Every election cycle and its ubiquitous lawn signs provide a perfect opportunity not only to reflect on one’s political and philosophical beliefs but also to wonder why anyone would hold views contrary to one’s own. I like to think of this as an opportunity to check on one’s state of open-mindedness.

Coincidentally, fellow philosopher Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, has written an editorial for the Pioneer Press about the challenge of being open-minded. While I tend to agree with his basic line of thought – that it is indeed more challenging than we tend to think to be open-minded – the philosopher in me also wondered about whether it was possible to be open-minded about being open-minded and whether that entailed the possibility of being close-minded. Of course, I realize that it also is possible to be close-minded about being open-minded – but that is a completely different matter.

Dr. Stephen Laumakis

Dr. Stephen Laumakis

I mention this because some of my colleagues at St. Thomas – especially those with liberal, Democratic and progressive leanings – tend to think that I am close-minded politically, if not universally, because I tend to hold views (at least for the sake of argument) that they find, well, unenlightened and mindless.

I think that they see themselves as independent, impartial and open-minded people who come to their conclusions based on good reasons and the facts. Yet, as Marino warns us, thinking impartially – with an open mind – is not as easy as we tend to think it is, precisely because it “requires an ability to acknowledge the views that we are attached to, as well as the willingness to be triply careful about dismissing arguments that might rub our cherished positions the wrong way.” So, I started wondering if I am or could be open-minded in that way. Here’s what I discovered.

For better or for worse, I think of myself philosophically as a closet Platonist and/or “recovering” Thomist (of the strict observance) – which simply means that I tend to think things have essences – a metaphysical principle that makes a thing be the kind of thing it is (i.e., the essence of a tree makes a tree be a tree; the essence of a dog makes a dog be a dog and not a cat or some other animal), and that our knowledge and actions with regard to them is and ought to be based on this metaphysical fact.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to have serious reservations about such an essentialist view because it seems to be out of harmony with my experience and how things seem to be in the world. Or at least with how many of my colleagues see things.

I’ve begun to wonder whether the Buddha may have been right about things lacking fixed essences (i.e., the denial of my essentialist view), and reality being a function of how we see it – or how things appear to us, at least in part, because of our own conceptual habits and frameworks and our tendency to see things in a karmically determined and influenced way.

Take Olympic competition. For the life of me, I simply cannot see (because of my own karma?) how any true competitor can feel good about “winning” a silver or bronze medal. Doesn’t that just mean that they were first or second loser? As far as I see things, the point – the essence, if you will – of any competition is victory (especially if you’re keeping score). Everyone other than the winner just needs to work harder and practice more, not be recognized with a prize for losing! Many of my colleagues think I’m wrong about this, but I just can’t see the point or truth of saying someone “won a silver or bronze medal.” In my mind (and in my neighborhood) that just means you were a loser.

Assuming – for the sake of being open-minded – that I might be wrong about Olympic medals and what the essence of competition is, led me to wonder about just what I think a marriage is (and even if it is the kind of thing that might have an essence). This is, of course, a different question from the ballot initiative Minnesota voters will face on Nov. 6 about whether a specific definition of marriage should be enshrined in the state constitution. I thought I knew what marriage was because I’ve been in one for the last 21 years. But some of my colleagues think I’m wrong about that too. Marriage, so they say, is essentially about love and commitment, and not the sex of the individuals who enter into it.

Lastly, let’s consider one of the ongoing partisan talking points for this cycle: Who gets credit for building things? I definitely know the Buddha was right about interdependent arising – that “things,” understood as processes, events and happenings, arise from causal interactions involving myriad other processes, events and happenings, and that simple atomistic and dyadic cause-effect talk is a colossal over-simplification and falsification. But like Saint Augustine, I’m willing to take the blame for my own mistakes. My real problem, I guess, is seeing how I could have made any in the first place.

