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Society of Mind

17.11 intellectual ideals

How do we deal with thoughts that lead to frightening results? What should one think about the nearly paradox that threatens to imply that all things, large and small, might be the same size? One strategy would be to constrain that kind of reasoning, by learning never to chain together more than two or three such nearness links. Then,

perhaps, one might proceed to generalize that strategy, in fear that it's unsafe to chain together too many instances of any form of inference.

But what could the phrase too many mean? There is no universal answer. Just as in the case of More, we have to learn this separately in each important realm of thought: what are the limitations of each type and style of reasoning? Human thought is not based on any single and uniform kind of logic, but upon myriad processes, scripts, stereotypes, critics and censors, analogies and metaphors. Some are acquired through the operation of our genes, others are learned from our environments, and yet others we construct for ourselves. But even inside the mind, no one really learns alone, since every step employs many things we've learned before, from language, family, and friends — as well as from our former Selves. Without each stage to teach the next, no one could construct anything as complex as a mind.

There is another way our intellectual growth is not so different from our emotional development: we can make intellectual attachments, too, and want to think the way certain other persons do. These intellectual ideals may stem from parents, teachers, and friends; from persons one has never met, such as writers; even from legendary heroes who did not exist. I suspect we depend as much on images of how we ought to think as we do on images of how we ought to feel. Some of our most persistent memories are about certain teachers, but not about what was taught. (At the moment I'm writing this, I feel as though my hero Warren McCulloch were watching disapprovingly; he would not have liked these neo-Freudian ideas.) No matter how emotionally neutral an enterprise may seem, there's no such thing as being purely rational. One must always approach each situation with some personal style and disposition. Even scientists have to make stylistic choices:

Is there enough evidence yet, or should I seek more? Is it time to make a uniframe — or should I accumulate more examples? Can I rely on older theories here, or should I trust my latest guess? Should I try to be Reductionist or Novelist?

At every step, the choices we make depend on what we have become.

Our sciences, arts, and moral skills do not originate from detached ideals of truth, beauty, or virtue but stem partly from our endeavors to placate or please the images established in earlier years. Our adult dispositions thus evolve from impulses so infantile that we would surely censure them, if they were not by now transformed, disguised, or — as Freud said — sublimated.