Vicious Intellectualism and the American Quest for Truth


I believe that the tradition of American philosophy has a great deal to offer us right now. I realize some people might wonder why they should bother studying academic philosophy at a time like this. In such turbulent times, it is easy for us to imagine that higher thinking and philosophical ideas are not relevant to the real-life problems we face, but I hope to convince you that nothing could be further from the truth. It is my contention that the challenges we face, from political polarization to climate change, are ultimately and inevitably the outcome of the paradigm that we live in. In other words, they are an unavoidable consequence of the fundamental ways that we have been taught to think about the world. 

In the American philosophical tradition, we find threads of exploration that fundamentally challenge the ways we have been taught to think; these threads have the potential to open our minds to dramatical different vistas of possibility. In particular, the American philosophical tradition has a lot to offer us in light of one of the gravest problems we are challenged with; namely, the challenge of determining and agreeing upon what is true. In this day and age, in the midst of the intense politicization of seemingly everything, we find it increasingly difficult to determine what is true. The 24-hour news cycles of cable networks require that time be filled with analysis, interpretation, and opinion, all of which are easily confused with fact. And the proliferation of social networking means that anyone can garner an audience of thousands, or even millions, of people for any idea they want to propagate. It sometimes feels impossible to know what to trust. 

One of the central preoccupations of American philosophy has always been establishing a firm basis for determining what is true. The American attitude toward truth has always been rooted in practicality. Ideas, for Americans, have to work. They have to be practical. They must, in some way, lead to improvements in life and solutions to problems. This pragmatic attitude toward truth was fully realized in the American philosophy of, well… Pragmatism. 

Pragmatism, most simply put, states that in determining the truth of an idea, the only thing that we need to consider is what practical difference it makes if we believe in it. If believing in an idea makes a positive difference, then it is as true as it needs to be in the only functional sense that matters. One of the consequences of this way of thinking is that ideas are never seen as true once and for all. An idea that is beneficial to believe in today, might prove harmful tomorrow. Therefore, our relationship to truth must be loose and adaptable. 

The situation we find ourselves in today is one in which coming to agreement about the truth of important matters often seems impossible. Concerns of social justice and climate change are just two examples of problems that have persisted for decades, thwarting every effort to solve them. The American historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book The Structure of ScientificRevolutions, saw these kinds of persistent problems as evidence that a paradigm shift is necessary. 

If we find ourselves unable to solve problems over long periods of time, despite our best efforts, then we must not be thinking correctly in fundamental ways. A deeper shift in thinking is required before such problems can be solved. A shift in paradigm is necessary. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.” And this is exactly what Kuhn meant.

In the face of persistent problems that defy our ability to solve them, the deep thinking of philosophy is the most practical response. We need to discover where our thinking might be limiting our capacity to find solutions. We can’t just examining what we think is true. We must examine how we come to believe that anything is true in the first place.

So, what does it mean to be true? In considering this question, the most obvious thing that comes to mind is that, if something is true, it must correspond to something in the real world. If I say “This is a black dog,” then when I look, I should see a black dog. If I see a white dog, I will know the statement was not true. This works well for the most simplistic forms of truth about easily visible objects, but as soon as we consider complex circumstances and abstract ideas, correspondence is often of little help in validating truth. Is it true that people should be allowed to own firearms? Is it true that people should wear masks during a pandemic? There is no way to simply look and confirm statements like these.

Some American thinkers came to the conclusion that our reliance on the correspondence theory of truth was part of the reason we have so much trouble determining truth. The idea that our statements of truth should correspond to something real in the outside world is exactly what needs to be challenged. Perhaps the belief that truth must ultimately be verifiable in the observable world, as valuable as that idea has been in many ways, might have outlived its usefulness. Why? Because that way of thinking imposes dramatic limitations on our creativity. Perhaps the underlying reason that we find such important problems so difficult to solve is because our ability to imagine solutions needs to dramatically expand. Perhaps we are not finding solutions because our unconscious perceptual habits filter out dramatically different options before they even come to our awareness. 

Maybe our inability to solve important problems is not caused by a lack of intelligence, but rather by a limitation of imagination. Expanding our ability to imagine new possibilities was the essence of the philosophical pursuits of one of America’s most important philosophers, William James, and it will be well worth our time to consider some of his unusual thinking. There are things that we know. And there are things that we know that we don’t know. And then there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know. Those things, the ones that we don’t even know enough to know that we don’t know them, lay so far outside of our existing frame of reference that we can’t even imagine them. 

William James was fascinated by the realm of these unknown unknowns. He believed that what we know about reality (and even what we can imagine we don’t know about it) is a tiny fraction of the totality of it. James saw that ideas and possibilities that exist way out, beyond the edge of what we currently know, are often dismissed offhandedly as nonsensical. In fact, this habitual disregard is built directly into one of our foundational habits of thinking. James called this habit vicious intellectualism. 

