I ran out of time to share this while Wisdom was the topic, but it’s such an integral and important concept I’ve opted to throw it out there now anyhow. The idea is what simple wisdom might refer to as “keeping an open mind”, but in reality it’s a skill so much more vital and complex than that phrase allows.

~5 Minute Read

     We are, as humans, naturally inclined toward the most efficient means of interacting with others’ ideas: listening, fitting them with our own models, and then moving forward. Yet this is our greatest weakness, especially in this age of attention economy, where we become all too vulnerable to having this process manipulated by others.
    One of the most valuable skills Philosophy teaches, that I would even say is the defining trait of being ‘good at philosophy’ (or ‘wise’, for that matter), is the art of learning to see others’ ideas through their own eyes– of reserving judgement on ideas, and trying to sympathise with them, even when you disagree.
    Without this skill, our typical approach is to take ideas at face-value, on our first interpretation of what is heard or read, and to ‘place’ the idea within our pre-existing understanding (our world-view); a friend tells you ‘chocolate is the worst’, or ‘liberals are so soft and whiney’, and your mind forms a picture of the meaning behind these to the best of its ability, using what it knows. This is done out of efficiency, for it would be exhausting to constantly try and perceive the world from everyone else’s perspectives, and would require a great deal of mental energy. But this is the trap. For in this attempt to conserve energy, we end up cornering ourselves in; trapping ourselves within our own perspectives, and closing ourselves off to connections with others.

    In ‘History of Western Philosophy‘ Russell nails this idea on its head:

    “In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second.
    Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.”

‘Critical thinking’ (as it’s known as academically) is essential for evaluating complex ideas and weighing the opinions of others, but it is also a priceless life-skill. By relying purely on our pre-existing pictures of the world to place the information we receive, as most do, not only do you prevent yourself from genuinely understanding (sympathising, connecting with) those you communicate with, but moreover, you prevent your perspective from ever being able to truly grow– to ‘transcend’ its current limitations and proceed onto a more rewarding and affirming awareness. As far as I see it, the latter is precisely the karmic punishment for the closed-minded and destructive among us: that in their refusal to learn to be better and kinder, they are unable to grow and experience what it’s like to live in kindness, with loved ones and in a positive environment.
    With the former – the inability to genuinely connect to others’ through their perspectives – it is all too easy to forget that everyone does what they do, for a good reason: nobody does anything thinking it’s a really bad idea, it is only through understanding that bad ideas become apparent. We look down on criminals and the ignorant, because we ‘cannot see’ how they make the decisions they do, all the while oblivious to the fact that we would do exactly the same, in their shoes (with their understanding).

The only thing standing between you and those you judge, is how you’ve learned to see the world.
    This laziness in thought, and the resulting rapid-judgement, keeps us all at odds with one another and allows us to be manipulated by governments and ad-agencies alike– for when we do not weigh our opinions before forming them, we sit like ducks with beaks agape being fed whatever comes our way, allowing our opinions to be formed for us. The news bombards us with political leanings and negative, sensationalist headlines, so we absorb their stance; social media (and even our social circles) constantly feed us perspectives, and our minds casually drift to fit the trends; advertisements, TV, and product marketing all bombard our consciousness with their implicit values, and we fail to notice how our minds are being warped and bent.
    Russell’s last sentence in that paragraph – that “this exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind” – cannot be overstated. Every single one of our ideas stands on the shoulders of those before us, and what seems like infallible genius to us now will one day be naive musings to those that follow. When you allow yourself to be humbled by the current of knowledge, to keep an open mind to the thoughts and perspectives of others, only then can your heart and mind truly blossom.
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