A Guide to Intellectual Survival

by Wendy McElroy

This Preface is excerpted from The Reasonable Woman, published by Prometheus Books at 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, New York 14228-2197. 1 800 421-0351 or 716 691-0133. Contact by email at Prometheus Books Also available at Amazon. Or contact author for autographed copy at Wendy McElroy

"Reason is the mistress and queen of all things."
Cicero Tusculanarum Disputationum Bk ii, ch 21


When I was 16 years old, I ran away from home and lived on the streets, sleeping in churches to keep from freezing at night. This is the main reason I have no formal education beyond high school. Nevertheless, I have published books through both major presses and academic ones. I have written documentaries that have been narrated by George C. Scott, Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite. And I've worked as a scholar for think tanks, such as CATO Institute.

I don't write the above paragraph in a spirit of self-congratulation. Believe me, if I could have pursued a more traditional path, I would have done so in a flash. As it is, I made the most of the opportunities I had, including some unorthodox steps in learning how to handle myself intellectually. For example, I participated in and helped to organize a long-running intellectual therapy group, which functioned much like a psycho-therapy group. It assisted people in dealing with the underlying psychological problems that were blocking their intellectual potential. From fear of error to techniques for dealing with hostility, the group addressed what might be called 'the psychology of reasoning'.

When people I work with learn of my background, they are amazed at where I came from. I'm amazed at where I ended up. But the amazement on both sides is unjustified. Throughout most of history, philosophers and others considered to be the 'intellectual elite' were usually self-educated, and often from lower working class families, such as my own. The amazement reflects their assumption (and my own) that intellectual achievement has to come from a traditional academic education.

If that were true, however, it would impossible to explain many of the most prominent intellectuals of our times, from Einstein to Edison. Beside the accomplishments of such thinkers and innovators, how surprising can it be that I've taught myself how to write a proper sentence and how to footnote articles for academic journals? Yet people persist in believing there is only one path -- the accepted one -- to intellectual accomplishment.

This is a destructive belief. Many young people, with good 0minds, are in circumstances that preclude an academic career. Many women who have put husbands and family first for years now believe they are too old to register at the lowest level of entry into college. Still others denigrate themselves as ignorant or even stupid because they do not have the traditional credentials of a 'learned person'. But colleges and universities have no monopoly on learning, and they have no necessary connection to being a reasonable human being -- that is, a person who values her reason and uses her mind to the best advantage.

Yet there is considerably more to the process of becoming what I call 'a reasonable woman' than merely absorbing information. In attempting to reach that goal, I have consciously developed a very specific attitude toward ideas and toward my own reasoning process. I also constructed a philosophy, or psychology, of how I wanted to interact with other people intellectually.

I cultivated what amounted to a psychological approach to reasoning, because most of the barriers I experienced intellectually were emotional ones. In a sense, this was to be expected. Every human being brings emotions, past experiences, good and bad habits -- in essence, they bring who they are -- to every encounter they have. Why should intellectual encounters be any different?

This book, The Reasonable Woman, embodies and expands upon the approach that worked for me. It offers a blueprint of what could be described as intellectual therapy for the non-academic, for women who don't have the time or interest to pursue a university degree but who want to overcome intellectual barriers. It is a psychology of reasoning for women who wish to accomplish more intellectually. Their goals may be to argue more effectively, to overcome a fear of error and of appearing foolish, or simply to learn how to reason more efficiently. All of these can be learned in a step-by-step common sense manner.

This book is addressed specifically to women, even though most of the information and techniques can be used readily and as easily by men. I believe society throws up unique psychological barriers in the path of women who try to make it intellectually. The barriers may not be unique 'in kind' -- that is, both men and women may experience ridicule as children, which may make both of them develop a fear of e.g. public speaking. But I believe the intellectual barriers thrown in front of women are unique 'in degree' -- that is, they are much more difficult for women to overcome than they are for men. Not because women are less intelligent or less persistent than men are, but because the barriers are higher.

As an example, I wrote that running away from home was the main reason I never went beyond high school. But even if I had stayed home, I would have probably taken a job right out of high school. My family was lower working class -- my father had only a sixth grade education -- and women were not expected to attend university or to pursue ambitious careers. Whether or not it was done consciously, women were discouraged from doing so. They were pushed instead into the traditional poses of mother, wife and housekeeper. A college fund had been established, it is true, but the money was in my brother's name.

