Reviving Intellectual Hospitality
How to open our minds, hearts, and homes to our neighbours.
Flying in over the Twitter transom over the last few days came various bits of sad, bad, or maddening news: A third of Republicans assent to parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Sizable groups of both Democrat and Republican partisans believe the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposing party were dead. Around one in six Americans stopped talking to a close friend or relative because of the election.
Each hour seems to bring new confirmation of our angry, addled, and alienated state. We are so focused on the darkness in others we can no longer see clearly. The irony is that while partisans are busy asserting that their opponents are evil and stupid, the very act of doing so—widely replicated as it is, and provoking a corresponding vitriol from the other side—renders our public discourse and character as a whole ever more callous, clueless, and cruel. We are becoming what we denounce.
How to disrupt this vicious cycle? A society of diminishing public trust in both institutions and each other—riven by difference we seem unable to bridge, and marked by malice and misinformation—calls for creative means of rebuilding a shared sense of the common good. Vital to such renewal will be the reinvigoration of what might seem a modest practice: the extension of intellectual hospitality.
Defining Intellectual Hospitality
What is intellectual hospitality? If hospitality, classically understood, involves welcome for the stranger and the offer of care for their physical needs, intellectual hospitality extends an invitation to new perspectives and ideas (and the people who hold them). Scholar Diana Glyer observes that
the ancient tradition of hospitality specifically meant to take our eyes off ourselves and linger face to face with someone who is not like me. . . . In the classroom, the concept of intellectual hospitality occurs when students engage with unfamiliar ideas, read books from unknown authors, and entertain new ways of looking at the world. . . . Intellectual hospitality encourages us to engage with new ideas, not merely contradict, dismiss, dispute, reject or ridicule them.
Such hospitality to new perspectives includes a sense of curiosity, and is the basis for learning. Virtually everything we have learned was once novel to us; we learned to absorb new information and to understand new concepts by attending to the unfamiliar. But more than that, intellectual hospitality is important to our very ability to think well. Thinking itself is a relational act; as Alan Jacobs writes in his wonderful book How to Think, “To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.” None of us is truly an independent thinker. The way that we think, as well as what we think about, consists largely of what we have previously been exposed to through our relationships and interactions.
Intellectual hospitality is important to our very ability to think well. Thinking itself is a relational act.
As such, intellectual hospitality can occur when we read old books or encounter a great work of art or antiquity (what the poet W.H. Auden called “breaking bread with the dead”) and welcome an acquaintance with the unfamiliar thoughts and ideas we find there. An even more potent form of intellectual hospitality is found in wrestling with ideas with other people. Consider just a few relatively well-known examples of intellectual hospitality, where a disparate group began to meet together and think together in a spirit of friendship and generosity.
One of the most famous and enviable literary discussion groups of the twentieth century, the Inklings, was a forum of intellectual hospitality catalyzed by friendship. C.S. Lewis, its founder, loved to discuss poetry and stories with like-minded friends, and met regularly with J.R.R. Tolkien to do just that. Lewis began inviting others to join their discussions, eventually hosting them weekly. They read their stories to each other—Lewis read Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and others, often reading them as he was still working on them. Tolkien read new chapters from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Others read their poetry. They critiqued each other’s work, and spurred each other on.
They also had serious disagreements—Tolkien made known his lack of admiration for The Chronicles of Narnia, and more than one of the Inklings (but particularly Hugo Dyson) registered his dislike of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The friendship between Lewis and Owen Barfield in particular was one of strong affection and loyalty amid profound disagreement. Indeed, Lewis referred to Barfield as his “oppositional” friend, and later said of him in Surprised by Joy,
[Barfield] is the man who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the anti-self. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. . . . And then you go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night. . . . Actually (though it never seems so at the time) you modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dog-fight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge. But I think he changed me a good deal more than I him.
The Inklings’ influence on each other’s thought and writing was both pervasive and difficult to pinpoint. “What I owe them,” Lewis said, “is incalculable.”
