In any bookstore or library you can find the subject area of “popular science”. No bookstore or library has a subject area of “popular intellectualism” or anything similar. That absence explains all I find dishonest and vacuous about the modern intelligentsia.
No human endeavor requires more insight, creativity and sheer mental horsepower than science. The greatest minds mankind ever produced struggle for decades to uncover tiny slivers of incomplete truth. The sheer detail involved in the smallest scientific endeavor startles the uninitiated. Grueling math dominates. Scientists invent detailed and novel jargons to label and communicate their work. Learning even the basic nomenclature often takes years.
Yet, more than anything, scientists prize those rare individuals who can take all those concepts of great complexity and precision and distill them down to simple explanations that a lay person can understand. Most scientists trace their love of science to such works. Popular science exists as a category of media because scientists seek to expand the circle of those who know. Science represents the antithesis of the occult, the hidden. Everyone must know.
The category of “popular intellectualism” does not exist because the subculture of the intelligentsia seeks to hide and confuse information. The intelligentsia draws its sense of self-worth from its self-perceived superiority to non-intelligentsia. That sense of superiority in turn relies on their belief that they possess knowledge that others do not. Sharing their knowledge destroys their claims to superiority.
The physicist Richard Feynman famously once said that if a person really understood a subject, they could explain it to anyone. The intelligentsia claims that the obtuse nature of their discourse arises from their superior intellects grappling with concepts lesser intellects simply cannot grasp. Yet, is it not odd that individuals like Feynman or Hawking can explain great matters of quantum physics and cosmology but no living person can provide an agreed upon definition of “postmodernism”? The sad truth is that the discourse of the modern intelligentsia looks like gibberish because it is gibberish.
The emperor has no clothes.
Although a few individuals rise above the herd, as a subculture, the intelligentsia represents a parasitic class of vacuous bullies. They use their skills at articulation and argumentation to confuse and dominate. If questioned too closely they claim that the inferiority of the questioner prevents him from understanding the intellectuals’ brilliance. Unlike scientists, they dare not distill the ether of their ideas into something concrete.
They deserve no respect.
[Inspired by Rick Hills, “Why I am an Anti-Intellectual” via Instapundit]
15 thoughts on “Anti-Intelligentsia”
Many of the people who are now referred to as intellectuals might be better categorized as “clerks” (in the medieval sense) and/or “sophists” (in the Greek sense)
The problem is not a shortcoming from the bookstore or the library but rather with the way books are traditionally catalogued and separated. Bookstores simply do not group books into a category that you might find handy. The books you probably have in mind are there but not in a special shelf.
As for “intellectuals,” I find that most of the people who are so labelled are in fact college teachers–is that an intellectual? The teacher of accounting, the
P.E. teacher? And those who dislike them–the Masoists shot them; the nazi killed those wearing glasses–are in this country often other college teachers.
Do we really have a class or group of intellectuals in our country? We have pundits, political gurus, magazine writers, etc.
ps: I note that in virtually all posts, there is a strong negative thrust: this and that is wrong, missing, gone astray in our society. Where are the positive things that need assertion? The fact that we now have “intellectuals” dealing with stem cells, AIDS, genomes, fossiles discoveries, computer science et al–I love what goes on in our universities. Yes. problems. But then,we allow for all sorts of people to get a decent education and it is not by chance that so many students from other nations, Europe, Asia, want to study here.
The books you probably have in mind are there but not in a special shelf.
Care to offer some titles? Besides, if making the work of intellectuals accessible to the none specialist was a priority or indeed even on the radar, there would be a section just as there is for science.
As for “intellectuals,” I find that most of the people who are so labelled are in fact college teachers–is that an intellectual
In this context, intellectuals are those who work with non-testable information, whose success or failure depends solely on their popularity with their peers and whose work compromise almost entirely persuasive or manipulative communications. They are most concentrated in the liberal arts and professors in the liberal arts are the worst offenders.
I note that in virtually all posts, there is a strong negative thrust: this and that is wrong, missing, gone astray in our society.
Blogging is a lot like the news, only things that go wrong draw notice. Suvivial depends on heading off dangerous trends. Those are the things that draw my interest.
