3.254 anti-intellectualism of intellectuals (198)
Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@VM.EPAS.UTORONTO.CA)
Sun, 16 Jul 89 21:53:13 EDT
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 254. Sunday, 16 Jul 1989.
Date: Fri, 14 Jul 89 21:28 EDT
From: Peter D. Junger <JUNGER@CWRU>
Subject: Objective reality and the anti-intellectualism of
Sheldon Richmond raises the question: "Are people who hold the
products of intellect to be in some fundamental manner illusory, and hold that
all we can do by way of reading, writing, and talking is to construct fictional
interpretations that do not gain any foothold either on physical or mental
life, anti-intellectual?" And then seems to argue that the answer is: "yes."
Since I cannot understand what it means to "gain [a] foothold on
mental life"--or on physical life for that matter--I have some difficulty
in figuring out what he is trying to say or whom he is attacking, if he is
attacking anyone. I doubt, however, that there is anyone who believes that all
"we can do by way of reading, writing and talking is to construct fictional
interpretations." But then I don't understand what a "fictional
interpretation" could be.
It is pretty clear that Richmond's vocabulary differs so radically from
mine--and I think from that of most of us who reacted to his original posting
about the uncertainty principle--that we cannot argue with each other or
carry on anything resembling a discussion. But perhaps there is someone
out there on HUMANIST with a large enough vocabulary to explain to each
of us what the other is saying.
I think that this unspeakable difference between Richmond and myself
is important enough to justify an attempt on my part to say something--even if
I can't say anything to him--especially as I am a lawyer turned law professor
and Richmond attacks the anti-intellectual intellectual--the apparent villain
of his piece--for being like a lawyer who dislikes lawyers.
For the life of me I can't figure out why he didn't cite the poet who
said of her craft: "I too dislike it." Or perhaps I can ....
A few years ago a law school dean named Carrington indulged himself in
a--quite well written for a decanal work, but really rather nasty--diatribe
against the closest thing to a good old-fashioned, mitteleuropaischen (even if
he is Brazilian) intellectual that we have in legal academia: Roberto Unger,
the doyen of the Critical Legal Studies movement, often mistaken for a
Christian Hegelian idealist, and a professor at the law school at Harvard. The
charge was nihilism; the specification was, in effect, that Unger, and the
other Crits, didn't believe in the reality of the law, seeing it only as the
contingent consequence of--or perhaps a rationalization for--the illegitimate
exercise of power by those who profit from the liberal conception of the state.
For their truth telling, Carrington would have banished the Crits from the
legal trade schools, purportedly to protect the innocence of their pupils. I
say 'purportedly,' because it is quite clear that Carrington was--as I suspect
Richmond is--trying to protect himself from the knowledge of his own nihilism,
from the knowledge that he could not rejoice that all his work had come to
nothing--something that is, admittedly, difficult to do.
I don't mean to suggest that Richmond has ever heard of Carrington,
I'm just saying that I'm saying this because I hear echoes of Carrington
in Richmond's message. Just as Richmond undoubtedly heard echoes of ....
Of whom? Wittgenstein? Kuhn? Rorty? Foucault? Habermas? Poor old Niels Bohr?
The Lord Buddha? ... echoes of some one or another of his bugbears in our naive
babblings about--nasty! nasty!--quantum mechanics.
Since the difference between Richmond and myself is probably one
of vocabulary, I have looked the word "intellectual" up in the OED II.
The surprising thing to me--wouldn't it be nice if English had an ethical
dative?--is that I cannot find a definition there that suggests that being
an intellectual can mean having a profession or a job in the way that a
lawyer does. The closest I could find--and it is not close--is: "an
intellectual being; a person possessing or supposed to possess superior powers
of intellect." That doesn't help much. But one of the examples appended
to this definition perhaps gives us--that is, gives people like me--a clue as
to what concerns Richmond: "1898 _Daily News_ 30 Nov. 5/1 Proceeding to refer
to the so-called intellectuals of Constantinople, who were engaged in
discussion while the Turks were taking possession of the city."
I get the impression that both 'intellectual' and 'anti-intellectual'
are most frequently used as insults, rather than as praise.
But, though the OED failed me, the first sentence of the article on
Intellectuals at page 399 of the 7th volume of the International Encyclopedia
of the Social Sciences came to the rescue: "Intellectuals are the aggregate of
persons in any society who employ in their communication and expression, with
relatively higher frequency than most other members of their society, symbols
of general scope and abstract reference, concerning man, society, nature and
"Symbols of general scope and abstract reference" are, of course,
likely to get so general in scope, and so abstract in reference, that they
just go 'pop.' To provide a mythological history--and what other kind of
history it there?--of western intellectuals since the Seventeenth century,
one would only have to record the snap, crackle and pop of their multifarious
realities selfdeconstructing. (What is the opposite of autopoesis?)
