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]
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?