Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Open Mindedness: Relatively New In History -- Why?

I don’t know when it was that I first heard the English terminology, "open-minded."  I searched and found it first in English literature in 1808 in a book titled, Solitude, by Johann Georg Zimmermann originally in Dutch (Über die Einsamkeit) with the following English translation:
How frequently do we observe, even in persons of rank and fortune, who reside continually on their own estates, a haughty manner and arbitrary disposition totally incompatible with that candid conduct that open-minded behaviour, . . . !
It was used a little over a dozen occasions in total up until the 20th century, it was so uncommon.  Now whole books have been authored on open-mindedness, which might be tell-tale. The Economist in 1892 reads:
What is wanted is not a mixed body of advocates, each eager to show the goodness of his own particular case, but a jury of impartial, uncommitted, open-minded men, who have no prejudices one way or the other; who will hear the evidence fully, and who will report upon it on its merits.
The first dictionary in which it arises is The Century Dictionary in 1895.

In regular usage today as an antonym to open-minded is "closed-minded" or at least “narrow-minded,” which are viewed in a negative way by most today.  That I can find, "closed-minded" wasn't used in English literature until the 20th century and very few times in the first twenty years, one being in The Protectionist in 1914:
In the place of the "popular" minded Mc Kinley, the "quick" minded Roosevelt, the "open" minded Taft, the White House today shelters a "closed" minded President who clings to the views and ways of the lecture room. . . . In particular is Mr. Wilson's mind closed against any word of advice or helpfulness, however well intentioned that emanates from either of his two living predecessors in the White House or any man who served the Government under them in any capacity. He has a way of freezing out friendly counsel by his unwillingness to be told anything and by his assumption that he knows everything in advance, and that anyone bringing him information is necessarily so prejudiced that if he listens he is likely in some way to lose the right point of observation. 
Maybe you may join me in wondering why this "very important" trait of open-mindedness did not come along until the advent of modernity.  Why is it seen as a positive?  Why would it not be positive?  Don't closed-minded and narrow-minded sound bad?

In 1987, eminent political philosopher and Chicago University professor, Allan Bloom, published The Closing of the American Mind, which I read then and still think about today.  His thesis confronted modern universities, that unwillingness to believe anything, because of toleration, lead to closing the mind to everything.  Open-mindedness he essentially said lead to believing in something.  I've put it this way -- open-mindedness requires not just tasting everything, but biting down.  So again, if you are not willing to believe anything, you close your mind to everything. You can't truly learn then, and this was the concern of Bloom.

If Bloom was right, then apparently open-mindedness is good, depending on how you define it.  Maybe not.  Maybe not?

Moderns started using open-minded.  Premoderns did not.  Why not?  They weren't using it, so you have to think about, why not.  I'm saying that it was their view of truth.  They didn't see truth as a "search," like people do today, where a lot of sampling is involved until finally you bite down.  God is One and so Truth is also One.  You just believe that one truth, which is revealed.  You're not doing yourself any good by opening your mind.

Premodern Roman Catholics had a similar approach to what I'm describing as premodern Baptists and Protestants -- not the same, just similar.  Roman Catholics took the teaching of the church as Divine authority.  It wasn't.  The Bible is Divine authority, and the church is subject to God's Word.  However, there was still the idea of absolute authority with God being the key to all knowledge.

The Roman Catholic view was different enough to carry with it a number of problems.  The spread of scripture changed things.  God opens minds; hence, scripture opens minds.  Man doesn't open minds.  The industrial revolution proceeded from the dispersion of God's Word.  Without revelation, man is at zero.  He doesn't get anything.  The premoderns thought that way.  That is the natural law thinking behind the Declaration of Independence that said man's rights come from God.  "Self-evident" because God revealed it.  Not self-evident because we've got a bunch of geniuses on this planet.

The truth about our minds is that we don't open them.  God opens them.  When we do believe, it's not because we had amazing mind opening abilities.  We had no ability.  We have no ability.  When we do believe, it's not because we had an open mind.  The truth is revealed, so by nature is non-discoverable.  So there we go.

I've considered myself in the past an open-minded person.  When I talk to Buddhists, I've told them, I'm open-minded, that is, I listen to Buddhists like I would believe them if they told me the truth.  I've not heard the truth from Buddhists, so I haven't bitten down, has been the idea I've had and communicated.  I'm willing to believe the truth.  Maybe Buddhists are impressed with this a little bit, so it's a "great strategy."  I'm listening and everything.  I know nothing else is the truth, so it's not true.  It's not something I know because I've been open-minded.  I know it because God revealed it to me, because that's how we know the truth.


Jeff Voegtlin said...


While reading your article, I tried to think about "open-mindedness." (with an open mind, of course!). It seems like this idea might have an antecedent in classical "academic freedom," which is quite different than modern "academic freedom." In my observations, the classical style of academic freedom was an honest pursuit of the truth, regardless of what the culture accepted as truth. Modern academic freedom is a constant questioning of truth with no hope of ever discovering it.

As Christians, we should always be seeking to "improve" our understanding of our incomprehensible God and His book, the Bible. In that sense, we should be "open-minded." But also as a Christian, we should earnestly contend for the faith once delivered... That demands that we be closed/narrow minded about many things.

Thank you,

Lance Ketchum said...

It is fine to open the mind to listen to someone's ideas. After comparing those ideas to Scripture, those ideas might be welcomed and given a room in which to live. If they are unscriptural, close the door and welcome them never again.

The invitation to open mindedness or the accusation of being closed minded was almost always connected to people of deep beliefs be unwilling to listen to other viewpoints. Now it is used primarily as an accusation against Bible believers.

Kent Brandenburg said...



I'm pretty sure I will still use the term, but I wondered first about how old it was. Once I found it wasn't too old, I started considering why. I wonder if sometimes we pander to false teachers or their listeners by showing what kind of thinkers we are, because we are in reality closed to what they believe. We would never believe it, because we can't and won't.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I agree that it is mainly a tool to use against believers, which is why I also see it as modern. It wasn't about being "open-minded" to the truth, but open-minded to naturalism or "science" or rationalism. Your belief can't be proven historically, and when "evidence" is shown, you won't believe it -- you just keep believing what scripture says, despite. Bloom's book seemed to make a conservative point. Maybe it's fools gold.