On Rectitude

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.” Meaning, humans have little or no way to convey they are lying to themselves. Meaning, humans can’t see their own beliefs as false.

In English grammar, the indicative mood describes assertions, denials, and questions in statements like, “I left my wallet on the dresser at home” or “Ostriches don’t fly” or “Am I clear?” Indicative is different from the other three moods of verbs in its attention to what’s actually the case, just-the-facts-ma’am. It’s not about commanding others (imperative), expressing doubt or conditional belief (subjunctive), or addressing actions themselves (infinitive).

High school teachers generally prohibit first person in student writing because “I think,” “I believe,” “I feel,” and other similar statements reduce sentence variety and clutter writing. Plus, the argument goes, they’re redundant. Writing an essay implies thought, belief, and feeling. A no-first-person policy also suggests another important assumption—writers, and people in general, ought to be sure, definitive, assertive. They ought to describe their conclusions as if they were objectively and universally true. Being wishy-washy or ambivalent is not okay. No one wants to read that.

What Wittgenstein says seems more troubling: humans have few means to communicate self-doubt because they can’t recognize it or won’t acknowledge it. They blind themselves to the self-serving moments they choose to believe something that, on further examination, may be specious. The indicative statement “I lie” comes close but isn’t quite the same as “I believe the lie I tell myself.” If someone believes a lie, Wittgenstein implies, it isn’t one.

The psychological dilemma of “Cognitive dissonance” describes a similar situation. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs, and humans prefer consistency, harmony, and concord to doubt. They like to think they’ve arrived at the truth or will get there shortly. And politicians encourage this pattern. “Be decisive,” they say, “and take action.” Occasionally one will say, “Hold on. Don’t try to reach any conclusions yet—we need to study the situation and find out what is really true.” Even then, however, the speaker only pleads for delay, simultaneously promising certainty on schedule. Temporary dissonance is simply a means to an end. The speaker places more faith in discovery than investigation. Investigations without specific ends are suspect.

Yet—to indulge in some cognitive dissonance—every strength is potentially a weakness. Taken too far, prohibiting doubt creates intractable people, people unwilling to abide complexity, disagreement, conflict, paradox, or mystery. Those who want to adapt continuously, who seek enlightenment, who love to have their minds changed and welcome the excitement of flux are rare, even though these people often reach more profound truths than those so impatient they seize the first comfortable, and often selfish, notion that comes along. Relief comes from knowing, and most people want relief from uncertainty.

And, because humans dislike error so, admitting a mistake sometimes swings them to the other extreme, saying, “I was definitely wrong about him” instead of adjusting their positions more moderately. Faith in leadership invests in one person having all the answers. Believing in multiple perspectives—that we benefit from a number of different leaders with different ideas or that one person with one point of view simply can’t have all the answers—seems much harder to conceive. One side has to win utterly. There are no ties.

Where are the candidates who tout their circumspection, deliberation, and even-handedness? Where is the candidate who embraces all the complications and foibles of being human? Would the electorate choose such a candidate?

Decisiveness has an adaptive advantage in evolution but so does flexibility, receptivity, and tolerance. It may sound silly or paradoxical to assert people should be more pliable in their thinking. It may sound like circumlocution to say humans should rely on first person more universally and in an honest way, not as THE perspective to predominate but as a single, admittedly subjective, and limited point of view.

Humans can survive on a crowded planet only by learning to listen more deeply and think less precipitously. In fact, from my perspective, humanity depends upon it.


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Filed under Arguments, Doubt, Essays, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Thoughts, Wittgenstein, Writing

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