Types of Thinking and Thought Leadership – Integral Perspectives

[Published in CHARTERED SECRETARY, Journal of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India]


In an integral perspective, and also in the corporate context, thought leadership requires innovation and creativity in conception as well as in execution. Innovations which bring new ideas and creativity in implementation and lead to a successful realization or materialization of the idea in the outer life are the two aspects of total thought leadership. To realize this ideal we have to go back to the fundamentals and examine the types of thinking, identify those types which can lead to thought leadership in the future and cultivate them systematically in education, training and development and in the Individual, organization and the nation as a whole. This article examines thought leadership in this broader, holistic and long-term perspective.

Flavours of Thought

A human mind is in its essence a thinker. Thinking is the primary function of our mind. But there are many kinds or types of thinking, depending on where or from which part of the mind we think. Let us examine these streams of thought.

Informational: This is the lowest form of thinking, based on the report of our senses or collection of facts. This kind of thinking comes from what Indian psychology calls manas, the ‘sense mind’; it is based primarily on outer observation of the world perceived by our senses or what we get from hearing from others or read in books without any further reflection or very minimum reflection. It may be accompanied by feelings and emotions induced by the sensations or accumulation of undigested concepts in the mind, but without much of reflection from the thinking mind. A considerable part of traditional education (and therefore contemporary thinking), especially in India, is informational. Obviously this kind of thinking can never lead to thought leadership.

Pragmatic: Informational thinking stops at observation or receiving concepts. Pragmatic thinking goes further and asks: What is the use of this information or knowledge I have in my mind? Utility, problem solving, application, execution, action and innovation are the predominant orientation or inclination of the pragmatic thinking. Even the animal mind, especially the more advanced animals, can do this kind of thinking. For example, a chimpanzee puts his hands into an ant hole for food but gets badly bitten by the fierce ants. The next time our ancestral brother devices a straw to suck-off the ants without putting his hands into the hole! This is, at the primitive level, the essence of pragmatic instinct or thinking. Human pragmatism of various kinds is only a vast extension of this instinctive pragmatism of the animal minds becoming more and more conscious and complex – from the simple and early innovation of the wheel, bullock cart and the cycle to the stream engine, aeroplane and the endless array of technological innovations we enjoy at present, like TV and the mobile.

However technical and utilitarian kind of thinking is only one form of pragmatism. There can be other or higher forms of pragmatic thinking. The essence of pragmatism is the ability to convert an abstract idea into a concrete inner or outer realization. For example, modern management is a comprehensive science of pragmatic thinking for organizing economic, commercial, social and mental ideas – such as profit, productivity, quality, customer service, innovation, employee development or well-being – for material realization of the idea in the market place or the workplace. Similarly, the ancient Indian yoga is a pragmatic science for a concrete inner realization of moral and spiritual ideals in our consciousness.

Analytical: In the informational thinking, all that enters into the mind remains undigested, chaotic and more or less subconscious. Analytical thinking tries to bring a conscious order to these inputs to the mind through a process of analysis such as comparison, classification, critical assessment, evaluation, discrimination or judgment. Most of the commentaries we find in newspapers on economic, financial or political events belong to this kind of thinking.

Scientific: The traditional scientific method combines the informational and the analytical but both elevated to a higher intellectual level and reinforced with two more elements. Observation, classification, comparison, analysis, hypothesis and experimentation, all based on the solid grounds of facts, are the main limbs of the traditional scientific method. The observations of the informational thinking can be coloured by personal, subjective and emotional factors. But in scientific thinking, a conscious attempt is made to keep the observation as much impersonal and objective as possible, by eliminating or minimizing the subjective, personal and emotional colouring. Similarly, analytical thinking can be coloured by preconceived notions, beliefs or assumption or a subconscious emotional or mental preference for a particular idea, which drives our logic and reason towards a conclusion favourable to the idea. The scientific thinking aims at eliminating these faults in informational and analytical thinking by the following features:

  • Founding all enquiry, reasoning and logic on bare facts of Nature or Life acquired through objective, impersonal, unbiased observation.
  • Critical questioning of all established, preconceived or unproved notions, beliefs, assumptions or conclusions, however sacrosanct they may be.
  • Analysis not for its own sake but aiming towards arriving at an insight into hidden patterns or laws behind facts or observed phenomena, formulated into a hypothesis.
  • Testing the hypothesis through experiments.

