The crisis of the intellectual

I was directed to an excellent post by Walter Russell Mead today. It is on the subject of the American social model and the coming era of tumultuous social unrest as the old welfare state model collapses. Europe is already seeing this collapse as nations like Greece face bankruptcy and England deals with the consequences of severe cutbacks in social spending to avoid it.

The US is facing similar economic consequences if the level of spending is not addressed soon. The 2010 elections show that the people recognize the crisis but the “political class” seems less concerned.

“It’s telling to note that while 65% of mainstream voters believe cutting spending is more important, 72% of the Political Class say the primary emphasis should be on deficit reduction,” Rasmussen said.

“Deficit reduction” is code for raising taxes. Spending is heavily embedded in the culture of the political class.

Mead is concerned that the intellectual demographic, those with advanced degrees and careers denominated by thinking rather than doing, is unable to cope with the new situation.

There’s a lot of work ahead to enable the United States to meet the coming challenges. I’m reasonably confident that we remain the best placed large society on earth to make the right moves. Our culture of enterprise and risk-taking is still strong; a critical mass of Americans still have the values and the characteristics that helped us overcome the challenges of the last two hundred years.

But when I look at the problems we face, I worry. It’s not just that some of our cultural strengths are eroding as both the financial and intellectual elites rush to shed many of the values that made the country great. And it’s not the deficit: we can and will deal with that if we get our policies and politics right. And it’s certainly not the international competition: our geopolitical advantages remain overwhelming and China, India and the EU all face challenges even more daunting than ours and they lack our long tradition of successful, radical but peaceful reform and renewal.

No, what worries me most today is the state of the people who should be the natural leaders of the next American transformation: our intellectuals and professionals. Not all of them, I hasten to say: the United States is still rich in great scholars and daring thinkers. A few of them even blog.

His concern is that the intellectuals seem caught in a mind set that goes back to the 19th century and the Progressive Era.

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators.

It’s interesting that one of the comments, a lengthy one, exactly restates this issue but supports this model and argues with Mead that it is still superior.

Second, there are the related questions of interest and class. Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds. Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds.

He goes on to criticize medicine as a guild but I think he is unaware of the rapid changes going on in medicine today. The image of the family GP is quickly shifting to the multispecialty group with primary care provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Those who want a personal relationship with a primary care physician, or even a favored specialist, will increasingly be required to pay cash for the privilege as many doctors who want to continue this model of practice are dropping out of insurance and Medicare contracts because of the micromanagement and poor reimbursement.

In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large. Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes. We suffer from ‘runaway guilds’: costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.

Almost everywhere one looks in American intellectual institutions there is a hypertrophy of the theoretical, galloping credentialism and a withering of the real. In literature, critics and theoreticians erect increasingly complex structures of interpretation and reflection – while the general audience for good literature diminishes from year to year. We are moving towards a society in which a tiny but very well credentialed minority obsessively produces arcane and self referential (but carefully peer reviewed) theory about texts that nobody reads.

Once again, costs in medicine are a subject by themselves but the solution does not lie in controlling doctors’ incomes. With respect to the academic institutions, I have personal experience here and will describe some of it. The Humanities have been hollowed out by a trend to both politicize and to leave the subject behind as “critical thinking” goes on to analysis that has little to do with it. The Sokol Hoax is but one example.

The Sokal affair (also known as Sokal’s hoax) was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the magazine’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to learn if such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”[1]

The hoax precipitated a furor but did not result in much improvement in such publications. My daughter had personal experience when her freshman courses in English Composition and American History Since 1877 both contained numerous examples of political and “social justice” alteration of the subject matter. For example, she was taught that the pioneers in the west survived by “learning to live like the Native Americans.” The fact is that the pioneers were mostly farmers and ranchers and the Native American tribes of the southwest were hunter gatherer societies who did not use agriculture or animal husbandry. She was also taught that the “Silent Majority” of the 1960s were white people who rejected the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus they were racists. Even Wikipedia, no conservative source, disagrees:

The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a November 3, 1969, speech in which he said, “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”[1] In this usage it referred to those Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the time, who did not join in the counterculture, and who did not participate in public discourse. Nixon along with many others saw this group as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.

She has since transferred to another college.

The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model. Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face. The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it. They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

I think this is the source of the “media bias” so prominently referred to by the Right and by many who are not politically focused. This is why talk radio and Fox News have been such huge successes to the consternation of the political class and their supporters. Charles Krauthammer famously said, “Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox News) found a niche market that contained 50% of the population.”

The Tea Parties are another manifestation of the frustration of the general population with the political class but also with the intellectual class that seems to be wedded to the first. The university community is, at least in the non-science segment of it, increasingly isolated from the concerns of the society that supports them. CalTech has for many years had a Humanities program to expose science and engineering students to culture. Unfortunately, a student in a large university will find much less culture and much more politics in Humanities departments these days.

