Intellectual regrets. How do I figure out what to think? (Part II)

“The ‘thorough’. – Those who are slow to know think that slowness is an aspect of knowledge.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“Damn! I should have thought of that reply yesterday afternoon!” Do you know this situation? You’re confronted with an objection or perhaps a somewhat condescending witticism, and you just don’t know what to say. But the next day, you think of the perfect response. Let’s call this intellectual regret, whishing you had had that retort ready at the time or even anticipated the objection when stating your thesis, but you haven’t. Much of our intellectual lives is probably spent somewhere between regret and attempts at anticipating objections. What does this feeling of regret indicate? To a first approximation, we might say it indicates that we think of ourselves as imperfect. When we didn’t anticipate or even reply to an objection, something was missing. What was missing? Arguably, we were lacking what is often called smartness, often construed as the ability to quickly defend ideas against objections. But is that so?  

Given our adversarial culture, we often take ourselves as either winning or losing arguments. Thus, we tend to see oppositions to our ideas as competitive. If we say “not p” and someone else advances arguments for “p”, we have the tendency to become defensive rather than embrace “p”. Accordingly, we often structure our work as the defence of a position, say “not p”. The anticipation of the objection “p” is celebrated as a hero narrative, in which p is anticipated and successfully conquered. This is why intellectual regrets might loom large in our mental lives. As I see it, however, the hero narrative is problematic. As I have argued earlier, it instils the desire to pick a side, ideally the right side. But this misses a crucial point of philosophical work: Taking sides is at best transitory; in the end it’s not more battle but peace that awaits us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we tend to misconstrue the nature of oppositions in philosophy. Rather than competitive positions, oppositions form an integral part of the ideas they seem to be opposed to. Accordingly, what we miss out on in situations of intellectual regret is not a smart defence of a position or dogma, but a more thorough understanding of our own ideas. But in what way does such an understanding involve oppositions?

Understanding through antonyms. –  How do you explain philosophical ideas to someone? A quick way consists in contrasting a term with an opposed term or antonym. Asked what “objectivity” means, a good start is to begin by explaining how we use the term “subjective”. Wishing to explain an “ism”, it helps to look for the opposed ism. So you might explain “externalism” as an idea countering internalism. Now you might object that this shows how philosophers often proceed by carving out positions. It does indeed show as much. But it is equally true that we often need to understand the opposing position in order to understand a claim. So while the philosophical conversation often seems to unfold through positions and counterpositions, understanding them requires the alternatives. Negative theology has turned this into a thorough approach. – Now you might object that this might be a merely instrumental feature of understanding ideas, but it doesn’t show that one idea involves another idea as an integral part. After all, subjectivism is to be seen in opposition to objectivism, and if you’re holding one position, you cannot hold the other. To this I reply that, again, my point is indeed not about positions but about understanding. However, this feature is not merely instrumental. Arguably, at least certain ideas (such as subjectivism or atomism) do not make sense without their oppositions (objectivism or holism). That is, the relation to opposed ideas is part of the identity of certain ideas.

Counterfactual reasoning. – It certainly helps to think of opposed terms when making sense of an idea. But this feature extends to understanding whole situations and indeed our lives as such. Understanding the situation we are in often requires counterfactual reasoning. Appreciating the sunshine might be enhanced by seeing what were the case if it were raining. Understanding our biographies and past involves taking into account a number of what-ifs. Planning ahead involves imagining decidedly what is not the case but should be. Arguably, states such as hope, surprise, angst, and regret would be impossible if it were not for counterfactual ideas. So again, identifying the situation we are in involves alternatives and opposites.

Dialectical reasoning. – You might argue again that this just shows a clear distinction between ideas and their opposites. I do not deny that we might decidedly walk through one situation or idea before entering or imagining another. However, at least for some ideas and situations, encountering their oppositions or alternatives does not only involve understanding their negation. Rather, it leads to a new or reflective understanding of the original idea. You will have a new sense of your physical integrity or health once you’ve been hurt. You understand “doubt” differently once you realise that you cannot doubt everything at once (when seeing that you cannot doubt that you’re doubting) or once you thought through the antisceptical ideas of Spinoza or Wittgenstein. Your jealousy might be altered when you’ve seen others acting out of jealousy. Just like Hume’s vulgar view is a different one once you realise that you cannot let go of it (even after considering the philosophical view). The dynamics of dialectical reasoning don’t just produce alternatives but new, arguably, enriched identities.

Triangulation and identity. – Once we recognise how understanding opposites produce a new identity for the idea or the understanding of our very own lives (the examined life!), we see how this pervades our thinking. Entering a town from the station is different from entering it via the airport or seeing it on a map. Here we have three different and perhaps opposing ways of approaching the same place. But who would think that one position or one way of seeing things is true or better or more advanced than another? All of these ways might be taken as different senses, guiding us to the same referent, or as different perspectives in a triangulation between two different interlocutors. When it comes to understanding what we call reality, there is of course a vast amount of senses or triangulations. But who would think one is better? Must we not say that each perspective adds yet more to the same endeavour? So while we might progress through various positions, I would doubt that they are competitive. Rather they strike me as contributing to the same understanding.

Disagreement. – If this is a viable view of things, it might strike you as a bit neoplatonist. But there is nothing wrong with that. But what about real disagreements? Where can we place disagreements, if all oppositions are ultimately taken to resolve into one understanding? Given how stubborn humans are, it would be odd to say that oppositions are merely transient. My hunch is that there can be real disagreement. How? Whenever we have a position or perspective we can benefit from another perspective on the same thing or issue or idea. In keeping with what I said above, encountering such a different perspective would not be a disagreement but, ultimately, an enrichment. That said, we can doubt whether our different perspectives really concern the same thing or idea. We might assume that we now enter the same town we saw on the map earlier. But perhaps we in fact enter a different town. Assuming sameness is a presupposition of making sense or having a sensible disagreement about the same. But our attempt of tracing sameness might fail.

Returning to our intellectual regrets, what is mostly missing is not the smartness to outperform our interlocutors. Rather, we might lack a more full understanding that only the perspectives of others can afford us. In this sense, the oppositions in philosophy are transient. If we have to wait and listen to others, that slowness is indeed an aspect of knowledge.