1. What is an intellectual anyway?
Intellectuals as a sub-species rate somewhat lower than garden spiders in the public estimation (they are not useful, they can sting if you pick them up, and they are economically valueless). Maybe it is necessary to sort this confusion out before we go on to finding them a place in the social fabric.
The common attitude was neatly encapsulated in a piece Paul Johnson wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1987 (reprinted on 24th May 1987 in The Australian). This claimed to put intellectuals in their place. “Most intellectuals”, wrote Mr. Johnson, ” profess to love humanity and to be working for its improvement and happiness, … but it is the idea of humanity that they love, rather than the actual individuals which compose it. The consequences can be less than thoughtful.” It seemed to me that Mr. Johnson was being less than thoughtful, or rather making quid out of a prejudice universally exploited by populist politicians for millennia. I wrote a short riposte to the newspaper:
“I belong to an oppressed minority, and one of your newspaper’s correspondents has just put his foot on my face. Paul Johnson (Weekend
Australian, 24\5\87) has lumped me in with a gallery of villains like Shelley, Marx, Freud and Stalin. We are all, he says, running-dogs, covert elitists, bourgeois slanderers and persecutors of the proletariat.
“Well, he didn’t actually name me (alas, nobody ever does) but along with the above luminaries I claim to be an intellectual. That’s a bit like claiming to have leprosy. Admittedly, even as an intellectual leper, I was a bit surprised to be accused of brotherhood with Stalin.
“The trouble with Mr. Johnson is that he doesn’t seem to talk to real live intellectuals. He limits himself to reading letters about dead mythic types like the above. He complains that Shelley was horrid to his wife and that Marx never invited capitalists to his dinner parties. Heavens, I know lots of people like that, and most of them never discuss anything more controversial than the weather.
“Mr. Johnson has a binary mind (that’s even worse than intellectual leprosy). He says, “I believe the reflective portion of mankind is divided into those who are interested in people and care about them, and those who are interested in ideas.” Well pal, I’m interested in ideas and people. Yes, of course there are extremists at both ends of the spectrum … and at the ends of any other spectrum you care to dream up. Extremes are great for flamboyant propaganda (Mr. Johnson’s article) and political poses, but there’s nothing about being an intellectual that rules out good karma.
“What is an intellectual anyway ? I think it has something to do with looking past the end of your nose. It is figuring your own way to put the small things of life into the big context of past, present and future by asking WHY. Now the world is full of clever, narrow people with lousy judgment. They are not intellectuals. An intellectual is not necessarily a person of great intelligence, but one who has developed the habit of handling ideas in an explicit way of exploring and questioning the territory of the mind.
“Anyone who asks the meaning of life, the universe and everything might come up with a silly answer. That’s OK; it’s part of learning. Intellectuals have the courage and curiosity to try. We only get into real trouble when demagogues turn ideas into slogans, and all you intellectual sloths out there follow like lemmings into the abyss.”
Perhaps what my letter was really trying to say was that intellectuals stand the dog watch on our great engines of civilization. They put themselves in harm’s way while Mrs. Jones and the kids bliss out and sleep the sleep of the innocent. It is true that the odd intellectual goes ga-ga, but that’s a statistic normal to all humans, not a property of the sub-species. If some of us are properly awake, and intellectuals are there to keep us awake, then the pyromaniacs can be handled.
2. Are universities holding pens intellectual twits?
One of Australia’s wise elders, Nugget Coombs, once observed (ABC radio Meridian program, 9/4/95) that intellectuals have become lackeys of the state, sold out the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of preferment. His working assumption was that intellectuals dwelt in universities. I’m not at all sure that most academics have ever been intellectuals, and even less convinced that intellectuals are mostly found in academia. It has always seemed to me that academic rewards hugely favoured the expositor of Platonic forms over the gadfly of Aristotelian enquiry or Socratic discussion. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that an academic in the 1990s is likely to be working a 70 hour week processing a production line of pimply youths and fabricating lies for administrative compliance forms, rather than actually reading critically or thinking about anything more profound than a term essay list.
3. Who keeps a pet intellectual?
Now to this awkward business of finding a niche for the would-be intellectual. The dilemma for intellectuals has always been that their indulgence depended upon an economic surplus. Historically it has been a trickle down process. After potentates and their minions have exhausted their health on wine, women and religion, it has been fashionable to throw a quid to a handful of eggheads in the name of civilization. The potentates nowadays tend to be supplanted by tobacco companies, or paper empire builders in public ministries. The net result is the same: a tyranny of orthodoxies. It is sheer good luck that the orthodoxy most favoured in Anglo-European societies for 100 years, logical positivism, has also been highly productive in material outcomes.
With the arrival of the age of desktop publishing, decentralized access to knowledge and very large literate populations, it may be time to search for another kind of economic surplus to support the intellectual, and for that matter, to support other kinds of creative individuals. Here is a proposition. Suppose that there were intranets of activity nodes, with each node supported independently by a micro-economic unit. Each micro-economic unit might have a financial base and mission which was entirely independent of the activity it supported, but with an overriding raison d’être defined in terms of the activity node. Some medieval monasteries could have met this definition, although the concept here is looser and less ideological.