A few decades earlier, Dorothy Sayers, along with five of her girlfriends at Oxford—where they studied, but were not allowed to receive degrees until years later—started a writing group they named the “Mutual Admiration Society” (because, as Sayers wryly remarked, that’s what they would have been called anyway). Like the Inklings, the group brought their newly created essays, poems, and stories to be read and critiqued together. They argued and debated, supported each other, kept each other’s confidences, and collaborated on various work and writing projects. The months-long correspondence among Sayers, writer Muriel St. Clare Byrne, and an editor of the journal Christendom, in which they argued out ideas on the dangers of limiting women’s role and work to hearth and home, became the basis for Sayers’s title “Are Women Human?” Their careers, tastes, and politics diverged, but they developed and challenged each other’s thoughts, particularly around questions of education. In her biography of the group historian Mo Moulton writes, “Through their diverse careers, they worked to make the best ideas, the most creative work, and a joyful encounter with learning accessible to a wide range of people. That, they believed, was one of the greatest achievements to which a democratic society could aspire.”
A few years before the launch of the Mutual Admiration Society, a young Gertrude Stein moved to Paris and began hosting an informal literary and artistic salon on Saturday evenings, which soon welcomed a variety of talented (if still little-known and usually broke) authors and artists, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Sinclair Lewis, and James Joyce. It was a volatile group (reflecting the temperaments of those who constituted it): they quarrelled as well as argued, and many of their writings (such as Hemingway’s unfair portrayal of his erstwhile and then-deceased friends Stein and Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his years in Paris) are harsh, even ugly. But Stein’s salon became an incubator of literary and artistic modernism, and the intellectual and creative nourishment of her hospitality constituted much of the moveable feast, which sustained and elevated that generation of expatriate artists.
Such examples provide a quick if limited view of the variety and vivacity of intellectual hospitality—its power to inspire, nourish, persuade, encourage, and challenge those who take part, who in turn cultivate the world around them.
Corrosives to Hospitality
It is worth noting that in each of these examples, disagreement was a regular part of the discussions. A moveable intellectual feast will cause friction and sparks even as it nourishes and invigorates. In the pursuit of discerning what is true and enhancing one’s craft or understanding, disagreements can sharpen rather than wound. They are all the more constructive when combined with the confidentiality and trust that characterized gatherings like the Mutual Admiration Society.
But if intellectual hospitality can act as a powerful pollinator and fertilizer of the curious and thoughtful mind, it remains vulnerable to certain poisons. For while intellectual hospitality can grow and thrive amid disagreement and constructive criticism around ideas or artistic works, personal disrespect or contempt is kryptonite to hospitality. It destroys the trust, openness, and vulnerability that hospitality slowly builds, and it withers the curiosity that hospitality quickens. Intellectually hospitable disagreements aim to sharpen or challenge one’s thinking or improve one’s work; expressions of contempt are designed to corrode one’s person and sense of value.
Intellectually hospitable disagreements aim to sharpen or challenge one’s thinking or improve one’s work; expressions of contempt are designed to corrode one’s person and sense of value.
Contempt and disrespect are not only anathema to intellectual hospitality; they also undermine the ability to think well. Plenty of studies show that insults inhibit reading comprehension (the reader naturally reacts to the insult, rather than fully digests whatever the larger point is supposed to be) and intensify opposition, as the insulted person tends to dig in to their original position, rather than open up to new possibilities. The attempts to shun people for dissent, whether seen in the cancel culture of college campuses, heretic hunting of political partisans, or social-media shaming, punish those who think outside a box—and scare off those who might try.
A second corrosive to intellectual hospitality is over-reliance on social media. The cultural current carries us toward ever-increasing social-media use, and since time is zero-sum, toward ever-decreasing time spent with others (or books). So deep and pervasive is our immersion in social media that we scarcely notice it. But the communication media we use are not neutral. As Neil Postman writes,
Every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments. . . . The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. . . . Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
It takes intentionality to resist the trend toward our in-person interactions and communications being subsumed by the electronic. Certainly, social media is a powerful and often productive tool that can be used toward worthy ends. But over-reliance on social media biases communication in ways antithetical to intellectual hospitality: it rewards the temporal over the lasting; the speedy, superficial, and snarky over the measured and thoughtful; the glib insult over the effort to understand.
