Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Thinking for Oneself & Not Caring What Others Think

There’s a quality that we could call “independence of thought” which seems to be often regarded as praiseworthy. We refer to this quality as “thinking for oneself,” and it seems that one who shows independence of thought must not be too beholden to what others think. We say we want students, for example, to learn to think for themselves rather than to parrot back what they have been taught (or to merely repeat what they’ve read on Wikipedia, etc.). To think for oneself might thus be connected to what writers (and musicians and composers) call “having a voice.”

To think for oneself, to have the courage to follow one’s own thoughts and to explore them, may involve not being too concerned with what other people think. The independent thinker has to follow his or her own leads, and something like intellectual integrity involves not rejecting one’s own conclusions or convictions just because others disagree. So there’s a sense in which the independent thinker should not care—too much—about the opinions of others. The tricky part here is that if the independent thinker is to remain grounded in reality, since his or her own paths of thought could lead to mere fantasy or delusion, he or she has to care—to some extent—about the opinions of others. This has the air of a paradox.

It’s clear enough that someone who doesn’t care at all what other people think is not what people have in mind by independence of thought, because someone who doesn’t care at all would seem to be a sociopath or psychopath. And from a Wittgensteinian perspective, the notion of completely independent thought would seem to be necessarily incoherent for the same reason that a truly private language is incoherent. (Feminist critiques of the Cartesian method approach similar conclusions—we learn to think in a social context, and so our patterns of thought could never be entirely free of that social origin.) So is the notion of independent thought really just an illusion, thoughtless praise of a condition that, if it could be attained, would just be a kind of insanity?

I suspect that the answer has something to do with finding one’s “voice,” and having the courage to speak for oneself, to speak one’s mind (even if one should also bear in mind that one’s mind is shaped by others). And so perhaps the language of “not caring what other people think” is misleading. We need to care about what other people think, at least some people, and at least some of the time, or else we risk losing touch with reality. But we need not to care so much that we are afraid to speak or to explore thoughts other than the ones that the people around us happen to think. So, again, independence of thought may just be another way of talking about intellectual courage. Marilyn Frye, in “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” draws a connection between courage and imagination which is probably worth thinking about in this connection:
"There probably is really no distinction, in the end, between imagination and courage. We can’t imagine what we can’t face, and we can’t face what we can’t imagine" (in The Politics of Reality, Crossing Press, 1983, p. 81).
The intellectually courageous person, the independent thinker, must, in some sense, be willing to go to the brink. Maybe part of the difference between such a person and the insane person is that the courageous person is able to come back and cares enough about “what other people think” to attempt to communicate it to others, in ways that can be reasonably expected to create some level of understanding.

I wonder then whether a person who claims not to care what other people think could really coherently care about his or her own thoughts, and perhaps even whether—assuming this claim not to care isn’t just a lie or a self-deception—such a person could think clearly at all.

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