Sunday, April 08, 2007

The intellectuals once more

A hundred years ago Benedetto Croce published a trenchant little book entitled “What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel.” Today most would concur with Croce that something vital--maybe not a lot--subsists in Hegelian thought.

A more important issue of the last few decades has been “What is Living and What is Dead in Marxism.” After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Marxists hailed this as an advance. No longer must “genuine Marxism” be hobbled by association with its Stalinist caricature. Alas, for them, “genuine Marxism” gained no traction. In fact the answer to the question is now pretty straightforward: all of Marxism is dead.

How then to account for the fact that one can still learn from scholars who profess Marxism? A case in point is Perry Anderson who spoke twice at Columbia University on March 28-29.

Born in 1938, Anderson exercised as position of influence through his editorship of the New Left Review in 1962-82 (and again in 2000-03). He is currently a professor of history at UCLA. Anderson won his spurs in a controversy with the homegrown British Marxist E. P. Thompson, whom he accused of naïve empiricism. Anderson wrote as the champion of Euro-Marxism, including its most recent incarnation in the work of Louis Althusser. In subsequent years he has shown himself capable of sharp critique of fashionable trends on the Continent. In fact, many of his assaults have been delivered against postmodern currents in continental Europe, which he regards as a form of reaction

I have read and profited from most of Anderson’s books. In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) he showed himself an adept commentator on some of the thorniest questions of medieval history.

His first talk at Columbia was a dazzling survey of the origins of the concept of the intellectual. He traces the idea (if not the word) to an analysis by the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon in 1819. Then the concept took root in Austria, migrating to Russia in the 1860s. There it gave rise to the expression intelligentsia, borrowed in all western languages. At the end of the century it returned to France (as intellectuel) with the conflict over the Dreyfus affair. The speaker covered various twentieth-century developments, which I will not attempt to summarize.

During the question period, I asked Anderson to comment on the changes wrought by the blogosphere. He demurred, suggesting that he is not quite up to speed on the technology of the current century. My own view is that when blogs first surfaced a decade ago, they seemed bright with the the promise of a wonderful democratization of opinion. Nowadays anyone can be a successful pundit. All it took was fifteen minutes setting up a Blogger account, and you were on your way. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Only a few blogs have attracted significant traffic, and some of these are run by individuals who have their base in the standard print media. For the rest of us, the process is akin to sending a message in a bottle. Yet some do receive and open the bottle.

There remains the important question of the gate-keeping function. How is access to the status of intellectual obtained? Determination and luck play their part, but the process still remains opaque.

To put it differently, how does one become an intellectual? It is not enough to reflect on the history of ideas and their relationship to the deeper aspects of public policy issues. No, the budding intellectual must gain access to the public prints, so that one’s meditation becomes part of a dialogue. As far as I know, there has never been a study of failed and would-be intellectuals-—those individuals who sought to intervene in the discussion, but never succeeded in getting their voices heard.

Be that as it may, I return to the question posed at the outset: How can I admire Perry Anderson, an adept of a failed ideology? Several comaparisons come to mind. A good many years ago when I was a graduate student I profited a good deal from such French Catholic writers as Henri-Irenée Marrou and Jean Daniélou. I am certainly not a Catholic or even a Christian. Another thinker who has profoundly affected me is the Hindu Nirad C. Chaudhury, author of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I have never been drawn to Hinduism, and indeed intensely dislike the institution of caste. So I suppose the lesson is this. Be adventurous in your choice of mentors. After all, you don’t have to swallow what they say whole. Indeed, I certainly do not share Perry Anderson’s professed enthusiasm for the views of Noam Chomsky.



Blogger The Gay Species said...

The Fallacy of Over-Generalization works bidirectionally, Either one erroneously assumes because A is wrong about X, A is wrong about everything, OR one assumes A is right about B, and A is therefore right about everything. It's one of the most common fallacies, and if REBT theorists are accurate, a substantial factor in disordered thinking bordering on mental health.

For example, I am not a Christian, yet I find many nuances by Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain persuasive. I even relate to Thomas Merton, Benedict of Nusia, and Saint John of the Cross - as disparate a bunch if ever assembled. One of the most compelling illiberal schemes known as communitarianism was lauched by Vatican II's Gaudium et spec, 1964. Yet, Yahweh is one emotionally-crazed deity, and Jesus inverts all Virtues as a subversive.

As one professor remarked, "nuggets" and "gems" of thought can come from anywhere, even from, especially from, those with whom we disagree. Whether through dialectic or through insight, wisdom knows no "place" or "boundary." I have yet to find any such gems in either Hegel or Marx or Freud, as their ideological temperament ill-suits me. Yet, Marx's opening in "The German Ideology" is truly brilliant, whereas Hegel's thesis - antithesis = synthesis violates the cardinal rule of logic: non-contradiction.

The appellation "intellectual" is both an enconium and a pejorative. Modern French "intellectuals" are a perjorative to my way of thinking, yet several "intellectuals" who hail from the Vienna Circle are mentors. But either way, the appellation is conferred, not necessarily earned. If Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault are "intellectuals," then I consider the term pejorative (although Foucault's thought has valuable insights). Are Popper, Hayek, and Oakeshott "intellectuals?" I doubt today's academy would bestow the laurels, but they are seminal thinkers of the highest order.

Rather than appraise one as an "intellectual," which seems to me rather vacuous, it's my preference to identify the thoughts of individuals as Ideologues, Realists, Materialists, Naturalists, and so forth. At least these appellations name individuals according to the type of thought, which is at least a useful, albeit prone to pigeonholing. But we think in categories, whether as animal, plant, mineral or according to clusters of ideas. Categories are useful, whereas "intellectual" begs the question.

Would anyone consider longshoreman Eric Hoffer an "intellectual?" Probably not, but he was wise. Wisdom, not "knowledge," is the highest objective for our thoughts, and prudence the highest objective for our actions. Now those appellations are meaningful. Just a personal preference.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Because of the Franco-Russian origins of the concept, we usually think of the intellectual as an oppositional figure--as the equivalent of Antonio Gramsci's "organic intellectual." Thus Noam Chomsky has no trouble qualifying as an intellectual; Henry Kissinger is less lucky.

I am not fond of either of them, but that is beside the point. Kissinger has published a big book on 19th-century diplomacy. But because he is viewed as complicit with the power structure, many would deny that his truly an intellectual.

Admittedly, the concept is complex and contested. The intellectual is somewhere between a scholar and a pundit--even having some of the qualities of an (unelected) politician. Still, it does not seem possible to do without the term.

8:37 AM  

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