A brief guide to thinking in four directions
“In the form in which it comes, a thought is a sign with many meanings, requiring interpretation or, more precisely, an arbitrary narrowing and restriction before it finally becomes clear. It arises in me—where from? How? I don’t know. It comes, independently of my will, usually circled about and clouded by a crowd of feelings, desires, aversions, and by other thoughts, often enough scarcely distinguishable from a ‘willing’ or ‘feeling.’ It is drawn out of this crowd, cleaned, set on its feet, watched as it stands there, moves about, all this at an amazing speed yet without any sense of haste. Who does all this I don’t know, and I am certainly more observer than author of the process. Then its case is tried, the question posed: ‘What does it mean? What is it allowed to mean? Is it right or wrong?’—the help of other thoughts is called on and it is compared. In this way of thinking there is a judge, an opposing party, even an examination of the witnesses which I am permitted to observe for a while—only a while, to be sure: most of the process, it seems, escapes me.”
Friedrich Nietzsche. Late Notebooks, Notebook 38, July 1885.
It is not difficult to find examples to show the pervasive depthlessness of our age. One of humanity’s favourite pastimes is to multiply such examples. Mercifully, there are exceptions but this still seems to me to be the trend. Moreover, that ancient pastime seems, in more recent times, to have become a compulsion. Mimetic zombification has intensified. Against the apparent demand that this trend places on all of us, my focus these days is overwhelmingly on trying to fight for the love and recovery of the depths. I’m sick of the shallows, as I’m sure you are too.
One of the depths worth recovering—perhaps this requires digging a few craters to catch the rain—is depth of thought. If genuine thinking can be likened to swimming in deep waters, as Martin Heidegger suggests, then our age is an age of thoughtlessness. This reveals, among other things, a lack of care. People have largely relinquished both dialectics and hermeneutics. Superficial immediacy has replaced an appreciation for mediation to a great extent. Excessive positivity and smoothness work against the negativity of thought with its bumps, hesitations, erring, hiccups, wrong turns, and corrections.
This contagion of trivialising thinking is a problem I am by no means capable of solving here. Goodness knows real thoughtfulness requires lifelong dedication, not a mere moment of indulgence. Thoughtfulness is more like learning how to be a gourmet chef than it is like grabbing a quick snack from a convenience store. No one is perfect at it but all of us can at least make some attempt to get better at it as we move along.
Still, here, at the risk of being overly didactic, I want to very briefly present and discuss one very simple tool that I have found helpful for creating space for depth in thought. I am not the tool’s inventor and I cannot tell you who is. It likely dates back to ancient unnamed questioners whose concerns were simply systematised at some point. I first discovered it years ago in Richard Paul’s and Linda Elder’s The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (2006). But I have seen variations on it in a few other places. Most recently, I read an account of it in Robert McTeigue’s Real Philosophy for Real People (2020). It also runs somewhat parallel to Marshall McLuhan’s famous laws of media, which seeks out the nature of formal causality against the modern trend to consider only efficient causality. I say somewhat parallel because—well, you’ll see.
The tool requires us to think in four directions by asking four questions about any idea, belief, statement, or conclusion presented to or by us. It tells us to run a smooth truth claim over the rough ground of these questions as a way of figuring out if it’ll hold up. As it turns out, this can be tricky, time-consuming work. But it’s work worth doing if we are to arrive at anything better than a knee-jerk impression of the world we live in. It’s one way to begin to transcend the trend of building a worldview out of the scattered fragments of likes and subscriptions.
The idea is to place a truth claim at the centre and surround it with the four questions. Give the claim to a crowd of tough judges and allow them to cross-examine the witness. The idea will have to be its own advocate.
The questions we need to ask are as follows:
- What are the antecedents of the claim?
- What are the consequences of the claim?
- Are there any objections to the claim?
- Is there any support for the claim?
The first question, at the western point on the compass, assumes that all thinking has a history in the lives of people. That history is both public and private. The second question, at the eastern point of the compass, assumes that all claims take us in a direction, whether we are aware of it or not and whether we like it or not. The third question, at the northern point of the compass, put there to apply pressure to the truth claim beneath it, assumes that there are other ways of thinking that may not fully accord with ours; there are alternative perspectives invoked by any assertion that we or others make. Finally, the fourth question, a foundation at the southern point of the compass beneath the claim, assumes that our thinking involves abstractions, subtractions, reasons, and evidence. There should be ways, hopefully, to confirm and affirm the claim.
