The smartertimes.com [December 20, 2001] makes an interesting point which bears philosophical analysis.

Smartertimes.com catches the New York Times labeling conservative groups, such as The Heritage Foundation, as being conservative, while liberal groups, such as Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Reseearch Group (or, smartertimes.com’ example: Families USA) are just identified as “consumer groups” or “research groups.”

Smartertimes.com (i.e., Ira Stoll) does not analyze it further, but there is a lot we can learn philosophically from the Times‘ policy here. The Times is not engaged in deliberate slanting. Theirs is not–to use the liberal’s bugaboo–a “conspiracy” against conservatives. Rather, the Times is guilty of intrinsicism. Let me explain.

A worldview–i.e., a philosophy–is not normally something people look at, but something they look through. A philosophy is a frame of reference for understanding and dealing with the concretes (and middle-level abstractions) we confront in life. It takes a special act of reflection and abstraction to make a philosophy an object of cognition, rather than a means of cognition–i.e., to make it a “what” rather than a “how.”

Unreflective people, which definitely includes journalists, are not aware that they have a philosophy at all. But they are inescapably aware of philosophies different from their own. So liberal journalists think that they are not using any philosophy, they are just looking at and describing events “non-ideologically.” But when they see conservatives coming to what strikes the liberal journalists as “weird” conclusions, they know that the conservatives are led to them by their political philosophies.

I have likened this general phenomenon to the issue of regional accents. Nobody thinks he speaks with an accent. He thinks he just speaks “plain.” But he sure is aware of accents that differ from his own. So a Brooklynite hearing a Texan speak is very aware of the Texan having an accent. But that Brooklynite doesn’t think he has any accent–unless he has been repeatedly told he does by non-Brooklynites.

Looked at philosophically, this is intrinsicism. (I grant you that “intrinsicism” is a pretty high-falutin’ word to use for people who don’t think they have accents, but it amounts to that, and it applies more aptly to the kind of slanted journalism I began with.) But everybody, even those who speak “standard American English” (such as TV anchormen) shape their vowels in some specific way. It is possible to speak with no narrowly regional accent, but it is not possible to speak with no accent. What we call “standard American English” is just one particular way of forming the sounds, out of the many possible ways. If you don’t think so, ask any Brit if there’s such a thing as an American accent.

The intrinsic view of knowledge holds that knowledge is gained passively, by just letting “the facts” come in. No processing, no volition, no means of cognition is required, this view holds–it’s like a revelation. Or, less mystically, the intrinsicist views conceptual cognition as being like sense-perception: whatever processing goes on is physiologically determined, not based on any choices of how to proceed cognitively.

But then the intrinsicist comes up against the fact of human disagreement. For example, it’s “just obvious,” to him, that the government has to provide welfare. He doesn’t regard that as being a volitionally reached, fallible, conclusion, it’s just “a given.” So if The Heritage Foundation, or whoever, says that welfare is impractical or bad, how is he to understand that puzzling fact?

Well, instead of looking at reality “plain” and accepting the self-evident fact that welfare is desirable, something must have gotten in the way. What? Ideology.

From somewhere, the anti-welfare people must have gotten one of those things into his brain — an ideology — that he allows to stand between him and the facts of reality. The journalist is not aware of any such thing being in his own brain — he believes that he just accepts the self-evident facts.

To use my analogy the conservatives are speaking with a conservative accent, while the Naderites are just speaking “plain.”

As Ayn Rand stated, “nothing is self-evident except the material of sensory perception” (“Philosophical Detection“). This point is of very wide application, and very helpful to remember in life. It means that when you find people who disagree with you, or who “just don’t get it,” that doesn’t automatically mean they are evading. Sometimes they are, but often it means only that they haven’t automatized the frame of reference that you have automatized. In such cases, the solution is to break down your own automatizations, to recall how you learned the required context, and then try to communicate the proper context to the person you are dealing with. (Often, this isn’t easy.)

The alternative is intrinsicism — or, in more extreme form, the mystic’s formula: “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who don’t, none is possible.”

— The above was an email from Harry Binswanger’s List, and is reprinted here by permission. The Harry Binswanger List (HBL) is an email list for Objectivists, moderated by Dr. Binswanger, for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. The HBL is $10 per month or $100 per year; a free one-month trial is available at: http://www.hblist.com/

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Harry Binswanger

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is a professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an instructor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute, and a Senior Contributor at RealClearMarkets.com. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free one-month trial is available at: HBLetter.com.

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