Updated January 27, 2021
We can’t think outside the box because thinking is boxed in by language; specifically, by the words in language and the meaning of those words. Thinking and language/words are inextricably linked. We can’t have a thought/idea/concept that’s other than what’s (already) designated by the words in our language.
One of the clearest examples I’ve come across of trying (and, of course, failing) to think outside the box was when I was reading Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (This was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.) Pirsig says the basic fault of our thinking, which he articulates in the title, is that we divide reality into the subjective (Zen) and the objective (motorcycle), into spiritual and technological, into subject and object; into mind and matter. But reality, he claims, is a unified oneness; not a duality, but a singularity. Pirsig uses the word “Quality” as the overarching entity/concept/thought whereby what’s divided and dis-unified is unified. However, in order to explain what Quality is, what this oneness is, Pirsig is forced to talk about the duality/separateness that Quality unifies. The only words and thoughts that explain the unity Quality embodies are the words and thoughts that explain the duality. That’s the box our language irrevocably puts Pirsig—and all other English language/thinkers—in.
Recently, while reading Benjamin Bratton’s 2015 book, The Stack, I found another example of trying, and failing, to think outside the box. In this instance, Bratton is concerned with what he calls/names/words the “physical” and the “virtual,” and he wants us to think about these two separate and different phenomena in a particular way: “it is only by conceivingthe design of both physical and virtualmodesof the urban interface at onceeither asconflating or complementary parts of a whole, that we can hope to intervene in their effects with consequence.” (The Stack, p. 164.)The key words for our purpose here in addition to “physical” and “virtual,” and I have underlined them, are: “conceiving[thinking] . . . of both physical and virtual modes. . . at once. . . as. . . parts of a whole.” Although we can understand what Bratton wants us to think about, the fact remains that our language does not allow us to do that; does not allow us to think of both the physical and virtual at onceand as parts of a whole. In our language, the physical and the virtual are separate; two different and separate words on the page and two different and separate ideas in our thinking. We don’t, and can’t, think of the two of them at once, but only one after the other. Nor can we think of the physical and the virtual as parts of a whole. In our language, there isn’t a word or thought that includes both; rather, the physical and the virtual are by definition/meaning in separate, different, domains.
The Only Way We Think
Thinking, like everything else, evolves incrementally. That’s the only way we think. Our thoughts at any one point in time are incremental modification of our previous thoughts. Over time, incremental changes in our initial thinking, induced by additional information and/or experiences, can lead to breakthroughs, to thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings significantly better, more complete/accurate and, in that respect, different than the thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings we started out with. Even Albert Einstein, who is given deserved credit for the theory of special relativity, did not develop it outside the box. Special relativity is an in-the-box culmination of his previous thinking about numerous theoretical results and empirical findings obtained by other physicists and mathematicians, as well as, according to some accounts, “ideas” of his first wife, Mileva Maric.
Think Hard and Long
If we want to think better about whatever it is we’re thinking about, whether it’s physics, mathematics, cooking, management, engineering, coding, farming, sales, marketing, whatever! then we need to think hard and long about it. Taking a cue, again from Einstein, we can say, better thinking (his word was “genius”) is 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work. But hard work is not enough. We have to work hard at our thinking for a long time; actually, most of the time. For certain, breakthroughs are unlikely if thinking hard occurs incidentally, or only now and then, or only at scheduled brainstorming sessions, or during annual weekend retreats. Thinking hard needs to be a defining characteristic of our life.
We can’t think outside the box, but we can think hard and long and, thereby, experience breakthroughs to better, more complete, more accurate thoughts, ideas, theories, and understandings.