3.275 anti-intellectualism, etc. (218)

Thu, 20 Jul 89 17:51:16 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 275. Thursday, 20 Jul 1989.

Date: Thu, 20 Jul 89 08:46 EDT
Subject: status of intellectual culture

On the status of intellectual culture
Is it permissable to ask questions about the status of intellectual
culture? Is it permissable to present tentative, and fallible answers to those
questions? Is it permissable to propose for open discussion a thesis that may
turn out to be false, but nevertheless a thesis which asserts that the state
of intellectual culture is self-defeating, i.e. anti-intellectual? Moreover,
is it permissable to attempt to provide a hypothesis or explanation for this
proposed 'diagnosis', an 'etiology' that states that the self-defeating status
of intellectual culture is due to a largely tacit framework, that has many
variations and applications: a framework which presumes that all cultures are
wholly rational; and so that the concept rational, and all putatively
invariant standards for truth, reality, and rationality are contextually
If these questions and tentative answers are not permissable, by which
authority and according to which standards?
There is an argument which renders such general questions about the
status of language and cultural systems, intellectually illegitimate. The
authority which denies the permissability of raising meta-questions, is a
standard of intellectual legitimacy that involves restricting questions about
truth, reality ,and rationality to specified and limited contexts. So, any
discussion of the over-all intellectual status of a culture is ruled out of
court. Consequently, the intellectual status of intellectual culture, is
However, this self-legitimating strategy of intellectual culture ignores
some fundamental distinctions in linguistics and logic in order to legislate
and arbitrate on how one may properly use language, and what questions one
may meaningfully ask.
In linguistics, there is a fundamental distinction between semantics and
pragmatics. All words have psycho-social effects, apart from their meaning.
If a doctor tells one that one has cancer, the doctor not only conveys a
neutral diagnosis, but also may frighten or upset his patient. It can't be
helped. When a patient confuses the meaning of the term 'cancer' with the
patient's emotional reaction, and treats the term 'cancer' as a term of verbal
abuse, the patient is confusing the semantics of the term with its pragmatics.
Even verbal abuse, has a semantics apart from its pragmatics: the term 'liar'
is most often used to abuse someone, rather than to describe someone's
customary deceptive use of language. But, the words spoken with evil intent
may still describe a factual situation. Just as there can be truth spoken in
jest where the pragmatics of jests are to arouse laughter, there can be truth
spoken with the use of insulting words. When one is interested in truth, one
ignores the motivation and the pragmatics of the spoken words; one
concentrates on the semantics of the words.
Likewise, when one proposes a diagnosis and etiology for the current
status of intellectual culture, one may offend some people, and please others.
If intellectual culture is in perfect shape and if our standards for
intellectual pursuits are top notch, most would be pleased. However, what if
there are many indicators that the state of intellectual culture is suffering,
is in great pain, is one to hide one's eyes from the pain? Are we to only
accept diagnoses that are pleasant, and wish-fulfilling? I expect that most
intellectuals would like medical doctors to tell us the truth, and as a matter
of commonsense, are careful to heed the semantics of the diagnoses, apart from
their pragmatics. However, when intellectuals do not like to hear a possible
truth that is negative, then intellectuals are forgetting their commonsense
when reacting to the words spoken about ourselves. Of course, there are
circumstances when the pragmatics of some descriptions can over-ride concern
with semantics: though the civil law allows true descriptions to be told
about persons that have the pragmatic effect of damaging one's reputation
(i.e. 'gossip'); the Talmudic code prohibits gossip, even when true. So, even
in Law and in the Talmud, the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is
clearly recognized.
Another important distinction that is often confused is the one between
asserting an hypothesis or theorem for intellectual discussion, and stating a
belief. The beliefs of a person reveal their character, and often to
understand their character and their beliefs, it is useful to know "where are
you coming from?". However, theories are person-independent and
belief-independent: a person may not believe in a hypothesis, but propose it
for debate as a likely solution to a problem. Indeed there can be
discrepancies between the personal background of an individual and the
theoretical background of the hypotheses the person proposes for discussion.
For instance, if one only knew the personal biography of Newton, one could
neither predict nor understand Newton's classical physics. Those who write
histories of science often express amazement at the discrepancies between the
personal characteristics of certain scientific innovators and the nature of
their theories. The answer to this puzzle is simple: theories are nested in
logical networks, consisting of layers of premisses and infinite sets of
consequences. These logical networks, though produced and modified by humans
are beyond the complete understanding of their creators, and of the
individuals who study, criticize, and change them. So, to understand the
nature of our current intellectual culture, we require to examine the
underlying logical structure of the various methodological theories that
abound, and that are apparently unconnected and context-relative. In other
words, the cultural historian/critic employs a methodology akin to the
structuralist in linguistics and cultural anthropology: one looks for
patterns of similarity and difference to find the rules of transformation for
deriving the variations upon the basic thematic invariant. The invariant I
propose for intellectual culture is what I term 'hyper-rationalism'. This
invariant consists of the following thematic structure:
1. All cultures are wholly rational.
2. Cultures are historical.
3. Reason, or rationality achieves truth and attains reality.
4. Since rationality is culturally bound, so standards of truth and reality
are culturally bound.
5. Also, since culture is historical, reason, truth and reality are

