About that Thinking Thing
I think most people think that other people are a lot like themselves. If you and I were together, and I see a green car, I expect that you would also see a green car. Similarly, if I experience pity and a touch of sorrow when I see the Pieta of Michelangelo, then my first guess would be that if you saw it you would feel similar emotions. It wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t, but I would be interested to see what you did feel and why. I would expect that we could find a common language to discuss those differences. Most things fall somewhere between the things we do see alike, and those that are so personal that we don’t. Even so, the general rule that people are like us leads us to the conclusion that when other people think, they are doing more or less the same thing we are when we think.
That premise fails when it comes to a wide array of right-wingers. It has become so obviously incoherent on that side that conservative thinkers have begun writing about it. Here is the Libertarian Julian Sanchez, explaining his comments on “epistemic closure”:
… my use of the term was focused on the way the conservative mediasphere is increasingly able to resist incursions from the “MSM” narrative and picture of reality. Sometimes this results in a skewed perception of the importance of a story—the obsession with ACORN or the idea that the “Climategate” e-mails were some kind of game changer in the larger AGW debate. At its worst, it manifests as a willingness to hold and circulate factually false beliefs that a simple search ought to explode.
This analysis raises the question whether a significant number of Americans have diverged from mainstream patterns not of ideas, but of the act of thinking. In her late work, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt addresses the act of thinking. She says she decided to write about it after seeing the Eichmann trial, where she famously invented the term, the banality of evil. She says she did not have anything specific in mind when she wrote that phrase. Like most of us, she understood evil in the traditional sense, the Bible’s Lucifer and Cain, Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, people driven by deep and powerful feelings of resentment, hatred of good, anger and other base emotions, into deeds of nearly incomprehensible viciousness. She did not see that in Eichmann.
There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior as well as in his behavior during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness. In the setting of Israeli court and prison procedures he functioned as well as he had functioned under the Nazi regime but, when confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Cliché, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all.
Id. at 4 (emphasis in original). Thoughtlessness. The claim of events and facts on our thinking attention. Arendt is describing someone who only responds to the external world by repeating learned responses, with no consideration of the possibility that the response may be wholly inappropriate. Thoughtless people deal with things in such a compartmentalized way that incoherence isn’t apparent to their consciousness. Everyone does this from time to time, both in our personal lives when we say something hurtful without thinking, and in political matters, when we unthinkingly assume that our side is right and the other side is deluded.
… the thinking activity, according to Plato, the soundless dialog we carry on with ourselves.…
Perhaps Arendt means that in thinking, we create a mental formation, something verbal or spatial or pictorial, and then listen for that critical internal voice explaining an error, pointing out that this mental thing is not consistent with something we previously thought or saw or believed or said, pointing out an elaboration, or the way it fits with other facts, a real dialog as if there were two people in the mind discussing the mental formation in the same way you would discuss a theory with a teacher or a friend or a political opponent.
Maybe the “conservative mediasphere” is drowning out that critical interior second voice in many of our fellow citizens. And maybe we’d better be careful to listen carefully ourselves when we think.