The well thinkings

John Gray makes a familiar point.

SEEING THEMSELVES as fiercely independent thinkers, bien-pensants are remarkable chiefly for the fervor with which they propagate the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Prevailing where? Prevailing among whom?

Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill’s godson and a scion of one of England’s great political dynasties, exemplified this contradiction throughout most of his life. British philosopher A. C. Grayling can now be counted amongst his number.

Okay – he means “prevailing among people who think similar things” – which is a tautology. He’s pointing out that independent thinkers (fierce or otherwise) are not usually so very independent that they think things that no one else anywhere thinks. Right. Well we knew that, actually. If you’re such an independent thinker that no one on the entire planet agrees with you about anything, you’re a paranoid schizophrenic.

He’s letting us know that independent thinkers too form clumps, or groups, at least in the sense that one can point out ideas that they have in common. Yes – that’s true – but who thought it wasn’t?

His point perhaps is that you can’t claim to be an independent thinker if you have ideas in common with other self-proclaimed independent thinkers, because ideas-in-common rules out independent-thinking.

It doesn’t though, because the ideas could be in common and also independent in the sense of examined, thought about, questioned, critically considered, analyzed.

There’s another thing: I don’t actually know anyone who goes around saying “I am a fiercely independent thinker.” How does John Gray know that’s how bien pensants see themselves? I don’t think he does know; I think it’s his interpretation. There may be some truth in it, but his flat-footed announcement is a trifle smug, especially for the purposes of deriding the putative smugness and bien pensantness of other people.

His real point, stated more neutrally and clearly than he managed, is that people can pride themselves on being independent thinkers while still in fact conforming closely to the norms of their own social group. True. It is possible to be critical and skeptical in one direction and conformist and credulous in another, or the former in some directions and the latter in others. It’s as well to be aware of that.

But then again, it’s also as well not to get too hung up about it. Being an independent thinker isn’t the only good, or an absolute good, or the highest good. There are some parts of the bien pensant Book of Rules that are worth conforming to. Sometimes conformity is better than independent thinking. Traffic is one example – but equality is another. That’s at the heart of Gray’s sneer, I think – the terrible bien pensant herds of Hampstead all think alike on the subject of equality; they are all sheeplike in their aversion to racism and sexism and homphobia. Well, good. Independent thinking that takes the form of belief in social subordination is no loss.

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