On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints March 2, 2011

In a recent post, I wrote the following:

Changing people’s minds to make them stop holding positions dogmatically and instead hold them tentatively is still a change of mind one may zealously pursue.

On Facebook, Greg writes in reply:

I want to address the peculiarity of this statement. One may passionately pursue such a change of mind, but the change of mind is one such that zealous pursuit is tempered/negated by the tentativeness of the mindset itself. Dan’s statement here is akin to saying that we can zealously present non-zealousness. It’s like saying we can coerce people to be free. Inherent in the content advocated is a negation of the activity. Entertaining. 🙂

Even if Greg does not hold the content of his beliefs more than tentatively, he does not tentatively hold his standards of evidence or, at least, his commitment to tentativeness itself merely tentatively.  There is nothing contradictory in him firmly adhering to a standard of tentative assent to propositions and simultaneously zealously insisting that someone else loosen a death grip on a questionable idea and instead hold that idea more tentatively.

If one’s zealous appeal to the standards of careful evidence persuades that person to now only scrupulously and, even, zealously, hold that idea at arm’s length as it deserves then one’s zealousness about believing tentatively can translate into appropriately tentative beliefs.  There is no contradiction in that.

Of course one might not zealously hold to a standard of evidence and standard of affirmation that demands tentativeness.  One might non-zealously commit to tentativeness.  But what happens in that case?  Well, one might go ahead and abandon tentativeness for some other standard of affirmations since this standard was only held tentatively and not as an inflexible principle.  I am okay with that (should a persuasive argument for not holding beliefs tentatively arise).

But is Greg willing to be tentative about the tentativeness standard or is it itself something he holds more than tentatively?

But even though I was only talking about zealousness about one’s standards for affirmation of propositions and practices of affirming (and not affirming) to various degrees, I will nonetheless go further and affirm the proposition I was not saying before but which Greg accused me of saying and which he considered ludicrous.

I will say that yes, we can hold beliefs both zealously and tentatively at the same time, only in different ways.  I have certainly done so before (and do so all the time actually).

The point is simple: the tentativeness of the belief is in our abstract recognition that it is revisable, that it has various problems that need to be solved, that other solutions remain open (even if we do not prefer them), and in our genuinely open-minded willingness to take new evidence that contradicts our belief seriously.

We can have all of these beliefs about the ultimate provisionality of our position and have a deep readinesses to change our minds at the end of a series of persuasive arguments, and yet, nonetheless, for the time being be rather zealous about advancing these same beliefs since for the time being we find them very persuasive and/or fruitful.

For example, anyone who knew me in graduate school would attest to my zealousness for Nietzsche or for any of a number of interpretations of metaethics or epistemology which I held at the time. And yet over a relatively short span of time (just a few years or sometimes months), despite all that zealousness, I reversed positions on a number of those ideas and stopped citing Nietzsche as often.  Those beliefs and my allegiance to Nietzsche’s system were always in some ways tentative no matter how I felt about them at various times.

How is this possible?  How can an idea or an allegiance be so passionately held one day and then another day, shortly later, be abandoned or drastically revised?  

Part of the reason is that there is a difference between getting excited about an idea and committing to it by faith. Faith is more than passion for an idea, it is a willful commitment to believe it against all future evidence that might come to light against it. The problem with faith is not specifically its passion towards what it affirms. Passion for ideas can sometimes play a valuable role in exploring ideas’ validities from a decidedly non-faith based mindset.

This is because accepting an idea, even tentatively and temporarily, means letting one’s mind treat it seriously as true (or as possibly true) and allowing the strong presumption of its truth to guide further inferences, and a passionate embrace of the idea helps one take it so seriously and sympathetically—even when this is only also a provisional attitude.

Even when I am teaching my students and advocating different, contrary ideas moment to moment or day to day, I can get zealous about each idea.  The reason is because in order to advocate for each position as persuasively as possible so my students can grasp why anyone would think it is plausible, I temporarily treat it as true and get excited about it as though it were true.

And this enthusiasm, even if only temporary, hypothetical, and/or revisable, helps open me up to seeing the strengths of a position I might not have if I were too tentative.  Trying on an idea means really walking around with it, really giving its defense some gusto.  I have convinced myself of some ideas simply by trying to get inside of them and really see how they might work and finding that, much to my shock, they did.

Years of giving lectures on the moral philosophies of Kant and Aristotle deeply convinced me of numerous of their ideas about ethics.  On the other hand there are other ideas which I cannot sell no matter how much I try to get inside them.  I can never feel them and they just never strike me as true to the world and this partially confirms their falsity to me.

In my dissertation’s task of explicating and systematizing Nietzsche’s philosophy, I needed to get inside his philosophy and think of it as though it were essentially true and from that perspective explore how it might vindicate itself.  I knew all along a phase would come (and it did come) in which I would exhaust the personal, philosophical, and scholarly value of so strongly and reflexively seeing through Nietzsche’s eyes.

Another stage would come in which it would be crucial to evaluate his thinking from an external vantage point from which I could critique it and not just assume it.  This could only happen for me once I deeply understood it from the inside and felt confident that my rejections of his remarks in one place or another were not just from a failure to imaginatively see something important from his point of view.

The value of provisional but wholehearted adoptions (and then reversals) of contrary perspectives  is all accounted for in some of Nietzsche’s own remarks about perspectivism (going back to remarks made in Daybreak and, of course, Genealogy of Morals III:12).

Nietzsche recognized that our emotions and our attitudes give us access to some truths that we might not otherwise realize.  Feeling strongly about an idea or a thing, whether for or against it guides the mind towards aspects of it that a disinterested mind might never even think to look for because, being so dispassionate about it, such a mind fails to feel its importance.

The key thing in being truthful and careful reasoners is not that we renounce all zealous embrace of ideas from within a perspective but, as Nietzsche advises, that we are willing to constantly reverse perspectives so that we do not become prejudiced by any one vantage point.  This is why it is fine that people dig in their heels when a debate starts and try at all costs to save their threatened propositions instead of immediately conceding defeat.  The exercise in adversarial advocacies is clarifying for both parties.

What is necessary is that after the dust settles and everyone goes home that both parties ruminate and come to appreciate whatever truths they may have just argued against and proceed to improve their own opinions.

I try to incorporate this approach into the blog.  In one post I will explore and defend the salvageable parts of religion or those religious things about my religious friends towards which I am sympathetic, and then, in another post, I will adopt an alternative (but consistent) perspective from which I can launch into an anti-religious polemic.

I take care not to logically contradict myself (or at least to recognize when I do so and consider it a change of mind), but nonetheless I find it important to embrace the issues literally from different perspectives, each of which I try to feel and advocate for as I go.  My posts exploring many conservative religious and political viewpoints, for example, often go step by step sympathetically through their perspectives before really launching full blast into my critique and statement of my own ideas.

And, so, on the meta- level I am quite open to the possibility that my various zealously advanced stances on proper epistemology or ethics or metaphysics or philosophy of religion might wind up being drastically revised in either the near or distant future.   In fact, I think my zealous exploration of my current ideas now will make me come up against their limitations more quickly (as long as I am responsive to counter-evidence and cognitive dissonances when they arise) than if I avoided too bold advocacy altogether.  In fact on the blog I personally can see my own evolution and am proud of it, even as I have zealously advocated positions I would now zealously qualify or reverse.

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