Introduction: A Scope-Growers Toolkit

Culture implies all which gives the mind possession of its own powers; as languages to the critic, telescope to the astronomer.

-Emerson, Progress of Culture

This is a call to fellow explorers of human experience, to the confused, the curious, and the skeptical, the metaphor-mongerers and the bridgebuilders, to join in the project of developing and testing conceptual tools for navigating possible mental spaces.  If you are anxious to get clearer about your own thinking, I ask you to be a tester; try these ideas and tell us if they are useful.  If you have ideas of your own of conceptual tools for scaffolding metacognition, I ask you to be a collaborator.

The goals of this blog are as follows:

1.) To argue for the value of open-mindedness, defined as seeking multiple perspectives and exploring different frameworks for making sense of the world.

2.) To develop a meta-framework that will scaffold clearer and more explicit talk about the schemata that make up our frameworks.  That is, I will offer a set of terms and concepts to talk explicitly about the similarities and differences among modes of sense-making and problem-solving.  This meta-framework will serve as a navigator’s instrument, making the exploration of alternative frameworks easier and less unsettling.[i]

3.) To demonstrate what it is like to use this meta-framework to translate between frameworks and to analyze and acquire new frameworks.

4.) To elicit and support discussion about these ideas and practices.

Open-mindedness is the most colloquial name for the practice of exploring, comparing, and integrating multiple perspectives.  However, many different conceptions of this practice have arisen throughout history, including but not limited to William James’ or Isaiah Berlin’s ‘pluralism’; Platonic or Hegelian ‘dialectic’; Walt Whitman’s ‘variety’; Erich Fromm’s ‘uncertainty’; Ben Franklin’s ‘intellectual humility’; Jon Baron’s ‘actively open-minded thinking’; Buddhist and Hindu ‘non-dualism’; or even the emphasis on competition between alternative theories in Lakatosian or Popperian philosophy of science.  Attention is perhaps the most valuable commodity in contemporary society; as such, I will minimize the hubris of seeking your attention for my ideas by mixing in a carefully curated selection of classic texts relevant to open-mindedness and metacognition.  These may be found under Classics.

I offer three brief arguments for the value of open-mindedness thus defined.

First, the pragmatic argument for open-mindedness.  Open-mindedness is the practice of accumulating a larger conceptual toolkit.  Different frameworks offer different affordances; that is, they serve different functions more or less effectively.  An engineering framework and a medical framework can both be used to find fixes for broken systems, but you need both to fix a broken bone and a leaky boat.  Often the affordances of a given framework are less obvious, and misunderstandings between frameworks often arise when the goals are left indefinite.  I will focus on this argument in the post on Conceptual Technologies, which is about the tools we use to make sense of and solve problems.

Second, the social argument. In the era of the internet, people have totally unprecedented access to an overabundance of information, stories, and ideas.  Simultaneously, the world has become more interdependent economically, culturally, and environmentally, demanding cooperation across cultural and ideological divides.  The need to translate between different frameworks, to understand alternative perspectives, is more pressing than ever before.  This will be the focus of the post on Translating Across Frameworks.

Finally, the humanistic argument.  Someone seeking an account of what it means to be human might use a framework of psychology, psychoanalysis, analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, history, theology, fiction or poetry.  Each of these disciplines offers a framework for understanding the commonalities and variation among possible forms of life.  They phrase the questions differently, and they count different kinds of things as answers.  Some people find the answers of, say, evolutionary psychology deeply satisfying; others do not at all, preferring poetry or anthropology.  We real humans, however, are none of us all one piece; we are each a rag-bag of odds and ends who find different kinds of satisfaction in different kinds of accounts.  There is something glorious in the human capacity to enter into different visions of the world, and to find value in different kinds of things [ii].  This will be the focus of the post on The Illimitable Democratic Vista.

I know of only two things capable of holding anything that can be seen, known, valued, or imagined: minds and universes.  Unless we are speaking poetically or you happen to be a god, only one of these is in your power.  Life is composed of a long strange sequence of moments, moments of crushing misery or exhilaration, of drowsiness, heartache, discovery, anxiety, visions real and dreamed of trees, ladybugs, cities, storms, donkeys, other people; and all of it, moment after moment, passes through a mind.  When you glance over at an iridescent fly or even your own hands, they each have their own existence outside your skull[iii], but you only know them through your mind.  Experience may not be all there is, but it is ultimately all we have.  And although we have limited control over the world that rolls in constant flux outside our skulls, and limited control even over the flux within, we have far more power over the color and contents of our experiences than most of us ever exert.

