On received wisdom

One may think that people who have acquired fame and wealth, who seem so ubiquitous on our television screens and our radio stations, who are sycophantically interviewed in glossy magazines and festooned endlessly with awards and decorations, are establishment figures. Not so. As soon as they get a chance to tell us, they put us right immediately on that score: they are actually outsiders. Not part of the establishment at all, oh no, far from it: they always have been, and still are, outside the establishment – anti-establishment, even. They are rebels. 

What a romantic word that is: rebel. Who does not want to be seen as a rebel? Even the strongest pillar of the establishment, it seems, is really a rebel at heart. It appears to be one of the many elements of Romanticism that have remained with us, despite all the various other –isms that have come our way since. One must be a rebel, one must be someone who has never accepted given codes, who has always challenged received wisdom. Even if one’s background is Eton and Cambridge and Sandhurst and the Tory Party, one must, for all that, be a rebel

I knew many rebels in my university years. (I’d guess they are all accountants or civil servants now, though, no doubt, no less rebellious for all that.) I knew they were rebels because they all dressed and thought and spoke in much the same way, and listened to much the same kind of music. And I wanted to be a rebel as well, of course, so I copied them. And I too intoned in all sincerity – for I was nothing if not sincere – that received wisdom must always be challenged. 

But what if this dictum that received wisdom must always be challenged itself becomes a piece of received wisdom? It leads us to one of those logical conundrums, doesn’t it? If it is now received wisdom that received wisdom must always be challenged, then should we, or shouldn’t we, challenge this particular piece of received wisdom? Either way, we seem to be heading towards a contradiction. For if one challenges received wisdom, then one is merely following received wisdom in challenging it; and if one doesn’t challenge it, then … well, you see what I mean. This is threatening to become far too complex: let’s not go there. But let us consider all the same – and even challenge, if needs be – the contention that “received wisdom” must always be challenged.

 Always? Should we challenge, for instance, the received wisdom that the institution of slavery is a bad thing? Admittedly, this is even now not universally accepted around the world, and, in those cultures where it is accepted, it has gained acceptance only relatively recently: even as great a thinker as Aristotle thought the institution of slavery perfectly natural and acceptable. That view of slavery has been successfully challenged, and the current received wisdom, in our culture at least, is that slavery is an abomination. And thank heavens for that, we may say. But should we now, in turn, challenge this current received wisdom? Is it worth considering seriously the proposition that Aristotle had taken quite seriously – that slavery is perfectly natural and acceptable? Of course, one could re-consider the question of slavery, and still conclude that slavery is, indeed, a Bad Thing, but saying “received wisdom must always be challenged” is not quite the same as saying “received wisdom must always be challenged as long as we end up accepting it once we’ve finished challenging it”.

Of course, thought is free – or, at least, it should be – and one cannot take advantage of freedom of thought unless one exercises it. So, yes, even the current received wisdom on the institution of slavery should be challenged and questioned, despite the obvious danger that we may arrive at conclusions that are cruel and inhumane. But in reality, most of us don’t have the leisure – nor, I suspect, the inclination –  to consider every single issue from its initial premises. If we were to start ab initio on every single thing, each generation will be revisiting the same set of issues over and over again, and advance in thought across generations would become problematic at best. And this is why, it seems to me, we should not turn up our noses at received wisdom, however much it may please us to be seen as rebels.

That does not mean that the rich bank of thought and wisdom of past generations should not be questioned or challenged: indeed, we can hardly build on the wisdom of the past unless we scrutinise it carefully; but it does mean that it shouldn’t be ignored: one cannot, after all, challenge received wisdom unless one has a good idea of what that received wisdom is. This applies to all areas of intellectual activity – even science, which, being essentially a collection of ideas that have not yet been proved wrong, really only advances when received wisdom is successfully challenged. But Einstein could not have challenged Newtonian mechanics without having had a very good understanding of Newtonian mechanics in the first place.

