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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Polarized vs. Dialectical Thinking

I just read a beautiful piece by Alfred Einstein, The World as I See It. Here he talks about his great debt to his community, his passion for social justice, and his appreciation of solitude and the desire for Truth and Beauty.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

Here is a wonderful example of dialectical or tensional thinking as opposed to polarized believing. It is also an example of the religious as opposed to the religions, as John Dewey taught.  

Human cognitive activity results in expression; indeed human cognition is the activity of expressing in interaction with others. Expressions are memes (Richard Dawkin's word) which shared and passed down create a culture. They are called thoughts, concepts, or beliefs or, in science, theories. When we fix those beliefs so that they are no long subject to inquiry and can no long change, we exhibit polarized  believing.  

(I know that we use "I think" and "I believe" as synonyms.  Just as we do "faith" and "belief." But I would prefer to distinguish "believing" from "thinking," and "faith" from "beliefs." I see Einstein as having a strong and perduring faith because he has a belief system that is always under question, thinking over believing, deeply religious while critiquing religion.)

Polarized believing ends in an ideology that retards further inquiry. Dialectical thinking is in continual tension between doctrine (acquired knowledge) and inquiry.  

The politics of a republic can work only with dialectical thinking. Partisanship, the existence of parties, interest groups, factions, and especially publics are a part of the process. And it is okay, even admirable, to die for one's beliefs, but not if it brings down the body politic which consists of engaged discussion, negotiation, compromise, getting to a win-win position. 

The polarization of political discourse therefore is deeply troubling especially if one does not even listen to or see the world from the other's point of view. Name calling, demonization, hate talk, the kind that one hears on talk-radio or sees on the internet undermine American politics.  

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