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At the Foundations of Science: Respect and Seeking to Understand


A recent article by David Marcus for The Federalist, “Stop Trying to Change People’s Minds,” interested me. It’s a discussion of respectful and the crucial role of synthesis in discourse. It also refers to John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence as an example of this. I happen to have been reading that correspondence lately — with its interesting argument by Jefferson for design in nature as a scientific inference.

I am currently tracing their toil as representatives of our new nation in Europe, as they try to make trade agreements with various nations. That wasn’t easy, especially for Adams in England.

They had an important cause, but they were two very different men. This is evident from both the style and the content of their letters: New Englander Adams is very to-the-point. His sentences are short. Virginia plantation owner Jefferson maintained a correspondence with Abigail as well as John Adams. His letters to her are often about various purchases of articles in England or France one of them has requested of the other. But they also spin events into entertaining reading.

Jefferson is clear-headed and goal-driven. His letters to John Adams are focused on the issue at hand. It is hard to imagine more critical circumstances than the ones these two men managed; yet they rose to the occasion.

As Jefferson wrote to John Wayles Eppes about John Adams: “He and myself have gone through so many scenes together, that all his qualities have been proved to me, and I know him to possess so many good ones, as that I have never withdrawn my esteem ….”

David Marcus puts it well:

The key to moving away from persuadability as prerequisite in discourse is to operate in, and assume in others, good faith. Good faith does not mean that people are convincible, it means that each is arguing with the intent of honestly explaining themselves, not picking and choosing what they say in hopes of winning.

It’s true that there were rough patches in Adams and Jefferson’s relationship, but it seems that their good faith toward each, certainly in later years, was a constant.

Ironically, I think, a commitment to good faith is a condition of being persuasive to others. Who am I more likely to listen to? Someone who is just trying to change my mind? Or someone who is listening carefully to me? And this only comes from recognizing the humanity of the other. Open debate rests on the foundation that each ought to have the right to speak because we are all equals.

Does this, then, rule out the possibility of communication designed to persuade? By no means. At the same time that reasonability means listening to the other, it is a matter of personal good faith that your communication be honest. This may very well entail sharing your views of what you think is best for the other individual and society.

When we engage in this discourse of mutual respect, we also have a shared goal: to understand more of reality. And that, as Thomas Jefferson understood, is where science comes in.

Image: Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.