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Saturday, September 24, 2022

"How to Think"

apropos of so-called "deliberation science"
OK, this author is all over it.

...keywords are always dangerous, always threatening to become parasitic on thinking, but they do some of their most wicked work when they take the form of unacknowledged metaphors. This is one of the great themes of that seminal book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. In an especially important passage, they discuss the consequences of one of the most deeply embedded metaphors in our common discourse, the one that identifies argument as a form of warfare. Their examples:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

The identification of argument with war is so complete that if you try to suggest some alternative way of thinking about what argument is—It’s an attempt to achieve mutual understanding; It’s a means of clarifying our views—you’re almost certainly going to be denounced as a wishy-washy, namby-pamby sissy-britches.

We fixate so immovably on this notion of argument as war in part because human beings, generally speaking, are insanely competitive about everything; but also because in many arguments there truly is something to be lost, and most often what’s under threat is social affiliation. Losing an argument can be a personal embarrassment, but it can also be an indication that you’ve sided with the wrong people, which means that you need to find a new ingroup or else learn to live with what the Marxists call “false consciousness.” (It was in hopes of avoiding this choice that Phelps-Roper cut off communication with David Abitbol, but, as we saw, she had already crossed a kind of social and intellectual Rubicon.)

So yes: argument can indeed be war, or at least a contest in which it is possible to lose. But there’s another side to this story: what is lost not in an argument but through passive complicity with that militaristic metaphor. Because there are many situations in which we lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by dehumanizing our interlocutors. When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.

If we look more closely at the argument-as-war metaphor, we’ll see that it depends on a habit of mind that is lodged very deep in our consciousness: the habit of dichotomizing…

Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (pp. 96-98). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
"We shouldn’t expect moral heroism of ourselves. Such an expectation is fruitless and in the long run profoundly damaging. But we can expect to cultivate a more general disposition of skepticism about our own motives and generosity toward the motives of others. And—if the point isn’t already clear—this disposition is the royal road that carries us to the shining portal called Learning to Think." [pg 147]
This book is just packed with sobering wisdoms.
The dangers of too much trust in and reliance on words

The title of this chapter comes courtesy of Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth-century political philosopher. Early in his masterpiece, Leviathan, he writes, “Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or, unless his memory be hurt by disease or ill constitution of organs, excellently foolish. For words are wise men’s counters—they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools. Translating Hobbes’s point into contemporary English: Literacy (“letters”) is an extraordinary invention because of its power to amplify existing traits. By reading, a man already having some wisdom can gain far more; but it is equally true that reading can make a man already inclined toward foolishness far, far more foolish…

…It is easy to become captive to words, to treat them as though they truly and fully convey genuine knowledge—as though they are real cash money, legal tender, accepted everywhere at their face value, rather than mere counters.

Words are immensely seductive, in ways we don’t often recognize. Their power can perhaps most clearly be seen in young children, who become fascinated by new words and look for every possible opportunity to use them. Now, in fact, adults are no different in this respect: we just have learned to do a better job than our younger counterparts of obscuring our fascination, of pretending that a phrase brand new to us has been part of our word hoard forever. Oh, this old thing? But we turn the shiny new phrases over and over in our minds, as a miser fondles the coins in his pockets.

…Whenever we use a particular vocabulary—political, say, or aesthetic, or moral, or religious, or sociological—to describe a person, or a thing, or an event, we call attention to certain aspects of what we’re describing. But we also, as long as we look through the screen of that language, inadvertently hide from ourselves, become blind to, other aspects. Burke doesn’t believe we have a choice about whether or not to employ terministic screens: “We can’t say anything without the use of terms.” But for that very reason we need to work hard to understand how our terms work, especially how they “direct the attention”: What does this language ask me to see? What does it prevent me from seeing? And—perhaps most important of all: Who benefits from my attention being directed this way rather than that?
[How to Think pp. 89-91]
Sobering. I long-ago tested off-the-charts high on "verbal skills / reading comprehension." I can imagine Dr. Jacobs gently admonishing "yeah, just don't dislocate your shoulder patting yourself on the back." The nexus of verbal fluency and effective, beneficent thinking (and communication) is substantially more tenuous than I have long simply assumed. I stand admonished once again.
Dr. Jacobs concludes:
The Thinking Person’s Checklist

1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.

2. Value learning over debating. Don’t “talk for victory.”

3. As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.

4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.

5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.

6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.

9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.

10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting; notice what your “terministic screens” are directing your attention to—and what they’re directing your attention away from; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth.

11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12. Be brave.
[How to Think p. 148]

Just got an Amazon suggestion. We shall see. Looks interesting.
Bought the book. Well into it. Very good.

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