British philosopher Bertrand Russell commented on thinking and the slavish nature of humanity: “Most men would rather die than think. Many do.”

In 1946 Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in German. The book, written over the course of nine days in 1945, begins with Frankl’s autobiographical account of his experiences in a German concentration camp. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, in the midst of unimaginable suffering and loss, thought deeply about the existential meaning in the insanity of it all. Through the constant trials and endless terror, he concludes that the greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl sees three possible sources for meaning: “in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.”

Frankl goes on to note that “Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.” He writes that a person “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish, or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” He concedes that only a few prisoners of the Nazis were able to do the former, “but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”[1]

Ernest Dimnet’s The Art of Thinking found its place on U.S. bestseller lists in the 1930s, alongside Dale Carnegie’s self-help works, and for reasons not unlike those that brought Frankl unexpected and perhaps even unwanted fame. In the preface to the 1992 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning is this exchange with a reviewer: “Dr. Frankl, your book has become a true bestseller. How do you feel about such a success?” Replies Frankl:

Whereupon I react by reporting that in the first place I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: If hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.

And so it apparently did. The book has sold more than 12 million copies in scores of languages.

Conversely, it should be of no surprise to readers of the next paragraph that The Art of Thinking received little acclaim when it was first published in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. The out-of-the-blue financial and economic devastation that shredded the economic, social, and financial fabric of America in 1929–32 turned the tables, giving rise to a tsunami of existential introspection. The book’s credence, like Frankl’s, can be traced to being available, and with an alluring title, when the need arose. Dimnet, capturing the distracted, preoccupied, and ungrounded mindset of the late 1920s, observes that we too often only “think of thinking” about something instead of actually thinking. He challenges the reader to embrace a state of honesty, overshadowed by the manic 1920s, where he evaluates himself as a thoughtful human being.

To say thinking, as Dimnet defines it, has once again become passé, deemed far too strenuous an endeavor when picking the low-hanging fruit seems both effortless and rewarding, is precisely why I am bringing it to your attention. States Dimnet:

What is it that characterizes the thinker? First of all, and obviously, vision … The thinker is pre-eminently a man who sees where others do not. The novelty of what he says, its character as a sort of revelation, the charm that attaches to it, all come from the fact that he sees. He seems to be head and shoulders above the crowd, or to be walking on the ridge-way while others trudge at the bottom. Independence is the word which describes the moral aspect of this capacity for vision. Nothing is more striking than the absence of intellectual independence in most human beings: They conform in opinion, as they do in manners, and are perfectly content with repeating formulas. While they do so, the thinker calmly looks around, giving full play to his mental freedom. He may agree with the consensus known as public opinion, but it will not be because it is a universal opinion. Even the sacrosanct thing called plain commonsense is not enough to intimidate him into conformity. What could seem nearer to insanity, in the sixteenth century, than the denial of the fact—for it was a fact—that the sun revolves around the earth? Galileo did not mind: his intellectual bravery should be even more surprising to us than his physical courage … Einstein’s denial of the principle that two parallels can never meet is another stupendous proof of intellectual independence.

In this age of proliferating 24-hour cable-news television networks, led by the “big three,” Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, abetted by the cacophony of digitally based media choices spawned by the Internet, the line between truth and opinion has been irrevocably blurred. Typography has not been displaced but simply overwhelmed. Speech and writing will always remain in some greatly diminished capacity to challenge the epistemology of TV and its myriad knockoffs. Thus, this post which, admittedly, is little more than a faint cry in the howling wind.

The plethora of information has made relevance irrelevant. And in the process, the potency of news has been diminished: Everything has become everyone’s business. There is no subject of public interest—politics, news, education, religion, science, sports—that does not find its way to television. We have so thoroughly accepted TV’s definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevant seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherent seems eminently sane. At its worst, television alters the meaning of “being informed” by creating misleading information: misplaced, fragmented, or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing something.

Today’s electronic media are antithetical to the deliberative process of thinking. When reduced to printed language, thought lends itself to a more sophisticated and elegant content—logical, paraphrasable, and propositional. In the bygone culture dominated by print, communication followed a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. The definition of intelligence gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind. At the same time, it encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content.

The independence of thought to which Dimnet appeals seems imperative today as mass-media-enabled popular opinion on the security markets has rarely been so uniform and unquestioned. The unquestioning speculative appetite of the lay investor was last seen in the bubble of the late 1990s and is wholly detached from a rational appraisal of intrinsic value. Unlike the hard sciences whose progress is cumulative over time, in finance thinking is cyclical. Thus, careful thought is not so much about novel ideas but about separation from the inexorable rotation in sentiments. To loosely paraphrase Frankl, only a few were able to resist the overwhelming urge to succumb to the presumed inevitable, “but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”

[1] Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Kindle locations, 50–53). Kindle Edition.

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