Philosophical: This form of thinking aims at arriving at fundamental or universal principles of life or existence through abstract thinking. It can also be based on facts or the discoveries of science but not bound by facts or need not accept the conclusions of science.

Idealistic: All the higher aspirations and values of humanity are born from this kind of thinking which tends towards truth, beauty, goodness, harmony, unity, perfection, wholeness and the inner source of all these values, the Divine. We may include here in this category the visionary or the utopian thinking which dreams of an ideal or perfect future.

The philosophical thinking has a natural bent towards the idealistic but not always. For example, Socrates and Plato are idealistic philosophers but the Indian Sankhya philosophy is not idealistic but centered on cosmic principles.

Imaginative: Thinking in terms of images, symbols, poetry, stories and unmanifest possibilities. The essence of higher imagination is the last one – the ability to perceive the unmanifest or unrealized possibilities lying in the womb of the future. Most of the great literary creations of the world come from this kind of thinking. All great visions and path-breaking innovations have a large streak of imaginative thinking.

Intuitive: We tend to associate thinking with logic and reason. But as we have stated earlier, thinking can be imaginative and also intuitive. Oxford dictionary defines intuition as ‘the ability to understand or know something immediately without conscious reasoning’. In fact, creative thinking of a genius in most of the categories we have discussed so far comes from such an intuition. It is now recognized that many great scientific discoveries are not entirely the result of rigorous scientific reasoning, but comes from an original or initial intuition and later justified or amplified by scientific reasoning. As the eminent mathematician Henry Poincare wrote: ‘It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition we invent. Logic, therefore, remains barren unless fertilized by intuition.’

There is an intuition at every level of our being – physical, vital, emotional, and mental – and at the spiritual level it becomes more or less fully conscious. In a spiritual perspective, we call this higher faculty or knowledge beyond the rational mind as intuition. Most of the thinking of mystics, seers, sages and saints, who have risen to this higher consciousness, comes from such a conscious supra-rational intuition. Indian spiritual philosophy is a classic example of such an intuitive thinking. Every major school of Indian philosophy is an intellectual formulation of a higher spiritual intuition, expressed through analytical or philosophical thinking. All great geniuses in every field – secular, scientific or spiritual – have an element of intuition and imagination in their creative works.

A Holistic Synthesis

As we have indicated earlier, each category of thinking which we have discussed so far comes from a specific cluster of faculties within our consciousness. Informational thinking comes from the sense mind which observes and receives. Analytical, scientific, philosophical thinking comes from different aspects of the rational mind. Idealistic thinking comes from a deeper and higher part of the rational mind working along with the ethical and aesthetic faculties. Pragmatic thinking comes from the faculties of will and action, application and execution. Imaginative and intuitive thought processes arise from the respective faculties. For a holistic development of the mind in education or training, we have to awaken all these faculties in an integrative manner through appropriate educational inputs that induce corresponding thinking.

The ‘sense mind’ which observes and receives has to be encouraged and trained to observe with a scientific objectivity. Instead of mugging up or receiving passively, the learner has to be encouraged to arrive at concepts through disciplined thinking, with a scientific, analytical vigour and through inductive or deductive reasoning. He must be awakened to the importance of great ideas such as truth, beauty and goodness for kindling a higher aspiration in his mind and heart and the uplift of human life as a whole. He must be motivated to explore fundamental questions regarding life and universe and God through philosophical enquiry. He must be awakened to a broader vision of pragmatism beyond narrow utilitarianism, as a creative power of action, application and realization. He must learn to project his imaginative faculties into the invisible, unknown, unmanifest and the unrealized and keep the images positive, constructive, transformative, sublime and beautiful. And finally he must be made aware that all these activities can only help in developing his mental faculties but will not lead to any true answers or lasting solutions or deep truth of things, which can be found only in a consciousness beyond mind. This deeper truth can be found only through a supra-rational intuition.

