THE THOUGHT METHOD (Folly of Richard's Youth?)

Richard L. Roth

Part 1 is an attempt to summarize the progress and results of a major preoccupation of mine, mainly during my twenties. I came to refer to it as "the thought method" although it turned out to be an effort to be aware of my thought rather than to subject it to a method. It can be argued that the project was a folly, not in its intrinsic nature, but in how it deflected and delayed me from developing in a single minded way a personally satisfying money earning career. The financial history of my working years has been dreary.

Part 2 is a slightly edited outline of notes I made to document the steps in the development of the thought method. I wrote it shortly after the culmination of the project in 1954. It was a review of my ideas up until then in order to help me develop them further.

Part 1

In my early and middle high school years, I was intensely interested in the natural sciences, anthropology, and human prehistory and early history. At a certain point I decided to write a concise "scheme of history" using terms of such generality that it might equally apply to the emergence of a tool making species on a different planet. It was one page long. In the process of doing it, I became aware of the problems of defining general terms such as history, civilization, and beauty.

In my late high school period I was following the campaigns of WW II and became interested in military history. I devised a board game of war based on a few simple rules, but lending itself to much elaboration. My inner concerns during high school shifted from a passion for collecting knowledge of a broad nature, such as the evolution of humankind, to self-defined creative projects, such as defining general terms, and developing the war game. I was seduced by the satisfaction of creating within my immediate capabilities. In my 20s, my earlier impulse to collect knowledge of a broad nature stamped itself on my impulse to create within my immediate capabilities; I tried to create a system for my own thinking. I began calling this project "the thought method," although "method" doesn't now seem to be the right term. At first I just continued trying to define general terms. But I soon felt that I couldn't proceed without first having a system of definition. This would demand that a full definition of a word requires that each word in the definition be in turn defined (without the circularity of using the earlier defined word), and likewise each of those words, down to a fundament.

The thought method project was a long, slow, spasmodic sort of stubborn mulling, lasting at least six years. I wanted to confront the raw nature of my thinking. I denied myself the reading of philosophy and psychology because I would be using the very processes I was trying to become aware of while studying those subjects. It required practically abandoning the use of language, which at a certain point I tried to do in a limited way. This soon led me to think about the nature of consciousness, from which thought emerges; I required a system of consciousness. But this in turn demanded an idea of the nature of self, a system of self, because self is the seat of consciousness. So my thinking evolved from trying to define certain general terms, to trying to form a system of definition, to trying to describe my way of thinking, my consciousness, to trying to define myself. Put more generally, my thinking evolved from an objective quest for a universe of organized definitions to a subjective quest for myself.

In this final stage of trying to define self, to define myself, I thought of "pride-shame" as being the most intense state of awareness of myself as myself. I noted that my pride-shame extends beyond myself to what I love; would that which I love then be embraced as a part of myself? This was just a speculation, but it touched something in me; I had a kind of epiphany and some burden left me; I went into a kind of serene exaltation, not momentarily, but for a couple of weeks. The state gradually evaporated, but I was elated; I thought this breakthrough would really advance my thought method project. In fact it demolished it, or simply satisfied whatever had been driving it. My personal and work life during that brief exalted period was unexceptional; I was between jobs, but I look back at that brief period as a mythical Golden Age, and as my highest achievement, even though it's not clear to me how my thinking produced this experience. The memory of this experience of a beyond-self selfhood, which is how I would describe it, has become a backdrop to my life. Because I've since become an artist, a painter, it effects my feeling about art: authentic appreciation and creation require a "disattachment" from the everyday self.

I regarded this breakthrough as a religious experience; it illuminated to me the very expression "religious experience." I then defined for my personal use the word "prayer" as a procedure of the everyday mode of self to bootstrap itself for a while into a "beyond-self" mode. But this definition could also embrace the experiencing of art works. In fact, at the time of the thought method breakthrough in 1954, I was deeply moved by religious art in the form of records of choral works of Mozart and Beethoven which for a while I listened to almost daily.

I believe that this transcendent experience has had a good and a fundamental effect on my feeling about myself and about the world. However, on the basis of all the subsequent years of my living, I can't demonstrate that it has affected me in the straightforwardly positive way of increasing my capacity for happiness and for contributing to the happiness of others. I have continued to be limited in the same ways. But now, in an articulate way, I'm comfortable being in the world.

Click here for Part 2   (if you're still awake).

(As I mentioned on top, Part 2 is a slightly edited outline of notes I made to document the steps in the development of the thought method. It puts flesh on the bones.)