Slow-thinking and the absolute need for time (With Pierre Bourdieu)

In an earlier blog post I contrasted the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, with the public figure and autodidact Alexander Bard. The main topic in that post concerned the ”Internet Revolution” and changes in the new society, but an important side-topic concerned slow-thinking versus fast-thinking, and the latter mentioned is something I intend say some more words about here.

Bourdieu once got to hold a speech in television and then he used his time to speak about the dangers of television. He especially warned of fast-thinkers. Bourdieu claimed that ”television rewards a certain number of fast-thinkers who offer cultural ‘fast food’–predigested and prethought culture–”. Pierre Bourdieu – On Television

The criticism of fast-thinking, and it’s comparison to the ”predigested” and ”fast food” is something I’m intending to look deeper into in this post.

Can there really be anything good about ”slow-thinking”?

Perhaps the most important thing, I mean, is to actually recognize that it exists such a thing as slow-thinking. It may sound strange, but in a sense, I think that most people are not prone to recognize any value in it, if they recognize its existence at all. I’m quite sure that most people rather would think of the term ”slow thinking” as an insult, and its opposite ”fast thinking” as a compliment. Often people will get accused of being stupid, thinking poorly, not making sense etc, but the accusation that someone thinks ”too fast”?

When the sociologist Steve Fuller, was asked about Bourdieu’s warning for fast-thinking in television, Fuller replied in a clearly dismissive manner:

”Bourdieu’s anti-television bias simply betrays his age, as someone who came to adulthood before television became ubiquitous. In fact, intellectual life has always placed a positive value on fast-talking. It’s called wit, a term that really came into its own during the Enlightenment. […]” Ref from interview: ”What does it mean to be an intellectual today?”

The notion that it exists anything such as slow-thinking and that it would have any value, is here disregarded. Fuller’s point here seems to be that Bourdieu did not know what he was talking about, and that ”fast-thinking” is really a good thing.

The notion of slow-thinking as something positive

We need to look closer at what Bourdieu really meant by slow-thinking.*** The issue is certainly not only about television, as Fuller referred to, but something that pervades Bourdieu’s thinking in general. Bourdieu’s defense for slow-thinking is lot about trying to keep an intellectual field undamaged. For example, this quote may give a hint on where Bourdieu’s getting at:

‘[T]hose who frequent the borderland between scholarly and ordinary knowledge — essayists, journalists, academic journalists and journalistic academics — have a vital stake in blurring the frontier and denying or eliminating what separates scientific analysis from partial objectifications, […] They can if they so desire indulge even here in a reading guided by idle curiosity, interpreting examples and individual cases in a perspective of snobbish gossip or critical infighting, if they wish to reduce the systematic and relational mode of explanation which is characteristic of science to the most ordinary procedure of polemical reduction, to ad hoc explanation using ad hominem arguments.’

Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, tries to explain in their work ”Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture”:
‘”Slow thinking” produces something “fast thinking” cannot, and it is the autonomy of the field that permits slow thinking to occur and enables it to be properly consecrated when its end-product is finally achieved.’

***(note) Actually, I’m not sure if Bourdieu ever used the term slow-thinking himself. It is something I derive from his use of the term fast-thinker. If there are fast-thinkers, it comes naturally that there also are slow-thinkers. And considering Bourdieu’s critique of fast-thinking one can note an implicit approval of slow-thinking.

The absolute need for time

Bourdieu, paraphrasing Plato, states that when you are in a hurry, you cannot think. I find something peculiar in this notion.

One may perhaps associate Bourideu’s notion of slow-thing to wisdom. However, say for example you make a search for ”words of wisdom”, then most likely you’ll find a long list of one-sentence-quotes. An important difference is that the concept of slow-thinking stresses the absolute need for time. It cannot just be one-sentence-punchlines.

(I heard from a professor who had the honor to work with Bourdieu, that Bourdieu tried to persuade sociology researchers to refuse to present result of their studies, if they weren’t allowed to do their presentation for at least half an hour without interruption.)

Comparing fast-thinking and fast-food

Bourdieu makes a simile between fast-thinking and fast-food. He says that fast-thinkers offer cultural fast food, and predigested culture. The comparisons to food I find interesting, and I want to ask the question, how far can we draw these comparisons?

Fast food is easier to access, and it may taste better, but there is a wide consensus of that it is not as healthy. Somebody may prefer to eat fast food, but they also know that it is not as healthy for them. Consider fast-thinking on the other hand, according to Bourdieu it’s a kind of thinking that is easier to access, and it may be more enjoyable, but it is not as qualitative in a certain sense. But if then fast thinking is not as healthy, is it something that is recognized? Here I suppose the answer to be ”no”. I don’t think that there is any wide consensus of that fast-thinking is anything bad, and that it lacks something essential. The fast-thinkers in television, whom Bourdieu accuses, are presented as experts. If we follow this comparison then, these fast-thinkers are like fast food that is presented as recommended and healthy food.

Even if this fast-thinking sounds better and smarter (like fast-food tastes good), and the slow-thinking sounds wrong or painful (like the broccoli which many agree doesn’t taste so good), still the slow-thinking holds certain value which fast-thinking lacks. (I’m sure that there is some legitimacy in this comparison. One tricky thing though, is that there is also a lot of bad slow-thinking. A piece of wood takes long time to digest, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.)

The simile to food correlates to the idea of the absolute need for time. The predigested is food that instantly gets into your blood system. The food that is not predigested though, requires time, requires work, requires processing.

On a side-note, Daniel Kahneman and Jungian Typology

Someone who indeed makes use of the term ”slow-thinking” and puts it in contrast to ”fast-thinking” is Daniel Kahneman winner of the Nobel Prize in Economy in 2002 and writer of the best seller book Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. The reader who is oriented in Jungian typology will recognize that Kahneman’s ideas of slow-thinking and fast-thinking can be identified in different Jungian personality types (see earlier post Jung’s Typology and Philosophy). The slow thinker is for example represented in the introverted thinking type. I think it’s important to not confuse Kahneman’s notion of slow-thinking with Bourdieu’s notion of slow-thinking though.

Reference and further reading

Pierre Bourdieu – On Television (free full text)

Internal links

Internet Revolution, attentionalism and slow-thinking, with Alexander Bard and Pierre Bourdieu


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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