That is the summary. Now for the fuller explanation.
The first question, regarding antecedents, explores where a claim comes from. In McLuhan’s laws-of-media language, what does the claim we are presented with, or the claim we are advancing, retrieve? What is the claim’s history? Nothing comes from nothing, after all, and so there must be some discoverable sense, if only a vague one, of why someone might believe what they’re claiming.
You might think, for example, that there is such a thing as an individual, something like a buffered Cartesian self. Many take this very recent idea for granted. But where does it come from? How did it emerge? How did it get a grip on the popular imagination? How did it solidify? And what political possibilities does it imply? Well, Larry Siedentop wrote a very good book called Inventing the Individual (2014) to answer this question, dealing especially with how the idea gave rise to liberalism.
Here’s another example. How come sexual identity is so overblown in our time? It wasn’t always so important to people, so why is it now? Well, Carl Trueman has written two books, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) and Strange New World (2022), to answer something of that question. Of course, these examples deal with a somewhat macroscopic view on specific ideas; they show that sometimes very simple seeming beliefs have a rich and complicated history. At a more microscopic level, though, many of our assumptions and claims stem from personal experiences that we then universalise in often bothersome ways. These are worth examining and that is what this first question is about.
Another way of thinking of antecedents is via the question of what conditions of possibility make a proposition true. In other words, what truths that provided oxygen to the origin of a claim are still with us? Or, from a related but slightly different angle, is the way that a claim has developed against its own origins enough to keep it going? “We live on Catholic capital,” Chesterton has written. He means that the West is implicitly relying on a system of thought, a theory about reality, that it has explicitly rejected. If he is right, and there are solid reasons for believing he is, what happens when the West runs out of other people’s spiritual capital? We may not need to wait too long to find out.
Already in this first question, we see something fascinating. One cannot make any claim about anything without, as McTeigue says, having “bought the package that includes all of the antecedents” that undergird the claim. To have accepted and endorsed a claim is to have bought the entire package implied by all of the questions we might ask of the claim and all the answers that those questions bring to light. If the claim corrupts those antecedents in some way, something has gone wrong; and we would then have reasons to modify or append the claim to improve its robustness. If a person is not willing to accept all the antecedents implied by a claim, for instance, he is bound by reason to withdraw the claim. If a person is willing to deny reason rather than deny a shaky claim with flimsy antecedents or bothersome consequences or no reasonable support, that’s a different matter.
The second question is about the implications and consequences of a claim. Ideas Have Consequences is the title of Richard Weaver’s still relevant, still brilliant 1948 book. The second question asks what follows if a claim is taken as true. What else is true if this is true? What does it lead to? What would happen if you were to act on this specific belief? What, for example, would happen if we refuse to step off the still-accelerating nominalist train? This is something Weaver discusses in that book, and it’s something I’ve explored here. The second question parallels McLuhan’s question about enhancement; every medium exaggerates certain aspects of our sensory and perceptual being. Every medium, every concrete result of human decision-making, sets up a new system of proportions.
Predictably, what some people will do, once the consequences of a claim are brought to light, is attempt to slip out of the grip of some of those consequences but without relinquishing a grip on the claim itself. And yet this is in defiance not only of reason but also of reality itself. You cannot believe something without endorsing, even inadvertently, the context of meaning that it implies. If you buy the claim, you buy everything that the claim implies as well.
Here’s an example. Early on in his marvellous book The Perfection of Technology (1946), Friedrich Jünger discusses utopians who write about amazing technological advancements in some society of the future while they unconsciously smuggle in the idea that the society in their minds will be without crime and human malice. The technologies, or so the utopians assume, will have only wonderful results—so wonderful that they’ll magically inspire people to be more virtuous. By now, of course, we know that having an iPhone doesn’t make you more goodly or godly, although occasionally utopian ways of thinking still accompany technological sales pitches. One example of the latter is the recent proposal by some deluded designer that we look into developing so-called exterior wombs. The designer-dreamer suggests that women with serious health risks would still be able to have children. Wouldn’t that be nice? The naïve assumption here, however, is that no abuses of such a technology could possibly arise. This clearly doesn’t take the question of consequences seriously enough.
