I was teaching a friend the amazing game of “Go” (“WeiQi” in Chinese). In the game, the principle of “life and death” is crucial, and my friend was having trouble seeing if his group of stones had the potential to live through a battle. I pointed out to him, that, in this game, a player must learn to look at the empty spaces and not just look the stones themselves.  Seeing-the-empty-spaces is a skill required to progress in WeiQi.  Below I give an example.

Here is an example puzzle:
White is to kill Black’s stones.
The untrained eye will only focus on
the Black & White stones
But the simplicity of the problem
is revealed when,  White looks at
Black’s empty spaces (red)
and ignores Black’s stones.

Being an accomplished trumpet player, my friend immediately understood and related this WeiQi principal to what he had learned about Jazz.  To illustrate, he told me a Jazz story — he carefully warned me that it may be apocryphal – but it makes the point.

Apparently, as a young hot shot, Wynton Marsalis was already technically an unsurpassed trumpet player who could play crazy runs and riffs. But one of his mentors, Stanly Crouch, told Marsalis that his Jazz was soulless. Crouch quoted Miles Davis saying, “Jazz is the notes you don’t play“.  Marsalis took his mentor’s teaching to heart and became one of the world’s most accomplished trumpet players.

This parallel between the Jazz principle of silence (notes-unplayed) and the WeiQi principle of seeing-the-empty-space was crystal clear to my friend.  I feel that a Meta-Thought informed both principles in my friend’s mind.  This seeing-the-empty-space idea is can be further illustrated as an element in the Japanese aesthetic principle of Wabi-Sabi.  My point is that seeing/hearing/feeling the empty space is a deep principle that informs diverse areas.  I call that deep principle “Meta-Thought”.

Another example of Meta-Thought happens in language.  I often, when speaking in English, I have ideas that pop into my head that first find expression in Japanese rather than English even though I am also speaking to an English speaker. I then have to struggle to get the idea out of Japanese and into English (which can look awkward :-)  ).  Similarly, sometimes while thinking about a philosophical idea, a WeiQi pattern floats into my head to express the thought before I can put it into philosophical terms.  I remember when this first happened because I thought I was just daydreaming about WeiQi until I realized that my mind was floundering to express a Meta-Thought using WeiQi patterns.

In my vocabulary, “Meta-Thought” is what lies behind thought.  Meta-Thought  gives birth to expression.  Meta-Thought grabs vehicles to express itself while it is forming. Thus, the same Meta-Thought could be expressed in music, in WeiQi, in a computer program, in a sculpture, in a mathematical express or in a dance. People fluent in two or more creative expression styles often have that amazing experience of feeling the simultaneous expressions from a common Meta-Thought.  I think that the epiphany of Meta-Thought is captured in part of what E.O.Wilson’s wrote in his book, “Conscilience“.

To me, Meta-Thought is the complex relationships of impressions and feelings that create our thoughts — it is the EN of thought.

Why write about this? I think Meta-Thoughts also inform our theologies and philosophies.  Thus, though two people may have different theologies or philosophies, with careful observations we can sometimes reveal similar Meta-Thought informing both of these apparently diverse expressions. For me, the principal of Meta-Thought is key to fruitful religious dialogue.  Even in the extreme,  I feel that an Atheist and a Theist could each have very similar Meta-Thoughts informing large swatches of their apparently contradictory worldviews.

Note:  I am sure others have said something like this before me and so I have probably made up a term when I don’t need to.  So if the reader knows of these, please let me know.  In linguistics, perhaps my “Meta-Thought” is similar to the concept of Mentalese and in Philosophy of Mind, perhaps it is similar to the Language of Thought Hypothesis.  I am, however, not at all familiar with all  subtle analytic pros and cons of these positions.  My Meta-Thought metaphor is simple but it has served as a good model for me to understand my mind.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion, Science

13 responses to “Meta-Thought

  1. Jeffchr

    So true, and applicable to many domains as you suggest. I was reminded of the same concept years ago when learning about graphic design & typography – the “negative space” is at least as important as what is put on the page. It’s interesting to me that on its face this seems more eastern than western in philosophy, but as your wise friend (grin) points out, it is critically important to (the very american) jazz.

  2. Meta thought……hmm, could that be the God that people cant quite explain? The empty space.

    “Sabio the prophet”

    It has a ring to it.😉

  3. @ Jeff — and here I was trying to keep your identity private ! Thanx for the other example

    @ T4T — You are the prescient one — you will see in the post I have drafted for tomorrow on where God Lives.

  4. Lol. If I had that much foresight I wouldnt have had to look the word up.🙂

  5. I’m not completely sure what you’re getting at. But I’ll tell you how my ideas come to be. I see pictures in my head. Even when I’m feeling awful and trying to figure out why, I see a picture.

    My job when it comes to both knowing for myself and communicating to others is to figure out my pictures. I don’t have a specific example right now, but most of my blog posts come from pictures in my mind that I translate into words.