These experiences that make up a life are subtly and deeply shaped by the frameworks that we collect over its course.  Even if our frameworks did not also affect our behavior and consequently the things that happen in the world outside our skulls – which of course they very much do – we should take care over them for the sake of the way they shape our perceptions.  It is worth looking closely at the techniques we can use to deliberately shape those frameworks to live more richly experienced, more conscious, more interesting, more deeply connected, and more rational lives.[iv]

 

“Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse.”

–Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures

[i] Although to promise that what is settled will remain so would be disingenuous.

[ii] Although of course this leads to all kinds of difficulties like value conflict. By saying that there are different kinds of values I mean merely that there are radically different experiences and frameworks for making sense of value; this does not necessarily mean there are incommensurable values, any more than having very different frameworks means translation across them is impossible.

[iii] I don’t think you can get very far by engaging with solipsism.

[iv] Rational is a tricky, perhaps even a provocative word.  What does it mean to lead a ‘rational life’? Here I mean something like the philosophical sense of the word, i.e. responsive to reasons; a life that is more seriously responsive to important reasons.  Some philosophers distinguish between motivational reasons, the reasons that do move you to action, and normative reasons, the reasons that ought to move you to action (but which you may not know about or find compelling).  Becoming more rational thus could mean having one’s motivational reasons match up more closely with one’s normative reasons.  Or merely being clearer about what your motivational reasons are.  Or something else: ideas?

 

Excerpt from William James, “A Pluralistic Universe”

William James, father of American psychology and pragmatist philosophy, is quoted often (justly) but should be read more than he is.  This passage expresses the premise of this blog far more eloquently than I could ever hope to. The goal of the project is to avoid keeping honest men and women asunder. James explains why.

All thinkers have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some particular feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention. Thus, the theists take their cue from manufacture, the pantheists from growth. For one man, the world is like a thought or a grammatical sentence in which a thought is expressed. For such a philosopher, the whole must logically be prior to the parts; for letters would never have been invented without syllables to spell, or syllables without words to utter. Another man, struck by the disconnectedness and mutual accidentality of so many of the world’s details, takes the universe as a whole to have been such a disconnectedness originally, and supposes order to have been superinduced upon it in the second instance, possibly by attrition and the gradual wearing away by internal friction of portions that originally interfered. Another will conceive the order as only a statistical appearance, and the universe will be for him like a vast grab-bag with black and white balls in it, of which we guess the quantities only probably, by the frequency with which we experience their egress. For another, again, there is no really inherent order, but it is we who project order into the world by selecting objects and tracing relations so as to gratify our intellectual interests.

We carve out order by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone. Some thinkers follow suggestions from human life, and treat the universe as if it were essentially a place in which ideals are realized. Others are more struck by its lower features, and for them, brute necessities express its character better. All follow one analogy or another; and all the analogies are with some one or other of the universe’s subdivisions. Every one is nevertheless prone to claim that his conclusions are the only logical ones, that they are necessities of universal reason, they being all the while, at bottom, accidents more or less of personal vision which had far better be avowed as such; for one man’s vision may be much more valuable than another’s, and our visions are usually not only our most interesting but our most respectable contributions to the world in which we play our part.

What was reason given to men for, said some eighteenth century writer, except to enable them to find reasons for what they want to think and do?–and I think the history of philosophy largely bears him out. ‘The aim of knowledge,’ says Hegel, ‘is to divest the objective world of its strangeness, and to make us more at home in it.’ Different men find their minds more at home in very different fragments of the world.

Let me make a few comments, here, on the curious antipathies which these partialities arouse. They are sovereignly unjust, for all the parties are human beings with the same essential interests, and no one of them is the wholly perverse demon which another often imagines him to be. Both are loyal to the world that bears them; neither wishes to spoil it; neither wishes to regard it as an insane incoherence; both want to keep it as a universe of some kind; and their differences are all secondary to this deep agreement. They may be only propensities to emphasize differently. Or one man may care for finality and security more than the other. Or their tastes in language may be different. One may like a universe that lends itself to lofty and exalted characterization. To another this may seem sentimental or rhetorical. One may wish for the right to use a clerical vocabulary, another a technical or professorial one.

A certain old farmer of my acquaintance in America was called a rascal by one of his neighbors. He immediately smote the man, saying, ‘I won’t stand none of your diminutive epithets.’ Empiricist minds, putting the parts before the whole, appear to rationalists, who start from the whole, and consequently enjoy magniloquent privileges, to use epithets offensively diminutive. But all such differences are minor matters which ought to be subordinated in view of the fact that, whether we be empiricists or rationalists, we are, ourselves, parts of the universe and share the same one deep concern in its destinies. We crave alike to feel more truly at home with it, and to contribute our mite to its amelioration. It would be pitiful if small aesthetic discords were to keep honest men asunder.