think.

The larger circle is your knowledge of language. This is A + B.

B is the area between the circles – the difference between what you think and your knowledge of language.

Or, in other words, the difference between what you think and the maximum you could currently think.

Can you “think” of something you can’t express?

It would mean I have something in my mind, but I’m unable to convey it, even though I’m trying to.

I don’t see how.

You might be thinking of something but can’t make your audience grasp it.

That’s again because of language – you can’t express it clearly enough.

It’s nothing to do with what’s going on in your head, because your audience can’t know that, but everything to do with what you express in front of them.

Or because your audience can’t grasp it – the language is beyond them, or it’s part of their language but beyond their thinking ability (the area in B)

So, the knowledge of language becomes a superset of what you think – which is why the Venn diagram shows what you think as a subset of your knowledge of language.


So what does this lead us to?

It means that the better your knowledge of language, the more you can potentially think and know.

You might be smart, but if your knowledge of language is constrained, there will come a time when you hit a wall.

You’ve thought all you possibly can with that limited language; until your knowledge of language improves you won’t be able to think anything new.

I think this is an extreme case though, unlikely to happen to most of us.

More likely, you’ll find that it becomes easier to think of new things when you become aware of new concepts of language.

Think of it like a business that has a 5% market share.

One way is to increase its share of the existing market – this is like increasing your thinking ability with your existing language knowledge.

One day you might hit a wall because you’ve captured the whole market and there’s nowhere to expand.

It’s highly unlikely because you almost never hear of a firm with 100% market share.

The other option is to increase the size of the market itself. This is when you increase your ability to express thoughts.

So a 5% market share of 100 customers is smaller than a 5% market share of 200 customers.

Because the size of the playing field increases, now your thinking can increase more easily.

Like using a simple math / business analogy in an essay on something completely different – the language of one domain expands your reach in another unrelated one.

Of course, you’d want to do both of these – expand your market share as well as grow your market.

Thinking Better

Your “knowledge of language”, the phrase I’ve used, is basically your ability to express a thought.

How do you increase it?

It’s not as simple as increasing your “vocabulary” – memorizing words doesn’t mean anything.

And you can always express an idea like schadenfreude in your own words, without even knowing such a word exists.

This is where it gets circular.

Thinking begets thinking.

Your ability to express thoughts increasing by having more thoughts.

You can increase volume by increasing breadth or depth.

Increasing breadth means learning about new ideas and concepts.

It could be pretty much anything – genetics, computing, Marxism, mathematics, business, whatever.

I think this is relatively easier, though not easy.

The world is so big you’ll always find new stuff to plough through, although you might find it’s hard to grasp some interesting ideas without an effort.

This is mostly about learning what other people have already figured out.

The other is increasing depth.

This is more of going deeper into things you, and often most people, already know superficially.

It’s probably harder, because it’s easier to scratch the surface on a new thing than it is to drill deep on an existing one.

You have to either do it yourself, or find people who’ve already gone deep, and they’re much rarer than those who’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg.

The trade-off between depth and breadth is something you decide for yourself.

Knowing a little about a lot means you have vast breadth without much depth.

It could be a sign of interest in everything but commitment to nothing.

The sort of superficial knowledge you can use to impress people at first sight.

Within narrow limits you’re brilliant, but because those limits are so narrow you invariably step outside them and prolonged interaction reveals the truth.

But tying up and bringing together knowledge across domains can be powerful.

You can create something new not by discovering new knowledge but discovering new uses of existing pieces of hitherto isolated strands of knowledge.

The alternative, knowing a lot about a little, could seem to be extremely confining.

Knowing only about a few things is like having narrow tunnel vision.

You might miss out because there could be plenty of things outside what you consider “your domain” that aren’t actually outside it.

But it’s also true that depth, real expertise, is hard to come by.

It’s also usually unappreciated by outsiders, because they don’t have any idea of what it takes to achieve it, and how rare it is.

Someone who can’t talk about almost anything; at first glance it’s easy to look down on him.

But if you land in his domain, you’ll probably appreciate him, and find just how undervalued he is.

Knowing v/s Thinking

What I’ve called “breadth” is “Knowledge” – your ability to express ideas. Which depends on the concepts you already know.

Things you read about or learn from others; usually facts and ideas.

People have figured it already, so it’s more about taking from them than creating it yourself.

Usually something on which there is a near consensus – like ideas in scientific disciplines.

What I’ve called depth is “thinking”.

Ideas you or someone has derived, that aren’t usually based on consensus because of their subjective nature.

Nearly all “knowledge” was at one point of time just someone’s “thought”.

The motion of planets is knowledge today, but at one time it was Kepler’s thought.

Everyone’s knowledge, therefore, increases when a few individuals think new thoughts.

And at an individual level, the opposite holds true.

The more new knowledge you imbibe, the better you can think about what you already know, your existing knowledge.

So the more you know, the more you can think, and the more you think, the more everyone can know.


Rajshree Trivedi

I just feel connected to this .After reading this I realized that I had a doltish character in school . I was like the one :- always wanna answer the questions at first without even thinking about it just to boost up.
Now I will keep in mind think and think and speak up when it is required :).


One Question and One Request…
Have you recently explored Wittgenstein?
Please write about some of the books you’ve read recently.


Not recently, but earlier. He wrote about the language-game, though the idea probably occurred to many people.

Reading list is here.
Most recent – The Beginning of Infinity


I was hoping if you can provide a new reading list


Thanks, I liked “The Beginning of Infinity”. Would you please write more about recent books you’re reading or have read? (IS: Please update your reading list).

Sweta Tripathi

Its like a recipe to communicate with the world using your box of knowledge by thinking first about how to convey it what are the ingredients that you have then use your masala of language to increase its taste for the consumer keeping in mind to add something which will put your cuisine away from cliche .
Consciousness in one word I believe this article is conveying if I am not wrong .


I’ll try to write about it one of these days.


As a writer myself, Same question! 🙋
How do you do that?


if you have not, and also, if you think you should.. listen to or read…. Jiddu Krishnamurthi..