Agreement Is Overrated

How many times has a friend sent you a link to an essay with the proviso “I don’t agree with everything this person says, but it’s worth reading”? I used to do that, too, but then I reflected on whether intellectual agreement is truly important, and I concluded that it’s not.

Part of the story is that I don’t always agree with myself. Given that I’ve been blogging for over twenty years and was writing for publication years before then, it should come as no surprise that I don’t agree with everything I wrote so long ago. Yet I don’t even fully agree with things I wrote a few weeks ago! A case in point is my recent critique of Hanno Sauer’s paper on the uselessness of philosophical history, since I find value in engaging philosophically with the latest scientific research rather than cloistering myself away in an exclusive study of the ancients (although I’m also convinced that the wisdom of the ancients can be rather helpful in such engagement).

But that’s not all: thinking that I need to maintain consistency with every position I’ve ever held or expressed is artificially constraining. Socrates and Aristotle both said that “philosophy begins in wonder” – and wondering inevitably leads to wandering as I explore side paths, follow leads (one of my favorite parts of any book is the bibliography), make connections across thinkers and disciplines, delve into the details, seek out evidence, ponder the implications, question what I’ve read, and test out ideas by attempting to act on them.

These practices are a way of cultivating intellectual pluralism in my own head, which is more fundamental but also more difficult than respecting intellectual pluralism in society (as important as that is). One of the easiest things in the world is to persuade myself that I, uniquely among all human beings, have chanced upon the truth and that everyone else is mistaken. Well, not everyone else, because humans are social animals and we like to flock together with likeminded people who share a group identity as those few who have found the truth. This, of course, is why agreement feels so good and appears so obligatory in the first place, but it’s a siren call that I try (not always successfully!) to resist.

Note: I realize that this is a controversial topic, so do feel free to disagree!

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