Do your own thinking

Beware: it’s too easy to let others’ schema and ideas dominate your own. It’s hard to hear yourself think.

When reading, the default is to let the author do your thinking for you. Per Schopenhauer:

When we read someone else thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. … Accordingly in reading we are for the most part absolved of the work of thinking. … It stems from this that whoever reads very much and almost the whole day, but in between recovers by thoughtless pastime, gradually loses the ability to think on his own – as someone who always rides forgets in the end how to walk. But such is the case of many scholars: they have read themselves stupid. For constant reading immediately taken up again in every free moment is even more mentally paralysing than constant manual labour, since in the latter we can still muse about our own thoughts. But just as a coiled spring finally loses its elasticity through the sustained pressure of a foreign body, so too the mind through the constant force of other people’s thoughts.

That’s bad from an epistemological perspective, but it’s particularly bad for achieving novel insight. How can you think thoughts which have never been thought before if you’re reliant on others’ thinking?

Per Kant:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to be wise!

One key antidote: Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply


Kant, I. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? In A. Wood (Ed.), & M. J. Gregor (Trans.), Practical philosophy (pp. 11–22). (Original work published 1784)

Schopenhauer, A. (2015). On reading and books. In C. Janaway (Ed.), & A. Del Caro (Trans.), Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays (Vol. 2). (Original work published 1851)

On Buckminster Fuller, in The Independent Scholars Handbook - Richard Gross (pp 191-192)

His first and most dramatic step was to stop talking. He decided that he simply would not speak to anyone nor allow anyone to speak to him until he felt that he knew what words he wanted to use and what they meant. Thus, he would be forced really to understand what he was thinking, to think thoughts that were based solely on his experience, and to avoid parroting un-truths learned from others. His silence lasted almost two years. “Out of this intense period of silent thought emerged in embryo most of the great philosophical and mathematical innovations that have made his fame and. moved the world forward a litrle,” concludes Hatch.

Stop Relying on a Source and Have Faith in Your own Thoughts • Zettelkasten Method

I had believed that texts contain information, and that it was my job to make the information accessible.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (via Nielsen, M. A. (2003, September 8). Extreme thinking. Tough Learning, Brisbane, Australia.):

It is easy {in the world to live after the world’s opinion}; it is easy {in solitude to live after our own}; but the great man is he who {in the midst of the crowd} keeps {with perfect sweetness} {the independence of solitude}.

Edwards, P. N. (2005). How to Read a Book.

Don’t wait for the author to hammer you over the head. Instead, from the very beginning, constantly generate hypotheses (“the main point of the book is that…”) and questions (“How does the author know that…?”) about the book.
Making brief notes about these can help. As you read, try to confirm your hypotheses and answer your questions. Once you finish, review these.

Last updated 2023-07-13.