Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and The French Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. 121), Tony Judt writes of Albert Camus:

One of the things that he had to come to dislike the most about Parisian intellectuals was their conviction that they had something to say about everything, and that everything could be reduced to the kind of thing they liked to say.

Of the two intellectual sins made note of here, the former seems more forgivable than the latter. Moreover, it is not a specifically ‘intellectual’ failing (and certainly not restricted to only those that live within Parisian precincts); the desire to make our opinions heard on every topic imaginable seems a rather more universal striving. We are a loquacious species, prone to issuing a series of rich, detailed, reports on what we observe in both the inner and outer dimensions. We thrive on communication and theorizing, on seemingly endless chatter; even our silences are understood to be pregnant with meanings and are instantly analyzed as such. We valorize the novel and the personal essay–perhaps even the tweet and the ‘status’–and esteem their creators as among our finest. So long as this incentive scheme remains in place, those who speak and write will continue to hold forth, and with ever greater ambition.  When history and philosophy and autobiography cannot contain these strivings, they spill over into fiction. Or vice-versa.

The sin of indiscriminate reduction is another matter altogether. It insists on an unimaginative pigeonholing of our experiences into rigid, unbending templates; the rich multiplicity of possible perspectives vanishes into a monochromatic view.  Discourse–the supposedly unending stream alluded to above–narrows. The bit about the lack of imagination is crucial; it is reductionism’s greatest sin. It lazily insists on returning all conversations to the same terminus. Again, intellectuals are not the only ones to stand indicted of this failing, but their sin is greater. For they are supposed beneficiaries of education, that great ‘broadening’ of the mind; the ignorant’s failure to move beyond the confines of their illiteracy is more comprehensible.

If we had to extend our tolerance to these failings let us err on the side of generosity and encourage the possibilities of the former. Richer rewards await us there.

Note: The supposedly old saw about hammers and nails is, according to Wikipedia, possessed of a relatively recent academic etymology:

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966, page 15 and his earlier book Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of BeingI suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964, page 28: I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

Labeled “Baruch’s Observation” (after Bernard Baruch) in The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection (1991) by Arthur Bloch.

 

2 comments on “Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins

  1. […] Tony Judt On A Pair Of Intellectual Sins […]

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