A certain school of thought will immediately and impatiently respond, 'you didn't have live up to those expectations, did you? Its a free country.' Well, I didn't. And it may be. My purpose is not to complain about being a victim. When I mention the preference given to the male sibling, my purpose isn't to create more gender hostility than already exists out there. I merely wish to observe that our culture makes it more difficult for women to achieve intellectual success and self-esteem than it does for men.

But in the final analysis, whatever your sex, age, or educational background, the healthy functioning of your mind is as much your responsibility as that of your body. The Reasonable Woman offers you a sense of the step-by-step psychological process I went through in order to get off the streets, both emotionally and intellectually.


Women are unreasonable. Ask most men.

One of the things men mean by this statement is that women approach ideas and intellectual situations such as argumentation -- more commonly called arguing -- in a different manner than men do. In a less rational manner. For example, women are more likely than men to burst into tears during a frustrating conversation. Of course, men are more likely to get into bar fights while disputing sports scores. But let's ignore that particular behavior for the moment and return to the accusation at hand: during arguments, women tend to employ emotional outbursts rather than reason. This is learned behavior that can be unlearned.

Yet many men -- and society in general -- seem to consider earned behaviors such as being logical or reasonable as matters of biology. That is, men tend to have them, women don't.

There is some evidence that most women do take a different intellectual approach than most men. For example, on a strictly statistical basis, women tend to shy away from the hard sciences. Many of these rigorous realms might as well be posted with 'For Men Only' signs. Within the boundaries of hard science, women often feel like second-class citizens who are attempting to emigrate.

Recently, a stream of books have investigated the possibility of genetic differences between men and women, and the possi- ble consequences of any differences in terms of behavior. In her much acclaimed book Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Woman and Men, the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling concluded that a great lack of substance underlies most claims regarding biologically based sex differences. I haven't explored the claims on either side sufficiently to have an opinion.

Whether genetics contributes to behavioral differences between the sexes may be debatable, but it is undeniably true that our culture heavily influences sex based behavior. After all, our culture deeply influences even so intimate a matter as how we view ourselves as individuals. Many of the societal cues aimed at women carry messages that, if taken to heart, naturally produce feelings of intellectual insecurity and inadequacy.

The list is long. Women should not compete with men. Women become irrational when menstruating. Women don't argue fairly. Women -- not men -- must balance career and family. A wife should relocate to accommodate her husband's job transfer. A clean house is the woman's responsibility: a 'good living' is the man's. A wife who earns more than her husband is looking for trouble. Women are bad at math. Girls take home ec: boys take car repair. If a man sexually strays, it's because his wife isn't savvy enough to keep him satisfied. Women gossip, men discuss. The list scrolls on.

Women have a right to be outraged by the disrespect that society heaps on their intellectual abilities. The disrespect ranges from mild comments about 'women drivers' and 'isn't that just like a woman' to an explicit call to 'keep 'em barefoot and pregnant.' Whenever they stand up for themselves, women risk being labeled everything from 'cute' to 'a bitch'. Often the only risk they don't seem to run is being taken seriously.

I felt a full stab of this anger at being dismissed several years ago. I had just delivered a lecture and was lingering by the podium, talking to people from the audience who drifted up with questions. A male friend stood beside me. Finally a middle aged man made his way to the edge of the podium, waited patiently, then asked my friend, 'What did Wendy mean when she said...?' I was standing three feet away, no longer in conversation with anyone else, but the man chose to ask another man what I had meant when I'd said something. His actions were a complete dismissal of my intellectual existence. And, yet, the same man had cared enough about what I had to say to come out for my lecture and pay to hear my point of view. In short, I don't think the dismissal was a malicious one. I think he felt uncomfortable admitting confusion to a woman. Far better to admit it to a man.

Almost every woman I know feels some degree of intellectual inadequacy. This is true even of those who compensate by becoming superefficient, superinformed, and who can outcompete men as lawyers or professors. In fact, women who demand perfection of themselves may be the most intellectual vulnerable because they live in fear of error. This sort of insecurity can be acutely painful because there is no more intimate a relationship in life you can have than the one between you and your own mind.

