Sunday, June 15, 2008

On Intellectuals, Pseudo And Otherwise

Marshall Art calls me "a pseudo-intellectual", an epithet I find quite interesting. In the first place, he does so because I offer the wild suggestion that poor writing skills are a hindrance to understanding. I "worry about dangling participles", as if that were evidence enough of my high-falutin' ways.

First, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an intellectual. Such creatures are rare indeed. I would go so far as to say that currently we have perhaps two or three serious intellectuals operating in the United States, among them Cornel West and Daniel Dennett. The late Richard Rorty was another. An intellectual, or perhaps to be more precise, a public intellectual is someone who not only traffics in ideas for a living, but also is engaged on a practical level with the impact these ideas have on our common life. America has been blessed with several towering figures who fit this bill, including Orestes Brownson in the 19th century and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th. Walter Lippmann was another, aided in his stature by his participation in journalism, as well as an education that included personal friendships with George Santayana, John Reed, and William James.

A pseudo-intellectual, on the other hand, is someone who strives to do what an actual intellectual does, but fails. A great example of this type is George Will. Becoming famous for the ethically dubious practice of being Ronald Reagan's practice debate sparring partner in 1980, Will often spruces his column with quotes from historical figures. It was only when he was exposed as having a team of researchers combing Bartlett's that the practice became more rare (Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury made sport of this practice with a bit of dry hilarity, having one minor character become one of Will's "quote boys" as a summer internship; the column produced was nothing more than a series of "quotes" that meant absolutely nothing, not much different from an actual George Will column). Will further degraded himself during the Lewinsky years by referring to President Clinton as "a scumbag" and trafficking in easily disproved allegations that, as governor of Arkansas, Clinton committed rape.

Another pseudo-intellectual is David Brooks. Brooks strives to be insightful, to be original, and usually ends up being just hilariously wrong. A low-rent Will, he doesn't try to quote Cardinal Richelieu so much as he tries to construct plausible-sounding theories of our political and social life that rest on dubious, sometimes even false assumptions, and lead to conclusions that are at variance with facts. He struggles gamely on, however, spinning his webs of fantasy, his columns read and pondered as he pollutes the op-ed pages of The New York Times with his drivel. He is as much fodder for humor sites as he is the instigator of serious discussion.

What I find fascinating is the notion that there is something wrong with being educated, and attempting to use that education in a positive way. Marshall Art's "criticism" is that I spend more time dealing with the structure of a piece of writing than with the argument the piece presents. That isn't true. It is only the first thing I do. As I said in comments over there, I had to have it pounded in to me in college that one's ideas are only as good as how one presents them. Good writing is necessary to having one's ideas and arguments accepted. A good example of this is the difference between two philosophers of note - Immanuel Kant and Richard Rorty. Even allowing for differences in country of origin and the ages in which they lived, one cannot deny that Kant's impenetrable style is a hindrance to understanding. That he had important things to say is without a doubt correct. Yet, his influence upon philosophy has been baleful, to say the least. One was only as profound as one was almost completely unreadable.

Rorty, on the other hand, has a clear prose, devoid (for the most part) of jargon and cant, his ideas flow easily. Any high school graduate can grasp the flow of his writing. Even if one disagrees with him, there is no doubt that all can learn a thing or two by copying his style.

All of this is to say that good writing is essential. Poorly constructed sentences, bad syntax and grammar, common errors (to which I am prone) such as the passive voice and the compound-complex sentence, are all hindrances to understanding. An argument is only effective if understood. Poorly presented, it can be dismissed as the product of one who has no idea how to present ideas.

More to the point, not only the specific article in question (linked to in a post below), but many of those presented in American Thinker are devoid of any serious merit. Recycled arguments, hyperbolic suggestions in which "all liberals are X" and "government regulation and taxation of the oil industry will destroy our nation and livelihood", are the common currency there. Not only are these arguments easily disproved by the use of simple reason, they are also disproved by counterfactuals and history. Why should I spend time dealing with an argument the premise of which is false? Why should I refute an argument that is false on its face? This isn't so much cowardice or dodging the issue as it is a time-saving device.

One final thing. While it is true that I am prone to site various serious thinkers here on this blog, that hardly qualifies me as "an intellectual". Unless I am mistaken, blogs are about ideas, whether really big ones, or little narrative ones concerning one's life and experiences. That I use the tools I have accumulated over the years shouldn't be much of a shock, unless someone hasn't been exposed to such writers and thinkers as I have. That's OK. I don't pretend that the fact I've read one more book than some other people (but not nearly as many as I would like, nor as many as many others have read) means anything more than exactly that - I've read one more book. The difference between that attitude and an intellectual, pseudo- and otherwise, is easy to define - intellectuals of both types see a qualitative distinction between their own erudition and access to "serious" thought and the lack thereof in others. I do not. I do, however, believe that the dismissal of serious, intelligent dialogue and discourse by the ad hominem attack that one is a pseudo-intellectual reflects less on the one attacked, than on the attackers own sense of him- or herself.

Having said that, I will be far more clear and precise:

Marshall Art, the articles to which you link in American Thinker are crap.

I don't see much intellectualism there. Do you?

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