Monday, September 1, 2014

Three Qualities to Guarantee Fruitful Dialogue

I've discovered that there are three basic qualities that may indicate the possibility of fruitful dialogue and intellectual encounter. Insofar and to the extent that these qualities are present in a person, that person may engage in honest conversation about intellectual convictions. The limit of these qualities in any person marks the limit of the possibility for conversation. These qualities are self-reinforcing and heuristic; i.e. as one increases, so too do the others; as one decreases, so too do the others. Finally, it should be noted and remembered that as a rule most people do not and in a certain sense cannot have these qualities or develop them. Many reasons exist for this restrictive circumstance, ranging from ignorance, malice, or the difficulty and "noisiness" of regular life. These qualities require silence, detachment, humility, and a constant openness to growth.

1. Self-reflectivity: most people live on a "surface" level in which they never reflect on their own intellectual capacity. For example, our minds allow us to analyze nature on different planes: 1) the physical and particular; 2) the mathematical and quantitative; 3) the metaphysical and qualitative. Each of these planes are deeper (or higher) manners of analysis. Likewise, one can act, but one can also reflect on one's actions. The depth of this reflection grounds the depth of self-reflectivity. To be open to the truth, a person must reflect on why they believe what they believe.

The self-reflective person not only adheres to a belief, or a proposition about some matter x. By being self-reflective, they also consider 1) the assumptions that make sense of that belief and justify it as well as 2) the conclusions and corollaries that follow from adherence to that belief. Beliefs do not exist in isolation within an intelligent subject; they exist in relation, in a web of interconnected support.

To challenge a belief is to pluck one corner of the web; such an action makes the entire web vibrate, whether the person being challenged is aware of this consequence or not. Such a challenge then unconsciously becomes processed as a threat to one's very way of life and existence.

Fruitful dialogue requires that a person be willing to examine the assumptions, the beliefs, and the conclusions; to remain consistent; or otherwise to consider the possibility of difference and error.

2. Vulnerability: vulnerability is the willingness to suffer the pain that may follow from serious change and honesty. As such vulnerability is primarily affective where self-reflectivity is intellective. Vulnerability accepts that oftentimes the truth hurts, but it hurts in order to heal similar to how a doctor may need to cut open a patient in surgery. But many, fearing pain and the unknown at all costs, will use any means to hide and numb this pain and even the possibility of the encounter with life-changing truth.

Vulnerability requires humility, an attitude of kneeling before the truth, an attitude of openness to growth and the possibility of change. Change is difficult and scary.

3. Maturity: maturity is personal integration. It takes the intellectual insights of self-reflectivity and the emotional strength of vulnerability and integrates them into a coherent whole; it uses these powers of the mind and heart to act. Integration occurs not simply by thinking and feeling but by acting and changing. Prudence as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us is not simply the process of understanding and judging but, above all, acting (Summa Th. 2a2ae.47.2 and 8). Without acting, there is no prudence. Maturity is prudence.

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