The rule of transformation for this invariant thema in our intellectual
culture is this: in place of the word, 'culture' substitute such terms as
'interpretation', 'paradigms', 'methodologies', 'minds', 'objectivity',
'language-games', 'thinking', 'law','ethics', 'politics','norms'. In this way
one derives the meta-theorems guiding the various enterprises of intellectual

One of the variants of the hyper-rational thema is the commitment oriented
notion of communication and language that permeates hermeneutics. For
instance, hermeneutics holds that interpretations (including philosophical
theories, scientific hypotheses and empirical statements) as constructions are
time-bound, and action dominated. The notion that scientific hypotheses , as
opposed both to literary interpretations and philosophical theories, are
falsifiable by reference to empirical statements, is rejected. All are
interpretations that are constructed from culturally bound meaning-patterns.
Thinking, or interpretation, is either a result of a break-down in action, or
a form of commitment to action and its continuation. So, distinctions among
belief, logical content, meaning and psychological impact are rejected in
favour of the notion that a person's utterances are made as forms of social
engagement. One speaks only to enjoin others in action. So, if one speaks
words that offend, one does so to engage those offended in some form of
confrontation; a verbal fight as a socially regulated form of hostility--as in
courts of law or in seminars. The aim can only be victory.

To return to my earlier analogy of being displeased with the diagnosis of
the medical doctor: one who treats the words of a doctor as only fighting
words because the words happen to indicate a negative diagnosis that is
emotionally painful, one will react to the doctor by totally ignoring her
suggested therapy, or by redirecting one's frustrations to the doctor. As
everyone in the healing professions admit, the first axiom of doctor-patient
relationships is that the patient will not respond to advice unless the
patient treats the diagnoses as descriptive statements as opposed to labels or

In the situation of diagnosing the state of intellectual culture, we all
have to be our own doctors--since what we are assessing is our own mental
culture. It is a common finding of psycho-analysis, a commonplace, that
psychotics cannot be treated because they treat all diagnoses as hostile
statements; neurotics can be treated because they recognize that there is a
problem, and realize that their neuroses are fundamentally solutions to
problems that further entrench the problems. The way to treat a neurotic
problem is to leap out of the 'solution' and to find a totally new way of
defining both the problem and the alternatives.

As Dr. Seuss says, "Think left and think right and think low and think
high. Oh, the Thinks you can think up if only you try!."

If we must be our own doctors, and if we treat all descriptions of the
status of intellectual culture as verbal abuse, then we will become
'psychotic', and destroy our culture. However, if we at least recognize that
there is a malaise, we are only 'neurotic', and might be able to heal our
culture if we are willing to look for alternative meta-themes for intellectual
enterprises, rather than stick to one thema, and refuse to see it as a single
thema that guides our various intellectual activities; and reinforces our
malaise. Another commonplace of psycho-analysis is that the troubled patient
is on the road to cure, when the patient can jump out of the patient's single
perspective and see the world from the viewpoint of the object of hate/love.
So, perhaps if the intellectual can jump out of the perspective of viewing
reality from the point of view of the intellectual and the methods of the
intellectual, and view our products from the viewpoint of a reality that
doesn't admit of inconsistency, and that is deep, partially incomprehensible,
and transcendent, we might realize that our cultures can be incomplete, and
have deep inconsistencies that require resolution, and have irrationalities
that require further understanding.

In sum, here are some steps we can take to combat the malaise of current
intellectual life:
The first step is to admit fallibility.
The second step is to admit that there is a transcendent reality.
The third step is to admit that our historical standards of rationality,
truth, and reality require improvement.
The fourth step is to identify the techniques we use to narrow the debate so
that the desired outcome must win, or so that the troublesome questions are
evaded. Some of these techniques are:
i)playing the definition game and pretending not to understand;
ii)claiming that what the person says is either obviously ridiculous or
unintelligle, and so dismissing what the person says without having to respond
to the argument or present an actual argument--i.e. series of statements with
premisses and conclusions where if the premisses are true, the conclusions are
true ('x implies y, however y is false, theorefore x is false' is an example
of a typical form of logicl argument called modus tollens);
iii)seeking allies to buttress one's position rather than to stand on one's
own feet--i.e. appealing to the 'jury';
iv)poking fun at the opposed position rather than simply stating it, and
finding inconsistencies, or shortcomings given the question under
v)imputing terrible motives to the person with whom one disagrees rather than
examing the issue;
vi)justifying one's position as opposed to the alternative by appealing to
the authority and fine character of the "saints" who supposedly are the
originators of one's position;
vii)treating language in a rigorous fashion, as an endi-in-itself, and
viewing the use of metaphors as deep errors (i.e. Gilbert Ryle's "category
mistakes") rather than viewing language as a means for articulating aspects of
the logical content of holistic, networks of theories;
viii)claiming that one is on the side of the angels, avante-garde, or the
pure of heart, and that one's interlocutor is part of a rear-guard,
reactionary, movement with vested interests in some form of pernicious status
ix)identifying one's interlocutor with some hated figure, thereby shutting
one's ears to the words of the interlocutor;
x)treating one's interlocutor as an opponent, where the object is to defeat
the person as opposed to the theorems reported or presented by the
Sheldon Richmond