Daniel Pryor explains the importance of humility in dialogue and in writing.
In last week’s column, I discussed the late American philosopher Robert Nozick’s scathing critique of Eric Hobsbawm’s unfeeling utilitarian ‘ethic’. Another of Nozick’s talents was the ability to coin brilliant aphorisms. One of Nozick’s most famous remarks on the nature of philosophy can be found in his 1974 book, ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’:
“There is room for words on subjects other than last words.”
Although some readers may view such a tentative approach to philosophy and politics as nothing more than inconsequential indulgence, I would argue that asking questions is just as important as being able to answer them. That is to say, refraining from challenging oneself to exploring the infinite tide of alternative viewpoints on a given issue is intellectually masochistic and surrendering to stasis. Even those, such as myself, who proudly conform to tight-fitting ideological straitjackets should not be afraid to confront the imperfections that they perceive in their own stances; admitting that there are problematic elements within one’s own political philosophy is just as productive as highlighting the flaws of others.
Whilst acting out the role of an unapologetic polemicist may often be suitable (and indeed extremely persuasive) during political and moral dialogue, there are times at which it is prudent to treat your conversational partner less like an opponent and more like a fellow enquirer. The efficacy and value of this less confrontational manner can be experienced through the writings of Giles Fraser on the Guardian’s website. Despite authoring numerous articles in his ‘Loose Canon’ series that espouse views completely at odds with my own, never have I felt incensed or angry when reading Fraser. Indeed, many of his works don’t read like ‘journalism’ at all:
“Five-twenty in the morning. Unless taken by the cruelties of insomnia, this is the time of day when I am drifting midway through a process of conversion from unconsciousness. Before the thought of tea even, the radio whispers calm assurance that there is more to reality than the small pocket of warmth within which I am currently enveloped.”
Robert Nozick’s style of discourse has been criticised by fellow philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe as being ‘impressionistic’. Yet this criticism is, upon closer examination, also a complement. Hoppe is correct in emphasising the need for systematic logical analysis and its role in the construction of solid ideological edifices. But Nozick and Fraser’s ‘impressionistic’ thinking also has a part to play. As well as more practical advantages, such as being inoffensive enough to slip under the radar of the most fanatical political acolyte, the style also imbues writing with an almost poetic aura of beauty. Regarding his formulation of a minarchist ‘Utopia’, Nozick asks:
“Well, what exactly will it all turn out to be like? In what direction will people flower? …I do not know, and you should not be interested in my guesses about what would occur…”
Displaying a measure of humility and offering political viewpoints tentatively is not only more enjoyable at times; it also helps to prevent the emergence of an egocentric dogma that accompanies day-to-day ideological discussions at school, in the workplace, in the pub or on Twitter. Adhering solely to this inflexible approach mars personal and intellectual development. I suggest that we should remain open to criticism, and save unbending dogma for politicians. Feel free to disagree…