Friday, November 19, 2010

Caution: Intellectuals at Work

I haven't read Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society[1] but ever so often I read something and share more in his skepticism of intellectuals: skepticism of what they do and what they want others to do. It sounds like such a nice word. It comes from the Latin intellegere, meaning "to understand" and it conveys a sort of lofty attention to reason, a philosophical detachment from emotions. The World English Dictionary lists it as, "delight in mental activity" which sounds so very cerebral, like you're some genius ecstatic by the quantity and profundity of your thinking. Now in all of this praise for oneself and one's endeavor is liable to make one quite haughty about both. "I'm a smart person, I've set my great brain on this matter, I've solved it, and people ought to listen. I'm an intellectual!"

Now I'm not going to start bashing reason and thinking, but I would like to raise a few questions about the intellectual project. Well, one at any rate: what is it? Namely, 1) does it attempt to understand by welcoming criticism, reflection, change, variation, modulation, interpretation, and perhaps synthesis with other ideas? 2) Does it imply that it itself is the truth and ought to be followed. Or 3) does it simply present itself and not impose any further? Perhaps #1 and #2 are silly questions: surely a thinker on the one hand hopes his ideas are true but on the other would welcome correction or incorporation into the truth. Now is position #3 possible? Can you actually write, think, or do something and not hope it to be emulated somehow?

I've pondered that question a lot when thinking about the possible effects of my own writing. It seems that all writing sort of exhorts the reader to do something. In fact could one say all thinking is to some end? So it's a sort of gamble, thinking. You could easily go very wrong. It's a sort of odd problem isn't it? How is it possible to think something which is impossible? Where did that thought come from? Why should we be able to imagine something which is not? I think that's what intrigued some philosophers when considering artists: how did they come up with that? From whence did that art come? Hence Nietzsche's fascination with the creative power of the artist and Plato's explanation for how a random person like Tynnichus came up with something like his famous paeon ode (he was inspired by the Muses.)[2] One might be tempted to say: yes you created something new but the potential was there. The words, notes, colors, et cetera already existed. (This argument, similar to Aristotle's explanation of change via the concept of the potential) has much merit. But what about an idea? Again on the one hand you might say that reality somehow prompted you to think that idea. Indeed, perhaps. Yet if it is wrong. . . then it's only an idea. For example, I can interpolate two ideas which are impossible in reality: the plane Jupiter with human feet. So this mis-perception has sort of produced something and thus it's really quite striking you could come up with something, however you do it, completely at odds with reality.

So that's a very long-winded way of saying it is possible to be wrong. Indeed. I apologize for the discursion. Yet truth is a fickle thing. For example, consider Shakespeare's Hamlet. It didn't happen, maybe it couldn't have, maybe nothing like it ever will. Yet there is something truthful about what happens in it. Likewise science seems only to offer provisional truths, each being superseded by a model more consistent with observed phenomena. Yet there is something truthful even in the primitive explanation.

Now I'm not advancing ditching reason, but I think an awareness of these epistemological issues should give an intellectual a little modesty. Such an awareness should make it a little harder to say, "Hey do x, y, and z" especially when they haven't been tried before. Or especially when they have been tried and have failed. You would think this kind of awareness would be present in intellectuals, if indeed they are intellectuals. Now we all have ideas about which we are fairly certain, very certain, not so certain, and so forth. Now aside from any particular moral reasons, you would think this uncertainty would affect what you exhorted others to do, let alone what you deign to force others to do. That's why, from this principle of philosophical uncertainty alone, I think federalism and republicanism are laudable practices. The ideas everyone believes in go at the top. Everyone follows those rules but there are very few of them. Some ideas apply only at the state level; there are more of them but not too many. And so forth down until you reach your personal values which are your own personal idiom.

Thus the intellectual might offer a caveat: "Here is what I am thinking, what I believe, or how far I've come in considering this problem." Perhaps we might add, "I hope it helps" or "Do good with it." Yet I keep wanting to add more caveats. You don't want to be responsible for leading someone to anything bad, but once you get someone thinking that's certainly a possibility. Of course it's not really your fault, per se, but how would you like to have been responsible for getting some dictator "thinking"? Now this problem is of course not new and has plagued philosophy from its birth. Socrates was of course tried for corrupting the youth. Surely if anyone could have vindicated philosophy Socrates could have.

Well, in his own defense he says that he didn't take any money for what he did. He also said that since bad people harm others, why would he corrupt anyone, who would come back and harm him? Thus he must have corrupted them unintentionally. In the Crito he notes that even if he is not guilty, he has been found guilty and must follow the laws. How could he disgrace the laws of the city that raised him? How could he accept exile and lose the rights of a citizen and live in other disorderly cities? Would not disobeying the law corrupt the youth, and then prove the judges right?–Is this is really a defense of philosophy?

In his apology he goes on to link philosophy to, "wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul." Now that is a more specific claim, but it lacks the how. How does philosophy bring those things about? Why? Does it always? Can it lead you astray? In discussing teaching Plato's Apology of Socrates, Allan Bloom said:
How would you understand the effect Socrates had on Alcibiades? Alcibiades was an ambitious, young, political man. What did Socrates teach him? Isn't it possible that if you take an ambitious young political man and you give him gifts of philosophic criticism you can turn him into a very dangerous man?

You must in your own experience have had students who sometimes turned sour. And who used what you taught them. . . [3]
Bloom didn't finish that line with any specific action, but we might infer "something bad." We also might use, "not toward the ends of wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul." Indeed it is not difficult to think of philosophers and specific works which were interpreted in such was as to bring about great ill. Yet perhaps more interestingly, Bloom then flips the problem: "What about a man who came along and caused pious men to suspend their faith until they had answers to certain philosophical questions?" We now have the problem of both dangerous truths and dangerous untruths, and beliefs which may be either (or both in admixture.)

Yet might also ask, "Is it moral not to question?" While reason and philosophy don't guarantee truth or goodness, you are at least aiming at both. If you are not questioning how things work, what your place is, what you ought to do, then how do you hope to do good?

To question or not to question? And if to question, how? And once you have your answer, how certain are you of it? And even if you are quite certain, what are the implications of that truth? Does it give you responsibility, authority?

In his apology Socrates tells the story of how he goes out seeking to disprove the oracle and find someone wiser than himself. He looks among those reputed to be wise, among politicians, among poets, and among the artisans. Those reputed to be wise had no sense of what they didn't know, the artisans thought because they knew one thing that they could speak of all things, and the poets could not even explain their own poetry. Socrates did not find any of these men wiser than himself because they had no hint of their own ignorance.

It seems that this underlying requirement of philosophy, and admission of ignorance, is in some tension with a desire to do good and improve one's soul, which are positive acts. The admission, though, ought not diminish one's zeal but rather temper his conceit.

[2] Ion, 533-534; See also Apology

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