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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Rationality and Morality: Another Instance of Their Organic Relationship

Can bad people be smart? Of course…and more’s the pity, of course. But there are important respects in which being bad in certain respects keeps you from being as smart as you could be.

Thomas Haskell reflects particularly on historical work, but offers a powerful paragraph for anyone who wants to think properly, a passage well worth a quiet few minutes of self-examination:

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts—especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective—require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally—in the last analysis, to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one’s own self stands not at the center, but appears merely as one object among many. (“Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s ‘That Noble Dream,'” History and Theory 4 [May 1990]: 131.)

Such a perspective is what we used to insist was characteristic of mature consideration. Indeed, despite wild postmodern and activistic claims to the contrary, we (that is to say, people who read blogs such as this) still do. So let’s keep at it, and keep holding each other to such values.

We cannot, of course, and should not, of course, aim to take up again the old mistake of presuming to adopt “the view from nowhere” and to think merely as “universal man,” and the rest. But recognizing one’s heritage, one’s social embeddedness, and one’s individual limitations does not thus entitle one to abandon oneself, blithely or fiercely, to one’s whims and passions.

It means to be more self-aware than ever in learning, adopting, and practicing the disciplines necessary to serious thought. It means to delay the instant gratification of “yes/no” reflexes and to engage instead in the subtler rewards of sustained attention and careful sorting.

That’s what grown-ups do—even as such people can expect to be misunderstood and mocked by those who revel in the easy indulgences of adolescent opining.

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