A rational man, on twisted thinking

Quassim Cassam, Vices of the Mind: from the intellectual to the political, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019, pp.xiii and 202.

This book is a stimulating and lively consideration of what the philosopher Quassim Cassam calls ‘epistemic vices’. These are ‘systematically harmful ways of thinking, attitudes or character traits’ which get in the way of knowledge – the accurate awareness and assessment of reality. These vices lead to a range of harms, and Cassam surveys politically significant events ‘in the unfolding of which epistemic vices of one type or another appear to have played a not insignificant role’.

The author is open about his views about these examples, which include the 1975 trial of the ‘Birmingham Six’, the USA’s handling of their troop deployments following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2016 vote in favour of Brexit. He asserts that his broad methodological points about the nature and consequences of sloppy, dogmatic and arrogant thinking can still stand for readers who may disagree with his particular partisan judgements on the case studies.

The ‘vices’ which Cassam covers include prejudice; wishful thinking; intellectual pride and arrogance; obtuseness; insensitivity to detail; carelessness; and negligence. Some of these he sees as ‘thinking styles’; others are categorised as ‘attitudes’. There are also ‘character traits’, including closed-mindedness, expressed in dogmatic ‘reluctance to consider novel information once a given conception has been adopted … denial or reinterpretation of information that is inconsistent with one’s prior conception’ and the ‘rigidity’ of ‘having a poor appreciation of perspectives different from one’s own’.

One section of Vices of the Mind covers ‘epistemic insouciance’. Cassam believes that some politicians are particularly prone to this trait. It is something different than cynicism or dishonesty. It is ‘an indifference or lack of concern with respect to whether their claims are grounded in reality or the evidence’. It is an attitude of ‘not really caring much about any of this and being excessively casual and nonchalant about the challenge of finding answers to complex questions’.

In a clear indication that this ‘vice’ particularly winds up the author, he departs from traditionally philosophical language and pushes out some blunt Old English terminology: ‘epistemic insouciance is a particular form of not giving a shit. It means viewing the need to find evidence in support of one’s views as a mere inconvenience, as something that is not to be taken too seriously’.

Warming to his theme, Cassam applies ‘Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit’, which turns on a distinction between lying and bullshitting: the liar knows what is true, but covers it up or deflects attention from it. But the bullshitter is ‘a greater enemy of the truth’ than the liar, for they do not ‘reject the authority of truth’ through the liar’s practice of denying what they actually know is right: the bullshitter simply pays ‘no attention to it at all’. This is one of the most entertaining and amusing passages in the book – or, rather, would be, if the author’s case studies did not remind us that some of the people who he identifies as irresponsible bullshitters today hold positions of great political responsibility and influence.

One curious omission in the book is Cassam’s failure to apply his insights to the way governments are handling – or not handling – the crisis of climate change. Surely this is the most important of all current issues on which politicians in power are finding ways to avoid recognising and acting on the evidence? The author’s views on why and how this is happening would be most interesting.

Readers interested in applying philosophical and political analysis to the work of helping resolve conflicted issues, disputes and arguments will find much of value in Cassam’s book. Mediators and peacebuilders often work on the challenge of enabling parties to a dispute to at least partially set aside the ‘blocks’ and ‘filters’ which prevent them from considering other peoples’ point of view, and reassessing their own positions. Some understanding of ‘epistemic vices’ might help define for practitioners and those in dispute the habits and behaviours which are getting in the way of them seeing a ‘bigger picture’.

There are also interesting points about the ways that social context, situational factors, and information that we are given can cause us to act in ways that we would rather not: seeing how this happens can help us resist inappropriate influence. One of Cassam’s striking stories in this regard is about the two groups of theology students who were directed to take different routes to a lecture on the other side of their college campus. One group of students were told they were running late: the other group were told they had plenty of time to get to the lecture hall. On their way, each group came across someone who was clearly in need of help (an actor who’d been briefed by the students’ teacher). The way that members of each of the different groups of students responded to this person’s apparent plight varied. The key variable determining whether they stopped to help or walked on by was how much of a hurry they were in to get to the lecture – which turned out to be about the parable of the Good Samaritan!

Cassam is a rational man, and his recurrent focus is on the need for well-grounded and considered assessment to discover the actuality of a situation. Because of this, his points about situational factors, and about the contribution which unconscious cognitive biases make to confounding us, are relatively undeveloped.

Nor does he pay much attention to the role that emotions and feelings play in shaping political attitudes. At one point, he quotes Arron Banks, a funder of one of the Leave campaigns in the 2016 Brexit referendum, who ‘explained his side’s victory on the basis that the pro-EU Remain campaign had featured “fact, fact, fact, fact, fact”, but that didn’t work: “you’ve got to connect with people emotionally”’. Cassam’s response is exasperation, and a return to his arguments for logic and truth. The emotional needs which Banks recognised, however, cannot be disposed of so easily. A fuller critical understanding of current political trends requires a more thorough exploration of the reasons for the appeal of irrationality.

Review published April 2019