Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Philosophy: A Spectrum of Coherence

Originally posted on July 25, 2010

For many people it doesn’t take that much rational coordination to sustain a viable philosophy of life. Such a system can be sufficiently developed and maintained using a limited number of relatively self-evident platitudes and general social norms, loosely assembled and supported by one’s peer group. Interestingly, all that is needed is the illusion of coherence: The assemblage of ideas and images can seem plausible and good enough for all practical purposes. For most people, this illusion allows for not-too-obvious inconsistencies and lapses in logic. Such forms of “cognitive dissonance” are easily compensated for using a variety of simple mental adjustive maneuvers or fudge factors—also known in psychoanalysis as the “defense mechanisms.”

A minority of people have a desire for more rational coordination, more intellectual coherence. They’re more sensitive to inconsistencies—it bothers them more. They need more discussion, reflection, and perhaps some reading of other people’s ideas about life. They will require access to books on philosophy, or at least self-help and pop psychology and spirituality.

There is a realm where some students really are willing to stretch their minds and learn about logic and the finer patterns of argument. This bridges into academic philosophy, college courses, heavier and denser books.

The interesting thing is that at a certain degree of seeking coherence, the discussions become actively uncomfortable for those who prefer a less rigorous process. The argumentation begins to seem pedantic and irrelevant.

Another interesting development is the awareness of the vulnerability of an otherwise tightly-reasoned argument to attack from positions that challenge certain fairly basic assumptions. Sometimes this takes the form of an attack on those who rely on scientific evidence by those who question whether science can adequately address the phenomena being evaluated. Sometimes it’s an argument between reason and “faith” or emotionally-sustained belief; or an argument between that which follows fairly logical lines and those who deny that logic is relevant to the evaluation.

Another attack on philosophy comes from those whose allegiance is to practical application or political implications. They evaluate the “fruits” of a given position. If this or that idea were so, how would we live differently? What laws should we make or repeal? What social norms should we support or strive to deconstruct?

The implications of recognizing this spectrum of coherence is that we should question the unspoken authority of those who are skilled in constructing dense arguments—i.e., professional philosophers. Sometimes they have good ideas—sometimes brilliant insights! But I wonder whether the sheer complexity of their thinking confers additional authority or it obscures another possibility: In spite of a given position being closely reasoned, there may well be other considerations not even being acknowledged, other frames of reference that might challenge fairly basic assumptions. In other words, academic philosophy may not be the final arbiter of our emerging world-view. We need a wider perspective that includes some consideration of “what sells,” what is understandable by a greater percentage of people.

One implication of this is that a contemporary philosopher needs to be quite nimble and flexible in juggling frames of reference, in identifying and commenting on the implications of different viewpoints. A second implication is the relinquishment of the illusion that a closely reasoned argument deserves to “win,” and instead shift towards a willingness to engage in dialogue without that right/wrong attitude in mind.

Also, I think that philosophy is relevant today, because people—especially younger people—are hungering for a deeper and more vivid sense of purpose and meaning. I suspect the fragility or even lack of such a sense contributes to a significant degree to many forms of psychopathology in youth today—and also to older folks.

Thus, a philosophical position may need to be popularized if it is to have any influence. This may be part of the function of rhetoric: How are you going to sell what you think? But the illusion that densely argued and coordinated ideas will be persuasive works—if it does at all—only on those evaluators (e.g., thesis evaluation committees; peer-reviewed editorial boards for journals) whose values are somewhat aligned. The point is that for most people, such academic exercises seem irrelevant if not elitist; and perhaps they’re right.

In summary, I’m arguing for a more populist emphasis, a recognition that good philosophical work, good ideas, need to be re-formulated so that they can be more readily mentally digested. I am aware of Whitehead’s dictum: We should try to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. I’m aware of the second part of that statement, as it recognizes that the desire for simplicity is often illusory and immature. Nevertheless, this recognition should not be allowed to remove the challenge to most philosophers to make a serious effort to present their ideas simply.

Finally, perhaps there is a need also to weave in elements of non-linear argument—elements of poetry, parables, analogies, metaphors, images, diagrams, anecdotes, lots of examples. We cannot expect to be effective communicators by remaining at a more abstract level of discourse. Let’s try to get it a little more “juicy.”

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