What’s Wrong with the World

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Intellectual Checks and Balances

James Poulos, writing at The American Scene, and commenting on Christopher Orlet's review of a candidate for the purifying pyres, observes the following:

But add the Wolfe quote ("an intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who only speaks out in others") and the Posner quote ("a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot") together, and you get a concept of the public intellectual that strikes me as not just unconservative but deeply impoverished and perverted. A public intellectual, according to this indeed rather popular concept, is either an expert working dutifully within the confines of his expertise or a fool at best and fraud at worst. Public thinkers who act as gadflies, daring to presume an entitlement to address the world whole, are not only dangerous but despicable creatures, the snake oil salesman of common discourse. Think as freely as you like in private, we are told, but in public, respect above all the great compartmentalization of knowledge that is the source of power for all management and bureaucratic order.

I'd be the last to deny the existence of pronounced strains of anti-intellectualism in certain quarters of the right, given the parlous and intellectually sterile condition of the right in this, the Eighth Year of Bush. Hence, I don't mean to defend the 'public intellectual', if by this is meant some person with a passion for some issue, about which he may know rather little, even if the positions defended by such a person should be 'conservative'. But it seems to me that Poulos strikes a euphonious series of tones. It is unconservative and perverted to defend the rigid demarcation of disciplines in this manner, and to invoke the 'authority' (in reality a kind of anti-authority) of the reductionism and rationalization that that classificatory scheme instantiates, precisely because managerial, bureaucratic culture is inimical to traditional culture. The former presupposes an instrumentalist approach to any given sphere of life, which necessarily vacates that sphere of (acknowledgement of) the substantive questions it embodies. Think of sex education, with its presupposition of the irresistibility of biological urges, such that the imperative is inculcating the knowledge of the 'safe' means of fulfilling them.

Succinctly stated, the conservative approach is to maintain a robust skepticism of all such dessicated simplifications, which often conceal moral and political commitments under a veil of (pseudo) science. Tradition, that is to say, is integrative. Expertise in one dimension of the human experience does not entail wisdom in the living of a humane life.

Which, in the end, is why critiques of the excesses of critical literary theory, often voiced by those outside the guild of theoreticians, sometimes by analytic philosophers, criticisms of the fads of 'digital biology' (which will only tell us how anything and everything evolved, and that at a high level of abstraction, and not how some specific thing, such as a mammalian eye, evolved), or analyses of utilitarian economics are valuable: even if they are articulated by putative non-experts, they not only caution us against fragmentation, but remind us that reason is a substantive, and not purely instrumental undertaking, a common human possession, and not a certification attached to specialized credentials. Or, we could attend to the actual arguments advanced, and eschew the easy ad hominems of, "But he doesn't have a degree in X." Rationality is no monopoly of the specialist, whose doctrines, when taken for a larger part of the whole than they are, become ideologies.

Comments (2)

While a doctorate in archeology earned in the study of Proto-Phonecian Basket Weaving does little to prepare one to make arguments on abortion or climatology, the mistake is not that such a learned person has the temerity to make the argument, but that anyone imputes to his argument any weight because of who he is in the first place. It takes no small helping of arrogance do that to oneself.

Let arguments stand or fall as they are able.

(I have more, but I'll put it on my own blog.)

Phoenician. Sorry, all of you ethnic Proto-Phoenicians out there. Note to self: thou shalt not post before coffee.

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