Friday, May 13, 2011

Intellectuals Need Love, Or Do They?

[Note: I posted these remarks on this blog yesterday. For unexplained, and probably inexplicable reasons, they were "disappeared." Thus, I am reposting them, for your edification.]
What do intellectuals want?   

Granted, it’s not a very compelling question. It’s not going to keep you up at night. And it’s a lot less pertinent than Freud’s old question about what women want.  

While far too many of us have come to worship female inscrutability, we are not ready to offer our allegiance to intellectuals who cannot tell us what they want.   

Women are supposed to be mysterious. Therein lies their power. I suspect that most women know what they want, and could, if they wish, tell you. If you are willing to take their words at face value, you would be able to cease tormenting yourself over when they want.  

Intellectuals are not supposed to be mysterious. Of no other group can it more justly be said that they are supposed to be open books. Intellectuals share ideas, principles, and analysis. They might do it in books; they might do it in classrooms; they might do it in the media.

They are supposed to be clear and intelligible. If you do not understand what they are saying, their ideas will not have very much of an influence.  
But then, there are intellectuals and there are intellectuals. Some try to communicate with the many; others with the few.  

Some intellectuals seek out a large audience. They appear on television talk shows, wrap their ideas in clever sound bites, and seek out popularity.  

Other intellectuals occupy the summits of intellectual endeavor. Some of them are in it for the joy of learning, but others are trying to influence those who wield power and make policy.  

A serious and difficult philosopher like Martin Heidegger was not a public intellectual. He wanted simply to be Hitler’s philosopher, a man the Fuhrer would turn to for advice and guidance.  

And then, there is a clear and significant difference between British and French intellectuals. For the sake of argument, we will lump together British and American intellectuals.  

When you are asking, as John Naughton did in the London Observer why the French love their intellectuals so much more than the British (and Americans) do, you need first to see that there is more than a channel that separates the two.  

I think it fair to say that the French idolize their intellectuals. Mostly they prefer the more high-minded term of philosopher to the low light term of intellectual.  

The French are so creative that they have convinced themselves that a Bernard-Henri Levy is a philosopher.  

About that they are probably granting him too much credit. But if you tell them so they will dismiss your opinions as those of a vulgar American.  

The French love their great philosophers and they believe that their great thinkers, from Descartes to Voltaire to Sartre, have brought prestige to the nation.

Right or wrong, they’re French and they stoke the fires of national pride. For that they are rewarded. For that their nation feels that it has attained to the moral superiority that is only granted to a nation whose thinkers are world class philosophers.  

Next to Voltaire and Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau are decidedly minor league.  

It is worth noting that most French high school students are forced to study philosophy. They do so by working through the most arcane and difficult philosophical subjects. Any French student who sits for the baccalaureate exam can write pages on the Cogito. How many American high school students can do as much.  

It should hardly come as a surprise to find that British and American intellectuals aspire to the social standing that French intellectuals hold.  
This is not because British philosophy has lacked for great minds. One can certainly place Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith among the great philosophers. One would not, however, place them among the great idealist philosophers.   

French philosophers inspire idolatry-- which represents a very serious form of love-- but British philosophers do not. We respect and admire British intellectuals like George Orwell, but we do not worship them as demi-gods. The French see Jean-Paul Sartre as a demi-god. As de Gaulle once said, he could not arrest Sartre because you cannot arrest Voltaire.  

It makes a certain amount of sense to idolize idealistic philosophers. Those who aspire to direct access to the world of ideas are saying that they possess the kinds of divine qualities that would allow them to see Ideas directly, unadulterated by physical objects and practical experience.  

British and American philosophers tend toward the practical. If you asked them, as David Hume did, which came first, ideas or experience, they would tell you that experience precedes ideas. French and German philosophers would immediately trot out their Kant and tell you that ideas must be prior to experience because, without ideas there is no experience.  

By now we know that nearly all of the great French and German philosophers of the twentieth century were so completed blinded by the light emanating from the great Ideas that they supported every totalitarian despotism, from Communism to Fascism to Nazism, and even terrorism.  

Many people consider Martin Heidegger to have been the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Others would give the laurels to Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian who worked at Cambridge.  

One day Martin Heidegger famously declared that the Third Reich was the embodiment of his philosophy. Undergraduates I have known have wanted to dismiss this rather embarrassing pronouncement. They believe that they understand Heidegger’s philosophy better than Heidegger himself.  

As it happens, Heidegger was right.  
True enough, Heidegger was not the most ardent Nazi. He preferred the Storm Troopers to the SS, and had trouble forgiving Hitler for ridding the world of Ernst Rohm and his band.  

Still, he aspired to be Hitler’s philosophical advisor and did not feel that he was given sufficient credit for the Third Reich.  

Heidegger did understand that Nazism was an effort to bring idealist philosophy to life, to create a better world, a world that would fulfill the great ideals and that would brook no compromise with practical realities.  
Actually, Communism was trying to do something quite similar, though based on different ideas.   

These were philosophy-driven governments; the people who made the decisions were influenced by the great ideas of the great thinkers. I believe that they gained confidence in their maniacal visions and insane policies from the fact that their source lay in great philosophical tracts.   
Whether we are talking about Hitler or Stalin or Mao, they were not guided by experience. In truth, the practical consequences of their policies were telling them that they had gotten things grievously wrong.  

Yet, they persevered in their mad effort to ply reality to their philosophy because they knew, beyond any doubt, that Kant and Hegel and Nietzsche were great minds, and that great minds are in tune with the mind of God.  

Strange to think that avowed atheists idolize philosophers because they believe that philosophers have privileged access to higher truths, the world of Ideas, but, what makes you think that atheists can think straight anyway.  

As for philosophy-driven historical events, take the French Revolution. Read through Simon Schama’s history of that event, called Citizens.   
Therein you will learn how the leaders of the French Revolution were inspired and took direction from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  

From beyond the grave the spirit of Rousseau functioned like a presiding genie, a great mind whose ideas were taken as a road map to the Promised Land. The Revolutionaries, like the totalitarian despots who followed them, were trying to create a paradise on earth.  

Politics in Great Britain, even including revolutions and regicide, was anything but philosophy-driven.   

Britain’s great minds, Locke or Hume or Adam Smith, have tended to see themselves as commenting after the fact. Parliamentary democracy, the British common law, free market capitalism, free trade in ideas... these existed before the philosophers came along to explain them and to give them consistency.   

Where French and German philosophers wanted to make history, to place themselves above those who conduct policy and lead governments and fight wars, British and American philosophers have contented themselves with interpreting events, to provide the intellectual coherence that could sustain effective policies.  Surely, this made them less lovable. It made them less apt to seek idolaters. It also made them more humble, more valuable, more temperate, and more like functioning members of society.     


TGP said...

Thank you for writing. said...

Very worthwhile piece of writing, thank you for your article. said...

Little doubt, the dude is totally just.