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Facing Contradictions and Inconsistencies

Of course, more important than the sheer number of analyzed experiences is their quality and significance. This quality and significance depends on how much our analyses enable us to face our own inconsistencies and contradictions. What links the experiences, as analyzed products of the mind, is insight. Every critically analyzed experience to some extent produces some insight into who we are. To become more rational, it is not enough to give meaning to our experience. Many experiences are more or less charged with irrational meanings. Stereotypes, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, delusions, and illusions of various kinds are sometimes rampant in our thinking.

The process of developing insights is part and parcel of separating experiences into their rational and irrational dimensions, those forming meta-experiences, i.e., higher-order experiences. These meta-experiences become important benchmarks and guides for future thought. They make possible modes of thinking and maneuvers in thinking closed to the irrational mind. Through them we learn to talk insightfully about our experience. Our first-order experiences are no longer sacred. They are materials of the mind that the mind evaluates.

I can reason well in domains in which I am prejudiced—hence, eventually, reason my way out of prejudices—only if I develop benchmarks for such reasoning. Of course, when I am prejudiced it will seem to me that I am not, and similarly, it will seem to me that those who are not prejudiced (as I am) are prejudiced. (To a prejudiced person, an unprejudiced person seems prejudiced.)

I will come to this insight only insofar as I have analyzed experiences in which I was intensely convinced I was correct only to find, after a series of challenges, re-considerations, and new reasoning, that my previous conviction was, in fact, prejudiced. I must take this experience apart in my mind, understand its elements and how they fit together (how I became prejudiced; how I inwardly experienced that prejudice; how intensely that prejudice seemed true and insightful; how I progressively broke that prejudice down through serious consideration of opposing lines of reasoning; how I slowly came to new assumptions, new information, and ultimately new conceptualizations).

Only when one gains analyzed experiences of working and reasoning one's way out of prejudice can one gain the insight essential to self-honesty. Generally, to develop essential insights, we must create a collection of analyzed experiences that represent to us intuitive models, not only of the pitfalls of our own previous thinking and experiencing, but also processes for reasoning our way out of or around them. These model experiences must be charged with meaning for us. We cannot be indifferent to them. We must sustain them in our minds by our sense of their importance as they sustain and guide us in our thinking.

In analyzing experiences we should ask at least three questions:

  1. What are the raw facts? What is the most neutral description of the situation?

  2. What interests, attitudes, desires, or concerns do I bring to the situation?

  3. How am I conceptualizing or interpreting the situation in light of my point of view? How else might it be interpreted?

We must also explore the interrelationships of these parts: How did my point of view, values, desires, etc, affect what I noticed about the situation? How did they prevent me from noticing other things? How would I have interpreted the situation had I noticed those other things? How did my point of view, desires, etc, affect my interpretation? How should I interpret the situation?

Test the Idea
Asking Important Questions in Context

Think back upon a recent experience you had. This could have been a meeting you attended or headed. It could have been a discussion you had with your spouse, child, or parent. Answer these questions as you revisit that experience in your mind:

  1. What were the raw facts in the situation? What is the most neutral description of the situation?

  2. What interests, attitudes, desires, or concerns did you bring to the situation?

  3. How did you conceptualize or interpret the situation in light of your point of view? How else might it have been interpreted?

Of course, not all experiences are direct and firsthand. Many come to us vicariously, through the mass media. Such experiences, such influences, are crucial to understanding the uncriticalness of much of our thinking.

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