Today I come to you with an unusual USIH post. Rather than address a topic peculiar to U.S. intellectual history, this piece aims at larger issues: logic, discussing thought in history, and a case study from an widely acclaimed book on an international figure. But my thinking on these larger issues originates with what some would call a pet peeve: misgivings about the phrase “linear thinking.”
Since starting History and Education last year, one of the most consistently read posts there covers the subject of linear thinking. For every 100 visitors, or every 1.5 to 2 days, around 4 or 5 people read that post. I attribute those consistent viewings to a kind of at-large vagueness about the phrase’s meaning, and the subsequent desire for definition. I also noticed yesterday that a Wikipedia search for the phrase – as well as searches on “linear thought,” “non-linear thinking,” and “non-linear thought” – reveals nothing.
Thanks to Sitemeter, I know that the H&E post’s most common entry point is a Google search on the question “what is linear thinking.” But it’s not just Google that’s efficiently driving people to H&E: comments on the post (including my replies) display further attempts to delineate the boundaries of linear and non-linear thinking.
By way of summary, my first thoughts on the subject began with the idea that linear thinkers are simply logical – and that’s not such a bad thing. The corollary was that non-linear thinkers are not logical. There’s a bit more to the entry, but that was my gist. If I were to revise the original post I would expand on my introductory paragraph’s point that non-linear thinking is a synonym for thinking creatively, and perhaps a just another way of talking about the subject of “informal logic.” In many ways this USIH post is an expansion on that original H&E entry.
Here I want to dig deeper into the notions of linear and non-linear thinking. To help, I will eventually analyze a passage from George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, titled Witness To Hope. Because Weigel’s book is also a kind of intellectual history that received wide acclaim, his means and method should be of interest to intellectual historians. But before delving into Weigel I’d like to lay out some hopefully universal starting points about the study of logic.
To those who believe that logic is a subject admitting of innumerable types, with little common ground for discussion, then this post is not for you. Many members of the varieties-of-logic crowd believe that everyone operates under her or his own “logic.” Nonlinear and linear thinking, to them, are just more nominal categories in a morass that includes dialectic, the “logic of history,” symbolic logic, positivism, utilitarianism, and a multitude of other “isms” and philosophies.
For those believing that some universal rules apply within the subject of logic, common points of understanding exist. Traditionally, for instance, in basic texts like Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen’s Introduction to Logic, two kinds of reasoning fall under the “formal logic” rubric: inductive and deductive. Both types utilize if-then statements and syllogisms (if in different ways), but differ with regard to cogency (or strength) and validity, for induction and deduction respectively. Induction works from the ground up (a posteriori) by observing phenomena and generalizing; deduction works from the top down (a priori) by applying universal principles to particular situations.
The category of “informal logic” includes fallacies, such as those illuminated by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. This especially important classification was covered exhaustively for historians by David Hackett Fischer in his 1970 book, Historians’ Fallacies.
There’s much more that could be said here about the contemporary scene in logic studies, but I’ll leave that for minds more competent than mine.
My point in elaborating on these means of reasoning, or subjects within logic, is to emphasize two things. First, logic is a viable field of study that concedes some inherent, universal organization in thought. Next, straight lines – or linearity – can be seen in all types of logical reasoning. Induction, for instance, can be seen as thinking that begins with the particulars, but proceeds in a kind of straight line that is visible in syllogisms. Even fallacies, although considered “informal logic,” can also be expressed “linearly” in faulty syllogisms. In many ways, then, being linear is often tantamount to simply attempting to be logical.
But what’s expressed by calling someone a “non-linear thinker?” This brings me to a passage I read recently in Weigel’s Witness To Hope. That passage, set in the context of Karol Wojtyla, Jr.’s development as an intellectual and a philosopher in the 1950s, defines linear thinking and addresses Wojtyla’s traits as a non-linear thinker. Here’s the paragraph (italics mine):
“Wojtyla-the-philosopher refined his distinctively phenomenological way of doing philosophy in [his] doctoral seminar. Many philosophers think in a linear way: they state a problem, examine a variety of possible solutions, and then, through a step-by-step process of logic, reach and state a conclusion. Wojtyla did not (and in fact does not) think linearly. His method was circular, but in the manner of walking down a spiral staircase, not going round-and-round a closed circle. He, too, would begin by identifying a problem: for example, what constitutes a just act? Then he would walk around the problem, examining it from different angles and perspectives. When he had gotten back to the starting point, he and his students would know a little more, so they would start walking around the problem again, reexamining it from this angle or that, but now at a deeper level of analysis and reflection. This continued through any number of perambulations, never forcing a conclusion before the question had been exhaustively examined from every possible point of view.[fn64] It was a power method of leading a seminar, a situation in which Wojtyla’s sharply honed capacity for analysis and making distinctions worked to great effect. Transferred to the printed page, however, it made for very difficult philosophical essays.” 
