Here’s a question: what books, stories, or essays have changed your mind, and how? (via)
It’s pretty common to talk about the books that influence us, but I tend to think that these texts make us more ourselves or cement already existing biases: anti-authoritarian teenagers read Ayn Rand, young people of faith read C. S. Lewis, do-gooders read George Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald, feminists read Virginia Woolf or Simone de Beauvoir, nerds read Robert Heinlein or Bruce Sterling, etc. It’s less common to talk about the books that have forced us to shift in our courses, to change from nerd to feminist or from socialist to libertarian. Ideally, these would be books read in adulthood rather than adolescence, and they needn’t be fiction although that’s probably more interesting.
In thinking about this question, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s especially tough because we tend to paper over our previous errors and mistakes. We believe ourselves to be much more self-consistent over time than we actually are, and when we do note major shifts in our perceptions and attitudes, we record those shifts as a part of a dramatic narrative rather than the slow accretion of facts and arguments. Books and articles are less likely to star in these dramatic self-narratives than major life events.
However, here is my best guess at texts that transformed my thinking or forced me to amend my opinions.
1. Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution forced me to give up on the notion that liberal societies still need revolution. I’ve always had a fascination with insurrection, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I began to see the value (rather than the elitism) in Edmund Burke’s criticism of revolutionary fervor and radical change. Arendt’s account of the differences between the French and American Revolutions sparked both a dissertation and a turn away from radical politics towards civic republican accounts of political institutions.
2. In Augustine’s Confessions I encountered the personal and phenomenological basis for modern Christianity. I count this as a mind-changer because I was, and am, an atheist. Augustine reminded me that there’s a difference between faith and simply believing the proposition “God exists.” There are many things I resent about Christian hegemony in the West, but Augustine always reminds me that true faith requires first and foremost that we question everything, indeed, it requires that we first “become a question to ourselves.” So long as Christianity contains the Augustinian thread, I will defend it from the new atheists bent on irreligion. (It’s probably no surprise that Augustine also figured heavily in my dissertation.)
3. David Estlund’s “Beyond Fairness and Deliberation: The Epistemic Dimension of Democratic Authority” is a short essay that changed the way I understand the justification for democracy. Along with Robert Talisse, Cheryl Misak, and Steven Maloney, I’ve become persuaded that the epistemic defenses of democratic institutions are actually much better than the liberal and deontological justifications. In other words, the best defense of democracy is that it “gets things right.” Since reading this essay (and dozens of other books and essays on these themes, as well as writing a few articles in this vein myself) I’ve radically changed my commitments professionally and personally. But it was Estlund’s simple challenge to describe why we ought to prefer voting to choosing a random citizen to act as “Queen for the Day” that got me thinking on this track, so he gets the credit, though Nozick’s essay from Philosophical Explanations on truth-tracking and the skeptic deserves honorable mention.
4. Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating,” “The Failure of War,” “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” and “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Berry’s poetry has a bit too much of Heidegger in it, but his account of the world constantly pulls me up short when I try to assume that metropolitan life and sociability is to be preferred. Of all of these, Berry’s work has not so much changed my mind as unsettled it. I’m hoping to teach a course on Philosophy and the City at some point in the future, using Berry as the foil.
5. Martha Nussbaum’s work on capability theory supplied some of my current research and political commitments. I had largely ignored Nussbaum until a friend asked me what I thought of her work, and my answer was so ill-informed that I set out to formulate a less-ignorant opinion. It turns out, she’s damn smart, and right about most things to which she turns her attention. She also dissuaded me from a long-standing intellectual crush on Judith Butler. Mind, changed.
One particular risk in these self-evaluations is that we will tend to pick books that signal intelligence or status, or that we would like our friends to read. From my list it looks like I didn’t avoid the signaling problem, but I did try to distinguish books that persuaded me from the books that I believe might persuade others. A much more boring, non-signaling list might include several policy texts on health care and political economy, some (offline) secondary sources on F.A. Hayek, the Pitchfork review essay “Twee as Fuck,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and of course The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.