Intellectual Custom: I Want to Be Like You, Or, Like, Not

Intellectual Custom: I Want to Be Like You, Or, Like, Not May 30, 2016

Old Tomes | By Skyden67 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Old Tomes | By Skyden67 (CC BY-SA 4.0)


Nicholas Kristof’s The Liberal Blind Spot in the New York Times is a fascinating follow up to his earlier article calling out his liberal colleagues for welcoming “people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” Now, while the prevalence of ideological homogeneity favors the left in academia , a trend often supported with the derisively nonfactual claim that “truth skews left,” it’s reasonable to note that “blind spots” are not simply a problem leftists/progressive face—it’s a problem humans face. Rather than get caught up in a silly debate about the mental acuity on either side of the political aisle, I’d rather consider the causes of this phenomena more epistemologically in hopes that it can offer us some insight into being human instead of being internet trolls.

The problem with the intellectual life, and really all the thinking we do as humans, is that not a one of us comes into this world in a vacuum. It can be tempting to speak of men in the “state of nature,” coming together to freely subjugate themselves in a union of total individual alienation to the “supreme direction of the general will,” as Rousseau’s tale goes, but in the intellectual life as in the moral life, mere desire does not carry the force of reality. Membership in this social contract is not a free choice—even Rousseau must recognize that his state of nature men came into the world within the context of society. Even Adam walked with God. Every last one of us arrives on stage in the middle of things. Consequently, the individual who separates herself from the community cannot do so excepting that she has a community to reject. This means that each of us comes into this world within the context of a certain cultural determination. That is to say, we are born into a specific culture with its specific mores.

Mores comes the Latin word mos, and a bit of etymology is helpful here. St. Thomas Aquinas’s distinguishes two common meanings of mos in the Summa Theologiae (I-II.58 a 1):

“Sometimes it means custom…Sometimes it means a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action.”

Moving from this idea of mos, we can turn to the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition of mores as

“Customs or conventions regard as essential to or characteristic of a community,”

which the late Dr. Ronald McArthur, in his article Intellectual Custom and the Study Of St. Thomas published in the most recent issue of The Aquinas Review, parallels with St. Thomas’ first understanding of mos. Mores, or custom, Dr. McArthur argues, “plays a role in engendering this [quasi-natural] inclinations.”*

A helpful example of this is speech patterns. Take the vocal fry, or my propensity, thanks to early-00s WB shows, for saying the word like as a placeholder. Both are examples of cultural linguistic phenomena that become habits of a quasi-natural force, eventually occurring with little to no thought to or even recognition of their occurrence. What might have been simply the linguistic conventions/customs characteristic of “teen girl” or “millennial young adult female circa 2013,” become so deeply entrenched in speech that breaking these habits can take extremely intentional habits, My failure to overcome the superfluous use of “like” in speech seems only paralleled by my failure to learn to write with my left hand- and in both cases it subjectively appears that I fight against what is natural. For the gentlemen (and ladies with better speech habits than I) out there who are Catholic, perhaps you better understand this as the “kneeling to cross yourself in the lecture hall” phenomena.

Now, this sort of “acculturation,” or “accustoming,” is quite clear in the physical actions of life (using a fork or chopsticks, linguistic patterns, kneeling to the lectern); it is likewise apparent in the social as well as the moral activities of life (shaking hands, giving a thumbs up, not spontaneously killing people who cut you off on the freeway, going to Sunday mass). What is often ignored, however, because we like to consider ourselves rulers of our own domains, is the way that this acculturation or accustoming or these mores shape our intellectual habits. And yet, free as we might like to pretend we are, Kristof notices that we tend to prefer people who think like us. What this intellectual custom does, Dr. McArthur explains, is it “presents to the intellect, by means of various doctrines and opinions, certain ways of thinking about things, and by so doing proportions the intellect to those very things.”

So, say you accept, from your intellectual custom of schooling, HuffPo, and Glee the intellectual custom which rests the morality of an activity on the individual’s conception of her own good. A consequence of this might be that one of your first principles includes the proposition “love is love” or “love wins.” Consequently, when an individual from this intellectual then hears a person saying something like “marriage is an indissoluble, exclusive union between a man and a woman ordered to a complete human good only achieved within the polity,” there arises an understandable conflict between customs.

In the love wins tradition, the custom of assenting to the individuals conception of his or her own good as self-determined leads to the proposition “love wins,” because it, ostensibly, makes people happy. And those who claim otherwise, well, can’t you just look at the pictures on Buzzfeed and see the emotional happiness people experience when “love wins”? The argument to the contrary, abstracted from the momentary impression of the pixelated experience, lacks the emotional authenticity this intellectual custom invokes, and consequently this dispassion, or passion running contrary to desires which “don’t hurt you,” is categorically “mean,” and so it becomes something like morally “bad.”Or at least, the HuffPo “Anti Gay Bigots” [which I am not linking] page would argue as much.

This is why we like people who think like us, and why it is so easy to call those who differ in custom “idiots;” our intellectual custom becomes so familiar to us, it is “as if” it were natural. Moreover, the ways we think about things creates a habit of thinking about the things that, within the specific custom,is at least somewhat coherent—the intellectual custom of picture-image as proof, for example, looks to the particular situation as itself the determining principle of more universal judgment. If you think this does not indiscriminately describe the current political spectrum, you have obviously and intelligently blocked all memes on Facebook, and for that I commend you. Kristof is absolutely correct in recommending self-awareness, a trait that could be commanded in the words “Know Thyself,” as necessary for discovering our intellectual customs. Though he does not suggest the purpose of this should be pursuit of “the True,” I will.

However, unpacking this connection between intellectual custom and the True brings us to questions I will have to hold on until  my next post**: When we have custom, how do we approach the True as such? And, assuming it is possible to actually know things in some way as they are, how can we best help people get there?

So remember kids, Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel.


*Ronald P. McArthur, “Intellectual Custom and the Study of St. Thomas,” The Aquinas Review 20, (2015): 3.

**To address this new would make a long post almost unreadable given F pattern reading, and also I need to go do grading.

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