A couple of other blog posts are worth reading on this subject. One is here and the other is here. They are both worth reading in full.

A Hipbone Approach IV: Polar bears and polar opposites

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

Norwegian photographer Arne Nævra took second prize in the "Our world" category of the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 competition

Norwegian photographer Arne Nævra took second prize in the "Our world" category of the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 competition with this photo

Bruce Sterling‘s State of the World 2010 conversation with my online friend Jon Lebkowsky on the Well’s “Inkwell” forum this year was rich in concept and language as one might expect. This in particular caught my eye:

It’s like looking at your SUV and seeing drowning polar bears. Just a minority viewpoint.

Two concepts, two dots to connect: SUVs and polar bears. Sterling chose those two concepts, no doubt, because the connection between them is non-obvious in the sense that a dictionary definition of SUV won’t contain a reference to polar bears, heck, even an encyclopedia article is unlikely to, and the reverse is also true — and obvious, in the sense that the “minority” in question can easily connect these two otherwise quite distinct and separate dots, the connection being “climate change” aka “global warming” or more specifically an entire complex dynamic systems analysis incorporating the process by which an aggregate of comparatively large and frequently used gasoline-powered internal combustion engines adds incrementally to a trend in the global weather…

Not that any of this should surprise us: Sterling’s readers presumably know that SUVs are a convenient stand-in for “gas guzzlers” and thus for the whole panoply of cars and trucks, and more abstractly for our planetary tendency to technologize our environment into greater convenience and less sustainability — and polar bears, while Sterling may like the look of them in photos, documentaries, zoos or on the occasional visit to the Arctic, serve here as a marker for the entire notion of environmental degradation, a massive die-out of species and such other non-Arctic phenomena as the loss of mountain tops in Appalachia and of rain forests in the Amazon and elsewhere.

So Sterling has played two “concepts” on the board of “connect the dots” and asserted that for some people the connection will be obvious, while for others it will be invisible — which in term of connecting the dots means it might as well not exist.


Indeed, some will argue that while both dots — SUVs and polar bears — exist, the connection implied between them does not.

But that’s not the topic of my consideration here.


Bruce Sterling’s interview gives me the pair of dots I intend to focus on today – SUVs and polar bears – but there’s another pair of dots that Sterling’s remarks forms part of, a pair in which Sterling stands at one pole (science, fiction) of the debate on climate change, with Rep. John Shimkus, R- IL, at the other (scripture, fact).

Addressing the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment’s hearing on Preparing for Climate Change on March 15, 2009, Rep. Shimkus made the following now-celebrated remarks:

The right of free speech is a great right that we have in this country. Very few times we use it to espouse our theological religious beliefs, but we do have members of the clergy here as members of the panel. So I want to start with Genesis 8, verses 21 and 22. “Never again will I curse the ground because of man even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood, and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that is the way it is going to be for his creation.
The second verse comes from Matthew 24. “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” The earth will end only when God declares it is time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.
And I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith, and we can get into the theological discourse of that position. But I do believe God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.

I have characterized Sterling’s stance as “science, fiction” and Rep. Shimkus as “scripture, fact” – but the connection between these two dots is far from clear, and it is at leasdt arguable whether the designations shouldn’t instead be “science, fact” for Sterling, and “scripture, fiction” for Rep. Shimkus.


There’s a certain elegance to that – in fact it begs to be made into one of those diagrams that Jung and Levi-Strauss were fond of…

Science fact fiction scripture

Of course, fact and fiction may not be exclusive, opposed categories, and the same is true of scripture and science. Consider, for example, Kathleen Raine’s comment:

myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around”

or the similar idea that CS Lewis once wrote to her

What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something but reality is about which truth is) and therefore every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths…


To return to Sterling… The game of connect the dots that Sterling plays here could be made into a simple systems diagram of the sort that Peter Senge used to illustrate his book, The Fifth Discipline, or the more elaborate form of systems dynamic model that Jay Forrester pioneered at MIT and Donella Meadows so eloquently preached in her essay, Places to Intervene in a System — complete with feedback loops in which shifts in global weather patterns and the exquisitely-patterned trails of SUVs dance the dance of complexity and emergence…

Sterling’s version of the game is verbal, minimalist, and suggestive: two phrases, not often found next to each other, quietly juxtaposed, in such a way that the mind can supply the connection that makes the leap between them. In short: the man can write.

The point I am laboring to make here has to do with communication: with getting an insight across to other people.

Writers do this by dropping verbal markers (“SUVs” and “polar bears”) into sentences. Mostly, they write many such sentences in sequence (a blog post, an article, a book), so the reader skims or skips lightly from one marker to the next, like a stone skipping across a pond in the childhood game. Individual leaps and single connections between pairs of dots are not important here, the reader’s mind half-notes them as it passes to the next dots and the next, and such things as “conclusions” and “actionable items” or in some cases “character” and “plot” far outweigh the largely subliminal links and connections triggered along the way.

