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Thesis Draft: Preface | An Open Letter to the Intellectuals of Both Parties

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6 months ago

[The following is the most recent incomplete draft of a chapter of a thesis I am writing about my own independent research. I've been doing this research for two years now, and I'm doing it completely independently of any institution. Over the next few months I will be putting together this thesis and sharing drafts as I go.]



An Open Letter to the Intellectuals of Both Parties


Dear Intellectuals of Both Parties,

The following manuscript functions in much the same way as a master’s thesis. If it were not for its deliberate attempt to offend academic sensibilities, it might actually meet all the criteria of dryness, one-paragraph subchapters, and intellectual posturing to actually be a master’s thesis. Rather than submit it to a committee in exchange for credentials, I am writing directly to laymen about the results of a national level survey of university professors I conducted. I’m sharing this with them because I believe it helps to answer a burning question they and I both have; namely, what is it about intellectuals that makes them so damn insufferable?

Before I get into how I went about answering this question, I need to make clear the distinction between the intellectual temperament and the intellectual profession.

If you have an intellectual temperament, you likely get pleasure out of raising speculative problems for the sole purpose of resolving them. Maybe you get your fix solving sudoku puzzles or solving the New York Times crossword puzzle. Or, if you’re particularly self-serious, you might enjoy arguing about politics. I also like arguing about politics. Moreso than I like solving crossword puzzles, but that is a matter of taste for me – not because I’m so self-serious as to believe that arguing about politics is any different than solving a crossword puzzle. As a self-aware red-blooded American hedonist, I know that at the end of the day, whether you argue about politics, solve puzzles, play video games, or masturbate, you do it to pleasure yourself. Which of these activities gives you more pleasure is a matter of your individual temperament.

As an occupational category, an intellectual is someone who makes a living raising speculative problems (usually about society), which only they conveniently have the expertise to solve. You usually find these people working for universities, NGOs, or the New York Times. When asking the question “what is it about intellectuals that makes them so damn insufferable?”, I am referring primarily to this latter category. The extent to which I am talking about someone with an intellectual temperament only goes as far as describing the fact that folks with particular tendencies go into some fields moreso than others.

Here’s what I mean. I divided my survey into three sections. In the first section I asked for demographic information such as sex, age, and ethnicity, as well as for professorship status, field of research, and two open ended questions asking about the content and the methodologies of their research. From there, the following section asked them 40 questions that measured their temperaments along 4 dimensions: extraversion and neuroticism, and systemizing and empathizing quotients. With this information, I was able to test several hypotheses about whether some fields tended to attract certain temperaments. As an example, one hypothesis was professors whose research is something to the tune of “dismantling systems of oppression” tend to be more neurotic than other professors and the general population.

I’ll go into more detail about this survey and the results in the thesis. Here, I want to speak directly to the population I sampled from.

It may often appear that I levy criticisms against the political left throughout this work. This is only incidental. I am attempting to build a case against intellectualism, and it only just so happens that most self-serious people who identify as intellectuals also overwhelmingly identify with the left. I am trying to offend and arouse the intellectuals, not the left.

More generally, I am addressing all the professions which arise out of a certain sort of space – the polis. The polis produces all sorts of professions from government officials, to activists, journalists, media personalities, and academics. What they all have in common is that the polis has impressed upon them a personality type that many of us outside their institutions and outside the polis find insufferable.

Georg Simmel was among the first to identify this phenomenon in his The Metropolis and Mental Life. “There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which has been so unconditionally reserved to the metropolis as has the blasé attitude,” Simmel writes. “The blasé attitude results first from the rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves.” The city life leads people into the pursuit of new pleasure – including intellectual pleasures.

Children born into metropolitan environments and children born into rural environments grow up into very different creatures. The metropolitan child is constantly exposed to diverse sensations without so much as enough time to take a breath before being exposed to the next new stimulus. The metropolitan child born with the intellectual temperament develops an insatiable lust for new ideas. She inevitably grows up into a career intellectual.

While rural children are born with the intellectual temperament at a comparable rate, they do not grow up into career intellectuals unless their craving for the stimulation of problems and ideas is strong enough to pull them into the city where those careers exist. You’ll never know that the farmer tilling the field has an IQ of 130 because his profession doesn’t require him to make much use of that trait. His IQ is some small, insignificant part of his identity, while the identity of the career intellectual is mostly reduced to her IQ. In the words of Simmel,

“The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy. Here the multiplicity and concentration of economic exchange gives an importance to the means of exchange which the scantiness of rural commerce would not have allowed. Money economy and the dominance of the intellect are intrinsically connected.”

There is yet another distinction to be made here. It does not appear that all university professors are insufferable intellectuals. Most of those who are the most insufferable tend to cluster in certain fields. Let’s illustrate this with a little experiment.

Go ask your local electrician and a Harvard electrical engineering professor how you might go about replacing your house lighting with remote controlled dimmer switches. Each has the same theoretical knowledge about circuits and will give you nearly identical advice on how to go about your project. Now, ask both your local electrician and the Harvard electrical engineering professor how we ought to reorder society to make it more just.

If either of them has any humility, they’ll tell you you’re asking the wrong person. That kind of thing is outside of their area of expertise. But if they had to answer, their answers would likely be divergent and a matter of personal taste.

