31 December, 2008

The Role of Intellectuals

An interesting diavlog between Steve Teles and Glenn Loury can be had here:One might call Loury's conception of the role of the intellectual negative intellectualism, while Teles' is more of a positive intellectualism.

In Loury's conception, the intellectual's primary role is to critique the ideas advanced by others. In doing so, the intellectual should argue for caution regarding claims that others accept as certainties. The essence of an intellectual is his contrarian nature. He should not have a project of his own, nor should he be inescapably entwined in the projects of others. To be unwaveringly committed to any proposition is to abdicate the duties of a genuine intellectual. He should constantly question that which appears to be settled theory or fact.

Teles, on the other hand, argues that the intellectual's role is to promote the ideas that she believes are true. She must organize both intellectuals and non-intellectuals behind her cause and take care to present their arguments in the most persuasive fashion possible. Public infighting that may lead to fewer followers cannot be tolerated. Intellectuals have identities--a black intellectual is inextricably bound up in her blackness. There is no objective perspective, and so we should not pretend that there is.

Why we can't have both kinds of intellectuals escapes me, but it is worth considering what kind of intellectual you want to be. For my part, I'm deeply attracted to the idea of the negative intellectual, but I more often find myself playing the opposite role. I don't think I've yet figured out how to integrate what I'm learning (economics, which is largely positive in its methods) with my desire to be a negative intellectual.


Cassady said...

I think moreso than just remaining dispassionately skeptical--at least early in the discussion--Loury was promoting the idea of the intellectual not becoming unwaveringly committed to any particular framework or point of view. Specifically, they were talking about "black intellectuals," and Loury argued that it would be intellectually dishonest for a black intellectual to be unable/unwilling to remove themself from the framework of a "black intellectual" at some points.

Certainly, there are merits to having a framework from which to approach problems or criticism. What comes to mind immediately are the various schools of literary criticism--i.e. feminist, new historicist, revisionist, etc.

I agree with Loury on this point, that one can't claim a certain level of intellectualism if one refuses to examine different angles of an issue. With literary criticism (and this is just in my experience) I've known people who are otherwise engaging scholars of literature who are blind to any but a single approach. Feminist criticism highlights important and very different aspects of literature or a literary period than other views, but when someone takes it to the point where they refuse any credit to the writings of Emerson or Thoreau simply because they were men, then the criticism loses the intellectual objectivity that makes it valuable.

Eremita said...

I agree, Spence, that we can have both kinds of intellectuals...and really, don't we have to? Or at least, I also feel the genuine appeal (personally) of negative intellectualism, but at least some new ideas must come from intellectuals, so to have negative intellectuals we must also have positive intellectuals.

On the exercise of thinking about which one would want to be, it occurs to me that most intellectuals will fall on a spectrum arching from these two poles. For instance, I think I tend toward negative intellectualism in my professional life, but I still agree that even from this position there is no objective perspective and we shouldn't pretend there is. It also doesn't seem to me that a positive intellectual need shun doubt because it discourages followers. In my experience, gaining followers is one of the lower priorities among intellectuals, in academia anyway.

Eremita said...
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spencer said...

Nice point about the symbiosis between positive and negative intellectuals, Eremita. Although the negative intellectual might argue that positive intellectuals aren't in fact intellectuals at all, but something else entirely.

It's interesting that you can assign the "objectivity" label to either, depending on whom you favor. Negative intellectuals think they're objective because they aren't tied to any particular ideology. Positive intellectuals think they're objective because they have reached some kind of Truth. This makes me think that either this dichotomy or the use of the word "objective" is a bit fishy.