Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter One

Be Ye Not Mentally Lazy

You may have grown up, as I did, convinced that the authority figures in your world were telling the truth, at least to a degree. I sensed a core of truth in what they so dogmatically said, but I knew in my gut that at some points they were wrong. I recognized that, while maybe they were right, there was more to it than they let on, and often that "more to it" was what mattered most. I also knew that some people and the views they so strongly condemned were not as bad as they were made out to be. I knew that a lot of the wrongs they attacked were not always necessarily, totally wrong. Although at the time I could not have articulated it, I was developing a core of skepticism.

But I was well socialized, so never did I consider challenging any of this. They were bigger, older, smarter, richer, and they held the power to either punish or reward. There was no future in challenging their positions.

On the other hand I knew better than to trust my own mind. In school my classmates made better grades, were better athletes, better looking, and more popular. I was not a leader; no one ever followed or looked up to me. I was painfully aware of my own inadequacies, but although I was not fully conscious of it, I was also vaguely aware of the limitations of those in authority and even of my more popular and more gifted classmates.

I was nearly fifty-years-old before I realized the full implications of those childhood perceptions. Gradually I came to see that my tacit disagreement with society somehow comprised the elements of a more honest and complete approach to truth and life. The seeds of a new way of thinking had been planted; a way I much later came to call The DIALECTIC, the theme of this book.

After floundering through life for long years, I finally learned that it is easy to become a good thinker. Good thinking, however, is in short supply both because many of us are mentally lazy and because it requires something more than mere critical thinking, keen intellect, and formal education.

On the Other Hand

What it takes to become a good thinker is to make,"On the Other Hand," your habitual response to ideas, whether your own or those of others, spoken or written, in formal or in informal settings. No matter what is presented, always consider what might be "on the other hand," because no human statement is, by itself, ever complete, something is always left out, there is always more to be said, and it is always possible that what has been presented might be wrong. Develop a deep sense and appreciation of human limitations, determine to make "on the other hand" thinking second nature, and you are on the road to becoming a good thinker. Results will appear almost immediately. You will become a voice to be reckoned with.

Is that all there is to it? No, but if "on the other hand" thinking becomes a regular practice, you will quickly become a respected thinker. I remember from my youth that the Sears, Roebuck catalog offered a choice of merchandise at varying levels of quality: good, better, and best. You already have read enough to reach the genuinely good level of thinker.

When you come to understand the larger dimensions of THE DIALECTIC--the proper name for "on the other hand thinking"--and when you add to that an elementary understanding of how logical thinking works, you will become a better thinker.

And if you are still here when we come to the last pages of the book, we will consider how you can become the best thinker that can be made out of your unique personality and place in the world.

Becoming a Thinker

Daddy was a workaholic and always gone, Mother was an old-fashioned housewife, a good one, busy doing all the work that entails, so I was pretty well left alone and by default became a lonely, lazy dreamer. I roamed the rivers, creeks, and hills, knowing I had been born fifty years too late to be the cowboy or mountain man that I read and dreamed of. I drifted mindlessly through the years until one day I found myself a high school graduate. I remember three graduation gifts, one of them in particular. Neither the creamy-yellow sport jacket nor the fancy corduroy shirt of many colors ever looked right on me, but somehow I have remembered them. More to the point was Mother's gift of a book of inspirational poetry and prose, Quests and Conquests. For years I enjoyed reading the book but was never inspired to actually do anything. The book didn=t change me, but Mother's inscription written in the front of the book, "Be ye not mentally lazy," haunted me.

Mother's admonition was based on accurate observation. I don't remember having ever thought much about anything for the first twenty years of my life, but when I read her inscription I knew immediately that I needed whatever it was that she was calling for. However, I neither knew what to do about it nor how. The problem was that I had no thinking equipment, skills, or coaching, and had no prior encouragement to think (few schools or homes teach us how to think). It would be long years before I made any progress in that direction, but Mother's words were never far from my consciousness; I felt their challenge continually.

Several years later, I found myself in a theological seminary studying to become a minister. There I heard professor Gordon Clinard declare that the greatest weakness of Southern Baptist preaching was shallowness. Immediately I vowed that my sermons would have depth. During seminary years, I worked, without adequate tools for thinking, at exploring the depths of God's word and of human experience. I was still depending on others, teachers and books, to do my thinking for me, and I still trusted them. Yet I knew they were missing it somewhere.

When I was given my first teaching position and found that I had to teach--and thus learn--logic, I discovered, finally, a method of systematic thinking. Logic, I came to realize, should be required of all high school graduates--not symbolic logic, but traditional, elementary logic.

Now, I was a beginning philosophy teacher and confident of my ability as a thinker. But I had a lot to learn. It took a half-dozen years of teaching philosophy before all of the above began to converge in the idea of THE DIALECTIC. I completely rewrote my philosophy courses, making the DIALECTIC central, and have taught it now for more than thirty years. Mother would be proud of her easy-going son because across the years, among faculty and students alike, I have gained a reputation for making people think. They tell me they now think about things they never thought about before, and from perspectives they would have never before considered. Let's talk about how you can improve your thinking ability and practice.

