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.


Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.