Listen: "[S]ome of the realist and objectivist alternatives to
naive realism and Platonism are the critical realism of Popper, Einstein, and
Piaget; the Absolute Idealism of various Hegelians, including Hegel, and
Bradley; and the dialectical materialism of various Marxists, including Marx
and L. Vygotsky." So many realities. So many inconsistent realities.
If one doesn't cancel itself out, one of the others will get it in the end.
All gone. Even the last one, the reality Richmond clings to so desperately,
the reality that must--I mean, it's just got to!--be the reality of realities,
the meaning of meanings, the essence of essences, the object of objects, the
.... Listen: Pfffft.
Whence did all this fury--this need for objective realities, apparently
the more the merrier--come? Why the anguished--and if I cannot understand
Richmond's words, I can still sense something close to agony in his voice--the
anguished, as I was saying, need to believe that there could be some objective
reality--some 'thingity'--behind all the quotidian things; trees, gods, words,
and frying pans, among which we live our lives. A tree is not enough for
Richmond. What he demands is some ineffable something that he can speak
about--as if one can eff the unspeakable, speak the ineffable--that ... that
what? ... that guarantees that the tree remains a tree? that guarantees that
the tree itself is "real"?
If there is a tree in front of you and you say "there's a tree";
would you be saying anything more if you were to add: "Really, it's a real
tree"? If you added that, I should think that your listeners would begin to
wonder whether there was something wrong with the tree, or with you, or with
your use of English. In any case, the tree would--of course--not care what
you happened to say about it.
The trouble is that I don't think that Richmond cares much about trees;
he's more concerned bout his relation to the cosmos. (By the way, do you
remember that passage in Archie and Mehitabel, where Archie talks to the Cosmos
and says: "see, i exist," and the Cosmos replies and says, "well, perhaps,
but that really doesn't concern me, does it?"--or words to that effect?)
Here's a quote from Richmond:
"To what end do humanists assist in the self-evolution of mind? Is it
to gain an objective understanding of the real situation of humans in a cosmos
that is an objective reality? Or, is it to assist in the self-evolution of a
self-perpetuating game that has no other meaning than the game itself? How one
answers these questions, whether explicitly or implicitly through one's
valuation of the products and processes of intellectual labour, one indicates
whether one is anti-intellectual or not."
Let us not worry about the fact that the paired questions are
unanswerable, being incomprehensible unless one happens to speak some sort of
neo-Hegelian; rather let us simply compare this passage with a quotation from
that--I presume in Richmond's thought--fons et origo of anti-intellectualism,
Here--TA RA RA!--Ladies and Gentlemen, in Niels Bohr's own words--if
one believes the Encyclopedia of Britannica--is the infamous, parental guidance
required, COPENHAGEN INTERPRETATION!!!:
"EVIDENCE OBTAINED UNDER DIFFERENT EXPERIMENTAL CONDITIONS CANNOT BE
COMPREHENDED WITHIN A SINGLE PICTURE, BUT MUST BE REGARDED AS COMPLEMENTARY
IN THE SENSE THAT ONLY THE TOTALITY OF THE PHENOMENA EXHAUSTS THE POSSIBLE
INFORMATION ABOUT THE OBJECTS."
Now I am sorry, and I am sure that Bohr would have been sorry if he
could have known, that this simple statement from a great and decent man has
caused Richmond so much pain; but that pain really does seem disproportionate
to the offense.
Once again the question arises, whence did all this fury come?
One possibility is that Richmond got tripped up by his propensity to
indulge in category mistakes. Someone who concludes that a lawyer who dislikes
lawyers--pour moi-je, I quite like them--is, ipso facto, anti-law--whatever law
may be--, such a person might be capable of fearing that his own existence--
whatever that may be--, his very self will turn out to be an illusion.
What is the opposite of solipsism?
But how could one believe in the "self-evolution of mind" and still
believe that his self is something more than a soon to be forgotten doubting
thought? On the other hand, how could anyone begin to make sense out of the
phrase, "the self-evolution of mind"? But then, of course, there is always
Tertullian ... but, on the other hand, Tertullian was pretty weird in his own
These speculations don't seem very profitable.
So perhaps we had better just take Richmond at his word. He will
hate his job--like his lawyer hated his--if it turns out that there is no
objective reality to make him "self-satisfied." And it just isn't fair that
those of us who get paid for doing real work, rebuilding Neurath's raft in the
middle of a contingent ocean, should actually have fun "reading, writing and
talking" and generally carrying on like intellectuals, while Richmond fears
that he may be stuck in "a job that is so personally distatesful [sic]"?.
It just isn't fair, but that's what happens to someone who mistakes
that broad, brae road winding over the lily leaven--or however one really
spells that word--for the royal road to reality.
Sorry to be so long winded, but I think my goat done got gotten.
Peter D. Junger--CWRU Law School--Cleveland, OH--bitnet: JUNGER@CWRU