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Intellectual Autonomy: Being an Independent Thinker

The final intellectual trait we will consider here is intellectual autonomy:

Intellectual autonomy may be defined as internal motivation based on the ideal of thinking for oneself; having rational self-authorship of one's beliefs, values, and way of thinking; not being dependent on others for the direction and control of one's thinking.

Autonomous persons are persons in charge of their lives. They are not irrationally dependent on others and not controlled by infantile emotions. They have self-control. They are competent. They complete what they begin. In forming beliefs, critical thinkers do not passively accept the beliefs of others. Rather, they think through situations and issues for themselves and reject unjustified authorities while recognizing the contributions of reasonable authority. They mindfully form principles of thought and action and do not mindlessly accept those presented to them. They are not limited by the accepted way of doing things. They evaluate the traditions and practices that others often accept unquestioningly. Independent thinkers strive to incorporate knowledge and insight into their thinking, independent of the social status of the source. They are not willful, stubborn, or unresponsive to the reasonable suggestions of others. They are self-monitoring thinkers who strive to amend their own mistakes. They function from values they themselves have freely chosen.

Of course, intellectual autonomy must be understood not as a thing-in-itself. Instead, we must recognize it as a dimension of our minds working in conjunction with, and tempered by, the other intellectual virtues.

The opposite of intellectual autonomy is intellectual conformity, or intellectual or emotional dependence. Intellectual autonomy is difficult to develop because social institutions, as they now stand, depend heavily on passive acceptance of the status quo, whether intellectual, political, or economic. Thinking for oneself almost certainly leads to unpopular conclusions not sanctioned by dominant groups. There are always many rewards for those who simply conform in thought and action to social pressure.

Consequently, the large masses of people are unknowing conformists in thought and deed. They are like mirrors reflecting the belief systems and values of those who surround them. They lack the intellectual skills and the incentive to think for themselves. They are intellectually conforming thinkers (Figure 3.3).

Even those who spend years getting a Ph.D. may be intellectually dependent, both academically and personally. They may uncritically accept faulty practices in the discipline as it stands, uncritically defending the discipline against legitimate critics. The result often is unwarranted human harm and suffering.

One cannot be fair-minded and lack intellectual autonomy, for independent thinking is a prerequisite to thinking within multiple perspectives. When we intellectually conform, we are only able to think within "accepted" viewpoints. But to be fair-minded is to refuse to uncritically accept beliefs without thinking through the merits (and demerits) of those beliefs for oneself.

Test the Idea
Intellectual Autonomy

Briefly review some of the variety of influences to which you have been exposed in your life (influence of culture, company, family, religion, peer groups, media, personal relationships). See if you can discriminate between those dimensions of your thought and behavior in which you have done the least thinking for yourself and those in which you have done the most. What makes this activity difficult is that we often perceive ourselves as thinking for ourselves when we are actually conforming to others. What you should look for, therefore, are instances of your actively questioning beliefs, values, or practices to which others in your "group" were, or are, conforming.

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