Let’s take another example, this time of someone who thinks of freedom as licence. This, in fact, is the definition of freedom that a lot of eternal adolescents walk around with. Freedom, for them, means doing whatever you want. It would not take very much—say, stealing something that belongs to them and claiming it as your own—to point out what sort of world such an understanding of freedom would give us if we really took it seriously. And, for an honest person, there would be no reasonable way to divorce the consequences from the definition. For a wonderful recent account and discussion of the politics of freedom, I highly recommend Ryszard Legutko’s The Cunning of Freedom (2021).
By situating the truth claim within time, the first and second questions reveal a rather surprising thing about so-called progress. What most people think of as progress occludes the fact that various trade-offs have been made. What is emphasised is always emphasised within a context. One thing is improved, say, at the expense of other things that might stay the same or perhaps fall into ruin. As soon as we can situate ideas within the scheme of history, as Tom Holland does in his excellent book Dominion (2019) or as Nigel Biggar does in his essential book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2023), progress starts to look like too simplistic a lens to properly see our complex world through. Ideas are multifaceted. Ideas are networked rather than existing as part of some bizarre zero-sum game.
That said, and before we move on, a rather slippery aspect of the second question is worth unpacking briefly. Many of the claims of our age don’t have obvious consequences. This is not to say that there are no consequences at all, only that the consequences aren’t readily apparent. When someone claims, as someone is bound to on almost every day of the week, that what we need is a more ‘equitable’ society, what are they actually asking for? If society is desiring ‘transformation’, for instance, it is fair to ask, “Transformation into what?” If the outcome or telos of the idea is fuzzy at best, we might rightly ask for a clearer sense of the idea itself. Once we have that clarity, we can better tell if the consequences of the idea are desirable. And that’s another gift of this fourfold way of questioning. It allows us to better clarify what we and others really do believe.
The third question regards any opposing thoughts or objections to a claim. This question runs parallel to McLuhan’s question of what any medium pushes aside, obsolesces, or downplays. Do other claims differ from this one? Are there solid arguments against what is being proposed? Is there concrete evidence against it? St. Thomas Aquinas sets a lovely example in that he tends to begin every answering of a question with what opposes any given proposition before he tackles what would support it. The strength of the support can then be measured against the strength of the opposition. In fact, it is often a good practice to steelman rather than strawman your opponent’s argument so that your own response can be regarded with the admiration it deserves.
The fourth question offers the opposite of the third. It asks what support we have for a claim. Are there solid arguments in its favour? Is there evidence that allows us to see its plausibility more clearly? Sometimes, on this question, we might discover that the claim we are making is true only to a limited extent. Where generalisations have been claimed, for instance, we might say that the trend is such and such, although there are notable exceptions that might need explaining. Nuance is tremendously helpful.
This last question has a very strange parallel, arguably not a parallel at all, in McLuhan’s question about what a medium flips into when pushed too far. How could this be supportive of a claim? Well, what McLuhan allows for, and we should allow for it too, is the presence of paradox in our questioning and answering. Sometimes the thing that supports a claim is the fact that it has a limit. If you take it beyond its limit, it turns into something else.
Jacques Ellul offers an apt example of this in his book The Technological Society (1964) when he contrasts the medieval and modern uses of technique and technology. When medieval people used technique, as incarnate in their tools, the result was endless variation according to the unique needs and capacities of people; but when moderns adopt technique, pushing it so much further than medieval people did, the result was and remains a rather dreary monotony—and precisely the shallowness of thought that I have been contesting here. Medieval technique perfected things. Modern technique flips this on its head and attempts to perfect people. That said, is this not better considered as running parallel to the question of what opposes or contradicts an idea?
On second thought, perhaps I should not have suggested that McLuhan’s laws of media run parallel to this way of thinking in four directions. And yet, the parallel offers, to my mind, some more food for thought. And that is the point! As Chesterton says, the only thought that should be stopped is the thought that stops us from thinking. Here I only want to suggest that we think a little more and think a little longer. Of course, I am well aware that this fourfold tool is not the only one available to us. Nevertheless, it does offer us a sense of the pattern invoked by any truth claim. It offers a method, albeit one with limits. And I have found that it is profoundly helpful for discovering some of the depths that are there to be found. I do hope you find it helpful too.