January 27

How to Move Beyond Vicious Intellectualism

There are things that we know. And there are things that we know that we don’t know. And there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know. Those things that we don’t even know enough to know that we don’t know lay so far outside of our existing frame of reference that we can’t even imagine them. They are too far out of our box to hold in mind.

The American philosopher William James was fascinated by the unknown unknowns and assumed that what we knew about reality (and even what we can imagine to be true about reality) is always a tiny fraction of the totality of what is.

Vicious intellectualism is term that James used for his observation that every time we assert something as true, we simultaneously negate all other possibilities. Once we think we know, we no longer feel compelled to examine other possibilities – too often the more we learn the less we are open to new possibilities. James felt it was vicious when our assertions of truth simultaneously cut us off from further possibility.

We have all experienced this. Haven’t you ever been in a conversation with someone who really wanted to talk about something and then you realized that there was no way to explore because that person was fixed in their views. They wanted to engage, but they could only see their own conclusions and dismissed any other alternatives without consideration. What James called Vicious Intellectualism is what we more commonly today call dogmatism, fundamentalism, or simply being stuck in our own ideas.

Willfred Sellers made a similar observation calling it “The Myth of the Given.” James’ conception of vicious intellectualism and Seller’s formulation of the myth of the given can most simply be summed up as the assumption that the way I see the truth is the way it is. The more strongly we hold to this assertion the more stuck we will be in our current way of thinking and the less available we will be to grow into new possibilities.

Vicious intellectualism leads us toward a method of inquiry that resists stepping outside of the known. When we are consciously or unconsciously assume that what we think is true actually is, our method of inquiry will be limited to proceed only by expanding on what we already know. Since we are sure that the truth in hand is real we will not want to give it up. We will only want to add to what we already know by pushing at the borders and creeping slowly out into the vast oceans of unknown that surrounds us.

James was a free thinker who held loosely to what he thought was true and assumed that whatever seemed true now would yield to much bigger and more encompassing truths soon. Rather than defend what we know and expand on it slowly, he wanted to inquire directly into what we don’t already know by focusing on the anomalies and oddities that don’t fit into our current understanding.

James felt that our attention should be on the outer fringes of what we know. The next big idea doesn’t come from the center. It comes from the dim outer edge where the light of what we currently know fades into the blackness of the unknown beyond. James risked his career and his reputation as a scientist to study things that others thought were absurdities. As the president of the American Psychical Society he studied spirits, mediums, and life after death. Most scientists felt this was worthless, but James felt that it was out there on the fringes that we would find our way to new and unexpected vistas of truth.