Being Open

“The point is to experience being there, in the sense that I, the human being, am the there, the openness of being for me, insofar as I undertake to preserve this openness, and in preserving it, to unfold it.” (Martin Heidegger)

Let me wax philosophical for a moment. To be really ‘present’, to be really ‘there’, is to be open to what is going on around you. Human existence, perhaps, is uniquely defined by this openness, this capacity to be present in the now, to “be there”. This is something Heidegger argued very forcefully for, and he included a social element; existence, he said, is always bound to the existence of others, to “them”. So being open is also a matter of “being there” for others.

Indeed, Heidegger distinguished the “logical conception of science”, according to which it is “an interconnection of true propositions”, from an “existential conception”, in which it is a mode of being with others and engaging with things of practical value. It’s not just a matter of being open to the facts, we might say, but a way of being open to what other people think of those facts and what we can do with them. I think this is enormously important to keep in mind, and much of the success of post-WWII “science studies” has come from pushing this awareness on people whose natural inclination is to stick to “the facts” alone.

Ironically, however, our awareness of the social conditions of “knowledge production” has at times made us less open to the idea that another person’s view of the world might be more valid than our own. Many of us are inclined to rely on the views of our closest peers, like-minded people who appreciate the value of what we are doing in our research. We are, though we are loath to admit it, a bit too eager to believe what is said in our own research community and we close ourselves off to input from people who might come at our problem from a completely different perspective. Though they come at it differently, however, they may well arrive at the same place you are. Here.

In a recent essay in the Chronicle, Alice Dreger has made a strong case for cultivating greater openness in our thinking to the ideas of people who disagree with us, even to ideas that outright offend us. In a key paragraph, she shares a formative experience from her grad school days.

Let us require our students to read difficult work and learn to respond to uncomfortable chalk by chalking back. Teach them histories of censorship and blacklisting on the right and the left. Require them to reflect upon their (and our) uncertainty. Teach reliable methodologies, not infallible ideologies. Let us always be implicitly asking what one graduate professor explicitly asked me when I was being an intellectually recalcitrant pig: If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know it’s working?

A reliable methodology is one that opens you meaningfully to the world of facts. An infallible ideology, by contrast, closes us off even to the input of other knowledgeable people about those facts. It’s all well and good to be certain that racism or sexism is wrong. The problem arises when you are so certain that your interlocutor is an incorrigible racist or sexist that you close yourself off from their criticism of your views. They may be wrong. But so may you. Indeed, you may both be wrong and this encounter with another mind might ultimately only have made you see your error. That would have been good. For you.

I hope pigs won’t take offence at Dreger’s slur. As I said at the beginning, the open nature of our existence may be what makes us uniquely human. And our recalcitrance in the business of changing our minds is, indeed, often a little piggish, i.e., less than human. I wonder if it is too much of a philosophical inside joke to say that pigs live in a pen while human beings, as Heidegger suggested, live in the clearing. Out in the open.

Update: See also “The Place of Form” and “Academic Purpose”

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