In Aids to Reflection (1), Coleridge often throws in the odd Latin word or phrase. Mostly, he offers an accessible and useful definition. Sometimes not though, and I like to be sure I am catching everything etymologically. One term that intrigued me especially was lene clinamen, so I did a looking myself.
Lene- the root meaning of leniency. It also has hints of characteristically being soft, mild, and soothing.
Clinamen = an inclination towards something, a swerve, or a bias.
Coleridge’s own descriptor of lene clinamen is “gentle bias.” And, in his commentary on aphorisms, he employs that word combo for the purpose of explaining the importance of a proper bias in truth seeking.
I was intrigued: generally, in truth seeking, bias isn’t considered something desirable. In the same commentary, he discusses the ability of the will to influence belief – either towards or away from its object. People, he says, “must believe in order to acquire a reason for their belief.” This sounds circular in a way; and yet there are other more recent thinkers who have written on the topic of will and its role in belief. A personal favorite is Michael Polanyi.
A little while later I heard professor and friend, facilitate a discussion on one of C.S Lewis’s essays, “The Funeral of a Great Myth.” What was timely for me was the central theme: it examined what role motivation had to do with belief (in whatever happens to be the topic: religion, human rights, free speech, etc.); i.e. why we want to believe certain things and will thus be more prone to adhere to that belief. So here is my question about the role of bias.
As a word junkie I hold the OED dear. I also like to share.
That which ‘moves’ or induces a person to act in a certain way; a desire, fear, or other emotion, or a consideration of reason, which influences or tends to influence a person's volition; also often applied to a contemplated result or object of a desire of which tends to influence volition.
- An inclination, leaning, tendency, bent; a preponderating disposition or propensity; predisposition towards; predilection; prejudice.
- A swaying influence, impulse, or weight; ‘any thing which turns a man (2) to a particular course, or gives the direction to his measures’
But back to will, believing, and the role of motivation and bias. Lately I have been trying to implement more self-reflexivity. And this question of “why do I want to believe such and such,” is often revealing. Why do I want to think such and such of God? Of some theological issue? Or cultural issue? Of some political issue? Of some taboo (and here I keep in mind that one culture’s taboo is another culture’s delight). Why do I want to like some author and not another? I am learning about myself through discovering the motivations and biases behind my preferences.
Take reading Chesterton for example – and please forgive me for bringing him up so often – and my wanting to read him. I like him for a number of reasons, but I also like it that he gloriously and bloodily bashes, bombastically!, money grubbers (read, non-scrupulous capitalists). This tickles me. I like it. It makes me feel good. But here again, why. What does else does this personal motivation/bias of mine reveal about corresponding problems? Recently I saw Richard Dawkins sporting a T-Shirt which said “Religion: together we can find a cure.” I laughed, and thought to myself, “you, buddy, have a bias. You want to believe that.” And then I was, like, … wait. What do I want to believe or disbelieve?
- I have a lovely paper version, but the best online and searchable version I have found is this.
- Can you believe that OED hasn’t changed this to “person” yet!?