Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still.
William Hazlitt, quoted in How to Think (p.86-87), written by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs continues:
“So we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”
Calling our collection of predispositions and biases ‘System 1’ (a term borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), Jacobs argues that our ‘System 1’ thinking can be “changed, trained; it can develop new habits.” He connects this with John Stuart Mill’s insistence that we consider our whole being in this arena- the emotions and the intellect. Jacobs writes: “This is what Mill meant when he spoke of the power of rightly ordered affections to shape the character. Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.”
This passage evoked so many from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love that I nearly brought that volume back upstairs. Some of the most splendid moments of my reading life occur when I witness my authors speaking to one another. Often they are echoing one another, or taking a drink further downstream. At other times they are sharpening the argument, flipping the blade to the other side.
These conversations are most easily perceived with the best writers, by the way. Often, the most important conversations span centuries. This interestingly brings me to a concluding comment that Jacobs makes about the role of rightly ordered affections in our thinking. He writes:
“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”
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.
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.
When 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