Thinking as a Human Being: a review of Thinking about Thinking: Mind and Meaning in the Era of Techno-Nihilism by James D. Madden (David Weinberger, 2/25/24, University Bookman)

First, thinking is not something we do in isolation. Rather, thinking entails being involved in the world. For example, to think about a summer cabin requires actual acquaintance with such a cabin, either directly (by, say, having gone to one in the past) or indirectly (by, say, a friend who has a cabin and who has shared her experience of it). Second, all thought is inextricably bound up in a web of other concepts unique to one’s personal history. For example, one’s thought of a summer cabin may entail concepts not only of “summer” and “cabin,” but also of boating, family adventures, board games, swimming, lying on the dock, bonfires, gazing at stars, laughing with friends, and myriad other concepts tied to one’s own experiential history of summer cabins. In other words, as Madden explains, “Having a mind is not to possess something, but to be involved with or a participant in, as it has been famously put, a ‘form of life.’”

What this ultimately means is that a “form of life” is not only something we participate in, but something for which we must finally take responsibility, if we wish to be authentically human. For example, we are all born into structures, traditions, and worldviews that we receive from our parents, peers, community, and culture. Yet, while we grow up as mere practitioners of the form of life we inherit, at some point responsibility demands that we subject that life to critical scrutiny to see whether it is in fact the good, right, and true form of life, or whether it ought to be abandoned for a superior one. In other words, having a mind enters us into the “space of reasons,” where we face the essential human task of critically assessing the life we lead and seeing whether it withstands rational analysis. “Thus,” Madden observes, “one must ask stark questions and face possibly dark answers about her form of life, if she really cares about it. This is what it means to refuse to live in a sham world.” As Socrates recognized long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living, so putting one’s life under scrutiny and being open to “dark answers” is essential to human authenticity. Anxiety, in other words, is the price paid for living a fully human life.