Thought-Culture or Practical Mental Training

Locke says: “The connection in our minds of ideas, in themselves loose and independent of one another, has such an influence, and is of so great force, to set us awry in our actions, as well moral as natural, passions, reasonings, and notions themselves, that, perhaps, there is not any one thing that deserves more to be looked after.” Stewart says: “The bulk of mankind, being but little accustomed to reflect and to generalize, associate their ideas chiefly according to their more obvious relations, and above all to the casual relations arising from contiguity in time and place; whereas, in the mind of a philosopher ideas are commonly associated according to those relations which are brought to light in consequence of particular efforts of attention, such as the relations of cause and effect, or of premises and conclusion. Hence, it must necessarily happen that when he has occasion to apply to use his acquired knowledge, time and reflection will be requisite to enable him to recollect it.”

This Association by Similarity, or the “rational and philosophical association of ideas,” may be developed and cultivated by a little care and work. The first principle is that of _learning the true relations of an idea_–its various logical associations. Perhaps the easiest and best method is that adopted and practiced by Socrates, the old Greek philosopher, often called “the Socratic method”–the Method of Questioning. By questioning oneself, or others, regarding a thing, the mind of the person answering tends to unfold its stores of information, and to make new and true associations. Kays says: “Socrates, Plato, and others among the ancients and some moderns, have been masters of this art. The principle of asking questions and obtaining answers to them may be said to characterize all intellectual effort…. The great thing is to ask the right questions, and to obtain the right answers.” Meiklejohn says: “This art of questioning possessed by Dr. Hodgson was something wonderful and unique, and was to the minds of most of his pupils a truly obstetric art. He told them little or nothing, but showed them how to find out for themselves. ‘The Socratic method,’ he said, ‘is the true one, especially with the young.'”

But this questioning must be done logically, and orderly, and not in a haphazard way. As Fitch says: “In proposing questions it is very necessary to keep in view the importance of arranging them in the exact order in which the subject would naturally develop itself in the mind of a logical and systematic thinker.” A number of systems have been formulated by different writers on the subject, all of which have much merit. The following System of Analysis, designed for the use of students desiring to acquire correct associations, was given in the volume of this series, entitled “Memory,” and is reproduced here because it is peculiarly adapted to the cultivation and development of the faculty of discovering and forming correct associations and relations between ideas:


When you wish to discover what you really _know_ regarding a thing, ask yourself the following questions about it, examining each point in detail, and endeavoring to bring before the mind _your full knowledge_ regarding that particular point. Fill in the deficiencies by reading some good work of reference, an encyclopedia for instance; or consulting a good dictionary, or both:

I. Where did it come from, or originate?

II. What caused it?

III. What history or record has it?

IV. What are its attributes, qualities or characteristics?

V. What things can I most readily associate with it? What is it most like?

VI. What is it good for–how may it be used–what can I do with it?

VII. What does it prove–what can be deduced from it?

VIII. What are its natural results–what happens because of it?

IX. What is its future; and its natural or probable end or finish?

X. What do I think of it, on the whole–what are my general impressions regarding it?

XI. What do I know about it, in the way of general information?

XII. What have I heard about it, and from whom, and when?

The following “Query Table,” from the same volume, may be found useful in the same direction. It is simpler and less complicated than the system given above. It has well been called a “Magic Key of Knowledge,” and it opens many a mental door:


Ask yourself the following questions regarding the thing under consideration. It will draw out many bits of information and associated knowledge in your mind:

I. What? II. Whence? III. Where? IV. When? V. How? VI. Why? VII. Whither?

Remember, always, that the greater the number of associated and related ideas that you are able to group around a concept, the richer, fuller and truer does that concept become to you. The concept is a _general idea_, and its attributes of “generality” depend upon the associated facts and ideas related to it. The greater the number of the view points from which a concept may be examined and considered, the greater is the degree of knowledge concerning that concept. It is held that everything in the universe is related to every other thing, so that if we knew _all_ the associated ideas and facts concerning a thing, we would not only know that particular thing _absolutely_, but would, besides, know _everything_ in the universe. The chain of Association is infinite in extent.