A Short Piece Featured in Belonging Again by O.G. Rose
How people can be respected for thoughtlessness, contributing to thoughtlessness, and the need for Hume’s “philosophical journey.”
“Thoughtless” is not a simile for “dumb,” as we learn from Hannah Arendt: to be “thoughtless” about x is to “not think about it,” to instead assume it, christen it an axiom, and the like. On the other hand, to be “foolish” about x is to get x wrong, to be illogical about x, and so on. Society doesn’t honor foolishness, but “thoughtless people” can be called “people of principles,” “people of convictions,” and so on. In this way, honor and social capital can be found.
Societies can honor “thoughtlessness,” which means it honors the conditions that make possible “the banality of evil” which concerned Hannah Arendt. At the same time, “autonomous rationality” is impossible, meaning reasoning which grounds and justifies itself “all the way down.” If that’s the case, we ultimately must rest our thinking on something that cannot be translated into thought — something toward which we are “thoughtless.” Does that mean “people of conviction” who skip thinking are in the right? No, for not all states of “thoughtlessness” are equal: there is “cheap thoughtlessness” and “costly thoughtlessness,” as there is “bad philosophy” and “good philosophy” (to allude to David Hume).
Thomas Moore was executed because he would not forgo his principles; Jesus was crucified because he stayed true to God’s will; Bonhoeffer was executed because he was a man of incredible character; and so on. For good reason, societies honor people who do not compromise on their beliefs. When asked for their reasons, people like Moore, Jesus, and Bonhoeffer could only respond with silence. Their reasons couldn’t be rationalized; they lived according to faith in a truth that couldn’t be understood except by living out that faith. Those who stood outside had to remain outside.
Some of the world’s greatest heroes are those of principle, faith, and conviction, and wanting to be heroic ourselves, we may also try to live by principles, faith, and conviction. But, problematically, there is a danger here, because if someone asks me “Why are you against x?” I can always reply “Because it’s my principle” and so absolve myself the need to participate well in democracy. In this way, I can use “principles” to escape working on “the life of my mind,” existentially difficult reflection, and putting my social status at risk.
Democracy seems to be failing around the world, and various works by O.G. Rose try to trace out why (from “Belonging Again” to “The Death of Process” to “The (Trans)values of Justice and Love”). Today, it’s widely noted how little people who disagree with one another can talk with one another, that disagreements are far from civil, and that now the game of democracy doesn’t seem to be about finding “the best solution” but “getting my team to win (because my team is the best solution).” Critically, “the moralization of thoughtlessness” might be contributing to this problem.
If I am fighting to “save the nation the Founding Fathers intended” (for example), in many of my circles, I can easily receive praise and honor. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t read the Federalist Papers or biographies on George Washington: in certain circles (that I will likely be part of, given how much our ideologies tend to reflect our environment), I will receive respect and acknowledgment. In fact, the truth that I haven’t read or “thought about” the lives of the Founding Fathers may increase the amount of praise and honor I receive, for a lack of thinking makes my faith and convictions seem all the greater (I must really believe in them).
There can generally be a skepticism against intellectualism, for why do we need to think about something that we believe? If we think about it, that must mean we don’t really believe it, right? Worse yet, in a communal setting, our thinking about x threatens everyone who ascribes to x, while our “thoughtlessness” about x threatens no one. In fact, it can confirm and support the people around us. Where there is thinking, there are possibilities of change; where there is conviction, principle, and the like, there are possibilities of honor, confirmation, and community. Basic incentives favor “thoughtlessness,” especially when we have stories about “men of principle” like Moore and MLK whose light we can see ourselves in.
But were Moore, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr. really men of “thoughtlessness?” In one way, yes, but in critical ways, not at all.
The critical mistake is failing to recognize how much a “man of principle” like Martin Luther King Jr. spent thinking and studying. Bonhoeffer, Jesus, MLK, Moore — these are men of great learning, deep reflection, and abstract consideration. Their “thoughtlessness” came after incredible thought. Today, many of us want to straight skip to “thoughtlessness” — faith, principle, conviction, etc. — without going through “deep thinking” first. This is a terrible mistake that is contributing to a collapse of democracy and honoring of the very conditions that are bringing about that collapse. What James Hunter calls “substantive democracy” becomes impossible; tribalism becomes a badge of honor and sign of principle.