Lest we think this was just Weigel lionizing Wojtyla’s seminar method, the former forwarded the following in footnote #64: “Offered this once [by Weigel] as a description of his intellectual method, Pope John Paul II agreed that it was a reasonable depiction of the way his philosopher’s mind worked. [Author’s conversation with Pope John Paul II, December 11, 1996.]” (p. 899)
And make no mistake, here in a key passage of the book, Weigel’s acting as an intellectual historian. He’s attempting to explain someone’s thought processes to a reader.
But did Weigel do a good job of explaining the future pope’s manner of thinking? In terms of artistry, there’s no question. Weigel’s a superior writer. He set up Wojtyla’s dynamism, as well as the pope’s interest in hiking, in earlier passages. With that, the passage on Wojtyla’s “perambulations” is near perfect, at least in my estimation. It dovetails nicely Weigel’s caveated spiral-staircase analogy.
What of the notion of Wojtyla being a nonlinear thinker? Here I think Weigel did less than a perfect job as an intellectual historian. To me the phrases “linear way” and “think linearly” are unsatisfactory explanations of Wojtyla’s mind and method. But before I proceed, I want point out that my criticism is not meant as an overall indictment of Weigel’s book. I’m merely conducting a close reading, an intellectual historian’s reading, of one paragraph on one page in an 886-page book. The critique which I’m about to offer should be considered inconsequential in light of Weigel’s larger audience and goals.
With that in mind, I don’t see either of Weigel’s aforementioned phrases about linear thinking as helping toward his goal – to wit, showing that the future pope balanced traditional methods of thinking with those outside the box. Weigel’s definition of “the linear way” is reductionist in the context of the rest of the passage. How? The connotation is that linearity is insufficient, and that Wojtyla stands above or outside the rules of thinking.
I read Weigel’s passage as making Wojtyla appear to eschew traditional, formal logic and evade evaluations of fallacious thinking. Both are traits that’d normally be looked down upon in Catholic philosophical circles – especially traditional ones. I believe Weigel really wanted to demonstrate that Wojtyla was a hyper-linear thinker. Wojtyla took step two of Weigel’s definition of linear thinking to the max: the future pope examined “a variety of possible solutions” in an exceptional fashion. Wojtyla’s not a nonlinear thinker, he’s extraordinarily linear according to Weigel’s definition of the phrase.
I understand Weigel’s motivations to show Wojtyla’s creativity. Beyond admiring the workings of Wojtyla’s mind, the former wants to demonstrate how Wojtyla, as an old theater guy, steps outside of himself to look at problems from different angles. And the staircase analogy carries with it a certain step-by-step, logical connotation.
But the paragraph also gives the reader the feel that merely understanding a problem’s different appearances was Wojtyla’s goal. One might read this passage and believe that the future pope merely tried to empathize with everyone, and didn’t have a larger conception of the common good in mind (i.e. Wojtyla’s notion of the “law of the gift”). This clearly doesn’t describe Wojtyla accurately. The former pope was not afraid to draw conclusions and make judgments: to utilize the rules and maxims of formal logic. If he lacked those traits, he wouldn’t have become the universally acclaimed leader that he was.
One could also read Weigel’s passage and vaguely depart with the notion that Wojtyla was a kind of multiculturalist. While that may be true, that “kind” must be fleshed out. For instance, John Paul II will not be remembered for being a moral relativist, a position that is often attributed – rightly or wrongly – to multiculturalists. He most certainly applied traditional rules of logic to ethical questions.
Aside from this appearance of nitpicking by a sometime intellectual historian (me), I really like Weigel’s Witness To Hope. The book’s universal admiration is deserved. I’m no expert on John Paul II or the twentieth-century Catholic Church, but the book seems quite comprehensive. I’ve read about one quarter of it, and thus far it’s been a nice balance of biography and history. This seems to be what sells today, and Weigel does a fine job of engaging the two fields. I’ve learned more, for instance, about Poland’s cultural and religious history via Weigel than when I taught a world history course.
Finally, although it’s clear that I have a pet peeve about the notion of a “linear thinker,” no one – including Weigel – has convinced me yet that the irritation is unjustified. In writing here about it, and on Weigel’s passage in particular, my hope is that more care will be given to how the phrase is utilized.
What does the phrase ‘linear thinker’ mean to you? Does the notion of a “non-linear thinker” imply a lack of logic, or someone that ignores traditional logical categories? And if I haven’t treated Weigel justly, feel free to tell me how. – TL
 I use Amazon links not because I’m a fan of the conglomerate, but because of the sometimes enlightening discussions in each book’s review sections. Here’s a link to Powell’s to see the contrast.
 George Weigel, Witness To Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 138. This edition contains a Preface from 2005 written after John Paul II’s death.