All of this has led me to wonder that perhaps the real essence of being open-minded is being able to see that you might just be wrong even when you think that’s impossible! I doubt it – but I could be wrong – maybe.

Steve Laumakis is a professor of philosophy and director of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program.

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8 Responses

  1. Zachary Stokman

    What a fitting subject to talk about and explore right before election time!! “Open mindedness”, I believe, is a good thing that each individual needs to incorporate into their lives. But easy, no. Being open minded leads people to challenge, test, and further explore their beliefs and why they believe them. I also believe that being TOO open minded can be problematic in causing individuals to be uncertain of things that they are certain of through their many experiences of it in reality. This would infer a weak and unstable foundational belief system continually swayed by whimsical and changing ideas of reality and truth. Open mindedness is a necessary and an essential part of each individual’s life, but it also needs to have its limits.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but in talking with some “friendly liberals” concerning open mindedness, I got the strong impression that open mindedness is the acceptance of others’ beliefs and the alteration of your own to accommodate theirs. Especially concerning the marriage amendment, I have heard some “friendly liberals” use words like ‘discrimination’ or ‘anti-accepting’ when they discribe my beliefs concerning what marriage is: the union of one man and one woman. I have come to a firm and unwavering belief of what marriage is and I will hear others’ views out, but as for me I will not be “open minded” to their views because I have come to a realization of truth as to what marriage is through reason and use of my intellect.

    We are in desparate need of men and women who have backbones and can stand up for their beliefs and not alter them. In my opinion, open mindedness in its fullness leaves little to no room for an individual to have a concrete and certain foundation when it comes to morals and beliefs.

  2. Michael Chmielewski

    I believe that open-mindedness is a good thing in moderation. On the one extreme, if one is too open-minded he will not be able to formulate any concrete opinions of his own. On the other extreme, if one is too closed-minded, he will be trapped in the bliss of his own perfect world and will thus have no valid perception of the whole of the argument. It is healthy for a person to formulate his own opinion regarding highly debated topics and test them against the evidence provided by the opposing parties. This will either strengthen the original opinions or introduce a complication that requires those opinions to be changed. I agree with Dr. Marino that open-mindedness is far from easy. I also believe that, in moderation, open-mindedness is a necessary component to a healthy opinion.

  3. Holly Wang

    As a human being, we are given the gift of being able to choose between two or more options, to make decisions for ourselves about what is “wrong and right.” I have not grown up meeting a single person that has never objected to anything, because, in my opinion, being open-minded is exactly what Marino said, “an ability to acknowledge the views that we are attached to, as well as the willingness to be triply careful about dismissing arguments that might rub our cherished positions the wrong way.” I believe that as a human being we must stand for something, or else what purpose do we have in life and in living? That being said, I don’t really believe that someone can be truly open-minded to EVERYTHING. Open-mindedness exists, but we must ask ourselves if the general definition of the word applies to all of life or just certain subjects.

  4. Haley Olson

    The thing that I have an issue with is the definition of marriage, this is not the issue at hand but is one that has irked me for quite a while. I find this definition, “Marriage, so they say, is essentially about love and commitment,.’ to be idealistic and just a mere fairytale. For centuries marriage was between a man and a woman and it had nothing to do with love and commitment. Many times marriage was merely to carry on the bloodline and produce heirs, or to form alliances between rival families or countries. You would see married men with their mistresses and married women with their one-the-side lovers, they were married but it had nothing to do with love for their spouse but for stability. Often times people were not married to the ones they loved because they were of different social ranks. Marriage was about how much dowries the woman had and the influence and wealth of the male. Now, one may say that these pieces of evidence are from the Middle ages, the Victorian era and have no relevance in this era. To that I bring up another point, people say that marriage is for love. What is love? With a 50% divorce rate does that mean that love is something that is so fleeting that one can get married wily-nily, because they were in “love” at the time and if it doesn’t work out try again and again. Something one does so that they can get their friend a green card or financial benefits? Where is the commitment if nearly half of these marriages end up in divorce? My belief is before we decide who is allowed to marry we need to decide what marriage is.