We should honor the convictions won through deep reflection and dishonor the convictions held without deep reflection. We need to be able to tell the difference between these two. Ultimately, since “autonomous rationality” is impossible, we must rest our thinking on “un-rational” principles, axioms, beliefs, and so on (to put it another way, since rationality comes after truth, we must ascribe to a truth through methods of ascension which cannot ultimately be understood purely in terms of thought). In this sense, “thoughtless” principles are inevitable, but how we arrive at those principles is everything.
There is “cheap thoughtlessness” and “costly thoughtlessness,” to use Bonhoeffer’s language on grace from The Cost of Discipleship, as there is “bad philosophy” and “good philosophy.” It would seem that the difference between “cheap” and “costly” thoughtlessness has something to do with David Hume’s “philosophical journey,” as described in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose.
For Hume, there are generally three categories we must take seriously: “thoughtlessness,” “bad philosophy,” and “good philosophy.” We are all born into a “common life,” which brings with it “givens” and assumptions about how life should be lived that we don’t think about (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose). No one is happy who thinks too much, but alternatively we can be taken advantage of if we never think, which means for Hume we need to embark on a “philosophical journey” and “leave” the “common life” so that our thinking is not “done for us” in accordance with the “givens” of the community. But another danger is stopping “halfway on the philosophical journey,” which would be for us to visit the Ivy Tower and stay there. This is the “bad philosopher,” who never returns to embed his or her self back in a “common life,” but instead remains forever in a place of “disembodied abstraction.” Some sentences from “Deconstructing Common Life” might help make the point:
Hume was deeply concerned about common life, about people living situated in local communities, families, and traditions. For Hume “bad philosophy” is ‘purged of the authority of custom,’ while “good philosophy” is critical reasoning ‘in which the necessity of participation in custom is recognized and the authority of the domain of custom as such is affirmed’.¹ ² Good philosophy accepts a ‘primordial participation in custom’ and accepts that ‘reflection is subordinate to custom’; it understands that ‘philosophical reflection […] is [not] the source of civilization; [rather,] it is civilization that is the source of philosophical reflection.’³ ⁴ ⁵
The world today seems full of “thoughtless people” and “bad philosophers” but few “good philosophers,” those who complete “the philosophical journey” Hume outlined. For Hume, “the good philosopher” leaves a “common life” to ultimately return and embed his or her self in one. This kind of person leaves home in order to gain the tools needed to defend and make the most of home, not to return home and figure out how to correct home and/or save home from itself. This doesn’t mean there can’t be criticism, but it does mean the criticism must help home feel more like home as opposed to tear the home down to rebuild on its grave another house. The “good philosopher” returns home to be more thoughtful about it, not less.
Thomas Moore and Martin Luther King Jr. are not examples of “thoughtless people” or “bad philosophers”: they are precisely examples of who Hume would call “good philosophers.” In moralizing “thoughtlessness,” we have been honoring holograms of these heroes and used these holograms to make honorable the “thoughtlessness” and “bad philosophy” these heroes pushed through and often found themselves having to push back against. It is a terrible and horrible irony, similar to how we have used “the mentally ill” as justification to push for more “autonomous rationality,” not the less. Idols are hard to avoid worshiping, especially when they resemble gods.
The heroes of our world were not perfect men and women, but it is critical that we hold them up as examples of “good philosophers” versus merely “men of convictions” (who were hence “thoughtless”). There are convictions, axioms, and principles in “good philosopher,” but there isn’t “good philosophy” in “thoughtlessness.” And “thoughtlessness” contributes to the decline of democracy, spread of tribalism, and overall “banality of evil” which Arendt saw was so dangerous.
Thinking alone will not save the world — that is “bad philosophy” — and, ultimately, we all must rest our lives on something “un-rational.” But we cannot skip the hard and laborious “philosophical journey” lest we become part of the problem. It will be tempting to skip the work, because honor and praise is often given to those who embrace “thoughtlessness” outright, as it was no doubt tempting for Jesus to skip straight to taking his rightful place on the throne and avoiding the cross — this was precisely Satan’s temptation in the desert. But if we don’t take up our cross, our tomb will ultimately prove empty, not because we ascended, but because we ultimately had nothing to offer.
¹Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 23.
²Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.
³Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 22.
⁴Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 191.
⁵Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 196.