Descartes on Groupthink . . . I think

As we worked our way through Part II of The Discourse on Method yesterday by Rene Descartes, my disciples students were appropriately horrified when he expressed the following opinion:

“Book learning . . . having been composed and enlarged little by little from the opinions of many different persons, does not draw nearly so close to the truth as the simple reasonings that a man of good sense can naturally make about the things he encounters.”

A page or two later Descartes repeats this preference for the individual seeker of truth:

“Majority opinion is worthless as a proof of truths that are at all difficult to discover, since it is much more likely that one man would have found them than a whole multitude of people.”

Descartes makes little attempt to prove this; he simply presents it, confident that his readers will readily agree with him.

Well, my readers did not agree with him, and their outrage put me in a difficult position as the teacher, since I wanted to agree with them in lambasting Descartes. As Aristotle wrote, with friends we are more able to think, more able to achieve truth. The truth of this was brought home to me last year, as I prepared for my comprehensive exams for the Ph.D. in philosophy. It was, I have to admit, hard to stay awake while reading the books. Often, it was only after talking over the books with my fellow graduate students that the philosophy began to make sense.

However, as I struggled to render Descartes’ position plausible yesterday, it became clear to me that he was actually correct to some extent. While Aristotle is right, of course, as always, and I’ll fight any man in this bar who says otherwise, Aristotle only gives us half of the full picture of the human reality. Two minds are indeed better than one. But we aren’t only minds; we are also wills, emotions, and bodies. So when you put a group of people together in a room to think about something, there is necessarily a lot of other stuff going on. Bill has a brilliant thought. Tom has a headache and wants the meeting to be over. Sally likes Bill. Susie is phobic of snakes. Randy hates Bill. And so on.

The result of this mess is that often the search for truth can be impeded. Psychology sometimes calls this “Groupthink,” when we all get our heads together and arrive at a totally harmonious, totally idiotic decision, like when you and all your buddies decided in high school decided to . . . (supply your own examples here).

Therefore, as much as it pains me to admit it, we need both Aristotle and Descartes here in order to do justice to the full human reality. Sometimes others help us to achieve truths we would never reach on our own. And sometimes others help us to fall well short of it. In regard to truth, other people are “force multipliers,” for good or for ill.Image

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