From an analytic point of view, however, it is the connections that make the difference — whether those connections are causal, as in the steps of an argument; dynamic, as in the workings of a homeostatic system with feedback loops; emergent, as in the discernment of pattern at the edge of chaos; or associative, as with creative insight, metaphor and analogy.

And in each of these cases, some form of language, diagram or model can spell out the connection, some form of software can embody that language, diagram or model, and some form of human insight can assimilate its meaning and apply it to further tasks of observation, orientation, decision and action…


We may connect the dots for pleasure, as in one of those games that chains of restaurants print up to keep children busy while their parents talk over pancakes and bacon, or for benefit: and here the issue is not only to connect “past” dots correctly so as to understand what has already happened and can be viewed with twenty-twenty hindsight, but to make the great conceptual leap from past and present and propose connections with dots that will arise in the “future” (that zone of uncertainty): we write scenarios, we plan, we attempt to intuit an enemy’s next move, to make our own OODA loop tighter and meaner than his.

And while in the short term we may succeed, in the mid and long term we may fail.

At which point, as a depth psychologist might say, our projections tell us more about ourselves than about the reality we are attempting to grasp.

I’d include here those moments when we “see” connections that don’t exist, as well as those in which we miss connections that do: hallucinatory links, and blind spots, both.


Bruce Sterling, in the same forward-looking piece that contains that quick verbal aside about polar bears and SUVs, asks himself how anyone can give “a coherent picture of where your future is heading”. Without some such picture, indeed, we are at the mercy of vicious feedback loops and unintended consequences.

Here’s how he thinks about what we might call medium term scenarios:

Let’s imagine you’re three years old again. You want to give your Dad, back in 1974, a coherent picture of what 2010 looks like. You know, something very actionable, lucid and practical, where he can just slap the cash on the counter and everything works out great for the family. Okay: given what you know now about the present, tell me what you oughta tell him about 2010, back in 1974.

Forrester-style modeling won’t carry us forward thirty five years: there are simply too many shades of grey and black swans between “now” and “soon”.

And so task number one is an “ornithological” task — to peer into our own blind-spots, to see the invisible, to have what is called “vision”.

And I don’t mean a gosh-darn brand-new marketing strategy. I mean a sense of the great tides that underlie epochal changes — the kind of vision that William Blake had, which allowed him to rail on about the “satanic mills” long before the word “ecology” was a dim spark in the mind of the fellow who coined the word. The sort that Leonardo da Vinci had.

The sort, in fact, that contemplatives (all those Zen and Tibetan and Benedictine monks) and shamans (Lakota and Huichol and !Kung and all the rest) and artists (in words, in images, in sound, in film, in concept) all know about.


Which is to say, the sort Einstein knew about — so that when the mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked him about his thought process, he answered:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.
There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.
The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

That’s quite a mouthful, so I’d like to pick out a few points that maybe of relevance here.

Let’s clear the word “muscular” out of the way first. Some of the ideational germs of Einstein’s most brilliant work, he tells us, are “muscular”. Many of us know that visual thinking is an important component of understanding: Einstein adds thinking “of muscular type” into the mix. His body is part of his mind, and he knows it. That’s important: Einstein is, in fact, connecting dots for us here linking mind and body. But he doesn’t just link dots in his response to Hadamard — he actually talks quite a bit about making connections.


Einstein Tagore

Einstein links to Tagore

Let me rephrase his response to Hadamard the way I see the process he describes unfolding.

He has a strong emotional desire to understand, in the way that “physics” understands — which is to say, “to arrive finally at logically connected concepts” of the nature of nature. He then turns away from logic and concepts, and — still under the sway of that desire — attends to the sensations of his body and to his internal field of vision. In response to that desire and from regions of the body and mind unspecified, certain “psychic elements” of a visual and some of muscular sort arise. These he says can be “combined” — he says also that he can “play” with them — but the play is, at least at first “vague”. Indeed it is precisely this “combinatory play” which appears to Einstein to be “the essential feature in productive thought”. It is only when these elements have been voluntarily played with and satisfactorily combined that Einstein begins, internally, to verbalize and “translate” the combinations he has perceived into some form of “logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others”.

So we have three sorts of connection going on here: (i) an associative connectivity between imagistic and muscular “psychic elements” in the mode of play (ii) their “connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign” and (iii) the connections he can then present to others in the language of “logically connected concepts” — ie mathematical physics.


In all of this, I would like to highlight (i) the (perhaps unexpected) importance of the body’s connection with the mind in human thinking, (ii) the significance of a deep desire for understanding as the attractor for the largely unconscious motions of body and mind, (iii) the role of play as the mode of thinking in which creative linking occurs, (iv) the ubiquity of connectivity as the ruling imperative in all phases from the initiation of play to the communication of theoretical physics.

All four — body-mind, desire, play and connection — are key components in anything worthy of the name of vision.