When To Turn It Off

Here’s a… hypothesis for why many habits of philosophical thinking might not come naturally. The hypothesis is that some tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement. These tools help us make sense of what someone is saying by encouraging us to interpret underspecified claims in the most positive light; they help us coordinate conversation by establishing common ground.

That’s Tania Lombrozo, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and National Public Radio (NPR) columnist, in a recent post at NPR’s Culture & Cosmos. She’s commenting on the “Philosophy Tool Kit” Alan Hájek (ANU) published at Aeon last week (you might have seen it in DN’s Heap of Links).

Of the tools of critical reasoning Hájek explains, Lombrozo asks:

Why do we need special training to acquire them? Why aren’t they built into our cognitive machinery, or acquired through our years of experience evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life?

Hájek identifies certain cognitive biases as the explanation. Lombrozo considers a social explanation:

When someone asks us for “the right thing to do,” we’re inclined to engage in the conversation they’ve invited us to engage in: one in which we assume there is a right thing to do, and we help them to find it. When someone says “everyone likes a good book,” we understand them to be telling us something about the kinds of people relevant to our current conversational context, not something true of every single person.

If this is right, then some forms of critical evaluation and philosophical thinking are hard because they force us to suspend other habits of mind; habits that serve us well when our goal is to engage or persuade or befriend.

I think there’s something to this—and it runs in both directions. In conversation, questions about implications, definitions, and distinctions in my interlocutor’s speech sometimes come to mind before its implied meanings, scope restrictions, and purpose. Vocalizing these questions in a non-philosophical context (and sometimes even in philosophical ones) can serve as an obstacle to understanding and progress—and human connection. Perhaps the fact that restraining this analytical impulse requires effort explains philosophers’ apparent preference for romantic partners who are also philosophers.

UPDATE: See this reply by Danielle Wenner (CMU).

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