Editor’s Note: Unsettling Settled Questions

At Stanford, one of the virtues of our education is getting to know people from myriad walks of life. We meet and talk with people from all over the country and all over the world, from different kinds of neighborhoods, with different family histories, with different aims and aspirations. We meet people of faith, people who eschew religion, and people in between, people of different faiths and people with different beliefs about atheism or agnosticism. We meet people of different cultures, we meet people with different political views, who differ as much from one another as they do from us. What we encounter through it all is diversity of thought and ways of thinking.

We have on campus several journals where this different thought finds its voice: the Progressive, the Daily, the Review, and the many research and literary magazines. If their coexistence is a sign of anything, it is as evidence of the diversity of thought on campus.

Such is not a new condition, whether on this college campus or on any other, whether in this country or abroad, whether in this time or in the past. Humans have been asking how to order society and how to live our lives for at least as long as we have been able to write down such questions and our attempts at answers. If humanity has been asking these questions and seeking after answers for so long, why do we continue? Is it not plausible that, in the course of several thousands of years, we have found the answers that can finally settle our questions?

At times, it certainly seems that we think this way. But settled questions can be unsettled by reviving the question and posing one of two answers: an old answer, or a new answer. It may be necessary to pose the old answer to get to a new answer, or a new answer may turn out to be simply a revision or amendment to an old answer, updating it, bolstering it with new and different data while preserving the ancient insight. Unsettling settled questions is a duty of every human being—it is a virtue of searching without to find the truth of the ancient answer within. It may be that we’re only approximating the right answer right now, that we’re getting closer every century. Our old answers have brought us the frameworks of thought and the tools and instruments to discover new knowledge, and every bit of new knowledge we learn we apply to the eternal questions, in an ever-iterative feedback that mirrors human consciousness. As we get closer, we discover ways to get closer still. And so we keep asking.

Whenever we discover something new or encounter a way of thinking not our own, this moment gives us pause. Giving pause and working through the function and usefulness of a pause is perhaps part of what we must do to continue the search for a more complete answer. Ideas not our own, if we engage them with sincerity and openness, if we study them in their strongest and clearest forms, these ideas can give us pause, and teach us humility about our beliefs. We might be right about what we think and believe, but it is likely that we once held views different than those we now hold—perhaps very different—and when we held these now-revised or discarded views, likely we were certain they were right. I myself have changed by political views, changed them radically, several times in just the past five years. I now believe it is important to understand as many arguments and positions as possible, not for the usual reason of bettering my own arguments, but because what persuades me or others now may not hold a political truth; instead, it may hold a truth about humanity, hidden in the reasons for why it persuades.

In humility we find the strongest principles. We find what lies beneath the patina of ideologies, opinions, and views that we place and build upon our deepest knowledge. Often it seems we are covering up what we already know, masking it, hiding it, sometimes from ourselves. What we find underneath, what in current usage might be called “the true self,” is our true nature. Who we are.

It is that within us that leads us to certain ideas and beliefs instead of to others. It is what inclines us to one way of explanation or justification rather than another, toward these views at this point in our life, this explanation or this theory at another point. It is how we make decisions, it is how we choose to live our lives. When we decide what to do, we know what our reasons are. But we also have reasons for having those particular reasons. Asking ‘Why?’ enough times of our reasons for our reasons may begin to point us in a fruitful direction, towards a satisfying answer.

I began by thinking about diversity. Often in the conservative camp there are two thoughts about diversity. The first is a visceral reaction, rarely reconsidered. This is the familiar polemic against “diversity studies,” a polemic that is becoming tired. The other conservative thought about diversity is that the liberal academy, while it claims to be diverse, in fact is not sufficiently diverse—that is, not sufficiently conservative or generally non-left, not proportional to the distribution of opinions throughout the country.

I now think there’s a third way, a way between that takes us beyond, to better understanding. There are many conservatives who are happy to be on liberal campuses, as it firms their beliefs and encourages them to hone their arguments until they are as sharp, strong, and clear as they can make them. But what we might be missing is looking into ourselves as we do this and asking why. What is it about our nature that inclines us to these actions, and why do we choose to act and live as we do?

Aristotle wrote that the deepest friendship is one between two people who may often disagree but who both care about the search for truth, which Aristotle saw as necessary for a good life. What made the friendship profound was that both friends cared that the other live a good life, and so they engaged with one another’s ideas and with one another and sought for the reality of the matter. No matter what the demographic of a campus is, we can reflect upon ourselves. But the more we encounter and engage with friends from different walks of life, the more we will encounter different thoughts and different ways of thinking, which may help point us beyond the thoughts to the person thinking them.

We search in college for who we are so that we may know what we are to become. With any luck, the question is far from settled.

Yours in searching,

Daniel Slate
Editor in Chief

Subscribe to the Stanford Review