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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the process of reflection on objective reality; the highest level of human cognition. Although the sole source for thinking is sensations, thinking transcends the limitations of direct sensory reflection and enables the human being to receive knowledge about objects, qualities, and relationships of the real world that cannot be sensed directly (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, pp. 554—55). Thinking is a subject matter of study in the theory of knowledge and logic, in psychology, and in neurophysiology. In cybernetics it is studied in connection with problems of the technological simulation of mental operations.

Thinking is a function of the brain, and in that sense it is a natural process. However, each human being becomes a subject of thinking only by mastering language, concepts, and logic, which are products of the development of social practice. Even the problems with which each individual confronts his intellect are generated by the social conditions of his life. Thus, human thinking has a social and historical quality.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the character of thinking and the relationship between thinking (consciousness) and being has been the central philosophical problem.

The concrete historical study of thinking, which developed in the 19th century, was influenced by the concepts of formal logic and by the theory of associations. Psychological analysis of thinking was, for the most part, limited to differentiating various thought processes: comparison, abstraction of data, and classification. The question of the character of concepts or ideas was treated in the spirit of formal “scholastic” logic. Concepts were considered the result of the accretion of sensory images and impressions, the discernment of their common features, and the elimination of anomalous features. Accordingly, the processes involved in thinking were perceived as complex combinations of ideas and concepts. This description of thinking encountered insurmountable difficulties in attempting to explain, for example, the purposeful and creative character of thought processes.

Naturalistic and mechanistic descriptions of thinking were developed further by the behaviorists, who explained mental activity as the totality of inner, soundless speech habits formed according to a “stimulus-response” pattern. These associative and mechanistic representations of thinking were counter-balanced by idealistic theories, which emphasized that thought processes cannot be reduced to associations of discrete ideas and are characteristically imageless and subordinate to “determining tendencies” (the Würzberg school). On the other hand, representatives of the theory of holistic forms (Gestalt psychology) understood thinking as a process by which the subject “reconstructs” a problematic situation, discovering new relationships and functional connections within it. The gestalt psychologists asserted that thinking cannot be derived from the experience of the subject’s behavior and the accumulated associations. Insofar as they explained thinking as an “autochthonic,” or self-generating process, the representatives of Gestalt psychology were in agreement with intuitionism.

The common feature of these schools was their antihistoricism —that is, their failure to study the origins and historical development of human thinking. Works systematizing data on thinking among peoples at relatively low stages of socioeconomic and cultural development did not appear until the early 20th century. These works disproved suppositions about the unchanging character of the laws of thinking and introduced the notion that qualitative changes had taken place in thinking during its historical development (L. Lévy-Bruhl of France, for example). At the same time, experimental studies of the origins of thinking in the animal world were undertaken by W. Köhler (Germany), R. Yerkes (USA), and N. N. Ladygina-Kots (USSR). Among the higher animals researchers encountered behavioral processes analogous to human thinking (“practical intellect,” or in the words of I. P. Pavlov, “manual thought”). This research deepened man’s understanding of the genetic roots of thinking and gave impetus to the study of human thought that is manifested as external actions related to objects (“visually effective thinking” or “technical intellect”). The discovery that mental activity could take the form of external actions in complex situations involving objects, or operations using visual diagrams and models, demolished the old conception of thinking as merely an internal, verbal and logical process and led to the recognition that there are different forms of highly developed thinking, intimately interwoven and not strictly delineated from each other.

The scientific dialectical materialist understanding of thinking is set forth in the classical works of Marxism. Rejecting the view that thinking is the manifestation of a special spiritual principle, Marxism overcomes the limitations of metaphysical materialism, with its superficiality and its reduction of mental activity to the elementary processes of analysis and generalization of sensory impressions. In viewing thought as a product of social and historical development and as a special form of human activity, Marxism emphasizes the age-old connection between thinking and practical activity. “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity .... Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior” (K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., vol. 3, p. 24).