But on the Other Hand

The words of a Randy Travis song suggest the way. Early in his career Travis sang about a fellow who has just met an exciting woman. She has captivated his complete attention, has him almost spellbound. As he considers the possibility of spending the night with her, he sings, "On one hand I count the reasons I could stay with you . . . all night long . . . and on that hand I see no reason why it's wrong." That is one way for him to look at the situation. But the refrain reveals the rest of the picture, as he sings, "But on the other hand there's a golden band, to remind me of someone who would not understand." He has been tempted to forsake his marriage, and might have done so if he just looked at things from the most obvious point of view, the way he felt. He sings about a strong desire to stay, but the logic of marital love and commitment tells him that, "the reason I must go is on the other hand."

This indicates the importance of DIALECTICal thinking for even the most careless of us. On one hand--every day, throughout the day--we see things we believe to be right and that feel right at the time, but on the other hand there is always more to be considered. On one hand we are ready to act; on the other hand it is always possible that we might be wrong and regret what we did.

In life too much is at stake for our conduct to be decided by one-handed thinking. President Harry Truman once told his cabinet members that he wished they would find him a one-hand economist. He said that every economist that briefed him presented a good analysis of the economic situation, and advised an appropriate course of action. However, Truman complained, once they laid all this out, they would say: "But on the other hand . . . ," and proceed to build the case for a different analysis and course of action. He wanted someone who had the answer.

The truth is that no single way of looking at anything ever sees the whole picture. There is always more. Mortimer Adler made the strange claim that the greatest contribution Greek civilization ever made to our culture was the idea of men and de. These strange words are two little particles in the Greek language, commonly translated into English as on one hand/but on the other hand. When we think of Greek culture, sculpture, philosophy, and drama, we might wonder what Adler was thinking when he made such an audacious claim. Why would he say on the one hand/but on the other hand is the greatest contribution of the Greeks? Because it is a concise expression of that which this book is about, that which we call the DIALECTIC.


The DIALECTIC will not make you a better person--that is a whole different issue--but it will make you a better thinker. It will keep you out of a lot of trouble. You will not be surprised easily or often. It will make it easier for you to understand and get along with other people. Others will begin to respect you and your ideas more than they have in the past. If you are a student, you will become a better learner, performing better in the classroom and making better grades, gaining broader understanding and deeper insight. If you are married, you will become a better and more appreciated spouse. If you are part of a team at work, you will become a better and more valuable team member.

If all this sounds as though the DIALECTIC is some kind of a magic pill or silver bullet, you are hearing it right. No matter who you are, what you are interested in, or what you do, it will fit you. It will apply directly to what you are about. All this, and it is easy to learn and put to use.

Think like an Octopus

"On the other hand." That's the silver bullet. That's all it takes to become a good thinker. It's that simple. But on the other hand, it helps to notice still another hand.

I was sitting at the breakfast table, reviewing plans for my first philosophy class of the day. I was thinking specifically about the dialectic. Then I remembered that I had a problem student in that class. I only had three problem students in thirty-some years of teaching. This was one of them. He was one of those back row, disruptive whisperers. I had spoken to him about it a couple of times, to no avail. He seemed to have a lack of respect for me. So I shifted my mind from preparation for class to preparation for dealing with this aggravation.

I spent two years in the army as basic training officer. I have experience in sounding tough, and I can make the appropriate face to go along with the speech. I=ve never used that style in teaching. However, that morning, I was considering it. On the other hand, I could quietly inform him that if the whispers did not cease, he would receive an "F" in the class. On the other hand, I wasn't sure that would be a fair course of action. In fact, he might dare me to try it (he was the kind to do that). On the other hand, I had to do something because he was disrupting the class. So, on the other hand . . . Wait a minute, how many other hands do I have?

On the other hand is the dialectical formula. It is the way. But on which other hand. Mentally, we have more than two hands. Our left hand has its own right and left hands, and they have theirs. We need to think on as many hands as possible. We need to learn to think like an octopus. An octopus can think "on the other hand" several times before he runs out of perspectives to consider.

The way to become a good thinker is to think like an octopus. Usually there are many hands to consider. Each hand has other hands itself. Don't forget the left hand. Like a construction supervisor, hire other hands if they are needed. Don't settle on an answer, conclusion, or idea until you have to because there are always these other hands to turn to. We will never have time to check them all out, but don't quit early, especially if there is much at stake.

Think dialectically, consider others, even your enemies, maybe especially your enemies, and think like an octopus thinking on all eight hands. However, if we seek to examine all hands, can we ever make a decision?

At some point we have to cut off thought and act on the best judgment we can make at the time, always realizing that what we do may turn out wrong. We have no choice, however, but to use our best judgment at the time, however incomplete it may be.


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