Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL

The Most Successful Tyranny: Allan Bloom, Bernie Sanders, and History

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

This paragraph points to what a liberal arts education is all about. Freedom of the mind does not equal intellectual obstinacy- it is a historical awareness that frees us to see our place in the history of ideas. Bloom’s point is easily seen in our political landscape. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that his campaign signals the beginning of a political revolution. Revolution. Maybe our situation warrants this kind of change, but I doubt it.

French Revolution

My guess is that his supporters (comprised mostly of my generation I’m told) don’t have the sense of historical backdrop with which to compare their own political ideology. ‘Radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ are terms that might excite a young movement looking for something to live for, but we need to be able to properly judge whether we’re trading one tyranny (whether real or imagined) for a worse. Bloom says that endeavor will require an education.

Allan Bloom- We Are a Bit Like Savages

We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.  

~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.

This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.

Allan Bloom on Our Moral and Political Language

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Maybe it’s his grouchy style, but I’ve found it enjoyably challenging. It’s the sort of book that I wish I could read with ease but can’t- considering the numerous threads of intellectual history that he is weaving into a coherent narrative. The quote below is an example of a typical passage. His comments about what our language reveals about our thinking are instructive.

41Q1DmHSlmLWhen President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union “have different values” (italics added), an assertion that those same persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing in both instances, and the different reaction to his different words introduces us to the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time, all the more astonishing in being almost unnoticed: there is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get “beyond good and evil” and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.

The new language is that of value relativism, and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.  A new language always reflects a new point of view, and the gradual, unconscious popularization of new words, or of old words used in new ways, is a sure sign of a profound change in people’s articulation of the world. When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth from the first.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 141