Reweaving a fragmented common life and restoring a robust sense of the common good are enormous undertakings—and while they may demand more than hospitality, they will never be realized without it.
Cultivating Intellectual Hospitality
So how then might we cultivate intellectual hospitality? While there are many ways of doing so—and it would make for a great discussion topic!—I’ll offer a few suggestions:
- Read widely. Reading takes us out of ourselves, engages us in a conversation across time and place with new (and often very foreign) perspectives, and teaches us to understand others’ motives, decisions, and character. As C.S. Lewis writes in An Experiment in Criticism, “We read in order to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from solitude. We should be [concerned with] entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings, and total experience of others.”
- Understand that extending intellectual hospitality does not require affirmation of the ideas or values of your conversation partners, nor does it obligate you to check your own values or worldview. Listening, asking questions, and seeking to understand the ideas of another affirms the value of that person without endorsing the idea. (Better understanding a point of view may well confirm one’s disagreement!)
- Pursue friendships and conversations with others who think differently. Left to our own devices (technological and otherwise), we will unconsciously self-sort (or be sorted by algorithms), such that most whom we encounter in physical or virtual spaces will tend to look and think like us. Meeting others from different backgrounds and different approaches takes proactive effort—and can deepen our empathy as well as challenge our thinking.
- Seek out those whose judgment and thoughtfulness you respect but whose views you disagree with, and ask their perspective. Search for the fairest and most thoughtful representation of an opposing view. Engage with the strongest case the opposition has to offer, not a straw man.
- Cultivate curiosity. People often have good reasons for their views, even their mistaken ones. Seeking understanding does not necessarily increase the likelihood of assent, but it is likely to grow one’s understanding and empathy.
- Avoid unnecessary provocation—which is almost always an attempt to embarrass, dominate, or upset.
- When hosting discussions or gatherings, insist on civility and model charity. It may also be helpful to set out expectations at the start of a gathering—whether about putting away phones, abstaining from posting about the group, or keeping confidence with anything shared in that spirit. Providing such ground rules is often helpful to cultivating a spirit of inquiry, generosity, and warmth.
- Value the relationships and friendships generated by hospitality as vitally important both in and of themselves, and as part of the process of intellectual development. Thinking itself is a social act, and largely formed by our emotional biases and attachments (which are, in turn, formed either for good or ill by our relationships). Learning to properly order our priorities and emotional attachments is foundational to growing in wisdom.
- Allow for changes of mind and heart.
- While intellectual hospitality allows for change, it does not insist on persuasion. As Henri Nouwen once observed, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
- Join—or host—a book club. Perhaps one of the most accessible, yet potent, forms of cultivating intellectual hospitality is through the simple act of hosting and participating in reading groups and book clubs. It is an act so simple, but so powerful. By its very nature, a reading group serves as a powerful countercultural form of intellectual hospitality in that it flouts so many of the atomizing, stigmatizing currents of public life. Against a cultural current that encourages distraction, diverts our attention to the trivial and monetizable, and rewards rapid and snarky responses, a book club does the opposite: It asks its participants to engage in focused reading and reflection; it encourages thoughtful and respectful engagement; and it takes place within a context of hospitality and relationship. And it is a form of intellectual hospitality that virtually anyone, anywhere can create or participate in.
At a time when anger, loneliness, and confusion drive so much of our public discourse and distort our common life, many have expressed frustration at feeling powerless or confused about what to do. Reweaving a fragmented common life and restoring a robust sense of the common good are enormous (and worthy!) undertakings—and while they may demand more than hospitality, they will never be realized without it. It has been said that souls are not saved in bundles, and that reinvigorating our common life requires reconnecting with each other, person by person, soul by soul. In the midst of our division is an opportunity to open our minds, hearts, and homes to our neighbours—to learn to think more deeply, read more broadly, understand more fully, and live more abundantly.