The sense of inadequacy can be expressed in many ways. Wives defer to their husbands or to some other authority figure. Women do not stand up in classrooms to ask probing or confrontational questions. At parties, women stay to themselves and rarely argue aggressively about science or technical philosophy with men. Few of us pursue careers in physics or engineering. And if women do become part of the intellectual elite -- part of academia or the diploma-professions -- it is usually through the 'soft sciences', the humanities such as literature or art or political science.

Every woman who backs away from the hard edges of her own intellect has her own motives, and expresses the decision in her own way. If that choice brings her satisfaction, it is not my place to quarrel with it. I am not among the feminists who believe it is wrong for women to chose domesticity and a family life. But, too often, women run from their own intellectual potential because they are afraid of failure, they are deeply afraid of appearing ignorant or stupid.

There is a psychological basis both to the process of reasoning (of being reasonable) and to the process of backing away from that capacity. Human beings express their emotions and their intellect in everything they do. Thus, overcoming feelings of intellectual inadequacy is as much a matter of psychology as overcoming negative feelings in any other area.

One of the most painful and frustrating things in life is to think of yourself as intellectually inadequate -- as stupid or foolish. Yet nowhere in the shelves and shelves of self-help books aimed at women have I found a straight forward explanation from a woman's point-of-view of how to become more intellectually competent. On how to become reasonable. A flood of books and videos teach us how to build leg muscles and slim down thighs, but next to nothing shows us how to flex our ability to argue and assume control of a conversation. Endless diets induce us to fast or to gorge on grapefruit, but no paperback offers us a scale on which we can weigh the reasonableness of our judgments. Nothing out there explains the psychology of reasoning within the current context of being a woman.

From personal experience, I know there are simple and common sense steps women can take to overcome the psychological problems that are blocking them intellectually. The Reasonable Woman runs through the techniques of reasoning and the skills of argumentation, but it presents much more than purely practical information. It presents the basic by which you can acquire a benevolent attitude toward ideas and your own intellect, especially toward the errors that everyone makes at one point or another. And it offers a blueprint, not only for maximizing your individual potential, but also for establishing the sort of intellectual therapy group which proved so valuable to me years ago.

A simplistic sense -- the vaguest taste -- of what I hope is the book's non-pretentious and benevolent approach to intellectual psychology can be gleaned from the following list that spells out what I call 'intellectual etiquette'. Just like good table manners, there are rules of etiquette that should guide intellectual encounters. You have a right to be treated with civility. And the following is a partial list of what you have a right to demand from others...

The Rules of Intellectual Etiquette

Everyone has the right to be uninterested.

When you are trapped in an unpleasant or boring conversation, you are well within your rights to state 'I don't care to talk about this (or to you) further'. Make the statement without hostility, as a matter of fact, then simply walk away.

No one has an unconditional claim on your time or on your attention. And the assumption that you should care about every issue and event in the world at all times is a ridiculous one. It leads to the intellectual equivalent of what the media has termed 'compassion fatigue' -- the emotional state of being overwhelmed and short circuited by the demand that you care about every injustice committed on the planet. Don't allow yourself to be intellectually overwhelmed by the unrealistic demand that you find everything and everyone interesting.

Everyone has the right not to understand.

Most of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid uttering the sentence, 'I don't understand what you are saying'. Too often, people see this statement as an admission of ignorance or inadequacy on their own part rather than considering the likelihood that the other person is either not explaining things well or holds a position that makes no sense.

Even if the intellectual ball is being dropped on your side of the discussion, what of it? No one understands everything, and it is folly to pretend you do. There is a vast difference between being confused about a line of argument and being stupid. The fear of appearing stupid frequently underlies our reluctance to admit that we simply don't understand what is being said.

Don't apologize. Just ask whoever is speaking to repeat or to rephrase what's been said. Ask them to clarify what they mean. Most people are more than happy to expound at length in front of an attentive audience.

Everyone has the right to be uninformed.

This point of intellectual etiquette is closely related to, but distinct from, the preceding one. Rather than feeling unable to understand what is being said -- either because the terminology is technical or the arguments are tangled -- you are confronted with an issue you know nothing about.

Again, what of it? No one can know everything. In fact, in a world of information-explosion, there is certain to be vast areas of human knowledge about which you are absolutely ignorant. There will always be books you have not read, and events you have not heard about. The worst thing you can do is to become embarrassed and fake knowledge you don't possess. Instead, exercise the intellectual right to say 'I am not familiar with that. Why don't you explain it to me?'

