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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Intellectual Honesty

In the past week I have been embroiled in or an observer of several different and rather heated internet conversations on internet forums. I use the term conversation because I contend that discussion or argument implies certain standards that are invariably not met. I'm sure that anyone reading this would be familiar with these kinds of exchanges, but if you're only familiar with the trope let me stop you right there. These are reasonably civil conversations in that they don't involve threats, gratuitous disregard for conventional English and occur in that kind of forum that still believes in the internet as a democratising force (cf a hot bed of memes and random viral crap hosted by "social media" giants). As it happens, these are the kinds of heated conversations where the participants believe the phrase "intellectual honesty" to have meaning/power.

The thing is, intellectual honesty is something of a problematic term. After all, I think pretty much everyone knows what they mean by "honesty" but will struggle to articulate it. I skip the problematic middle man and say, "Well, I think of it as telling the truth and not deceiving people" but then jump to the dictionary anyway to compare. (Or clearly, I don't.) But how does intellectual change this (4:16pm quote)? Is it now about avoiding deception in intellectual pursuits (whatever they are)? Is it about not lying to oneself? Is it really just as simply as "the pursuit of truth for the truth's sake" and hence pretty much "lacks conflicts of interest"? Actually, no, I don't think it is.

From a practical point of view, intellectual honesty is simply a rhetorical concept that you invoke in order to dismiss the validity of your opponent's conduct, whether or not it is true. (There are echoes of this here.) In this way it's an idea analogous to pseudo-intellectual... which is a pseudo-intellectual term. Yet, that it is used this way means that people understand something else by the term... which is the "real" meaning. In this way it is like SJW... it doesn't matter if there aren't any actual SJW's following a given definition of "SJW", as long as the definition one comes up with corresponds with the meanings that people who are using the acronym are trying to invoke. And the truth is, intellectual honesty is about completeness.

Basically, an argument can be considered intellectually honest if it is complete. This means, it is aware of its burdens, explicit in its meanings, formulated in context, considerate of its strengths (and therefore its weaknesses) and what it superficially appears to be. That means, that an intellectually honest argument is not deceptive in its expression or its construction and is viewed as a product of its author (i.e. is owned). It might be useful to use a checklist to see if an argument is whole:

  • statements are owned, i.e. one holds onself accountable for what one does
  • one does not obscure intellectual forebears, springboards and punching bags, i.e. ideological ancestry, what one is riffing off and what one is attacking/talking about is made clear
  • when one attributes opinions to others, one offers evidence
  • when one claims that statements have implications, substantive justifications are made
  • one respects the specific context of the conversation and the wider context it exists in
  • the bounds of one's claims are consistent and signposted, i.e. digressions, special cases and the like are made clear and differentiated from earlier points
  • statements are aware of their own burdens, i.e. what needs to be true for the statement to be true
  • one engages with responses as they are, e.g. no strawmen

This is a difficult task to achieve and rather scary when you look at it. But this doesn't actually say anything about being right, as such. Rather, if you are accountable, then you are approximating entirety because if someone comes along and says, "Actually you haven't considered..." or "Well, that point there isn't true..." then these sorts of responses are honestly appraised. That is, they're weighed against TRUTH, rather than any kind of attachment to one's earlier positions. Ownership and concern for the "owned material" means that adjustments are made, even if that means recanting. There is very much a suggestion of the dispassionate scholar here or the consummate professional (the doctor who saves the life of their mother's murderer or the rape victim collaborating with their rapist to build a house... note that these are unrealistic and unfair examples: dispassion is not a human condition, but that does not mean that it is worthless).

I'm not sure where I am going with this, I should mention one of the links I read talked about authenticity which I think matters, and I know that breaking up responses to posts or studies or whatever makes honesty more difficulty (seeing as it has problematic consequences for context) and one-liners are necessarily dishonest (they are incapable of doing all of the above) but no matter how long I make this sentence, I don't think I am going to get anywhere. So, um, basically I think I felt motivated to try my hand at defining a concept related to my earlier post Responsibility, Beliefs and Discussion. How to incorporate my scepticism of the notion that you cant't argue for view you disagree with honestly or talk about how I really shouldn't have quoted things I haven't read all of in this post remains unclear. I also don't have the will to engage with these afterthoughts properly. Perhaps it is honest to note that I have thought of such concerns and that I have not attended to them here?

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