One of the things I have noticed over the short course of my career as a blogger, and before that as a commenter on blogs, is that I often find myself responding to interlocutors with statements of the following general form:
To say that x is y is just not the same thing as saying that x is *nothing but* y.
I sooner or later say something like this in almost every comment thread. Almost every time I say, “x is y,” it generates an irate response from someone or other, sooner or later, to the effect that “x is not entirely y,” or even, “x is not entirely z.” This, despite the fact that I had not said, or implied, anything of the sort to which such responses might be apposite.
It’s a curious thing. I have begun to think that there is a universal temptation to improper reduction – to thinking that x really is nothing but y, so that y totally explains x. Once you have latched on to such a y, you hold onto it for dear life, because it seems to give you so much intellectual leverage. When that happens, you have become an ideologue, and your y has become your obsession – your precious.
I was once a libertarian, and before that I was a Marxist, so I know this temptation to improper reduction from the inside. You learn a new thing, and suddenly it’s your hammer, and all the world a nail. Then at some point you read someone saying something that doesn’t quite fit into the categories you’ve found have worked for you so far, and that you therefore cherish, and so you instantly turn to the notion that he is an enemy, and absurd, irrational, and indeed perverse in his determined foolishness.
It’s a real problem, if only because it halts discourse, separating interlocutors into mutually unintelligible factions, and preventing ideologues of whatever stripe from ever learning.
We really must fight this temptation. When we fall under its spell, then our adversaries cannot but seem to us as insane or deluded, or at least irrational. Then will we likely err in ascribing to them no moral agency, or therefore dignity, as liberals are inveterately prone to do with murderers and thugs of this or that “oppressed” outfit.
The modern mind in general seems to be peculiarly prone to the error of improper reduction, and its corollary in the ascription of improper reduction to others. I blame the latter day lapse in the study of the Scholastics. I can think of no better way to train the mind out of it, than a careful reading of anything by Aquinas. Having understood several hundred of his patient, careful, sympathetic explanations of how x is y in some ways, but not in all, you will be forever cured of the tendency to the error. From then on, you’ll feel comfortable only with proper reduction – the only sort that in any case can hope to furnish explanations that are both true and adequate.