The fact that we now have “intellectuals” dealing with stem cells, AIDS, genomes, fossiles discoveries, computer science et al–I love what goes on in our universities.
Those are scientist and engineers. “intellectuals” deal in untestable, unprovable and unfalsifable assertions such the degree of racism in Faulkner or whether certain language structures prevent the creation of a socialist utopia or the rule of the patriarchy. Their lives are rule by their popularity among their peers. They care for nothing else.
But then,we allow for all sorts of people to get a decent education and it is not by chance that so many students from other nations, Europe, Asia, want to study here.
The majority of foreign students in the US study technical fields or business. The infestation I describe is far worse in Europe.
IIRC, it was Aldous Huxley who once quipped that an intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex. You might expect such people to be a bit warped.
My guess is that more could be said or argued about if specific names of “intellecltuals” were used. I can think of a few who might be considered intellectuals–Edmund Wilson and Albert Einstein–who were certainly interested in sex as well s grand ideas.
According to Huxley’s definition, most contemporary academics would not qualify because they spend and inordinate amount of time talking about sex.
I’m anti-intellectual in the sense of liking plain speaking individuals and disliking critical theory and postmodernism in the university. However I think the majority of this post is fallacious. For one thing abscence of evidence is not evidence of your position. Also, I can walk into my local borders and find plenty of what you and I would describe as “popular intellectualism.” The philosophy section of borders has plenty of it. As does the sociology section, which is usually co-located with the economics and politics section. So I dunno which book stores you are looking in.
Also, ever done much math Shannon? I have. It’s my major. In your post you are saying that individuals who tackle obtuse subjects are like some secretive keepers of knowledge. Well math is an area where you can reach a point and your intellectual abilities really do come into play and sometimes the layperson just isn’t going to “get it.” Probability theory is one area where an individual can progress to a certain level and just not go any further because it is highly abstract and counterintuitive to some individuals. Some will never understand it no matter how hard they try. When it comes to hardcore deep thinking you need abstract mathematical symbols that the majority of people don’t understand. Math is a good example of this. Am I arguing for intellectualism’s position? No. But to say that every scientific theory is going to be simple is flat out wrong and something of a caricature. Sure, simplicity and beauty is a sign of a good explanation, but sometimes the world isn’t simple.
I think it was Einstein who said, “Make evrything as simple as possible but no simpler.” It’s important to distinguish between necessary complexity, as in quantum theory, and unnecessary complexity, as in much current literary theory.
Here’s a history of the concept of the “intellectual,” and a categorization of types of intellectuals, which may be useful.
(sigh)..anon was me.
Also, I can walk into my local borders and find plenty of what you and I would describe as “popular intellectualism.”
If you look at those titles you will see that they all deal with philosophical works that are centuries old. Yes, you can find a cartoon version of the works of Plato or Kant but can you find a popular explanation of the type of work published in contemporary academic journals? For example, take the recent case of the Yale art student who created an “artwork” out of what she claimed were the results of her own abortions. She wrote a very poorly constructed essay seeking to explain her concepts. Could you find a popular work that attempts to explain the supposed work was based?
I can go to the bookstore and find popular explanations of fractals, set theory, topography and any number of other esoteric cutting edge mathematics. Nothing like that exist for liberal arts.
In your post you are saying that individuals who tackle obtuse subjects are like some secretive keepers of knowledge.
No, I am saying that people who actually tackle obtuse subjects and who have actual real knowledge try to diffuse that knowledge as widely as possible. People who don’t actually understand anything by contrast try to baffle with bullshit. They try isolate themselves with poorly defined and often nonsensical jargon.
When it comes to hardcore deep thinking you need abstract mathematical symbols that the majority of people don’t understand.
I agree completely but you need to understand the differences between mathematical symbols which have a rigidly defined meanings and the symbols (in the logical sense) used in the liberal arts which increasingly have no fixed meaning. For example, “imaginary number” is a difficult concept for many people to grasp but the term (the symbol) has a precisely fixed meaning. By contrast, “postmodernism” is a symbol with no fixed meaning.
