Spandrel: Strategic Belief

[Note to the reader: a “spandrel,” in architecture, is the roughly triangular space between one side of an arch and the ceiling above it. In medieval churches, these would often be filled in as decorative elements. In biology, a “spandrel” is a phenotypic trait resulting from some other trait, rather than as a direct product of natural selection. The human chin, for example, is proposed as a biological spandrel since it apparently doesn’t do much. In both cases, the term seems to mean something like a “byproduct,” one unintended or incidental, maybe, but that might nonetheless find some use. I’m using the term for some incidental (or “occasional”) thoughts that don’t quite have the legs to become essays yet. Because I think of these posts as fragments, I’ve included elipses on either end, connectors to a context not yet defined.

Housekeeping note: for now I will probably file these posts under “essays,” but I may create a dedicated page in the menu if I find them proliferating.]


…once I had a professor tell me that he was a “strategic Freudian.” We were reading Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ‘The Bible and Literature’ by Northrop Frye, and he was responding to the question of whether Frye’s analysis of myth as the disavowed basis for social order was similar to Freud’s ideas on repression.

I don’t remember what he actually ended up saying after declaring his strategic Freudianism, but the idea has stuck with me for some time not only for its rhetorical possibilities, but also for its potential therapeutics. Rather than insisting on belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, strategic belief would seem to allow for greater flexibility and more fruitful generating of thought experiments or hypotheticals.

Of course, one could argue that “strategic” belief is not belief at all, but a kind of cynical relativism. I would respond, at least initially, that here the emphasis should be on the strategic element. Strategic belief tries to do something with the idea in question. Of course, that might still lead to unintended negative consequences, but it still strikes me as potentially quite useful.

On top of that, cracking the rigidity of one’s beliefs by intentionally “inhabiting” an idea one might not entirely agree with seems potentially useful to me as a way to put some hairline cracks into the calcified edifice belief becomes when it has no challenge or nuance. I’ve talked about the idea of “translucence” of one’s mind to oneself (see here and here). Strategic belief seems like it might prove helpful in opening those shades a bit more, letting more light in…


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