Obstinacy and Discourse: Meditations On Being a Charitable Dogmatist
Aristotle wrote, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When I think about this quote I imagine a soldier in war, walking through enemy territory naively smelling the flowers. Ideas are dangerous things and to entertain and constantly be around precarious things will ultimately lead to injury. That is, unless we are careful. These analogies of war and danger are an overstating but I do think that they get to the heart of what Aristotle is trying to convey. It is a hard thing to walk into the world of opposing ideas and have a look around while suspending judgment but also not accepting them outright.
In the last few years I have found these strolls through dangerous ideas, risky worlds and thoughts illuminating and at time harbingers of existential earthquakes. From these world-shaking instances of intellectual uncertainties have arisen moments of profound learning. On very few occasions has my mind actually ever been completely changes to an opposing view, but I always have new and different way of addressing a problem and I always see predicaments of my own view that need to be worked out.
May I suggest that the point of discourse, in spoken conversation or in written word, is not to dogmatically assert a position and smash you’re opponent with all the coffin nailing evidence, but to tread the unknown territory of another’s concerns and apprehensions. My supervisor, Chris Insole, often says in his lectures that if you want to get to know a thinker, don’t just look at what they are explicitly stating, but see what ideas or positions they are trying to protect. These protected concepts are usually found in the things that are not said. For example, Immanuel Kant, in his writings on ethics, was trying to protect Newtonian physics along with human freedom. Discourse is an attempt not only to hear what a person is saying, but also the fears that they are not stating. Giving up x would be bad, thus I need to protect and argue for y.
When having a discussion with someone who has opposing views, perhaps both parties would get more out of the dialogue if it is viewed as a means of learning rather than a battle of the wits to prove a point? I am in agreement with Hans Georg Gadamer that we cannot just put our traditions and presuppositions aside in the reading of texts and in conversation, but perhaps in engaging with others from different traditions or world-views we charitably tread that unknown territory with grace and an open mind rather than bulldozing it with obstinacy. Point: never hold your views so tightly that they cannot be adapted or changed at any given moment.
I hope this post does not come off as an argument for relativism. I am not trying to give a Trojan horse for any particular political, moral or theological position with the hopes of enticing readers into a trap. I believe that we need to affirm, and at times unapologetically assert essentials when necessary. But this asserting should be done with a keen eye to recognize others unspoken concerns while also hoping to learn from the discourse and perhaps even adopt another’s concerns as a way of growing in our understanding of the essentials. Like the above Aristotle quote suggests, to entertain a thought is not necessarily to accept it. Perhaps we could all do with a little more intellectual entertaining and hospitality.