Monday, June 15, 2015

What everybody knows


In his essay “Of virtue” (Essays II-29) Montaigne writes about the case of a Turkish lord who in vain tried to shoot a hare. Also his dogs didn’t succeed to catch the animal. Therefore the lord concluded that the hare had been protected by his fate. This made Montaigne remark: “This story may serve ... to let us see how flexible our reason is to all sorts of images.”
A few years ago I wrote a blog about Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which says that when there is a gap between what we believe and what actually is the case we try to adapt the facts to our believes (see my blog dated Dec. 31, 2012). In Montaigne’s example the Turkish lord was so convinced of his own qualities and the qualities of his dogs that he couldn’t imagine that he failed. Something different must have been the case so that he could maintain his belief in himself and his dogs: There was a higher power that protected the hare. The much simpler explanation that he wasn’t a good hunter couldn’t be true in his eyes. It’s a clear instance of the reduction of cognitive dissonance in the sense of the theory of Festinger.
So far, so good. However, I wrote – which is generally accepted – that it was Festinger with his team who first formulated the theory of cognitive dissonance, but now we see that four centuries before Montaigne expressed already the same idea. Must we say now that Festinger and his co-workers didn’t invent this theory but that it was Montaigne who did, even though he didn’t call it that way? I think that there are arguments to say so, but that we can better stick to the opinion that Festinger & Co. are the inventors.
When I studied sociology long ago, many people said to me: A sociologist investigates what everybody already knows. It is a common opinion but it is easy to show that it’s nonsense. Nonetheless, there is some truth in it. Often, sociologists do investigate what “everybody” already knows, but it is not so that everybody knows that “everybody” knows (see note). Or some facts are only known to certain groups but the policy makers don’t know it or, if they do, they don’t believe them. Then it’s useful that social scientists investigate the matter. Do teachers really make such long hours as they say? Well, let’s investigate it and compare it with the work load of other of other employees. Or, what is often heard: “All foreigners are criminals – with the exception of my neighbour” (forgetting that once you have passed the border of your country you yourself are also a foreigner). So let’s investigate it and show that this prejudice simply isn’t true. By the way, it can happen that prejudices are true, for – as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained – a prejudice actually is nothing but an opinion that is not well established by the facts; but it can exist because we don’t know the facts or don’t have them at hand. It’s true, in practice prejudices are often unreasonable, biased opinions, dislikes and so on, but then it’s just the challenge for investigators to demonstrate that – or to topple their own prejudices.
Be it is it may, Montaigne was not a systematic investigator. Even more, in his days systematic research in the modern sense did not yet insist but the idea was yet under construction so to speak, to which he in fact also contributed, for example by his view on “doubt”. Montaigne was an essayist and writer. He was a keen observer who wrote down what he saw and thought. Investigating opinions, views, ideas etc, – called “hypotheses” in the scientific jargon – in a systematic and methodological way and testing the truth of them is what investigators do and what Montaigne did not do in his Essays. Therefore maybe we can say that Montaigne was the inventor of the idea of cognitive dissonance – if he was – but not the inventor of the theory. It was Festinger with his team who was the latter. Generally it is so that there are many good and useful ideas in society but often it’s uncertain what the truth in them is, even if they appear to be useful. That’s what we science need for. But perhaps the present blog is only a case of cognitive dissonance reduction that I wrote for confirming my own prejudice.

Note: If I remember well, Anthony Giddens once discussed this point already but for this blog I’ll not try to find out where he did.

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