  5. Elizabeth Runde

    Dr. Laumakis,

    I agree with you when you reference that Marino said thinking impartially-with an open mind- is not as easy as we tend to think it is. I think our open-mindedness is a result of the ways we have been raised and the people we associate ourselves with. Therefore, when we encounter people with a different point of view than ours, it’s very hard to take a step back and examine how we came to believe what we do. Therefore, Buddha’s belief about how things appear to us is right, because of our own conceptual habits and our tendency to see things in a determined and influenced way.The way you view olympic competiton will be very hard to change. An olympic althlete could be proud of a silver or bronze medal because of the recognition he or she still recieves from a second and third place.

  6. Paul

    “Open Minded” is too much bandied as if it’s a virtue. It is not, in and of itself. Yes, we must be open to new evidence changing our prior conclusions. But this is not the usual context in which we hear “open minded”, is it? Indeed, our fellow citizens with liberal mindsets insist the meaning of “open minded” is that we accept every new idea and consider it favorably merely because it’s new to conventional Judeo-Christian thinking, no matter that Judeo-Christian thinking represents hard-learned truths through 3,800 years of human experience, and no matter that Judeo-Christian values are thoroughly cross-checked philosophically and historically at all applicable points by purely secularist polytheistic Greek sages.

    Such a virtue as liberals’ vision of “open minded”, if it were truly a virtue, would lead a person merely to be wishy-washy, never standing for one thing for long. Consider that paragon of “open mindedness”, Jane Fonda: changing stripes every time she shacks up with a new man, to mirror her new man’s views. Indeed, this “open minded” paragon was divorced by her most recent husband because, as he stated, “she was no longer interesting.” Meanwhile, history’s foremost philosophers (Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, etc) all seem to insist that each person always judges; indeed, that we must judge. This means we must have our own set of standards on which to judge. And we do; we must. We judge our own level of safety merely walking down the street when any other person approaches, and whenever we approach any object.

    No, “open minded” is a sham issue. It’s primary use seems to be to get people to abandon traditional standards and just blow with the wind to whatever new “morals” the more firmly-convicted self-declared “elite minds” might wish to blow society. In reality, a person must recognize and judge everything through one’s own prism of values and experiences, when those values and experiences conform to historically proven truths, and on this basis it is indeed a virtue to be closed-minded to certain things, like “just say no to sin”.

    “Open Minded” Just the latest word or phrase corrupted by liberals. George Orwell would be shocked that today’s liberals are so much in conformity with his “1984” novel that explored Stalin’s USSR so pointedly.

  7. Jeff Christensen

    I’ve learned that the most liberal, left-leaning friends I have are generally also the most narrow minded. It’s hard for me to respect anyone who blindly follows either political party without questioning their motives, or questioning how our media is reporting events. Although I am fundamentally more socially and fiscally conservative, this year I cannot find a presidential candidate worthy of voting for. Do I vote for the socialist who wants to redistribute my money, or the anti-labor guy who wants to protect those with more then me??? As for the yard signs, my wife can vouch for the fact that I hate to be told what to do!! I sincerely doubt anyone’s opinion is swayed from an issue by passing by a yard sign….. But I am still trying to listen and learn.

  8. Tom King


    After 74 years, I’d say first inform yourself and your conscience, as best you can, then decide, and let the devil take the hindmost.

    Camus was probably right in saying too, that not to decide is to decide. But I can’t be sure about that either.

    There is such a thing as being so open-minded that every proposition gets pushed out of our mind before we can fully examine it.

    And, sadly, some of us are so close-minded that a fresh idea never gets a chance to enter in.

    In Prof. Flynn’s ethics class back in ’59, most of us found ourselves agreeing with him that it made most sense to ready and aim before you fired, and if you missed….well, that’s what forgiveness is for.