Intellectual Estrangement (2011-15): A Mystery

If there is one thing that all conversation partners and philosophical friends have in common, one thing that can be gleaned from the winter of 2011 to the present, it is the theme of intellectual estrangement. Each, alone, has come to me because his thoughts have seemed very much his own, very unlike the thoughts of others, and there seems to be no one who can take, or at least who has taken, such matters seriously. For the longest time too, perhaps throughout most of his life, he has come to assume that he is so strange, so utterly peculiar, such an oddity of a human being that there must be nobody else with whom he can speak, let alone make sense of his thoughts. It is a certain kind of loneliness rarely discussed and rarely disclosed.

It turns out that these thoughts are such as to cut to the marrow of life. “What is real? What can we know? Is there a self? Why do I exist? What is it all about?” These questions as well as others swallow up their lives. “If I’m not a self, then who or what am I? And how am I (who is this ‘I’ again?) to live?” Or: “Suppose I know that I exist. Granting that much, I still don’t know why I exist.” There are questions that make up their thinking, questions that no one else seems to be asking, questions that become secrets, kept to themselves for fear of further alienation.

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Open-mindedness: Living Socratically

I begin to note that, in my experience in academia and beyond, most people are close-minded. It was a marvel to me to discover, and this only very recently, that one can make sense of people by ascertaining whether they are close-minded (the many) or open-minded (the few). The apparent crudeness of the distinction (“There are only two kinds of people…”) should not bely the power of its disclosure. Something in the world, about the world opens up to us as we see other people in this light. Open-minded or close-minded? I observe too that I used to be close-minded (very) and further that the Socratic dispensation, being one that I finally adopted in 2011 and after, absolutely requires, even as it teaches, open-mindedness. It is through the Socratic dispensation and through the way of inquiring daily that I have changed from close-mindedness to open-mindedness. Thus am I able to pick out both.

Further observations are in order before an inquiry into the nature of open-mindedness. How striking is this: that many of those in a spiritual community are close-minded, as are academics, consultants, business leaders, engineers, entrepreneurs, psychologists, and (well) most professionals. Many are the dogmatists who believe that they have all the answers to life, that a particular domain is one that they have mastered, or that everything can be explained in a reductive set of terms, the same set at that. The lingo of “openness” and of “asking good questions” has not pierced the illusion of dogmatism.

With ancient skeptics, I am warranted, I think, in calling most people dogmatists because they go around asserting that something is indubitably true without, of course, being willing it to submit their assertions to systematic questioning. You might find the charge of dogmatism ill-fitting when it comes to academics or even creative leaders, but I have reason to think that it sticks: they are staked to holding onto a body of knowledge and, whatever else may be challenged, that body cannot.

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