Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James
I Believe, or: On Beyond Skepticism....
6 July 2004
Re-writing Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see a Brain that works unlike a Tree....
My tree-like brain has gone back a branch or two, and wants to gnaw for a while longer @ Rene's profound skepticism and Paul's not-just-commitment to/admiration for same, but to his fully and completely following through on that posture ....
I think (she said skeptically) there's a problem w/ doing that....
and, frankly, a disingenuity, because (as one of our students noted), despite your claim, both politically and domestically "not to believe," you actually DO, and you actually repeatedly exhort your students to as well: (Listen for it next time you lecture, Paul).
A long-time mentor of mine in the teaching of composition (and the concomitant practice of the cultivation of long silences) is Peter Elbow, who 30 years ago published, in his book Writing Without Teachers, an appendix essay called "The Doubting Game and The Believing Game: An Analysis of the Intellectual Exercise." A friend, Gerry LeChance, has just sent me an updated commentary on that exercise, which Elbow is assigning him in a summer seminar, and which is forthcoming soon in College English. I draw heavily on it here, in calling both Paul and Rene's attention to the professional danger for intellectuals of being unable to assent. Michael Polyani counters this tendency with a powerful account of the necesary role of trust in all good thinking--what he calls the "fiduciary transaction," or taking the time to really dwell in someone else's claim (hey, even your own), really live inside of it for a while.
In the terms you favor, before engaging in extreme doubt, take the risk of dwelling for a while in the cave of belief. Elbow even argues that the way to get maximum differentiation in thinking, to really probe whether there might be something true or useful or interesting in something which makes you uncomfortable...you need to sit silent w/ it for a while, or (in his more-striking formulation), to sleep with whatever idea comes down the pike...
To just doubt, even to doubt profoundly?
Is way too one-dimensional, guys.
To paraphrase Melville, who taught us in Moby-Dick that "there is a wisdom that is woe, and ...a woe that is madness"--
there is a deep skepticism that is wisdom.
And there is a more profound skepticism that is madness.
Believe me on this one.