This brings us to the question how to arrive at the synthesis of all these types of thinking which may appear contradictory? For example, how to reconcile soaring idealism or imagination with scientific objectivity or down-to-earth pragmatism? Here comes another kind of thinking which is not very much recognized. We may call it as ‘Evolutionary Thinking’. There are three aspects to this thinking: The first step is to have a clear, objective and scientific understanding of the present condition. The second is to have an equally clear perception of the ideal we want to realize. The third step is to figure out how to consciously progress from the present condition to the ideal through various stages and intermediary ideals.

However, for thought leadership in the future, the faculties of intuition, imagination and the idealistic mind centred on universal values must lead the way with scientific mind providing the factual, objective and experimental outlook and the pragmatic faculties providing the executive function.

There is one more category of thinking which is essential for thought leadership in the future. It is what Sri Aurobindo calls as the ‘truth-seeking thought’ (1). Here comes the importance of the cultural genius of India.

The Cultural Dimension: What India Has to Do?

This brings us to the cultural dimensions of the problem at the national level. India of yesteryears was a thought leader in religion, spirituality and philosophy, which are the part of her cultural genius. India has to rediscover this inner genius and apply it to every activity of her national life. But how does she do it? The natural instinct of a culture-sensitive and orthodox Indian mind is towards revivalism; instead of grasping the universal essence of the Indian spirit and applying it to the present problems of life with a forward-looking vision, it tends to revive old worn-out ideas and forms of a bygone era.

In any quest for truth, in whatever field it may be, success depends on asking the right question. If we are not asking the right questions, we are likely to be led away into wrong channels. What is the central quest which led to those momentous spiritual discoveries of Vedas and Upanishads? Is it not what is the deepest, highest, universal and eternal truth of man, life and nature? This is the central quest of the great founders of our Indian civilization and culture. And this is perhaps the true Indian approach.

So if we are seeking for the highest truth of life, the first question we have to ask is what the Indian seers asked: What is the deepest, highest and the universal truth and law of each human activity. As we have indicated earlier, the habitual tendency of the orthodox Indian mind is not towards this quest for the universal truth, but to go back to ancient Indian values, ideals or systems of thought and practices. Such an approach is valid only if it helps us in our central Indian quest for the highest truth. For ancient Indian insights can shed light on this quest. But when it is pursued with the sole aim of reviving the ancient Indian values without any higher quest for truth, we may end up with formations which are irrelevant to the present or the future.

How to find the universal truth? The first step is a scientific and dispassionate observation of the facts of the past and present. The second step is to penetrate behind the outer facts to their inner psychological, evolutionary, cosmic and spiritual causes. For example, if I am a student of economics and seeking for the truth of economics, what are the first questions I have to ask, the central questions which will lead me to the highest truth and the most creative vision in economics? They are first what is the deepest, highest and universal truth of economics? Second, what are the purpose, function and mission of economics in fulfilling the highest evolutionary destiny of humanity and our planet? Third, what will be the nature, needs and values of the future economic system? But to do this with a true creative force or effectiveness requires a penetrating spiritual intuition beyond reason. The ordinary surface intellectual reason doesn’t have this penetrating insight and vision.

If we don’t have this spiritual intuition, we have to rely on the thoughts and insights of those who have this higher knowledge. But this method, through the intellect working upon the intuitions of others, may not be as effective when we ourselves have the intuition. However, each capable Indian mind can contribute something with whatever faculties available to him or her — reason, faith, emotion or intuition.

In this task, as we have already said, ancient Indian concepts and insights can be of great help because India had the tradition of such a deep quest and seeking established by a long line of spiritually illumined sages and seers. And among Indian seers, Sri Aurobindo provides the most comprehensive and integral vision and insight into the Indian tradition and culture.

M. S. Srinivasan and O. P. Dani


1. Sri Aurobindo, ‘The Renaissance in India’, Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 20, p. 89.

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