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  • The Structure of Open-Mindedness
  • Jason Baehr (bio)

Open-mindedness enjoys widespread recognition as an intellectual virtue. This is evident, among other ways, in its appearance on nearly every list of intellectual virtues in the virtue epistemology literature.1 Despite its popularity, however, it is far from clear what exactly open-mindedness amounts to: that is, what sort of intellectual orientation or activity is essential to it. In fact, there are ways of thinking about open-mindedness that cast serious doubt on its status as an intellectual virtue.

Consider the following description, from Robert Roberts and Jay Wood (2007), of a ‘bright college freshman, taking an introductory course in philosophy.’ Given this student’s ‘taste for ideas,’

she treats the survey as a smorgasbord at which she partakes with an appetite. With a course of sixteen weeks she may have been a Platonist, an empiricist, a skeptic, a Cartesian, a Kantian, a utilitarian, a social contractor, a mind-body dualist, a Berkeleyan idealist, a reductive materialist, a theist, an atheist, and an agnostic. Having scratched the surface of a debate, having followed for a few steps the flow of a dialectical exchange, she commits quickly to each theory, easily relinquishing its contrary, then passing on to the next. She is bright, but under the pressure of successive presentations of ideas, her intellectual character is too soft to hold onto a position.

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Roberts and Wood cite this as an example of intellectual ‘flaccidity,’ but it also illustrates a certain (less than virtuous) kind or variety of open-mindedness — the kind, for instance, that tends to inspire utterances of the familiar (if cynical) admonition: ‘Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.’

I do not wish to deny that there are instances or varieties of open-mindedness that are not intellectual virtues. Nonetheless, it is extremely plausible to think there exists a genuine and important intellectual virtue in the vicinity of these traits that can reasonably be referred to as ‘open-mindedness.’ My aim in this paper is to go some way toward uncovering the essential or defining character of this virtue. I take as my immediate focus that which is distinctive of open-mindedness as compared with other intellectual virtues — not the qualities that make open-mindedness an intellectual virtue per se or the qualities it has in common with other intellectual virtues.2 In addition to sketching an account of the basic nature and structure of open-mindedness, I shall also give brief consideration to two further issues: first, the characteristic function of open-mindedness vis-à-vis other intellectual virtues; and second, the issue of when (or to whom or how much) an exercise of open-mindedness is intellectually appropriate or virtuous. The latter question in particular merits a lengthier treatment than I can provide here; nonetheless, I hope to be able to shed at least some light on the largely practical concern that motivates it.

I Some Initial Characterizations of Open-Mindedness

I begin by considering some initially plausible proposals concerning open-mindedness and then proceed to point out ways in which these proposals are unsatisfactory. This will set the stage for a more accurate characterization of open-mindedness in the section that follows.

Whatever its fundamental nature or structure, it is tempting to think of open-mindedness as essentially relevant to situations involving intellectual conflict, opposition, challenge, or argument, and in particular, to situations involving a conflict between a person’s beliefs, on the one hand, and an opposing position, argument, or body of evidence, on the other.3 Here an open-minded person characteristically moves beyond or temporarily sets aside his own doxastic commitments in order to [End Page 192] give a fair and impartial hearing to the intellectual opposition. He is willing to follow the argument where it leads and to take evidence and reasons at face value. He does not ignore, distort, or caricature opposing positions. He is not narrow-minded, dogmatic, or biased. While he may have many firm convictions, his hold on them does not prevent him from giving serious consideration to the ‘other side.’

An example of open-mindedness thus conceived is the fictional protagonist...


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pp. 191-213
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