AuthorAlexander, Ryan

In 2017 the Association of Global South Studies held its annual meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. A few days before the conference began, a group of six of us started our trip in the ancient city of Fes, about seven hours north of Marrakech by train. Almost immediately after setting down our luggage, we went to the rooftop of our riad just as the evening prayer began to blare over the loudspeakers installed inside the city's minarets. Looking down on the courtyards below, we saw people turning east, toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca, to kneel and pray.

The people we witnessed that evening reaffirm their faith every day. Through daily ritual, they reiterate their adherence to a faith that represents their collective morality, values, history, and identity. To one degree or another, it is the habit of religious people to do this. Unbelievers, though typically less bound to such rites, aren't much different--it is an important feature of all humanity that people not only possess core beliefs but also remind themselves from time to time of what those beliefs are (and, ideally, to question them and to have them challenged by others). This got me thinking: Do we do this enough in our intellectual lives?

Part of me thinks so. In many ways, the academic enterprise--the life of the mind, as it were--invites far more critical reflection and debate than does religion, with its dogma and canonical thinking. But another part of me thinks the opposite: that for all of our self-professed commitment to skepticism and criticism, we often find ourselves stuck in intellectual traps of our own making. It's not always clear why this happens. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn, most famous for coining the phrase "paradigm shift," argued with regard to scientific thinking that basic internalized norms tend to confine the thinking of scientists, such that their work continually reinforces the boundaries of the paradigm. In his view, only periodic wholesale rejections of conventional wisdom break down those boundaries, leading not only to new discoveries but also to new ways of thinking. The process then starts over, until new thinking becomes old thinking and another rupture occurs.

The creation of paradigms is not necessarily a bad thing. Whole scholarly traditions and schools of thought have formed around a few accepted truths, and plenty of breakthroughs have occurred within existing paradigms rather than in opposition to them. To put it simply, paradigms at their...

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