What is Open-mindedness




I’m reading through Jason Baehr’s excellent new book The Inquiring Mind. In the first half of the book, he examines various approaches to a virtue-based epistemic theory arguing for a specific variation that he believes is the most hopeful. In the second half, he looks at specific intellectual virtues. Chapter 8, he considers open-mindedness as a fundamental virtue of the mind and defines it this way:

An open-minded person is characteristically (a) willing and (within limits) able (b) to transcend a default cognitive standpoint (c) in order to take up or take seriously the merits of (d) a distinct cognitive standpoint.

Baehr argues for this definition in some detail that I won’t go into here. What struck me on a first read of the definition was the apparent lack of the idea that the “distinctive cognitive standpoint” must be a live option for the one considering it. In other words, could one truly be considered open minded if the ideas he is considering aren’t epistemically live for him – they aren’t ideas he could seriously adopt?

Suppose Joe believes in God and believes that everything he needs to know about God is described in the Bible. He has absolute trust that his particular interpretation of the Bible is the correct one and that because the Bible is God’s word, no human has the ability to prove it false. Joe might say that he’s open minded in that he’ll listen to opposing viewpoints and give them a fair hearing. But given the depth of Joe’s commitment to his views, those other viewpoints really aren’t live options for him: these are not position he could honestly say he might adopt given a certain amount of epistemic weight they might come to have for him.

Baehr adds a proviso that is designed to account for cases like this one. He makes a distinction between cases where one is intentionally performing a rational evaluation aimed at discovering truth and other cases where, for example, a person is considering a new view point simply to understand an idea (he gives the example of a teacher asking her students to be open minded while they consider Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity). For former cases the definition above “must be supplemented by the proviso that where open-mindedness involves rational assessment or evaluation, it also necessarily involves adjusting one’s beliefs or confidence levels according to the outcome of this assessment.”

Given the proviso, it would seem that if one is truly open minded when considering alternate viewpoints in the context of a rational evaluation, those other viewpoints must be live options for that person.

*PNS will be talking with Jason Baehr about his new book in an upcoming interview. Stay tuned.