Although literature is somewhat different from science for a number of reasons, the same principle applies here also: one must think for oneself, sure, but there is no earthly reason why the absorption of wisdom, received or otherwise, should be seen as an obstacle rather than as an aid to independent thought. If received wisdom on matters literary were to be jettisoned altogether, then we would place no greater weight on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, say, than we would on Marston’s The Malcontent, or Tourneur’s Revenger’s Tragedy, or, indeed, any play ever written by anyone. We should then read everything available, and then exercise our own judgement. Once again, I doubt that too many of us have the leisure or the inclination to do this: we are generally happy to trust received wisdom up to the point of accepting that Hamlet is, at the very least, an important play, and is more worthy of consideration than most others. Even if we personally decide in the end that, contrary to received wisdom, The Revenger’s Tragedy is the greatest tragic masterpiece in English literature, we must nonetheless, before we arrive at such a conclusion, tip our hats sufficiently to received wisdom to have measured it against the likes of Hamlet or Othello. And only then, only when we have exercised our independence of thought in awareness of received wisdom rather than in ignorance of it, can we really be the rebels that we so long to be.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on March 23, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    It is very difficult to emerge unscathed from beneath the weight of other people’s opinions. In fact it takes a lot of education, perhaps containing a fair portion of received wisdom.
    You say “But in reality, most of us don’t have the leisure – nor, I suspect, the inclination – to consider every single issue from its initial premises”. Some people do claim to do this: those that follow the tradition of anglophone philosophy, some of whom also claim that there is no history to ideas.
    Unfortunately, if you attend courses taught by said philosophers they tend to present a lot of previous attempts to examine an idea, even if said idea is claimed to exist independent of History. So, even if you wish to provide your own argument you still have to sit through and rebut a lot of prior thought, a lot of which in 20-20 hindsight is obviously a product of its times.
    Are you trying to say that the rejection of received wisdom might be a fashionable posture? Of course you could argue that fashion is received wisdom……………………


    • Hello Alan, it’s interesting that you use the word “unscathed” in this context. Isn’t it at least conceivable that the wisdom of past generations – the wisdom of some of the most perceptive and brilliant of intellects – may be enriching rather than scathing? That coming into contact with the best that has been thought and written may stimulate rather than inhibit one’s own thought? Why be so frightened of coming into contact with other peoples’ thought?

      Arguing against what is accepted is, of course, fine & dandy, but what is one’s argument worth if it has been created in ignorance? Sticking to literature (which is the area I am most familiar with), I find no shortage around the net of iconoclastic argument against highly valued literary works – much of it worthless as the person putting forward the argument clearly does not possess sufficient understanding of the work he or she is arguing against. I feel like saying to them “Why don’t you go away and think about this first for a few years?” (I don’t, of course: I’m far too polite! 🙂 )

      And yes, I do feel quite strongly that rejection of received wisdom is, in virtually all cases, a fashionable posture, as such rejection bolsters our image of ourselves as rebels, and, thus, affords us a warm glow of self-regard. Now, argument based on a good level of understanding is another matter, but that is quite rare, I find. Mostly it’s “Look Ma! – I’m a rebel!” Well, what can I say? – “You’re a rebel! I’m impressed!”


  2. It’s worth noticing that Einstein hasn’t obliterated or surpassed Newton; I don’t mean you’re making this mistake, but it’s one I often see made by people. Newton’s physics are still relevant, after all an apple continues to fall if we drop it. What Einstein has shown is that Newtonian physics doesn’t apply to all physical phenomena, particularly the subatomic world; but in the macroscopic world we live in it’s very useful. Einstein has refined, improved it, but not made it obsolete.

    I am fascinated by the topic of rebels; it’s one we often see in commercials; every time I go to the movies I have to put up with ten, fifteen minutes of ads telling me that I’ll be daring/free/original/bold/special/unique/different IF I drink the same soda, wear the same clothes, drive the same car, buy the same cellphone millions do. It’s hilarious but damn it, people fall for it. It’s amazing how marketing can mass advertise while convincing the individual he’s special. What artistry!


    • I agree fully about Newton and Einstein. (Prof John Barrow makes precisely the point you make in the book I talk about here.) My own academic background is physics, and although it has been many years since my undergraduate days, the intellects of Newton and of Einstein still fill me with awe.

      As for all the identikit production-line rebels, I guess they’re harmless enough as long as one doesn’t take them as seriously as they appear to take themselves! 🙂


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