Monday , January 25 2021

On the Modern Intellectual

The greatest civilisations are build on intellectuals – but what are they famous for? Disagreeing

What is an intellectual? It is a pressing question. Many people claim to be such a thing, but it is quite certain that none can agree what gives that thing its essence. To look for a dictionary definition is superficial and inadequate. Anyone can conduct a discourse on any topic, and they do not have to be especially learnèd in order to do so. Intellectuals, public or otherwise are invaluable to a thriving civilised society—they offer reasoned analysis, cultural, political and social contributions to that society, and lay the groundwork for the intellectual advancement of those members of the population who are yet to achieve the same status as they. In short, to be an intellectual is a commendable pursuit. However, the modern intellectual has fallen short of this goal. I am not saying that modern intellectuals are not intelligent, that they lack education or passion for their beliefs; nay, there is a deeper and more worrisome virus that has taken root in the very depths of intellectualism: uniformity.

As a great a thing as it may be to offer one’s ideas to the public sphere, this, it seems to me, means nothing if those ideas are not counterbalanced by further ideas which directly oppose them. As the Academies and Universities of today become more and more reliant upon government funding for their survival, perhaps we should only expect that those same institutions will move further towards lending their weight solely to establishment positions. There is probably some truth in this, but not the whole truth. The problem of intellectual uniformity is not completely the fault of ‘government’ or one particular social group at all. I believe it is the fault, for the most part, of a terrifying phenomenon: that of fashion. Fashion is a truly horrendous thing. As ephemeral as it is often destructive, it feeds off the insecurities of the human mind, dragging it along by the chain of fear of social rejection. We are all susceptible to it, yet it is ironic that intellectuals often consider themselves the most free of its influence. Today, however, the evidence seems to speak quite clearly for the contrary.

The dialectical method has been a favourite of intellectuals from every school of thought since at least the age of Socrates in some form or another. By dialectic, we mean the exchange of reasoned arguments with the view towards eliminating fallacies and misconception, and eventually reaching a stage where the parties engaging in the exchange can no longer disagree on the statements reached. In such a case, the truth, or at least a truth, is considered to have been found. Dialectic is distinct from debate. Debate is an exercise in rhetoric, it is an attempt to persuade another person or group of people to support one’s point of view by attacking the arguments of another, or ‘selling’ the benefits of one’s own point of view. Debate may have the appearance of dialectic, but it frequently descends into fallacies such argumenta ad hominemad passiones, ad populumad verecundiam and in some cases ad baculum (by which, for the many readers unversed in Latin, we mean, attacks upon the character of a debater, appeals to emotion, popularity, authority and in some cases even violence). Debate has a more vitriolic and manipulative nature than dialectic, since in effect, no holes are barred in the course of persuasion. Supposedly, intellectuals rise above this when engaging in dialectic, laying aside the Machiavellian character of debate in order to politely engage in the search for truth by peaceful discussion. The sad truth, as it seems to me at least, is that modern public and private intellectuals are increasingly turning both to the character of debate, but also, towards an unwillingness to test their ideas against alternatives, even in the more respectful atmosphere of the dialectic.

To be an intellectual is of course to be tolerant, for example. This is one line of argument which is increasingly being seen as self-evident among the intellectual community, even though the reality of the situation is that humans are by their nature inclined towards intolerance. This sort of paradox is frequently seen in the opinions of the liberal-minded, who are tolerant of that which suits their political worldview, but whose tolerance seems to slip away once they are confronted with those things which they consider politically and socially abominable. For a public intellectual to state that he or she, for instance, wishes to conserve European traditions and European peoples by voicing opposition to mass-migration, white flight and similar social phenomena, is heresy as far as most communities catering to intellectuals are concerned. One can just about get away with lending one’s support to the mainstream centre-right political party of one’s country, but to openly call for outright opposition to the right of immigrants to settle in another country is considered an outrage worthy only of a National Socialist war criminal. In effect, it is unacceptable amongst modern intellectual circles to hold an intellectual standpoint.

A modern liberal intellectual would probably claim that it is not intellectual to define nationhood in terms of traditions which the majority of the Western world has moved away from, such as ancestry, common history and that oft overused term “values”. But who are we, indeed, what is fashion to define intelligence? Indeed, we are bombarded with a never-ending series of reports and studies claiming that individuals who hold right-wing opinions are often less well-educated than those on the left. Does this mean that they are less intelligent? Why, no, not at all. This is a point of debate, as I mentioned earlier; this is a prime example of the argumentum ad verecundiam. “I have a higher level of education than my opponent—therefore, my opinion is true.” A higher level of education in what, we might ask—photography perhaps?! Even if it were true that, for instance, the majority of intellectuals with expertise in political studies, philosophy and the sciences are left wing because they are educated, this is probably the result of education system itself. It is interesting to note that those few reports which do dare to claim that right-wing thinkers are less inherently intelligent than left-wing ones are often sourced from countries like Canada, which has been dominated by the Liberal Party and its accompanying consensus for generations.

Indeed, here is the nub of the matter. It is a well-known fact that a large number of intellectuals within and without Universities in the West are of a liberal disposition. That is not such a bad thing in of itself, but it leads to two consequences: First, that those on the right often feel uncomfortable in higher education, and would rather seek alternative sources of intellectual stimulation, and those of a liberal disposition already are therefore more likely to attend in their place; and Second, that the next generation of intellectuals, via their educators and previous biases, will be liberal also. Thus the cycle is self-perpetuating, and intellectualism as a whole suffers from a chronic illness, a slave to a spiral of fashion, to a uniform consensus. Without proper challenges to its assumptions from within, the complacency of a modern liberal intellectualism takes hold, and believes, almost certainly arrogantly, that because the majority of vocal intellectuals holds their worldview to be true, they must be right, and have therefore the right to silence those who dissent by naming them ‘psuedo-intellectuals’. What is that I smell? Is it ad numerum?!

The modern intellectual does not know what intellectualism is, not because he is intellectually curious about it, but because he believes that he already has the answers. It is this attitude which will bring us one step closer to the death of our civilisation, and continues to distort the view of what constitutes “innate intelligence” (viz. what they would have you believe). We are built on the exchange of ideas, on the nurturing of free thought, and on the protections of these rights within the context of our institutions. When the people of that institution grow complacent, can we even say it has any value anymore? It would do the public intellectuals of today a great deal of good to have a few self-educated intellectual iconoclasts beat their ideas to pulp, if only for a short while. Perhaps that would help our thinkers, and ultimately our leaders, to realise that there is more to life than the liberal consensus.

This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog:

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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