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Cognitive Style is a Moral Foundation

William James believed as I do that Left and Right are personality types; what I call psychological profiles, cognitive styles, or even brain types. His personality types precede Sowell’s visions by eighty years but have many parallels. I disagree with a couple of the items in James’ columns below, but that’s quibbling. The larger point remains, and is seen in the sentence I made bold. I believe it is NOT TRUE that Plato and Aristotle INVENTED two ways of seeing the world. I believe it IS TRUE that they merely ARTICULATED the cognitive styles with which they were born; that is, which were “organized in advance of experience” in their brains. The same is true, I suggest, of Rousseau and Burke, Keynes and Hayek (or Adam Smith), Krugman and Sowell, and many more. I liken these contrasting cognitive algorithms to operating systems (like Mac and PC). That they have persisted for 2500 years, I submit, is strong evidence that, in the sense that they are some of the “low hanging fruit” that predispose us to one ideology or another, they are moral foundations.

The mistake most modern thinkers make, Herman and Sowell included, is that they perceive and describe these two phenomena in terms of the people who first articulated them (Herman), or in terms of the interpretations that follow from them (Sowell).

Neither of those thinkers in their analyses took the next logical step backward to root causes. Both seem content to describe the WHAT, but neither seems curious to ask WHY.

I’m taking that step. I’m asking why. I’m asserting that that the answer is two distinctly different processing algorithms, operating systems, brain types, cognitive styles.

From The Cave and the Light, p. 528:

His gift for putting abstruse problems in ordinary language also allowed him to redefine the old battle between rationalism and empiricism— or ideas versus facts— as essentially a clash between two types of human personality, the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.”

“Empiricist,” he wrote in 1907, “means your lover of facts in all their crude variety, rationalist means your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.… The individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, [while] the individual empiricist prides himself on being hardheaded.” He drew up their character in two contrasting columns:


Rationalistic (going by principles)    Empiricist (going by facts)

Intellectualistic                                  Sensationalistic

Idealistic                                           Materialistic

Optimistic                                         Pessimistic

Religious                                          Irreligious

Freewillist                                         Fatalistic

Monistic                                            Pluralistic

Dogmatical                                       Skeptical

The two philosophers James saw as epitomizing the tender-minded versus tough-minded split were probably Hegel and John Stuart Mill. 28 Still, with the exception of optimism and pessimism (and here James was thinking of the optimism of Hegelians and Marxists in believing history has a final purpose), it’s clear he was really talking about the perennial split between Platonists and Aristotelians in a distinctly American guise.

Indeed, he might have been standing in front of Raphael’s School of Athens when he wrote that the clash between the tough- and tender-minded “has formed in all ages a part of the philosophical atmosphere.” Each has a low opinion of the other. “The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads”— in other words, as a collection of weak-willed Percy Shelleys or Walt Whitmans. “The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal”— a nation of John Waynes. (p. 528)


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