    Conversely, if you’re explaining a problem to me, and I am unable to draw a picture of it for my brain to work with, I just can can’t solve the problem. When I am writing a computer program for instance, I have to research the issue at length, draw a picture my brain can understand, and then the ideas start flowing.

    It’s pretty weird, actually.

  6. CRL

    Sabio–From your example with Go and Jazz, it seems like “Meta-thought” is similar to analogy-making. Is that correct?

    Or was it the underlying idea, in this case, that empty spaces are equally important as full ones, that was the Meta thought? If this is the case, you have given form to an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for ages, that people can reach contradictory conclusions with similar underlying idea and principles (meta-thoughts).

    For instance, a person could reach either atheism or theism with the Meta-thought (idea/goal) of deriving their beliefs through reason, or either liberalism or conservatism with the Meta-thought (principle/goal/ideal) of creating a better society.

    The differences in belief may arise when the theist (or perhaps the atheist? or both!) make reasoning errors along the way; the differences in politics when people differ on just what a better society is (social conservatives v. liberals) or how to get there (socialists v. libertarians).

  7. CRL

    Lorena– Funny, I’m the exact opposite, I have no “minds eye.” My thoughts come to me as words, internal conversations, and vague shapeless jumbles; I can’t visualize anything to save my life! If I must memorize an image, I have to turn it into a lengthy verbal description, as well as a set of vague ideas of motion and position which I can “see.”

  8. CRL,

    Yes, it is interesting. I was hoping someone would comment on my style. I was wondering if others “saw” things the way I do or not.

  9. @ Lorena
    I am sorry, my writing might have been a little abstract. I was talking about your thoughts BEFORE they become pictures. But the principle of translation — in your case, from picture to words — is close to what I was trying to say. For example, let’s say a Christian has a similar picture in their head as you and she translates into Christian words using Christian theological concepts while you use psychological, personal and scientific constructs. If you both talk long enough and generously enough, you may come to understand that your original picture is the same.

    BTW, my mind sounds like it works very similar to you. But, if you don’t mind, I would not like to think of it as weird!🙂

    @ CRL
    Yes, you got it exactly! Wheew, I was hoping my writing might be clear to a few folks.
    But one caveat: I wouldn’t emphasize whether the person “makes reasoning errors along the way”, because I feel that often the complex web of beliefs a person has within their apparently contradictory system to another person, can still perform the same practical functions as their apparent opponent.
    It all depends on if you are focusing on a beliefs “truth values” or their “functionality”.
    Sorry, probably too abstract, but there ya go.

    @ Boz
    Thanks for the link. I am very glad to find someone enjoys my writing. It was kind of you to mention it.

  10. Sago


    Great thought provoking post.

    (sorry I’ve been away for a while)

    In your post I see two concepts that I keep distinct in my model of the world.

    1. Representational changes – sometimes we get trapped into one representation of a situation, and try to optimise that, but a change of representation could lead to much more successful strategies. So having the representation that jazz is about negative shapes in the music provides a powerful representational change (incidentally I once saw a jazz sax player do a whole solo on one note, it was electrifying).

    2. Pre-linguistic thought – the idea that our ideas have a prelinguistic phase which is then shaped into some linguistic or other representational schema for expression. Whether that be a WeiQi pattern, or a word (I find myself trying to avoid words like Polis and Logos which naturally match what I mean).

    “Meta-thought” to me would mean thinking about the process of thinking, which is what you’re doing in this post too😀

    Those be my models. As fallable as the next guy’s.

  11. Rowan

    Heidegger’s Holzwege, where we wander lost in the forest until finding a path in the clearing, comes to mind. The holzwegen were old and forgotten logging paths buried deep in the Black Forest that you’d come upon after wandering, not knowing where you were or where you would end up. Once discovered, they would lead you out of your lostness, your confusion. But you must have a mind to see “what is not there” to find one. It’s the process of seeing what is absent that shows you what is missing. Then you’re on the path to clarity.

  12. Tim

    Meta-thought is a very interesting concept/phenomena. The interplay among our senses & our perceptions, as in seeing an object and the concomitant perception of the object, have as a vehicle, in their travel to becoming a thought, the intervening imagination. The imagination, seen as subliminal, is a realm informed by prior thoughts actions and choices. The imagination as willfully active is that “thing” that connects percept and thought; or so I feel. Objects to me are only partly noumenal, to the degree that my imagination distorts or sharpens the image of what is, to mis-match or match the is-ness (excuse my neologism) of the object. If there were only things-in-themselves how could scientific method even begin? An idea that springs off your blog that is in resonance with my thinking is the empty as that which completes. That which is not there, say coercion, gives rise to the collective peace of the proletariat. Lack of light “brings” darkness. Lack of material clutter brings, to some, a sense of contentment and fullness inter alia. The non is as much a catalyst of meta-thought as is the empty. The non is the other that complements what is; the empty is the minus that adds to what is. Sorry this is so long.

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