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Changing One’s Mind

March 19, 2016

I just read this passage in the NYT obituary for Hilary Putnam:

“In the world of contemporary philosophers, Professor Putnam was known for the breadth of his thinking, the vividness of his provocative arguments, and his penchant for self-questioning and willingness to change his mind.”

A willingness to change one’s mind.

Apart from its actual truth in relation to Putnam’s character, I admire this trait above all others.

I’m continually surprised and appalled at how soon we grow rigid—at how the changing of one’s mind is perceived as weakness. It’s ridiculous to expect ourselves to be totally consistent in a complex world where evidence emerges piecemeal to our minds and senses. What makes more sense is this: we should be utterly perplexed at how some of our positions on issues have remained unchanged after five, ten, twenty, or thirty years of exposure to new people, new discoveries, changed environments, day-to-day news, and our own growth as thinkers.

What are the barriers to changing one’s mind?

Pride? The will? Stubbornness? Certainty? I can understand some arguments in favor stability and caution. Pride and stubbornness, in small doses, are virtues. If one has worked hard to understand an issue, one should have some pride in that intellectual labor. We must be stubborn about the knowledge we’ve obtained.

But what of certainty? How certain should we be of anything? How much uncertainty is tolerable?  What does a heightened sense of certainty obtain for us? Dismissiveness? Closure? Closure is indeed a necessary part of life. We can’t tread water in every area of knowledge. We must move on to new things. New explorations keep us interested. They also shed new light on older topics—which is an argument against complete closure. Revisiting older areas about which we’re stumped often brings nuance out of the shadows.

What of the will? Should we ever be unwilling to change our minds?  It seems most obvious to me that the answer here should be an unequivaocal no. Questioning old certainties brings, at the least, a sense that our past exploration was performed in a right and secure fashion.

Being willing to change one’s mind and question older certainties does not mean that one has to, in the end, change one’s mind. – TL

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  1. The end of the obituary returns to Putnam’s thinking about changing one’s mind in these final passages:
    Professor Putnam was ridiculed by some for changing his mind, but he defended himself: “A philosopher’s job is not to produce a View X and then, if possible, to become known as Mr. View X or Ms. View X.”

    If philosophic investigations, he added, “contribute to the thousands-of-years-old dialogue that is philosophy, if they deepened our understanding of the riddles we refer to as ‘philosophical problems,’ then the philosopher who conducts those investigations is doing the job right.”

    This is a kind of “Great Conversation” view of philosophy, a view with which I became acquainted courtesy of Mortimer J. Adler.

    Sometimes this is viewed as a progressive view of philosophy. But I don’t think its adherents viewed that conversation as always and everywhere progressive. Adler didn’t. And it appears Putnam didn’t either, because contributing to the dialogue and deepenings of understanding do not always push the conversation *forward*. Sometimes one closes an old door, or deepens our understanding why a door has been closed. – TL


  2. Paul Kern permalink

    The idea and trials of changing ones mind would make for a fascinating class: what constitutes a change of mind; famous debates and changes of opinion; what’s considered a valid reason for changing and conversely what is considered a poor justification. How often have we seen politicians who have stridently maintained a public position only to change it after leaving office? Is there a master/slave identity attached to this idea? It seems a particularly interesting subject given our polarizing political condition today.


    • Paul: Thanks for the comment. It’s occurred to me since writing this post that it fits with a larger research interest of mine: conversions. Of course changing one’s mind is a milder level, or more intellectual register, of conversion, but I would think that some of the steps would be similar. That said, I love your questions and topics suggested. And I agree that it’s particularly relevant in our seemingly more polarized political environment. Since conversions often involve an intellectual component, perhaps the class could combine emotion and reason to be called “Changes in Sensibility: Historical Explorations”—or something like that. – TL


  3. Paul Kern permalink

    Yes, conversions is a better word. Changing one’s mind sounds a bit capricious like trying to decide between wearing a blue shirt or green one. Anyway it sounds like a great choice of investigation.


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