Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Wisdom and superiority

Briefly: Wisdom in superiority? The intelligentsia and anti-intellectualism in society

Let me start out by stating I see no problem with some elitism in intellectualism as long as thinkers say practical (if theory is not the subject matter), often dare to stray from their cozy spot on the Ivory Tower, and let new, fresh, capable members of the intelligentsia in: the only requirements being interest and ability to contribute. Many intellectuals deny that they are intellectuals, seeing it as an elite and high-class club. It should not be a 'club' with conservative practices that only lead to back-treading, like dynastic practices or arbitrary and irrelevant requirements for 'membership' — sexism, racism, and class discrimination are historical examples of suppression of thinkers or potential thinkers, not to mention politics and the ever chaotic chance ('luck'): for example, the chance that the next great philosopher is hit by an astroid on his or her walk to university.

I can only venture a guess to why the public perception stereotype of intellectuals is of an elderly white male: because that's how the major thinkers throughout Western history have been portrayed. The ability to succeed is often directly tied to how one fits into society. A black woman in 18th century Britain is unlikely to be recognized as a great thinker, even if she somehow succeeds in a way that deems her to be deservedly called so. Because of the racial and gender prejudices of the time she is unlikely to be in a higher class, less likely to be learnt, and less likely to have the time or education or money to write a thesis on emotional desire.

The burden of the intelligentsia — the backbone of thinkers in a society — is to renew the flow of genius; to sustain their intellectual progress. The geniuses we know of of today and throughout history are only a small sample of the actual genius potential within human civilization. Put simply the conditions need to be right for one to rise to the intellectual level of an Einstein or Hobbes. One's socio-economic status also plays a role. Little Johnny may have the capacity to be the next Kant, but he needs to work in the factory to support his family, etc.

Of course one need not be the next Kant to be an intellectual keeper of one's society, history, and culture. Some measure of elitism, as I said before, is needed to maintain a progressing society, rich at least somewhat in thought, with the intelligentsia at the forefront of that group of 'elite' intellectuals.

They say everything has an opposite — and that goes for intellectualism too. Curiosity is an innate human aspect, varying from person to person like creativity and intelligence. We must trust for intellectuals to harness that curiosity using both creativity and rational thought. A very interesting paper I found while researching this post, “Why is there anti-intellectualism?”, had the following conclusion(s):

* Humans are innately curious, but it is mostly a low order curiosity concerned with immediate gratification of a particular desire to know, and mostly oriented toward immediate practical results.
* There is no persuasive evidence that any societies have ever had a high proportion of people who were deeply curious in a systematic, disciplined way.
* The curiosity and creativity of children is very superficial.
* Our own culture supports systematic and disciplined inquiry better than just about any other in history, but even so there is a great deal of hostility toward it by people who feel their values threatened, see it as a waste of time that could be better devoted to more immediate goals, or resent the status and power it carries.

Whether anti-intellectualism represents the backlash to things people cannot understand, thus they choose to remain ignorant, is a fairly controversial matter. Are people so irrational they can embrace ideas like pseudoscience while rejecting the real thing? As the aforementioned paper stated,
What possible benefit do people get from clinging to demonstrably false ideas? Why did the same society that flocked to Star Wars decide only a few years earlier that the real adventure of going to the Moon was too expensive to sustain? Given the wealth that innovation and inquiry have brought to our society, why are education and inquiry so grudgingly supported, and so often regarded with suspicion?

If, supposedly, people so naturally love to learn, why would they reject those whose life passion is thinking?

I hope to dive further into the matters of intellectualism, especially of its role — today and historically — in society, and of the philosophical nature of human thought that manifests itself in such topics. This post is only an outline of sorts.

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