August 1, 2021

Horizontal thinking.

What is horizontal thinking? A presentation.

Horizontal thinking.

This essay is the third and final in a series of three essays on dimensions of thinking.

Have you ever had a brilliant idea?

Having dealt with the vertical dimension, as well as the dimension of depth, we now turn to the horizontal dimension. This is the easiest dimension of thinking to explain in theory, but perhaps the most difficult to practice well. So, what is the horizontal dimension of thinking?

Have you ever heard of lateral thinking? Put simply: lateral thinking is creative thinking. And “lateral” is a synonym of “horizontal”. Thus, horizontal thinking is creative thinking. So, what are some examples of lateral thinking used in philosophy and academia?

To explain this in a meaningful sense, let us take a small detour into formal logic. In logic we learn about three forms of reasoning: deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning. Deduction is a process of reasoning towards a certain conclusion, much like vertical thinking. It is fully logical, and fully certain once valid.

Induction is a form of argument where one conclusion is spread over an entire population without 100% certainty. This might sound unreasonable, but it is much more common than you might think, and works wonderfully when applied well. For example: When surveys are done to uncover the Slovenians view on politics, the survey does not actually ask every single Slovenian. Instead, they ask “a representative few”, which is an amount meant to catch the diversity of the population at large, and they then count those findings as applying to all the population. This is an example of a very common form of inductive reasoning, and it sometimes works and sometimes does not.

There are other times where induction is safer. In physics, one does not actually observe every single atom to conclude that it does indeed have a nucleus and an electron. We have observed a few atoms, and we simply induce that the same conditions apply for all other atoms. This is a safer form of induction because the amount of data is smaller and much more basic than a political survey. And here we hit upon a rule: If you want to induce something, it is safer if what you induce is basic and simple. The weakness of inductive reasoning lies in complexity.

Finally, we have abductive reasoning. This form of reasoning is colloquially known as “an inference to the best solution”, and this is an example of horizontal thinking because it is creative. Abductive reasoning is useful when there is not enough information to fully solve the problem at hand, but one nevertheless has a decent theory on how to solve the problem. Although the lack of information means that we cannot verify that theory as the solution, we guess that the theory is the solution, and then work from there. This is often used in astrophysics where data is scarce, and this is an excellent example of horizontal thinking.

Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes usually reasons abductively, and not deductively. He usually presents an inference to the best solution when all the information is not present, and he does it very well. Indeed, if he actually practised deduction then there would be no suspense, because a valid deduction is always 100% certain. This would make for a boring read. What confirms Sherlock's horizontal thinking is not the reasoning itself, but the criminals. In the tales of Sherlock Holmes the criminals usually give themselves up when Sherlock presents his reasoning. With the detour finished, let us return to the topic at hand.

Lateral thinking is therefore creative thinking because it comes up with new information in the conclusion that was not present in the premises. Another example where this is taken to a high standard is the PhD thesis. When writing such a thesis one is expected to “bring something new to the table”. This does not have to be lateral thinking, but it is at this stage where one is “qualified” to think creatively. Having done a bachelor’s and master’s degree, one is now considered esteemed enough to be able to present proper ideas that actually contribute to whichever field of research one is working in. By mastering vertical and deep thinking, a product of horizontal thinking which builds upon the two former dimensions is more certain to be useful.

If you have ever discussed something which you know well in a group of people, then you probably understand why horizontal thinking is put on such constraints in academia. There are simply too many ideas, and most of them are usually not hitting the spot. This is not to say that they are bad. Ideas are rarely poor, but the way that the production of knowledge is structured entails that ideas fit into this structure. Sometimes the idea is too advanced for the structure. This is what we could refer to as “being ahead of one’s time”. The opposite also happens: I have myself come up with many brilliant ideas only to realise that they were first thought up thousands of years ago in ancient Hellas.

Now that we have done the three dimensions of thinking, I hope that you find yourself wanting to think. These dimensions are not exhaustive: There are many other forms of thinking. However, I think these three are particularly useful because they all neatly correspond to the three conventional degrees we have in universities today.

Have you ever had a brilliant idea? I hope that you have. However, I hope that with the dimensions of thinking, you are able to have even more brilliant ideas. Ideas which are thought in three dimensions.

Happy thinking!

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