Thinking does not require too much intelligence. Thinking is a skill, like wood-carving; it can be learned. Humility, patience, honesty, a sense of humour; all those are far more important aids to the craft of thinking than masses of grey matter. No brain, however large, can smuggle thoughts past the wall of a brittle ego.
The basis of thinking is an ability to embrace inner conflict. If you wish seriously to think about anything, you have to dismantle your own comfortable ideas, and argue against yourself.
That’s the basis of an adversarial legal system; both sides in a case slug it out and try to make dirt of each other’s position. And, obviously, swap the lawyers, and they will easily tomorrow argue against their own position yesterday.
That seeming cynicism and amorality leads to lawyers being culturally derided as unprincipled by the hoi polloi.
However, it also points up how principle itself is an impediment to thinking.
If you’re truly thinking, there can be no sacred cows.
If the principle is a good one, it will survive being beaten up.
But this ability to hold opposing ideas in suspense, and to attack your own position, is beyond many people nowadays. It’s not that people have suddenly became more stupid since e.g. the 1970s, but we do now live in a culture of cookie-cutter secular commandments. It is the age of bug-eyed, derivate, sloganeering certainties. Everyone “believes!”; everyone falls in line with their group; everyone derives their personal identity from their group mantra; everybody has a slogan; nobody thinks any more.
The problem is that everyone thinks they already are thinking.
How to spot non-thinkers:
(i) Slogans – anyone repeating fashionable, or group-think, slogans. Not a thought in their heads. As Orwell noted:
“… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning – they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another – but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”
(ii) Conviction – anyone who is certain and who never wavers. Probably should be sectioned.
Interestingly, (iii) fluency itself is the enemy of thinking. In this short interview near the end of his life, Heidegger notes how a “new care” must be “brought to language”:
He’s right. That carefulness and rigour often is weakened by eloquence. Long pauses, honesty, cul de sacs, untidiness, a sense of incompleteness, and constant self-doubt, are the cornerstones of thinking. I used to enjoy debates in college, but some of it was a form of culturally-sanctioned middle-class aggression which in part depended on punning wordplay. You could pour eloquence, like Derridian sauce, over the gaps in your argument, but you were often spoofing, to win the game. It often had very little to do with true thinking. Boris Johnson does this all the time, and he knows well what he’s up to. Boris is a clever guy, possibly one of the smartest blokes in British politics.
And as Camus said, nothing is true which forces you to exclude.
One wonders what Heidegger would make of a culture that flees, outraged, from the patience and the doubt of thinking, as if in triumph.
The wider question this century is whether democracy is even possible.
From about the age of 11 or 12, once I started to lose my respect for adult conversation and began to realise how befuddled and reactive so many adults were, how so many certainties were based on an incomplete understandings and uncorroborated group-think assumptions, how objectivity was continually usurped by emotional fragility, I initially felt a sense of opportunity and societal optimism – I perceived, until my 20s, that all you had to do was to expose the facts to enough people, and a logical conclusion of some sort surely would be drawn.
The internet, with its mass dissemination of information, soon put paid to that liberal delusion. The internet has given a voice to the previously voiceless, and, regrettably, it’s little more than the howling of baboons, cavorting, without responsibility, in the ruins of the tower of babel. There’s a subtle type of loneliness in the chasm of realising that this kindly and decent person (with the one-sided and self-creating views) you’re conversing with is so mentally brittle that they will snap and lash out if you goad them too far in vigorous debate. So you don’t bother anymore. You cannot debate anything with someone who is either contemptuous of, or frightened of, curiosity.
Professor Shawn Rosenberg’s <article> (on why democracy is unlikely to survive) notes that populist leaders, with their emphasis on them-and-us soundbite solutions, are designed to smother reason and to entrench a system which prioritises loyalty over logic:
“The [populist] public sphere is also structured so as to create opportunities for the collective expression of the national will. The aim here is to provide venues for individuals, through the performance of common rituals and the joint rehearsal of collective truths, to come together as one in a visceral realization of the ‘people.’ A good example is the mass rally. It provides a multifaceted opportunity in which the people are physically present, their focus is on the authoritative leadership and the individuals there share in the experience of the spectacle that renders the many one. Something of this effect is also achieved in more local contexts through the creation of adult and youth clubs that are organized to forge a common identity (one that is joined with that of the nation) through the rehearsal of authoritative claims and shared ritual practices. Throughout, the communicative practice is the public sphere is suffused with an emotional, often ecstatic, quality, one that reflects and promotes the symbiotic union of the leader and individuals in the nation or the people.”
Good related article <here> in The Atlantic, plotting a domino theory path from the self-righteous intolerance of that kind of modern polity to, well, fascism:
The article notes how, in today’s America, the old principle of audi alteram partem [hear the other side] now is strictly for the birds:
“You are living in territory controlled by enemy tribes. You, and all like you, must assume the innocence of anyone remotely like yourself who is charged in any confrontation with those tribes and with their authorities—until proven otherwise beyond a shadow of your doubt. Take his side. In other words, you must shield others like yourself by practicing and urging “jury nullification.””
As the article notes:
“The Trump movement was always authoritarian and illiberal. It indulged periodically in the rhetoric of violence. Trump himself chafed against the restraints of law. But what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.
Is there a precedent? Not in recent years. Since the era of Redemption after Reconstruction, anti-government violence in the United States has been the work of marginal sects and individual extremists. American Islamic State supporters were never going to seize the state, and neither were the Weather Underground, the Ku Klux Klan killers of the 1950s and ’60s, Puerto Rican nationalists, the German American Bund, nor the Communist Party USA.
But the post-election Trump movement is not tiny. It’s not anything like a national majority, but it’s a majority in some states—a plurality in more—and everywhere a significant minority, empowered by the inability of pro-legality Republicans to stand up to them. Once it might have been hoped that young Republicans with a future would somehow distance themselves from the violent lawlessness of the post-presidential Trump movement. But one by one, they are betting the other way. You might understand why those tainted by the January 6 attacks, such as Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, would find excuses for them. They have butts to cover. But Hawley is being outdone by other young politicians who weren’t in office and seemed to have every opportunity to build post-Trump identities—including even former Trump critics like the Ohio Senate aspirant J. D. Vance. Why do people sign up with the putschists after the putsch has failed?
They’re betting that the failed putsch is not the past—it’s the future.”