Two Think

Posted by Michael on May 13, 2013

By Adam Briggle

In my efforts to learn Dutch nothing so persistently flummoxed me as the prepositions. If I am going to ride on the bike is it op de fiets or met de fiets? I get the same sort of confusion about the name of TTTWTP. I always think it is “two” rather than “to.” You know, TWO think – not TO think. In fact, I think it should be “two.” So here’s a post on the importance of twoness.  

We children of the Enlightenment celebrate the ideal of thinking for yourself. It’s better than letting others do the thinking for you. Kant pretty much defined “Enlightenment” in this way.

But it is only a swerve or subtle catachresis from here to thinking by yourself. And from there to thinking really only of or about yourself. Before you know it you are stuck in a solipsistic echo-chamber (this relates to our current media landscape and the culture of denial that earlier posts here have discussed – I’ll get to that). It’s no coincidence that another founder of modernity, Descartes, wound himself so tightly in himself: I think, therefore I am.  

At the end of his Discourses, though, Descartes finds it necessary to enroll the help of others. After all, human knowledge (and our power over nature) will never progress if we each individually have to scrap the entire edifice of learning and start from square one. We will each reinvent the first five or six moves and then our little mortal coils of flesh will shuffle off the earth. So we have got to trust and rely on one another. This is the modern origin (as far as I can tell) of a deep tension in our lives. We try to think for ourselves but if we are to overcome our own limitations and avoid the traps of our own biases and prejudices, then this solo act must occur with others…but of course we must be on guard that this does not paralyze or atrophy or hijack our critical sensibility such that all the thinking is being done by others (for example, our usual posture toward experts and editors – what Herbert Marcuse called one-dimensional being).

Leo Strauss (himself in a dialogue with Alexandre Kojeve) traces this tension further back to the ancients in an essay On Tyranny. The philosopher is on a quest for wisdom. This takes all of his time, so he must eschew any political activity. But there is a “fatal weakness” to this understanding of the quest for wisdom:

The philosopher cannot lead an absolutely solitary life because legitimate "subjective certainty" and the "subjective certainty" of the lunatic are indistinguishable. Genuine certainty must be "intersubjective." The classics were fully aware of the essential weakness of the mind of the individual. Hence their teaching about the philosophic life is a teaching about friendship: the philosopher is as philosopher in need of friends.

A single mind thinking alone is far too limited in its perspective to comprehend the roundess of being and the fullness of truth. Any certainty that mind arrives at will be so distorted and skewed as to be lunacy.

So we need friends. But Strauss goes on (and here is where we get to the contemporary ‘me’dia landscape) to note a danger about friendship. Because philosophers are not wise but only seek wisdom, what friends will share are not truths but opinions. Inevitably, various sects of philosophers will arise, each with their own shared opinions.

Friendship is bound to lead to, or to consist in, the cultivation and perpetuation of common prejudices by a closely knit group of kindred spirits. It is therefore incompatible with the idea of philosophy. The philosopher must leave the closed and charmed circle of the "initiated" if he intends to remain a philosopher.

In my research on natural gas development, I have been calling the “initiated” the “true believers.” So much of the discussion on this and other controversial topics is held between opposed sects who have stopped looking for wisdom because they are sure they already have it.  

So, yes, twoness is essential for this project, because it keeps us from being self-assured lunatics. Those of us who think interdisciplinarity is a personal accomplishment (we become interdisciplinarians) should pay heed to this. It may kill the very soul of interdisciplinarity to think that it is something that one becomes rather than to think it is something that two do. The interdisciplinarian is the tyrant of the post-disciplinary academy…it is an act of domination to claim the right to speak across the board. It silences rather than invites.

 But even twoness is not enough, as Strauss notes. Beware the collaboration that becomes chummy – call it chumlaboration. If it becomes easy to work together, kill the partnership. You have collapsed two-in-one and now face the danger of mistaking your shared prejudices for independent confirmation – of mistaking your sect for the polis. Go out and find a new friend who is hostile to you.