Vicious intellectualism means that whenever we come to believe that something is true, we simultaneously tend to negate all other possibilities. Because we believe that truth means correspondence to the real world, and because we believe that there is only one real world, then there can only be one truth. So, unfortunately, once we believe that we have found the truth, we no longer feel compelled to examine other possibilities. We have all experienced this in a conversation where we realize that the person we are talking with is rigidly fixed in what they think is true. They might want to engage in dialog, but they can only see their own conclusions and dismiss any alternatives without consideration. 

What James called vicious intellectualism most simply means being stuck in our own point of view, and we are probably all more guilty of it than we realize. James was so passionate about upending this habit of mind that he dedicated his career as a philosopher to finding ways to help us see beyond what we already knew.

Vicious intellectualism leads us to be resistant to stepping outside of the known. When we consciously or unconsciously assume that what we think is true is, in fact, actually true, we cling tenaciously to what we already know until we become incapable of any daring intellectual leaps of faith. When this is the case, we can only expand on what we already know by slowly pushing at the borders of the known and creeping into new possibilities. We timidly tiptoe into the unknown like a child entering cold water. James feared that dramatic shifts in understanding, like the kind we need right now, would never be possible in this way.

William James was an unusually free thinker who taught that we should always hold loosely to what we think is true, and never forget that whatever it is will inevitably yield to the truth of a future we can’t yet imagine. James, in particular, advocated against spending excessive energy defending what we know, and instead wanted us to inquire directly into what we don’t already know by focusing on the anomalies to our current understanding.

James felt that our attention should be focused on the outer fringes of knowledge. The next big idea doesn’t come from the center. It comes from the dim outer edge where the light of what we currently know fades into the blackness of the unknown beyond. James risked his career and his reputation as a scientist to study things that others thought were absurdities. As the president of the American Psychical Society, he studied spirits, mediums, and life after death. Most scientists felt this was worthless, but James felt that it was out there, on the fringes, that we had our best chance of finding our way to new and unexpected truths.

Decades after James’ death, Richard Rorty became one of the most influential American philosophers and, in my estimation, part of what he was doing was building directly on James’ idea of vicious intellectualism. Rorty, like James, was deeply concerned with the limitations inherent in the way we relate to what is real. In the end, he came to believe that the idea that there is any reality that exists underneath our ideas about it, might not be a useful way to think. Any rigid adherence to notions of reality – including the notion that there is a reality to have notions about, or the opposite assertion that there is no reality at all – stifles our creativity. Like James, Rorty believed that, when we think we already know what is real, our senses close down and we feel little compulsion, if any, to look beyond what we already believe to be true.

Rorty believed that the most precious thing we have is our imagination and, in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he lays out a vision of how reality works that builds and expands on James’ notion of vicious intellectualism. When something is contingent, it’s dependent on something else. Rorty’s conviction was that all human truth is contingent on the language we have to express it. Truth is shaped and limited by the language we have to describe it. We can only imagine truths that we have words to express. To borrow a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Rorty raised a serious challenge to the correspondence theory of truth. We believe that reality, and therefore the truth about reality, exists independent of our human understanding of it. We have been trained to assume that when we say something is true, we are making a statement about something that exists in reality. If we believe that we are certain about what is true, then we are certain about an indisputable fact of reality. This is exactly the idea Rorty asks us to question. Maybe our statements of truth do not reflect an indisputable reality. Maybe our statements of truth are the inevitable outcome of the language we have to describe the truth, rather than reflections of objective facts. For Rorty, culture doesn’t advance as we discover new truths, it advances as we create new languages that can express new truths. Realty is not discovered; it is created through the literalization of metaphors. Language uses metaphors to express ideas, but over time, we come to believe that the metaphors we created actually represent real things that exist independent of the metaphors we used to express them.

An easy example is the idea of money. Nothing like money actually exists outside of our idea of money and our agreements around that idea. According to Rorty, the world that we perceive to be real is shaped by what we can express in language. We don’t live in an objective world; we live in an articulation of the world and our bottom-line description of the world, the one we really believe in, is contained in what Rorty called our final vocabulary. A person’s final vocabulary is the last set of words they have to describe what is real and what really matters. We are all generally willing to question many of the ideas that we hold, but when our final vocabulary is challenged, we defend it tenaciously. When the final vocabulary of a nation is challenged, the result has often been the outbreak of war. 

Rorty believed that the source of most human conflict is the assumption that our final vocabulary is a description of absolute reality. To resolve this dilemma, he calls us to take up an ironic relationship to truth. An ironist, according to Rorty, is someone who is willing to live fearlessly with continual doubts about their final vocabulary. They surrender the security of believing they have discovered reality because they know that whatever they think is real is limited by the language they have to describe it. They don’t have the luxury of knowing that their final vocabulary is closer to the truth than anyone else’s, and so they remain perpetually open to new possibilities. James and Rorty, and the philosophy of Pragmatism, all advocated for open-mindedness and it seems to me that we need this message as much today as ever.