Labor with tools confronts the human being not only with material objects but also with their interaction, in the process of which properties are revealed that are not directly accessible to the senses but can be grasped only indirectly, by mental deductions. The cognitive results of objective actions are given a degree of permanence by verbalization. As they are transmitted to other people via spoken communication, they form part of the system of knowledge that constitutes the content of the collective or social consciousness. Linguistic expression creates the precondition for the reproduction on the level of inner speech (consciousness) of various links of external, objective cognitive activity. The original sensory data and practical action are mediated by an increasingly long chain of mental processes, which subsequently become separate from external practical activity. At the same time, the social division of labor, the development of private ownership, and the differentiation of society into antagonistic classes lead to a break between mental and physical labor, so that it becomes customary to appose internal intellectual activity to material, physical activity. Later, this opposition is reinforced in idealistic theories of thinking.

As thinking, in its developed forms, loses its direct and immediate connection with practical activity, it may result in false, illusory knowledge. This raises the question of the criterion of the truthfulness of thinking and the adequacy of its results as compared with objective reality. Practice is the criterion: that is, the theoretical conclusions reached through thought should be verified in practical activity and in experimentation. In this sense, however, practice refers not to individual experience but to social practice as a whole, which necessitates the subordination of thought processes to certain rules or prescriptions developed in the historical experience of cognition. This type of man-made system of rules and prescriptions (“laws” of thinking) constitutes the object of a separate discipline, logic.

In contrast to idealism, which considers the laws of logic inherent in thinking, Marxism regards logical laws as the generalized reflection of objective relationships existing in reality and mastered in practical experience. “The practical activity of man had to lead his consciousness to the repetition of the various logical figures thousands of millions of times in order that these figures could obtain the significance of axioms” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 172). Social practice is not only the criterion of the truthfulness of thinking but also the foundation for the rules and canons of logic. For this reason, thinking cannot be reduced to the totality of mental operations of which it is composed, or, in other words, to the “thinking” of logical machines that perform only processes assigned to them in one way or another by human beings. As Marx pointed out, machines are only “organs of the human brain created by the human hand” (Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 2, p. 215). The true subject of thinking (the thinker) is still the human being controlling the machine.

The enormous complexity of the problems confronting modern science has made necessary the further development of the logical apparatus of thinking. As a result, new schools of formal logic have emerged. However, the study of thinking cannot be limited to investigation of the rules of formal logic. Above all, the study of thinking touches on problems of the relationship of thought to objective reality and problems of the general method of cognition. The unity of the cognitive and logical aspects of thinking is most fully expressed in Marxist dialectical logic, which is a theory of the development and self-motion of the subject matter of cognition as it is reflected in the movement of the concepts of thinking.


Disorders. Thinking disorders are reflected in speech, writing, and representational creativity. Significant changes in the speed of thought are possible. In an emotionally excited individual, acceleration of the flow of ideas may reach the level of an undirected, superficial “flight of ideas.” By contrast, a retardation of thinking is characterized by the infrequent, slow emergence of concepts, or by slow formation of ideas and judgments. This is usually associated with depression and with a subjective sensation of intellectual emptiness.

Other disturbances of thinking include incoherence; inertia, in which a single idea or impression prevails (perseveration); and “getting bogged down,” or circumstantiality, in which the essential point is drowned in a mass of unnecessary details, or in which thinking is fruitless and remote from reality. Also categorized as thinking disorders are bizarre thought (a tendency to indulge in symbolism, the paradoxical use of well-known concepts, and the invention of unjustifiable word forms); the parallel flow of several different thoughts; sudden breaks in thought; and the complete disjunction of the content of thinking, even though it is couched in grammatically correct sentences. Thinking disorders are of great importance in the differential diagnostics of mental illness (for example, in distinguishing various forms of schizophrenia).



Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. Soch., 2nd ed. vol. 3.
Engels, F. “Dialektika prirody.” Ibid., vol. 20.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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