Mathematics represent the complete antithesis of the the behavior I am criticizing.
But to say that every scientific theory is going to be simple is flat out wrong and something of a caricature.
I am not saying that the theories are simple. I am saying that the culture of scientist (and mathematicians) leads them to attempt to explain complex theories to people without specialized knowledge in the area. They do so because they actually know things! They are not threatened if more people understand their work. Quite the opposite. The more people who understand the significance of their work, the greater their status and significance in society.
People in the liberal arts by contrast attempt to obscure their knowledge they claim to have because they don’t actually know anything! If people actually understood what they were saying lay people would understand that the vast majority of contemporary “intellectuals” are just con artist trying to trick people into believing they understand something that most people do not.
I think they are the modern equivalent of ancient priest classes who used stage magic to trick others into believing they had an understanding of unseen mystic forces.
In short, if you have actual knowledge, you try to make it as accessible as possible. If you don’t have actual knowledge you try to disguise the fact by trying to restrict access to that knowledge.
Don’t fall for those who seek to claim intellectual equality with you because both lay people have trouble both understand your work in mathematics and their nonsense. You know something and they don’t.
What about those who write about culture and art? I’m thinking Clive James and Cultural Amnesia (his latest, which I enjoyed). Isn’t there quite a lot of ‘public intellectualism’ in the arts? I suppose it doesn’t have the wide audience it once did – middle-brow is considered a bad word these days, although, I’ve always liked middle-brow things. I guess that says a lot about me :)
It seems to me you are criticizing a certain subset of academia, rather than ‘intellectuals et al’.
Oh, and I read a very nice article linked by normblog (but I can’t remember the journal) where the author talked about the rise of creative writing progams as a natural off-set of the ‘jargonism’ of current English Lit departments. The creative writing courses do old fashioned things like actually discuss what the author was trying to say through his characters – I suppose that is why they are popular. They are just a tiny bit old-fashioned.
A very nice, provocative post, as usual, Shannon. I am not an anti-intellectual, but, then, my definition of who actually qualifies as an intellectual is somewhat stricter than the common usage.
In some ways, the current devaluation of intellectualism and intellectual pursuits is similar to the painful devaluation of the term “artist” and the general deterioration of the concept of art. In both cases, the outward trappings of the stereotypical “intellectual” or “artist” have been adopted by charletans who then claim that the widow dressing validates the presence of value inside. It is, as you surmise, a sham.
Along with this falsification of the person proceeds an inevitable falsification and cheapening of the product. It is fascinating that anyone can seriously designate the utter nonsense being paraded before us as “art” produced by actual “artists” as having any value at all, except comedic. To be sure, there are still real painters and sculpters and other artists out there, but the closer they come to producing something embodying palpable artistic worth, the more the “avant garde” derides them as being traditional, or commercial, or hopelessly out of touch with current sensibilities, and then the trend setters go absolutely gaga over some guy who packages his own feces or some other grotesque nonsense.
It is the fact that such “art” disgusts and baffles ordinary people hoping to make some connection with the artistic that makes it so prized amongst those who are “inside”, and seperates them from those who are “outside”.
Much the same con game is going on in academia and amongst the constantly posing intellectual elites. They have so debased the entire concept of intellectual pursuits that only meaningless, opaque nonsense now qualifies as sufficiently obscure to merit the approval of the intellectual in crowd. An example is the recent critical acclaim attained by a totally meaningless paper written by a computer program and published as some form of literary criticism or some such. It received rave reviews until the perpetrators admitted it was a complete fraud.
There is true intellectualism going on all over the world, dealing with real issues and developing ideas of breathtaking complexity. But, as it is practical and problem oriented, it is dismissed by the elites as mere commercial activity, undignified and beneath their concerns with the higher elements of true culture. And that culture is so rarified that it, of course, cannot be clearly explained to the unititiated.
As you so pointedly remark, a naked emperor, indeed.
Eric Posner comments on the anti-intellectual post here.
Eliezer Yudkowsky says Feynman deceived him here. In a comment there he says he was shocked to find that Feynman’s popularization hadn’t actually taught him any physics.
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