Let us make the proposal more concrete. Imagine an Internet group of philosophers. These persons might not, on the whole, be faculty members of institutional universities. Rather they could be scattered in every kind of community throughout the world. One might be supported by the economic surplus of a take-away restaurant, another by a cleaning business and a third by a publishing house. Other Internet groups, supported from equally eclectic economic sources, might consist of track & field athletes, portrait artists or dancers.
4. EDINN (economically diverse interest node network)
The acronym EDINN (economically diverse interest node network) more or less defines this proposal for a new kind of socioeconomic structure. The benefits of EDINN for individuals in the supported node are easy enough to see. They are much less clear for the supporting economic unit, and the whole EDINN concept would ultimately depend upon reconciling this anomalous relationship, and avoiding power contests.
Social structures can be made viable in a number of ways of course. The most stable kind underpins some sort of economic reward (since money is a universal medium of exchange, and most passions can be bought). Social structures have also been supported by ideologies (including religions) for long periods in history, although this usually leads to serious distortions and conflict. Specialist social structures can even be supported by a particular intellectual inclination or fashion, as any number of clubs & societies testify.
The contemporary economic unit most commonly finds its ultimate rationale in a so-called profit motive. By definition this is supposed to mean that investors are interested in cash dividends above all other considerations. In practice an intervening managerial class tends to be more interested in corporate growth, since this generates a personal vocational advantage for them.
In recent history, mass labour has benefited from a contract with capital which needed human brawn to generate a profit. A number of things are undermining this Marxian paradigm. Firstly, the open-ended incentive to economic growth is stripping the planet of resources, does not look to be sustainable in the long term, and has been ambiguous in its contribution to human happiness. Secondly, the historical contract between labour and capital is rapidly becoming redundant. This shift seems likely to induce mass unemployment, vicious social divisions, and popular social revolt. Enter the EDINN.
The EDINN would share many properties with existing economic models, but include certain regenerative and ideological features which should make for a sounder social fabric. Each EDINN unit must be economically self-sustaining, meaning that it funds its own labour requirements, and generate sufficient capital to support reinvestment at a higher rate than depreciation. In addition it must generate enough surplus to meet three kinds of extraneous cash requirement: a) sufficient dividends to encourage investment; b) public sector taxation; c) a private sector bounty to sponsor the “interest node” contributor(s).
In what manner should the interest node contributor be accountable to the EDINN unit, and to what extent would s/he subscribe to an independent ethic of creation, criticism or analysis? The INC (interest node contributor) who economically owns an EDINN unit could of course set his own priorities. The INC who was sponsored by and dependent upon an EDINN unit could have major conflicts of interest, and could be drawn to populism in order to survive. The INC who was assigned to an EDINN unit by government fiat would be regarded as a parasite by the community. An organic and self-sustaining motivation for this relationship must therefore be found. Let us summarize this dilemma:
5. Paradigm A: Divided time
The intellectual/ artist/ writer/ sportsman etc. generates a small surplus by working part-time in another field. Bonus time is used for creative activity
a) advantages: keeps the artist etc. in touch with the “real world” and less susceptible to hubris; economic independence makes for unbiased expression.
d) disadvantages: talents are hugely underutilized because of time & energy constraints; difficult to undertake sustained creative activity.
6. Paradigm B: Rich patron
A patron or sponsor finances an intellectual/artist / writer / sportsman etc.
a) advantages: the artist etc. has guaranteed time to pursue his craft. The right kind of patron can do much to create a market for or acceptance of avant garde work.
i) the kind of patronage or sponsorship is heavily influenced by cultural conditions.
ii) Patronage can be fickle, and certainly depends upon the prejudices of the patron.
iii) ground breaking work is unlikely to attract sponsorship.
iv) The creative person has a fatally inferior status to sponsors who are often, in practice, much less worthy persons.
7. Paradigm C: State sponsorship
Economic surplus is collected through taxation and a proportion is redistributed to less commercial sectors including intellectuals / artists / writers / sportsmen etc.
a) advantages: Since the sponsorship is in theory depersonalized creative individuals should feel less inhibited in pursuing new ideas.
i) Funding tends to become highly bureaucratized with the largest proportion of funds being absorbed by administrators.
ii) By nature administrators are cautious and unimaginative. They will favour those whom they think are winners.
iii) The larger public, with opinions reflected by their parliament, will resent sponsoring activities which they do no understand or distrust. Hence sponsorship will often be erratic, grudging and censorious. Those who thrive under this system, such as the bulk of university staff, will be Platonic rather then Socratic or Aristotelian in outlook.
