Good groupthink. Whose thoughts are in my head?

Blonde woman stands in front of and faces large red painting
Blonde woman stands in front of and faces large red painting


Are my thoughts my thoughts? Sometimes I wonder. Surely you do, too. We are not alone. Thinkers and mental doodlers have wondered this for ages.

Here is one way to think about it.

Karl Mannheim, in Ideology and Utopia, explains.

It is not men in general who think, or even isolated individuals who do the thinking, but men in certain groups who have developed a particular style of thought in an endless series of responses to certain typical situations characterizing their common position.

"But of course I do my own thinking. No one else is in my head," the objection goes.

Mannheim continues.

Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him.*

Now we get to an important concept – ultimate versus proximate cause (stick with me). It's not that other people are thinking inside my head. It's that I am inescapably influenced, to some degree, by every person and thought that has come before me, and I am particularly influenced by the people in my social groups. Sure, I am not the ultimate cause of my thoughts since I didn't burst whole-cloth from the big bang. I am a product of my history and my physical and social environment.**

But does that mean I am not the proximate cause of my thoughts at any given moment? Cause may be too strong of a concept here. Freud showed us the unconscious. It makes little sense to think I cause thoughts to emerge from my unconscious on demand.

Once a thought is entertained consciously, then in some important sense, I have to think it is my thought, whether or not I caused it. At a minimum, members of my important social groups will hold me responsible for what I do with the thoughts in my head.

While I am certainly not the ultimate cause of my thoughts – and maybe not always, if ever, the proximate cause either – people in my social groups will think of me as the owner of my thoughts. I own my thoughts in so far as I express them in words and actions. Once I express them, they enter the social milieu that will be part of the chain of influences on all future persons and events, and on my future self. Interestingly, if my thoughts and actions today contribute in any small way to my future self, then perhaps I am a mid-range proximate cause of my thoughts in my future.

This line of thinking gets twisted fast, so lets bail here.

Instead of wondering if the thoughts in my head are my own, I can ask how will I, as their proud owner, ensure they are used responsibly in the inescapable social world we all call home.

many people wathing an outdoor movie
many people wathing an outdoor movie


* Karl Mannheim. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985) 3. As these two quotes are from page 3, I have no doubt Mannheim will have more to say on the topic as I read on.

** "The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble (aggregate) of social relations." Here, in thesis VI on Feuerbach, Marx argues that more than just our thoughts are social: social relations are our essence as human beings. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Parts I & III, Edited by R. Pascal (Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011) 198.

I study philosophy and social theory at the University of South Florida. I am also a photographer, map lover and sometimes poet.