Now, go visit Noam Chomsky and perform the same experiment on him. Ask him a question about linguistics and then ask him how we ought to reorder society. Chomsky does not have any humility. He will answer both your questions with the same degree of self-seriousness. It does not occur to him that he is not an expert in rearranging societies. Tell him that his answer is different from the electrician and the engineer and he will say with a straight face, ‘but they are not experts in rearranging societies.’ Unlike the electrician and engineer, Chomsky can arrive at the nature of the ideal society through his careful application of Reason-with-a-capital-R.

Let’s return to our concern that I will be misusing the results of my research to berate the political left. It’s common for academics and popular TV personalities like Noam Chomsky and John Oliver to claim that the reason why they and their academic and TV personality colleagues are overwhelmingly left-leaning and progressive is because they are smart. No, really! They state it in a simple syllogism:

Premise one: If you’re a college professor, you’re probably pretty smart

Premise two: A lot of probably pretty smart college professors have a left-leaning political disposition

Conclusion: Therefore, if you yourself don’t hold those same views, then you’re a knuckle-dragging moron

And that is the setup and punchline to every joke John Oliver ever told on his show widely enjoyed by super smart people. Fellow probably pretty smart college professor, Pierre Bourdieu, has a different explanation for this phenomenon.

The assumption I mentioned, that smart people use the one and true Reason-with-a-capital-R leading them to recognize that liberal and progressive thinking is objectively correct, overlooks something very important, according to Monsieur Bourdieu, Ph D in Sociology; namely, that academic reasoning takes place exclusively in academic spaces because it is a product of the economic and historical developments of those specific spaces.

“The scholastic point of view is inseparable from the scholastic situation,” says M. Bourdieu, Ph D in Sociology, “a socially instituted situation in which one can defy or ignore the common alternative between playing, [or] joking, and being serious by playing seriously and taking ludic things seriously, busying oneself with problems that serious, and truly busy, people ignore. Homo scholasticus or homo academicus is someone who can play seriously because his or her state assures her the means to do so, that is, free time, outside the urgency of a practical situation, the necessary competence assured by a specific apprenticeship based on skholè, and, finally but most importantly, the disposition (understood as an aptitude and an inclination) to invest and to invest oneself in the futile stakes, at least in the eyes of serious people, which are generated in scholastic worlds.”

There is no Reason-with-a-capital-R, but various modes of thinking that have emerged from and are adapted to living in different environments. One of these ways of thinking is native to a privileged group of people who are divorced from the struggle for existence. As such, large academic spaces have separated some people from such a struggle allowing them to engage in an entirely new way of thinking, that is, to “to raise speculative problems for the sole pleasure of resolving them.”

Academics and John Oliver alike are the product of a situation in which they are removed from the problems they take pleasure in solving. Take for example the way mere comedian, Mr. Oliver gets to enjoy playing seriously, or raising serious political and social problems every Sunday night with the dual pleasure of making a punchline, and then solving those problems from his desk chair.

M. Bourdieu, Ph D in Sociology, goes on to say, “to truly enter these universes where context-free practices or utterances are produced, one must dispose of time, of skholè, and also have this disposition to play gratuitous games which is required and reinforced by situations of skholè.” Because these people are unburdened and have limitless free time to think and be smart, they unwittingly drop unnecessary things such as the element of time from their thinking. The concepts they imagine are eternal, perfect and unchanging.

Furthermore, the reason why intellectuals are so delightfully charming and progressive is because their environment determined that they couldn’t have been any other way. M. Bourdieu, Ph D in Sociology, uses the expression “nobility obliges”—an expression of the inferred duty that people in privileged positions have towards those less fortunate—to illustrate.

“The expression ‘noblesse oblige’ clearly states the logic of the disposition: the noble’s habitus directs his practices and thoughts like a force ("it is stronger than I"), but without mechanically constraining him; it also guides his action like a logic of necessity ("there is nothing else I can do," "l can do no differently"), but without imposing it on him as if it were a rule or as if he were submitting to the verdict in a sort of rational calculation.”

If it happened to be the case that most intellectuals were conservative – if they could have been no other way – I would certainly still mock your politics. The point of the mockery – the mockery of all your sensibilities, not just your politics – is to shake you out of your self-seriousness long enough to hold your attention for at least a few moments.

That is, if you decide to read the whole thesis. As I said, its audience is the laymen. While you folks were the population I sampled from for my study, it was only to illustrate to my audience how the forces of status and shame move us through our social systems like how physical forces move objects through natural systems.

The answer to the question of why intellectuals are so damn insufferable is because they are compelled by the forces of status and shame to behave no other way. It boils down to a product of their temperaments (measured in this study by extraversion, neuroticism, and systemizing and empathizing quotients) and the environments in which they live and work.

One’s sensitivity to incentives, positive and negative emotion, and threats (measured here via extraversion and neuroticism) determines how much the forces of status and shame can push them around – to compel them to do things they would not do otherwise. In the good ol’ days, the days of Genghis Khan’s Mongolia, it took the promise of physical violence to force people to behave in ways they would otherwise not. the more abstract forces of status and shame were mere collateral forces. Today, that hierarchy is inverted.

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