Thursday, 29 September 2022
Or we watch television
The ideas we have of things are not fair portraits; they are political caricatures made in the human interest; but in their partial way they may be masterpieces of characterisation and insight. Above all, they are obtained by labour, by investigating what is not given, and by correcting one impression by another, drawn from the same object—a thing impossible in the intuition of essences. They therefore conduce to wisdom, and in their perpetual tentativeness have a cumulative truth.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923)
Most of us accept the reality of cumulative abilities. We know we can’t acquire any kind of skill, knowledge or expertise in a single flash of inspiration.
We don’t become better tennis players by watching Roger Federer – not even in our own minds. We don’t acquire much insight by watching television. Our pursuit of truth is cumulative in an analogous manner – we go out there and pursue truth with serious intent or we watch television.
Wider problems in pursuing a cumulative truth as it unfolds step by step are obvious. The media are not interested unless it is an unfolding scandal or something which can be unfolded into a scandal. Political actors are not interested because it isn’t immediate enough. There is no persuasive finality in cumulative truth. Unless charlatans give it that persuasive finality of course.
Yet Santayana was describing how we make thinking worthwhile – the perpetual pursuit of cumulative truth. That’s it – the whole shebang. Cumulative experience of right, wrong, true, false, dubious or promising. Outside of this, thinking really isn’t worthwhile. It isn’t even thinking if it doesn’t attempt to accumulate better over worse.
Unfortunately, not everyone wants thinking to be worthwhile in all circumstances – or so says one result of cumulative truth.
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Santayana is right in saying how these cumulative truths conduce to wisdom, but it doesn't just happen. The accumulative aspect of our minds probably operates constantly, and will also conduce to benighted ignorance and stupidity. We need to make the effort to sift those impressions, and judge what is truthful and important. It's hard work.
And as you say, the media don't help. For example, there is probably some "truth" under all the current kerfuffle about the economy. But who has the time or inclination to read basic economics to start finding it? Easier to pick your side early on, and then cheer and jeer according to whoever is in the spotlight.
Sam - yes it is easier to pick your side early on and the current kerfuffle about the economy is a good example. I'm waiting to see what happens, although the establishment piling on is suspicious to begin with. I think they dislike the idea of economic growth.
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