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Entertaining Possibilities Without Prejudice

There’s always another way to look at things.

This observation doesn’t mean, however, that the conventional and traditional ways are wrongheaded, silly, and meaningless.

An alternative isn’t always the same as an antithesis.

Critical thinking is the ability to entertain new possibilities without arbitrarily closing our minds to what remains useful in our previously held perspectives.

The other way doesn’t become the opposite of the older way until we treat it as if it’s the only way.

Philosophy With Courtesy

It’s difficult to have a positive influence on people if we base our discussions with them on the premise that they’re just a bunch of lowly simpletons who need to be saved by our enlightened wisdom.

If we want others to take our ideas seriously, we have to start by taking their sincerity seriously.

As illogical and whimsical as people sometimes seem to be, they are only doing what makes sense to themselves relative to what they know.

The purpose of sharing information and spreading truth, as I see it, isn’t so we can bask in the glory of our superior intelligence. It’s so we can participate in the privilege and pleasure of growing, learning, and exploring the wonders of life together.

The less we patronize, the better we philosophize.

The Presumption of Sincerity

The Presumption of Innocence is understood as the practice of legally assuming that a party is innocent until they are proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

This presumption is not free of risk. Each time we act on it, we take the chance of allowing guilty people to walk free.

We make this presumption, however, because of its pragmatic value.

If we gave ourselves the right to arbitrarily condemn others as guilty, everyone would be a criminal.

There’s a similar practice that I employ when engaging others in philosophical dialogue or debate.

I call it “The Presumption of Sincerity.”

The Presumption of Sincerity is the practice of addressing people’s arguments and ideas as if they are a sincere expression of what those people actually believe (until one has evidence to the contrary).

This presumption is not free of risk. Each time we act on it, we risk wasting our time conversing with people who are only interested in fruitless quarreling.

I make this presumption, however, because of its pragmatic value.

If I gave myself the luxury of arbitrarily attributing ulterior motives to anyone who expressed disagreement with me, the chances that either of us would learn anything useful from one another would be minimal.

Statements like “You know that I’m right” or “You’re just being stubborn” or “You’re deliberately avoiding the issue” evince an attitude of distrust towards one’s partner in dialogue.

If we find ourselves making these sorts of accusations, perhaps we should consider terminating the discussion or evaluating our assumptions.

If we believe people are being sincere, we should speak to them as if they’re being sincere.

If we don’t believe people are being sincere, we should ask ourselves why we insist on arguing with them at all.

Thinking in Different Philosophies

Polygots often speak of the worlds of art and literature that are made available to them upon learning a new language.

An English-speaking person who studies French, for instance, is able to be inspired and informed by a larger population of films, books, songs, and conversations. They are able to laugh at jokes that were previously meaningless to them. They are able to be moved by poems that were once unintelligible to them. They live in the same world as before, but the possibilities of that world are more fully open to their experience.

I believe that an analogous kind of experience is made available through the contemplation of unfamiliar ideas.

Every idea is a kind of language which, when understood, opens the mind’s ability to discern new meanings and messages from life’s experiences.

Whenever we make the effort to learn something new, life reflects our knowledge back to us in the form of a freer and more fulfilling existence.

New ideas produce new opportunities for exploring and engaging the world.

Being able to “think in different philosophies” is no less valuable than being able to speak in different languages.

What Can Philosophy Do With Us?

The value of philosophy lies in the self-knowledge, interior depth, and sense of wonder that one acquires as a consequence of contemplating the fundamental categories of existence.

Unlike the sciences, philosophical activity is not identified by some specific body of knowledge it proposes to offer. Science is valuable because it provides answers, whereas philosophy is valuable because it provokes questions.

Philosophy invites us to attend to those questions whose answers are often difficult to define, troublesome to understand, and seemingly impossible to prove. Questions such as these, while an offense to our desire for simplicity and practicality, are ideal tools for cultivating the mind’s ability to reason clearly, imagine deeply, and think independently.

Even if a person fails at discovering concrete truths through philosophical investigation, they will, by their persistence in rigorously reflecting on the abstract, the provocative, the uncertain, and the paradoxical, make vast improvements in their ability to articulate what they think, analyze what they’re told, and appreciate what others believe.

Philosophy is not a static technique for finding truth, it’s a dynamic tool for facilitating transformation. 

The richest of possibilities lie not in our consideration of what we can do with philosophy, but in our contemplation of what philosophy can do with us.

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