Friday, September 12, 2014

How readers approach a piece of intellectual writing

"the present writer, when he takes his pen in hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head." -- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 18


  1. This is an insightful observation, and I think it applies even to "above average" readers who are knowledgeable about a subject but in the grip of ideology.

    This brings to mind something that happened to me some time ago. A Facebook friend posted a comment about a book entitled "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations." Based on the "collectivist"-sounding title alone, I immediately prejudged the book as being socialist drivel that had no merit. On a whim, I decided to look the book up on Wikipedia and discovered that (according to Wikipedia, at least) the author of the book was making pro-free market arguments somewhat along the lines of Hayekian notions about the benefits of decentralized knowledge in society. I immediately revised my opinion of the book to a favorable one and thought perhaps I might peruse it some day.

    Then I realized something. In the course of just a few minutes, I had completely changed my opinion about a book 180 degrees -- moving from unqualified condemnation to unqualified approval -- without even having read a single page of said book! I think this was what first made me realize the point you had been making for so long on this blog about the tendency of ideology to act as a filter that prevents people from perceiving information that challenges their preconceived notions. I wasn't really able to grok your point fully until I had had this experience that made me realize that ideology was preventing me from learning and growing.

    I have since relaxed my approach and no longer harbor the same inflexible attitudes toward my beliefs that I used to. In large part this was thanks to the posts you have made on this very blog, and I want to take the opportunity to thank you for that!

    1. Well, Mike, thank you for your kind words! And yes, you have grasped just what I have been getting at, and which I got from others like Voegelin and Oakeshott.

    2. And it really is intellectually liberating: one can read, say, Marx, and realize that although he had hold of a very one-sided truth, there is a lot of insight in what he wrote as well.


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