8. Paradigm D: the EDINN Unit
A self-contained economic unit of several individuals generates a surplus, part of which is set aside to fund a nominally non-economically productive person such as an intellectual / artist / writer / sportsman etc.
i) this paradigm is often found already within the boundaries of a single genetic family.
ii) the unit is small enough for loyalties to be strong and obligations personal;
iii) difficult periods need not lead to the dissolution of the relationship since individual problems are known to all members who can assist personally. This is radically different from state or corporate worlds.
i) where the activities of the nominally non-economic person are not easily understood by the economic supporters, friction and resentment an be expected. Truly independent thinking by some gifted individuals might be stifled by the social pressures of a small, uncomprehending social group.
ii) large numbers of small EDINNs presuppose widely distributed management skills, which may not in fact exist. A person with artistic ability may not necessarily have the management or social skills to maintain an EDINN.
iii) The reality check that electorates are supposed to impose on politicians in representative democracy is both a rough analogy and a warning of how the concept could go adrift. EDINN as an organizing principle would have to evolve its own answers to all of the timeless flaws in human character: cupidity, snobbery, sloth, opportunism, exploitation, and the rest.
i) EDINNs are likely to be most successful where they can cater for the intellectual & emotional needs not only of the flag-bearing intellectual etc., but for the less glamorous non-vocational needs of economic contributors.
ii) With the right kind of cultural & political encouragement, the EDINN as a kind of non-genetic extended family with members of diverse intelligence and interests could do much to anchor the anomie of post industrial cultures, and to provide the motivations, help, sanctions and support which will make weaker members of the society productive again.
iii) The intellectual (or artist or sporting genius) who is genuinely grounded in the foster family of an EDINN should be less likely to be prone to abstract, arrogant idealism or elitism of the kind that Paul Johnson exploits as a stereotype. He or she is more apt to be civilized into helping all members of EDINN to develop their personal potentials. Such a nurturing role could be a sound foundation for contributions to larger social, political and economic structures in the global community.
iv) No attempt has been made to define how EDINNs might come into existence, be integrated with the present order, or to dissolve when they became dysfunctional (as some would be sure to do). These are matters too intricate to explore here. A couple of things are clear. EDINNs are not about having some October Revolution to destroy the existing State. They are no more radical than, say, organizing a co-operative store, and could happily co-exist with many other designs for living. However, as with all the artifacts of a civilization which insiders find “natural”, they would have to be on offer as an acceptable mode of operation. The most effective way to achieve this could well begin at school with children of diverse backgrounds and talents learning the hard lessons of tolerance within their own EDINN creations.
9. Concluding Thoughts
The preceding discussion raises more questions than it answers. It could hardly do otherwise, having taken the prism through which we see all of our life designs, and rotated it to an unfamiliar angle. We live in puzzling times, where the magical solutions dreamed of by our ancestors suddenly have a banal application in daily living. We have “flying carpets”, transport our voices and images instantly, multiply our physical strength a million-fold, cure incurable diseases. Yet there is a paradox.
While folk of the “underdeveloped world” look with envy, and some bitterness, on the munificence of post-industrial society, it is not at all clear even to the winners in rich countries that the quantum of human happiness has increased.
Having been given a paradise on earth, our 21st Century Adam and Eve still find themselves bickering, wondering what it is all about, and looking fearfully to unpredictable events that might scorch their Babylon of delights to barren rubble at any time. Heaven, and its landlord, God, have joined the fairies at the bottom of the garden for folk who have a TV set in every room, thank you very much. But when the power goes off our post-industrial man and woman still yearn for a light on the hill.
The wealth of nations, an idea we thought ourselves a part of, is proving to be a chimera. Economists talk of a country’s rising or falling “economic health” in terms that are almost totally unrelated to any normal individual’s personal welfare. Now there is a “globalized economy”, and it is not even certain if “my country” means much more than “my municipal council”. In short, men, women and especially perhaps children, have lost focus. They are swamped with rootless information, and told their futures depend upon it. Their imaginations are swimming in an ocean of teeming images, but little nourishment.
The idea of the EDINN is to return the cycle of nurture, community and creation to a human scale. It seeks to enable ordinary people to invest their pride, imagination and loyalty in individuals who are talented or who think in a creative manner. It hopes to make the talented accountable to and nourished by an extended group of people in ways that satisfy the needs of all participants. EDINN may be an ambitious proposal, even naïve by accepted wisdom. It promotes some very old ideas, family and village, in non-dynastic, non-genetic, non-rustic forms. Could this be a straw for fearful political leaders to grasp at? The leaders who at present can only think of bread and circuses to keep the mob at bay. Might EDINN push us towards a more hopeful view of the daily grind?
footnote1: A first choice of title for this article was “Milk Bar University or the Casino …. where should an intellectual wash his socks?”. Ahhh, that would do strange things to an Internet search engine.Someday a geek will plot the curve between human imagination and digital machines; in the meantime I submit.
The original version of this article is posted at The Passionate Skeptic main website at http://thormay.net/skeptic/philos8.html