Everyone has the right to make a mistake.

This is far more than a right. It is an inevitability. You will commit errors and frequently. If this upsets you, then curse human nature. As a human being, you are a fallible creature without the godlike automatic knowledge of what is true and false, right and wrong. Yet many people will argue themselves (and everyone else) into the ground or into absurd intellectual corners rather than admit to the other person, 'you're right. I'm obviously mistaken about that one point.'

There is no shame in admitting 'I made a mistake'. Indeed, there is great strength in being willing to acknowledge your errors and to learn from them. This one trait alone, if developed as a habit, will give you an amazing advantage over most of the people you deal with intellectually.

Everyone has the right to change their mind.

Changing your mind or your stated position on an issue is not a sign of intellectual indecision or weakness. Changing your mind is part of the learning process by which you discover errors and correct them. Yet, like the person who will be reduced to absurdity before admitting a mistake, many of us will never admit to adopting a new position. The more publicly the former position has been stated, the more psychological resistance there is to retracting it.

Yet if someone convinces you on an issue, it is no more than a mark of intellectual honesty and courtesy to say 'You've persuaded me over to your point of view.' After all, what is the alternative? Holding onto an untenable position just because that is what you believed yesterday? This would be childish behavior, like holding your breath until you get your own way. Everyone has the right to say without shame, 'Obviously I am wrong on that point', and not to feel diminished by this act of intellectual honesty.

Everyone has the right to disagree.

Whenever you hear a statement or argument with which you disagree, you have the right to say so. Often we are in situations where our opinion would be unpopular if stated. Perhaps a group of male co-workers are complaining about some unpleasant characteristic women are supposed to embody. Perhaps a family gathering has turned into a discussion of abortion, and you hold the only dissenting opinion.

Your alternatives are wider than either stewing in silence or getting involved in an intellectual brawl. Simply, but firmly state, 'I disagree'. You don't need to justify yourself. You needn't become either hostile or apologetic. Simply state 'I disagree' and walk away. Or stay and argue. The option is yours.

At this point, many people will ask themselves 'why bother? Why cause trouble?' In some cases -- such as the family gathering -- you may reasonably decide that speaking out is not worth the price you might pay for doing so. But showing discretion is different than allowing silence in the face of offensive opinions to become an habit. Such silence is destructive to the most important aspect of your intellectual life: your own self- esteem.

Breaking the silence and saying 'I disagree' is important. If it weren't, most people would not feel such resistance to making this statement.

Everyone has a right to their own opinion.

Everyone has the right to so a weighty a thing as an opinion, and to express it. You don't need a diploma, permission from your spouse, a dispensation from the church...simply by being a human being, you have a right to reach your own conclusions and publicly state them.

It is true: the more you know about a situation, through reading or direct experience, the more likely your opinions are to be correct. But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't reach a conclusion right now based on what you know about the situation. In fact, that is all anyone ever does: form opinions based on their current level of knowledge. After all, as noted above, you also have the right to change your mind if more or better information arises.

* * *

As a final note, books on reasoning can be intimidating. This one is precisely the opposite. For one thing, it assumes that you already know much more about reasoning than you realize. The philosopher Lionel Ruby opens his book The Art of Making Sense: A Guide to Logical Thinking with a charming excerpt from Moliere's play The Bourgeois Gentleman. It is the passage where the hero Monsieur Jourdain asks a more educated man, a philosopher, to help him compose a love letter. The philosopher inquires whether the letter is to be in verse or prose. "I wish it written neither in prose nor verse", Jourdain replies. Upon learning that all writing is either one or the other, he inquires:

"And when one speaks, what is that?"
"That is prose, Monsieur."
"What! When I say, 'Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my nightcap'; is that prose?
"Yes, Monsieur."
"Well, well, well! To think that for more than forty years I have been speaking prose, and didn't know a thing about it. I am very much obliged to you for having taught me this."

You almost certainly know more about reasoning than you realize. After all, reasoning is part of your nature as a human being. This is what Aristotle meant when he defined human beings as reasoning animals. The purpose of this book is to make your existing knowledge more explicit so that it can be available to enrich your life. To do so, the book approaches reasoning as a habit which can be developed step-by-step and, then, used to your advantage.

So...let's start by asking and answering:

What does reasonableness entail?

What is a reasonable woman?

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