Backwards thinking

In the last couple of weeks I have been trying to disentangle Hincmar of Rheims’ arguments in his text on Lothar II’s divorce, contemplating morality, and writing pastiche detective stories. What links these disparate activities is a form of logic, or possibly illogic, that of creating texts and ideas backwards, to lead to the ‘right’ answer. To start at the end, I found that the easiest way to create the illusion of the detective as knowledgeable is to start with the solution he is going to find, and then create the clues that can only fit that pattern. For example, I wanted one American suspect to be eliminated, because the detective realises she is black before he has ever met her or seen a photo (and she therefore cannot fit a description he has). So I googled African-American names and historically black colleges, and created Javina Richardson, formerly of North Carolina Central University. At least to a UK reader, the detective’s ability to deduce from this information her ethnic origin may seem quite impressive.

Similarly, when I’m analysing Hincmar’s arguments, it’s increasingly useful to focus not on his starting points, but on his end points. What is Hincmar trying to achieve with any particular line of argument? Why does he accept one text from the Aachen synod of January 860 (the Booklet of Eight Chapters) and reject another (the Booklet of Seven Chapters)? If you start from his overall aims in writing De Divortio, and some of his recurrent themes, such as that Theutberga had not made a public confession, then some parts of his argument suddenly fit together more coherently.

As for morality, I recently came across the work of Jonathan Haidt and his studies on moral psychology. He has done several studies arguing that people’s morality is intuitive, rather than rational: people make instinctive moral judgements, and then subsequently try and find logical reasons to support them. See, for example:

Haidt, J., Koller, S., & Dias, M. (1993). Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 613-628.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by all of Haidt’s argument, because some of the scenarios he gives of behaviour that people should not rationally find immoral seem unrealistic. For example, he has a brother and sister who sleep together, with maximum contraceptive protection, and never repeat the experience or tell anyone else about it, but instead simply keep it as ‘a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other’. That doesn’t sound like a plausible consensual incest scenario, and people’s ‘rational’ reactions may be being affected by a sense that the data they are being given is inaccurate, just as it’s been suggested that the Trolley problem is not useful as a realistic guide to people’s ethical thought, because it’s hard to believe that throwing a fat man off a bridge actually would stop a train. But it’s still plausible that our moral ideals are at least partly made up after the fact.

Does it matter if you start from a conclusion and work backwards from it, rather than working forward from premises and/or data? In a lot of situations, it may be fine. I’ve already suggested some kinds of fiction writing as very suitable for such a backwards approach (or a mix of forward and backwards approaches). The idea of teaching outcomes is entirely based on this prior consideration of where you need to get to before you start designing a course or a session or an exercise. And advocacy, starting from the presumption of a position or a person’s rightness and then justifying it, has an important role in society, whether it’s in legal or political contexts.

The problem with such an approach, however, is that it’s potentially manipulative. If the conclusion has already been decided, then the reader, or the person hearing an argument, or the student in a lesson doesn’t get listened to if they say ‘but what about X’, if X is something that doesn’t fit with the plan. And in particular, starting from the end doesn’t fit with the idea of discovering something new, unexpected, whether it’s in a novel or a moral argument. If you’re doing research and you start from your conclusions, it’s bad research. And part of getting educated, learning, whether it’s in a classroom or in a conversation, is the possibility of changing your mind, of seeing things differently. Backwards thinking is essentially closed, convergent. It’s useful in some situations, but thinking forwards, openly, can sometimes produce far more interesting results.

2 thoughts on “Backwards thinking

  1. Isn’t this starting from the known conclusion a fairly normal way of going about exegesis? As I said in a post a long time ago, for the early medieval theologian as for the detective novelist the answer is already known (God or the butler did it respectively) and so what remains is to correctly put the pieces of an argument between the problem and the answer. While I happily admit that it leaves concerns like analytical testing of truth aside, it doesn’t seem an unlikely or especially unusual way for someone of Hincmar’s background to go about forming arguments…


    • I’d agree that the kind of argument you show Bede making is quite common in early medieval exegesis – when I read one or two of the passages you were quoting, even just in translation they reminded me vividly of Gregory the Great, especially the small bits of his ‘Moralia in Job’ that I’ve translated. But although Hincmar certainly read and used a lot of Biblical commentaries, he isn’t himself an exegete – I think there’s only one exegetical work he wrote (on the chariot of Solomon), and a small amount in his letters.

      In addition, ‘De Divortio’ isn’t ostensibly exegesis, it’s a legal/moral/pastoral/polemical tract on a case that, as both Hincmar and the Lotharingian bishops claim, is unprecedented. So the answer here supposedly isn’t known in advance – which is why Hincmar gets consulted in the first place. And yet he is clearly trying to push the matter in one direction, while Lothar II’s supporters push it in another via the use of authorities. It’s this manoeuvring that particularly interests me, because it ties in with my ideas about how the use of ecclesiastical law/legal procedures in practice is very different from theory.

      It also fits in with my previous work, about how Carolingian authors essentially construct moral norms from the bits of previous Christian doctrine that can be mashed together to fit with a slightly cleaned-up version of current social practice. It’s not quite Jonathan Haidt’s idea of moral intuitions, but it is a rather more conscious version of this cutting your morals to fit your prejudices. And I think this Carolingian tendency to authorityness wasn’t driven so much by exegesis as a specific technique, as by a more general feeling that learning and texts were the answer. There’s a reasonable case to be made (and I’ve tried to make it in the past), that almost the whole of the Carolingian project of renovatio is based on the fundamental misconception that knowledge makes people holier.


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