This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge.
“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein
I see my personal key to wisdom as a form of the so-called “Socratic method.” For me, the focal point is the conversation, whether in the form of an internal monologue or a discussion with others. The essential point is that there must be (at least) two sides so that we can reflect better on our own and the opposing position. This is important when thinking about “generally accepted truths,” which, when addressed critically, can suddenly become the subject of a very emotional discussion. Trying to understand a different viewpoint by trying to defend it usually leads to a better understanding of your own viewpoint. We should be able to look beyond our normal ways of thinking, not regarding any subject as “untouchable” and therefore exempt from discussion. Often, you understand the original author’s position and ideas only through his or her critics. They help to make clear what the author’s position is not, improving the definition of what it is.
The physicist Richard Feynman was convinced that we should always contemplate the world from a new perspective. He asked, for example, how could it be that people in the Middle Ages believed in witches? What are our modern day “witches”? What views do we hold today without bothering to prove them? Every morning, millions of people around the world brush their teeth. But how do they know this has a positive effect on the health of their teeth? Or is it not obvious, that tooth brushing is beneficial? We know what our dentist has told us, but how does he know? Does he have evidence? No, he learned it during his education. But who was in charge of the curriculum?
The point is not to question tooth brushing but, as Feynman aimed to show, that we can and should question even obvious things. Through this, we achieve authentic progress because we are piercing through the self-supporting—possibly faulty—view of the majority. Likewise, we should be equally cautious of our own ingrained beliefs. If, confronted with an argument, we cannot come up with a counter-argument, we should halt the discussion there, take note of the argument, and write it down in order to examine it more closely later. Writing it down is particularly important in order to distance ourselves from the argument.
It is useless to continue the debate while fighting a losing battle. There is no way “around an argument” because it takes only a single valid argument to defeat a statement or even an entire position. Indeed, it is wise to play a discussion to “win,” but in doing so we should not deceive ourselves. Should we later conclude that we were wrong, we should admit it and correct our position. It is interesting that such an action is often considered a “loss,” as though the only important question is who had been right. We should ignore this and instead be pleased about having gained new insights.
When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit. —Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual
Using books to research a topic, we should bear in mind that we may at some point lead a discussion or write an article about the topic. In doing so, we already reflect internally while reading, and follow the Socratic method, an internal dialog, which can lead us to an ideal learning experience.
I am apt to compare philosophical discussions to a game of chess. We start out in different positions; we have worked out a series of arguments, and we have some weak positions but also recognize weaknesses on our opponent’s side. The goal is to find the opponent’s core argument—the “king”—and refute it. In the opening, we declare our general arguments turn by turn and classify our opponent’s views and arguments according to our textbook—our preconceptions. Unfortunately, most discussions end at this point since both parties often falsely assume they already know their opponent’s side and no longer look at the board.
But only when we deviate from the textbook—the expected arguments of our opponent—does the “game” begin to progress, and by “attacking”—demanding clear definitions and categories—the first arguments are subdued. The loss of pieces is analogous to delving to a deeper philosophical level or into an investigation of the concepts. As long as one of the parties does not throw the pieces off the board and become abusive, as long as the discussion is not merely about questions concerning directly verifiable observations, and as long as both sides do not agree on a draw and settle their differences merely superficially, then every discussion—every game—will sooner or later end on fundamental philosophical questions about reality, or on the categorization of different terms—the “endgame.” These are the questions whose answers create a ripple effect on all consequent philosophical positions, and which demonstrate the essential differences between both parties.
I have to add here, though, that most discussions actually are a reversed game of chess. Both sides usually start with their conclusions and end up with their openings, their initial basic views with which they went into the subject and developed their arguments. In addition, I have to add that the way of thinking and discussing that is described here is not shared by many people. Most discussions go through a number of linear arguments on the same level—and not on multiple levels of increasing abstraction.
A better approach might be to start with people from where they are and slowly build bridges from their point of view to ours. Do we want to “win” the discussion or do we want to effect change in the other person? We need to listen more and be alert to the underlying meaning. Usually, spoken words are rationalizations for underlying emotions rather than an expression of well-constructed philosophical positions. In addition, many people identify themselves with their own position; when we attack that position, then it is often falsely interpreted not as an attack on the philosophical position, but on the identity of the person. All we get from an attack is for the other person to hold even more strongly to his position. Instead, we need to begin with the idea that what the other person tells us is the logical result of the sum of his experiences, feelings, and knowledge. We have to assume that the other person tries to tell us the truth or at least some truth about his own person.
But this concept affects our daily routine as well, which we may be afraid to question because we fear that the results of our research could cause a guilty conscience and force us to change our ways. We not only shudder at the amount of effort future changes might require, but we also would have to face ourselves with a new awareness of our past and admit we have made mistakes. With enough time and determination, we can confront this psychological burden. But if we live and work in a group of people offering different perspectives, it is much easier to break free from a possible path of self-destruction.
Other than through a direct dialog, we can also achieve this kind of “mirror” by writing down our own thoughts. On paper, we can see the words we use, clearly and immutably. We need to think through how we formulate our words and how our own writing can then be understood, interpreted, or even refuted by others. It is a form of self-reflection when we let our written thoughts sit in a drawer for a while and “ripen.” We thus enter into a dialog with the ideal counterpart: an older and hopefully wiser self.
By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it. In the same way […], you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story. —Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit