3.195 Heisenberg and anti-intellectualism (109)
Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@VM.EPAS.UTORONTO.CA)
Fri, 30 Jun 89 20:54:15 EDT
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 195. Friday, 30 Jun 1989.
Date: Fri, 30 Jun 89 10:17 EDT
Subject: EDUCATION AND UNIVERSITIES
Education and Universities:
1. John Lavagnino (English and American Literature, Brandeis University)
I am indebted to John Lavagnino for his corrections of my wording of the
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. However, though he rejects the
misapplication of Uncertainty by humanists, he endorses the implicit
anti-intellectual attitude incorporated in the Copenhagen interpretation.
"``Attempted'' is the key word here. It's never actually been done, and
the Copenhagen interpretation is still the one physicists use. As with
evolution, some people would like the theory to go away or say something
different, but it's a big step from that to having another theory that
works as well."
The presumptions of the above statements are: what physicists use must be
correct; and the Copenhagen interpretation is a scientific theory as opposed to
a philosophical theory open to philosophical debate.
These presumptions protect physicists who accept them from all criticism of
the Copenhagen intepretation. They are given the licence to hide from open and
intellectually honest criticism of what is turned from a philosophical
interpretation of certain mathematical formalisms, and a set of physical
problems or dilemmas, into a scientific theory. This slide from recognizing
the Copenhagen interpretation to be a philosophical theory as opposed to a
scientific theory, is due to an anti-intellectual theory of 'theory' and
'interpretation'. There are several criticisms by physicists and philosophers
made against the Copenhagen interpretation: 1)that it is a poor interpretation
that should be replaced by an indeterminist philosophy of physical reality;
2)that the formalisms of quantum mechanics are like Newtonian mechanics,
tentative and should replaced by improved formalisms. None of the critics deny
that it works; or, that is should not be "used". However, to imply that what
works, and what is accepted by the majority, should be treated virtually as
true, is to tacitly accept the hyper-rationalist, and anti-intellectual view of
'theory' and 'interpretation'. This philosophy when accepted among physicists,
particularly given that physics is taken to represent one of the heights of
intellectual achievement, gives credit to anti-intellectualism among humanists,
and the general culture of intellectuals.
The following comment from, Daniel Boyarin, nicely states this
anti-intellectual approach to interpretation and theory:
"The points about humanists jumping on a rickety bandwagon with Heisenberg
seem very well taken, but I don't understand why the position that
all interpretation is construction is glossed by you as anti-intellectualism.
Most of the people working out such positions in literary, anthropological
and historical theory seem to me very committed to the life of the mind."
This presumes that there is only one theory of intepretation, namely
"interpretation as construction", and that because most people in the
humanities seem to accept this theory, then it must be correct, and must
thereby define the "life of mind".
The implicit attitude here is that the current standards of intellectual
life must be correct, just because they are current. The current theories of
humanists and physicists, that are widely held or held by the majority, must be
correct because they are held by the majority.
This attitude is based on a neo-Hegelian philosophy of hyper-rationalism.
This neo-Hegelian philosophy, is hardly criticised, and hardly discussed in our
culture of intellectuals because it is held tacitly as part of the required
framework for intellectual work. This theory is: 'Standards of rationality,
truth, intellectual honesty, and correctness of theory or interpretation vary
with the history of a domain, and are instrinsic to all intellectual work
within the domain. Whatever scientists and intellectuals, in the majority,
accept at a certain point in the history of their various domains as the
appropriate standards of rationality, truth, and intellectual honesty, must
Firstly, 'hyper-rationalism' is one among other possible interpretations of
rationality, intellectual honesty, and truth. (Hyper-rationalism goes deeper
and is much more dangerous than relativism, because, unlike relativism,
hyper-rationalism is intellectually arrogant and intolerant as a modification
of Hegelian absolutism--it states that the majority of intellectuals determine
what counts as genuine knowledge; anything contrary to the majority should be
dismissed as 'fringe', or 'gornish mit gornish'.) Secondly, to be
intellectually honest about how we live the "life of mind", we require to
discuss, as opposed to dismiss, criticisms and alternative theories of
The tacit presumption of both Lavagnino and Boyarin is that the fringe
critics don't count, what counts is what the majority thinks. This cynicism is
just the attitude that students pick up, and that could result in the
self-destruction of universities and the genuine life of mind. Their comments,
unfortunately, further document my thesis that intellectual culture is beset
with a self-destructive theory of intellect, that is hardly observed, and when
observed, taken as a fundamental fact of the universe as opposed to a fallible,
I regret that I can't say more here about anti-intellectualism without
presenting my paper on anti-intellectualism among intellectuals, which I would
be glad to send out for comment or review for publication when contacted by