Private intellectuals, public morons

My students are due to hand an essay in next week. Besides the typical whingeing relating to things like essay length (1500 words is apparently unreasonable these days), I’ve also had some students saying things like “if I had wanted to study museum subjects then I would be a Humanities student”. This, after I had the temerity to ask Economics students to read 2 pages of John Stuart Mill. By and large, this anti-intellectual culture seems to be thriving in the media also – this Sunday was typical, in that the weekend papers provided their usual 30-minute-maximum of diversion.

Even when discussing potentially complicated and interesting topics (political espionage is one current example, the attitudes of powerful male figures to female members of society another), most journalism – when not being sensational – focuses on technical matters such as the law or political protocols. One finds very little philosophising, or broader reflection generally unconstrained by the status quo of public perception. This is not to deny that these more technical (or pragmatic) discussions can be useful, yet they rarely result in a fundamental change to the way in which we perceive the world and our relations with its content, particularly the social relations which consistently give rise to the most problematic aspects of our lives in general.

The sort of intellectual activity I’m not seeing in the newspapers consists in people writing about potentially public – yet largely abstract – issues in a public language. This is not a concept alien to literate societies – one need only look back to 1950 to find a tradition of public philosophy (ending, arguably, with John Dewey). Recently, apart from rare exceptions, philosophy itself has been little concerned with public issues. As Richard Rorty points out:

The older sort of philosophy professor is dying out. The newer type is technically trained, devoted to “cases”, and argumentation – not history, morals, or public issues.

Setting aside moral questions such as journalists’ possible responsibility to contribute to the education of the general public, my claim is that restricting your “analysis” to non-philosophical detailing of events and characters constrains the development of both writer and reader – speaking in technical language (which is the modern marker of erudition), on technical issues makes it difficult for the writer to see beyond those technical issues, and to perhaps reflect and write on other, potentially more interesting or fruitful issues. The reader is then never challenged to do any thinking, and the cycle of stupidity speeds up that little bit more.

It could be responded that individuals may choose to restrict their focus to a narrow technical aspect of law, politics, psychology and even philosophy, and that there is virtue in being a capable specialist. But that is precisely the point – that this sort of individual is a specialist, and nothing more. We have come to confuse the capable specialist (at universities, the academic; in newspapers, the political correspondent) – with the intellectual, yet the category of intellectual is one that should remain an ideal, and be reserved for those who love knowledge in general, then seek to expand and often share their store of knowledge. It is perhaps the case that the general trend towards specialisation hampers this quest for knowledge, in that while you (all of us) are allowed to keep on blabbing about your specialisation, nobody – including you – notices just how stupid you’ve become.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.