Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, was one of the greatest intellectual figures of Western history. His thinking strategies were responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought. Our modern society and education have tended to focus more on the discoveries resulting from these strategies than on the mental processes through which the discoveries were made. We learn about great ideas and we learn the names of the creative geniuses, but we are seldom taught about the mental processes or creative thinking techniques creative geniuses used to look at the same things as the rest of us and see something different.
We learn who got the ideas, but not how. This article is about what I learned about the importance of using words to shape your thinking from Aristotle. In his book, On Interpretation, Aristotle described how words and chains of words were powerful tools for thought that both reflected and shaped his thinking. His ability to record and express his ideas and discoveries was as important as his ability to make them.
Aristotle believed that the words and chains of words that we use in framing a problem play a significant role in the way we approach problems. Consider the following problem: Water lilies double in area every twenty-four hours. On the first day of summer, there is one water lily on the lake. Sixty days later, the lake is completely covered with water lilies. On which day is the lake half covered?
The words “double,” “twenty-four,” “one,” “on which day,” and “sixty” coax most people to divide the sixty days by two and propose the thirtieth day as the solution, but since the lilies increase in area geometrically, this is incorrect. The lilies cover half the pond on the next-to-last day. The word structure of the problem influences us to come up with the incorrect answer.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: The figure below is a square defined by four dots. A square is a rectangle with four equal sides and four 90-degree angles. Your challenge is to move 2 dots and create a square twice as big as the one defined by the dots as they are presently arranged. The solution is at the end of the article.
Thought is fluid. When you frame a problem in words, you crystallize your thoughts. Words give articulation and precision to vague images and hazy intuitions. But a crystal is no longer fluid and committing yourself to the first words that come to mind may disrupt your thought process.
CHANGE THE WORDS. A simple change of words or the order of words in a problem statement will stimulate your imagination by adding new dimensions of meaning. Consider the statement “Two hundred were killed out of six hundred,” as compared to “Four hundred were spared out of six hundred.” A few years back, Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “How can you make your job easier?” They were inundated with ideas.
Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to see what results. Using different words will lead you to think of different things. One of the easiest words to change is the verb. Suppose you want to improve your communication skills. Look at the changing perspectives as the verb is changed in the following:
In what ways might I improve my communication skills?
In what ways might I refresh my communication skills?
In what ways might I develop my communication skills?
In what ways might I transform…………………………………..?
In what ways might I complement……………………………….?
In what ways might I prepare……………………………………….?
In what ways might I acquire………………………………………..?
In what ways might I vary……………………………………………..?
In what ways might I spotlight……………..……………………….?
PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.
The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.
Another way to change your perspective is to substitute an antonym for the noun. If your problem is “How to increase sales?,” convert sales to its antonym “expenditure.” The new line of speculation now becomes one of spending more to get more: Should we budget more money in our sales budget? Should we sell higher quality products? Should we buy more advertising? And so on.
TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle’s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called “convertibility.” He felt that if a premise were true than the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. By simply transposing words, you achieved a different perspective. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.
In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects tended to come up architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with “skyscraper” and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.
SERIES A SERIES B
To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:
In what ways might I get a promotion?
To: In what ways might I promote myself?
In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?
In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?
In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?
In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?
How can I make more money?
How can my money make more?
A priest asks his bishop if it is okay if he smokes while he prays. The bishop is disgusted and says, “No, that would be profane.” Another priest asks the bishop if it is okay to pray while he smokes. The bishop replies “Of course, my son, you may pray during any human activity.”
A very simple change in the way something is looked at can have a profound effect. One of the most effective medical discoveries of all time came about when Edward Jenner transposed his problem from why people got small pox to why dairymaids apparently did not. From the discovery that harmless cowpox gave protection against deadly smallpox came vaccination and the end of smallpox as a scourge in the western world.
KEY WORDS AND WORD CHAINS. According to Aristotle, words are sounds that become symbols of mental experience through the process of association. The most striking characteristic of the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton are the words they chose to build up a chain of associations in the reader’s mind. The effect of their masterpieces was produced not so much by what they expressed, as by what they suggested, not so much by the ideas they conveyed, as by other ideas which were remotely connected with them.
In an atomic pile, a chain reaction comes about when a particle splits off from one atom nucleus and then collides with another atom nucleus and dislodges a second particle which, in turn, collides with a second nucleus. If the mass of material is large enough, the chain reaction becomes an explosion. So it is with words. One new word can set off a reaction when it collides with another, and a sort of creative chain reaction follows.
(1) Ask yourself the questions: What is the theme of my problem at this point in time? What one word describes the current problem or situation I’m dealing with right now?
(2) Write down the key word at the top of a page of paper.
(3) Then make a list of words that pop into your mind in connection with this word. Don’t think about it. Let the words flow spontaneously in a free-association manner. Let one word trigger another and so on. Continue this for a few minutes.
(4) Read over your word chain and write down your reactions and comments.
(5) Look for a particular theme or issue that keeps recurring. These themes are worth exploring in terms of significance to the problem. Also, if a particular word evokes a strong emotional reaction, it’s worth exploring.
A Swiss insurance company wanted an idea that would make them stand out from the other providers. Their theme was to provide what other providers are not. The one word they felt described the situation was “PROTECTION.” Following are some of the words they free-associated from “PROTECTION.”
Many of the words were weather-related and the theme they decided to pursue was how to protect our insured from bad weather. This inspired their idea. The insurance company created a service to alert their policy holders with text messaging of inclement weather that might impact driving conditions, like ice and snow, rain, severe thunderstorms, and heavy winds. This unique texting service uses weather reports from the National Meteorological Institute to keep their subscribers up to date on the driving conditions in the area. They expect to evaluate the number of accidents with their policy holders who get this service and compare it to the average number of accidents per capita of people who have other insurance carriers.
SOLUTION FOR THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: The trick is the word “square.” The definition of the word “square” biases your thinking and diminishes your capacity to see the right answer. Most people try to solve it by keeping the sides of the larger square parallel with the smaller one. That won’t work. But, if you rephrase the problem and rethink the illustration, you might figure out that a diamond is a “square with a point.” Then by connecting one diagonal and then moving the two other dots to make the remainder of the points, you’ve got a square twice as large as the original one.