What does it mean to be “open” minded? Open mindedness is supposed to be found at some far end of (some) spectrum (or other) from “closed” mindedness. But what “spectrum,” and what “end”?

There is a saying – variously and unreliably attributed to everyone and no one in particular – that many people would profit from taking to heart: “One ought to have an open mind, but not so open that one’s brains fall out.”

An error is often made by people who’ve not troubled to read or learn their Aristotle, in supposing that if is “X” is BAD, then the opposite of “X” is GOOD. As Aristotle quite carefully observed (especially in his Nicomachean Ethics, readily found in any collection) the opposite of a vice is often times every bit as much a vice – which is to say, they are both vicious. The issue is easy enough to recognize: if nothing/everything is allowed to pass, it is the same as if everything/nothing is allowed to pass. Sanity and rationality are found somewhere in the “middle.”

The idea of “the middle” is itself something that must be determined by context. In saying as much, it would be transcendentally foolish to imagine that “the middle” was anything less than an objective fact of reality. All that is being stated is the obvious fact that objective reality is subtle and concrete, such that previously legislated (but hopelessly abstract) “definitions” are only capable of misdirection; such abstract definitions only fall short of stupidity to the extent that they are not overtly insane.

Aristotle knew this, and gave the example of a well known – and, evidently, monstrous bruiser of an athlete – “Milo,” and compared Milo’s eating habits to those of a rank beginner. Milo, being the big, hulking fellow he was, needed an enormous amount of food in order to stay healthy, as he burned an enormous number of calories in his vigorous (and evidently, quite “manly man”) workouts. The beginner, however, would make him/her-self sick trying to consume as much food as Milo did. Yet for both Milo and the beginner, there is an amount that is too much, an amount that is too little, and an amount between these two that is the “Goldilocks” perfection. It just happens that it is not the same Goldilocks point for Milo and the beginner. It bears repeating: attempting to determine what this Goldilocks point is, in abstraction from concrete facts, is worse than foolish, it is positively destructive.

Concepts like “too much,” “too little,” and “just right,” are useful heuristics in the course of inquiry. But treated like finalities in their own right, they not only fail that usefulness, they undermine the very possibility of such usefulness.

Which brings us back to the extremities, the “opposites,” of closed vs. open mindedness. If

Closed = BAD,

then surely

Open = GOOD,


My apologies for being coy here, but my experience, limited as it is, suggests that this is a point that needs considerable emphasis. At this point, the reader is hopefully wondering things like, “what is the context in which the accusation of closed mindedness being used?” and “How ‘open’ might ‘open mindedness’ become before it ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice?”

Permit me the luxury of repeating myself: “One ought to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Accepting at face value any claim or idea is the sign of singularly unthoughtful mind (especially if that claim or idea came from television or the internet.) The only way a person can fulfill the supposed “ideal” of promiscuous open mindedness is by abandoning any pretense of rational thought or inquiry.

People without filters are people without thoughts; the same is true of groups and organizations. Logically speaking, such persons/groups are effectively indistinguishable from those persons/groups whose filters are altogether impenetrable by logic, principles, evidence and facts (which is to say, closed.) This is why the development of contemporary science in the 20th Century was accompanied by the emergence of the peer-review process. There is so much fatuous quackery in the world that some initial filters needed to be implemented so that the publication process had some measure of standing and reliability within the scientific and scholarly disciplines. For example, it might be recalled that formal logic is primarily eliminative – that is, formal schema tell us what combinations of ideas cannot simultaneously hold. Someone with a “viciously” (that is, extreme and vice-driven) “open” mind is allowing in everything at once. The subsequent lack of logically grounded elimination is equivalent to the lack of logic – hence, reasoned thought – altogether.

Which points us toward the middle ground between the vices of uncritically closed and uncritically open mindedness. If the previous descriptions are not too biased, that middle ground would seem to be something like “critical mindedness.”

Now, the word “critical,” when used in the context of logic or philosophy, does not mean “criticizing.” It does not mean calling people names, or publicly noting that they have the sartorial tastes of pigs in a wallow. “Critical” here has the connotation of “critic,” as in “art critic,” or “critique.” “Criticism” in this context is not the wanton spew of negativity, but the careful – and constructive! – analytical development of meanings and ideas that are present, and meanings and ideas that ought to be present. In this respect, Logic (as opposed to just and only formal logic) begins with the “possible,” because terms like “ought,” “should,” and so on are about the broader field of what might be, rather than just and only what is.

But there is a distinction we ought to be making here, between what is merely and only abstractly “possible,” and that which is significantly anchored in the concrete, but which still casts a wider net than that which is narrowly actual. Let us call this middle ground the “potential.” It is abstractly possible that the Athenian invasion of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian war was a spectacular success. Given the actual planning and logistics of that invasion, such a “possibility” is almost transcendentally absurd. But it is still an abstract possibility that the Syracusians might have hosed their defensive measures on an even more galactically ridiculous scale than the Athenians had launched their offense. Rather differently (one cannot say “contrarily” here without risking logical contradiction) the butane lighter in my kitchen drawer has the very real potential of being lit, now or in the very near future. I need only walk over to the drawer, take the lighter out, and light it. Indeed, having typed these words, I’m profoundly tempted to walk over and do just that. But with an uncharacteristic exercise of personal restraint and discipline, I choose not to do so, and leave this particular potential a potential only. It is a real potential, nonetheless, but it is “only” a potential and not an actuality.

And herein lies the problem with vacuous, promiscuous “open mindedness.” This is not “open” mindedness, but rather a kind of absent mindedness, because the critical mind is entirely absent. This kind of vice-driven (which is to say, vicious) “open” mind, makes no distinction between that which is abstractly possible, and that which is genuinely and really potential. No effort is made to formally eliminate that which has only the thinnest relation to thought, conflating it instead with that which is genuinely close to (if not quite identical with) the actual. Such an “open” mind is not a “mind” at all. It is a knee-jerk reaction with words.