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That thinking feeling

Young girl deep in thought
Deep thinking about deep thought might lead to confusion

Are you sitting comfortably? Head clear and ready for profound thoughts?

Education secretary Michael Gove has called, in an interview in the Sunday Times, for a revival of the "art of deep thought" in A-Level students.

By cutting the number of modules and focussing more on the exams at the end of sixth form, he says, pupils will be better prepared to plumb the depths of university education.

Inspiring 17 and 18-year-olds to put fist to forehead will certainly not be easy. But the educational challenge also opens a philosophical can of worms. What, after all, actually is deep thinking?

The first problem, argues philosopher Julian Baggini, is that we often become confused between in-depth knowledge of a subject and deep thinking about it.

"People think that specialization is what makes them deep thinkers - it doesn't necessarily," he says.

Those who know how to think need no teachers.
Mahatma Gandhi

Knowing everything there is to know about, say, the production of Fiat 131s in Italy between 1979 and 1983, he argues, would make him "a nerd and not a deep thinker".

"True profundity of thought does require the ability to make connections between other things, so a certain amount of breadth is required, as well as narrow depth."

Pondering pondering

Philosopher, poet, novelist and doctor Professor Raymond Tallis is more qualified than most to discuss a broad range of knowledge.

Albert Camus
French philosopher Albert Camus, who could think most under the table

He, says pinning down what deep thinking is, is far more difficult than you might imagine but does suggest some criteria for deep thinking:

"Standing still on one spot, mentally in a state of concentration."

"Making connection between different and disparate things, as you do when you discover new metaphor,

"Quarrelling with yourself, rather than other people".

Deep indeed, but not the sort of behaviour that is profitable in every situation.

Professor Tallis admits that there are many situations where deep thinking might hinder you.

"When you have to act very quickly, when you might be paralysed by introspection," for example.

What makes deep thinking important, he says, is that it is only by really putting your mind to things, that you can "re-frame the context in which we act".

"If you're going to step back from the way we normally do things, then deep thought is certainly required," he says.

Profound problem

But even more profound problems await for those who renounce superficiality and devote their lives to deep thinking.

"The point about deep thought is you don't know whether you've succeeded," says Julian Baggini.

"It's really not for you to say whether you succeed. The attempt is what's worth it.

"There's always the possibility that you attempt it, and actually what you come up with are deep-sounding, the illusion of depth, but just emptiness".


They might not be likely to appear on an A-Level exam paper, but here are Professor Tallis's three questions to inspire you to some deep thoughts:

1. How is it that a piece of matter like my body is conscious of a world?

2. How is it that we can genuinely initiate actions, when we appear to be part of a causally closed universe?

3. How do we combat all of those things in our lives which stop us thinking at an appropriate depth?

What are your profound answers to these deep questions? What questions inspire you to deep thought? Let us know using the form below or get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.

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