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Fr. 637

June 5, 2015

If ongoing inability to arrive at a conclusive set of principles and policies owed simply to the existence of two subsets of humans, fundamentally opposed, would this then provide a way forward to reach lasting consensus in the political sphere? Could this knowledge, coupled with stronger rules for reason-giving and equal opportunity for expression, bring opposed parties closer?

A recent post at Big Think lays the groundwork for a solution like the one above by highlighting two types of people: deciders and dreamers, Homo Definitus and Homo Curiosus. The conflict between the two stems from their ignorance of one another:

The trouble […] comes when people are playing different games on the same playing field, but aren’t aware of the fact. In life and on the Internet, Homo Definitus wants to assert and debate her position on any given issue, with the goal of winning and being proven conclusively right. Homo Curiosus wants to keep the conversation going, wants to flesh out the texture and the nuances.

In short, the two are playing by different sets of rules, with distinct goals. This would seem to explain why divergence of opinion exists not only with regard to what actions should follow from dialogue, but how dialogue should go about its business. Indeed, this presentation has a certain intuitiveness about it given that many individuals can relate to experiences of this kind and attest to the frustration of being at cross-purposes, such that everything seems in question.

The article neatly captures this sense of loss in a parallelism:

When these two types cross paths, they inevitably misunderstand one another […] For HC, the game of debate is incredibly dull because he has no interest in winning. He just wants to converse. HD can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that. To her, there is nothing more pointless than this aimless coffee shop chatter. “Let’s cut the BS!” she thinks. “Are you with me or against me?”

Like all good dichotomies, the distinction trades on relatability and functions as a sort of intuition pump for the reader and her experience. In other words, the power of a dichotomy or distinction is directly proportional to its relatability to experience. Yet it is precisely at this moment that such argumentative moves prove themselves most dangerous in reducing a complex phenomenon to the simplicities of an “either/or”.

Accordingly, it bears mentioning that the article thus far puts forward pure types. In reality, the instantiations of these types, dreamer and deciders, in tokens will surely prove more adulterated than the ideals presented therein. To the author’s credit, the presentation comes with a caveat: “To the extent that this is the case, most people probably don’t fall neatly into one category or the other”. This does not, however, absolve the article of dangerous tendencies that may do more to dissolve necessary conditions for reason-giving than secure them.

Again, “pure” HCs or HDs are likely rare, but I think there’s something profound underneath this. In history and politics its corollaries might be Democracy on the one hand and any kind of Fascism on the other (religious orthodoxy and punitive political correctness included). Or maybe that’s a dangerous example. When you think in those terms, it’s tough to be charitable toward HDs . . .

In exacerbating the frustration of participants in dialogue, such a position may facilitate prejudice and breakdown in dialogue. If the knowledge of these types is to remedy in part the failings of contemporary dialogue, playing up such pure roles when providing this knowledge will only leave the participants discouraged and jaded.

Certainly, the author pulls back from such strong conclusions by noting:

One of the most gratifying experiences I can imagine is when an HC and an HD have an intercultural dialogue. This may be a kind of HC fantasy, the stuff of HC romance novels. Being an HC, I am always looking for these opportunities. Always believing that there is a common ground beyond our differences. Such moments do happen — the HC finds himself admiring the passion and discipline with which the HD pursues her goals. The HD finally sees the true depths of the HC’s creativity and sensitivity.

There is much to praise in this remark, but its framework does as much to undermine or preclude such moments as it does bring them about. If the present account’s portrayal of types is to advance the cause of discourse, it seems likely that such can only come about through dissolving precisely the dichotomy put forward therein. Ultimately, we are left to wonder what end or purpose this account of character serves.

For this reason, it proves relatively straightforward to pick out where such a position runs against the pragmatist principles. Certainly, as regards an object like people or self, we can highlight infinitely many things to serve different functions or purposes, but it is necessary to know at each moment precisely which function or purpose we are working towards. As suggested in the preceding paragraph, the distinction proposed by present account appears to be at cross-purposes with itself. Perhaps this distinction could be rescued by being subsumed to still some other dichotomy, broader in extent, such that, once properly construed and integrated within its hierarchy of functions and purposes, it would serve a specific purpose within the argumentative economy. An account of different kinds of discourse could perhaps avail itself of the dreamer-decider distinction as a heuristic case to set limits on discourse or illustrate the need for precise rules.

Indeed, this point comes out in a still further way insofar as dichotomies are inherently reductive and thus run contrary to or belie observation. Does the dreamer/decider distinction hold out against epistemic nominalism? As per the terms of the latter, it would be necessary to find a basis for this distinction in either empirical findings or linguistic patterns, i.e. our way of speaking. Although empirical findings could perhaps gesture at the kind of data needed for such an account, it is difficult to imagine either of these two measures providing definitive evidence in support thereof.

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