Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Iron Law

It occurred to me, some time after writing up the latest iteration of the Daniel Everett vs. professional linguistics controversy, that this was a prime opportunity for me to finally commit to print something I've long been noticing about the way the popular press relates to the academic disciplines, and that I once -- in a rather over-hasty generalization -- dubbed the Iron Law of Academic/Popular Press Relations. It goes like this: the specialists in any given field whose works are most celebrated in the popular press, who are lauded as the greatest and most revolutionary practitioners of their speciality, will always be those who are taken least seriously and have the slightest impact among their peer experts.

Now obviously, there are exceptions. This iron law, then, starts to show a little rust around the edges almost as soon as it has been handed down. But there does seem to be some general truth behind it about the way in which the educated public -- and even academics from unrelated fields -- utterly fail to gauge accurately the merits of a practitioner in a specialty that is not their own. There is a terrible barrier of mutual incomprehension, in other words, set between the experts and the laity. Those whom the public holds up as "brilliant" are regarded within their own disciplines, more often than not, as poseurs. Those who understand themselves to be experts, meanwhile, are seen by the public as pretentious toffs -- I believe Wolfe even uses just this phrase -- who are actually quite easy to unmask, in all their learned stupidity, by some outsider with the intellectual courage to re-examine their starting assumptions. 

Now, which of these two views is the more correct one, we can of course never know. This is the trouble with the dispute between any two worldviews, you see, both of which claim to have intelligence on their side: namely, that if we ourselves truly are the less intelligent of two parties, we will never realize it for that very reason. After all, if we were smart enough to see the superiority of the other position, then we would adopt it ourselves. But if we are not smart enough to see it, then the alternative viewpoint will appear to us as so much absurdity and obfuscation. In short, a stupid and pretentious and muddle-headed viewpoint appears to an intelligent person in exactly the same way as an intelligent viewpoint appears to a stupid and pretentious and muddle-headed person. Between the two there can be no hope of communication. We are at an impasse. 

This problem, it occurs to me, is something like the theological riddle that Anatole France poses in Thaïs, when he imagines the sinners enjoying themselves in hell. In order to actually suffer from their damnation, France points out, they would have to understand that they were damned, for which they would have to see God, for which they would have to be endowed with the elect qualities that permit the saved to experience God's presence, etc. But if they could see God, then they would have had to be the recipients of grace, then they would not be damned... you see the dilemma. In just this way, Tom Wolfe might actually turn out to be the outstandingly incisive linguistic wit of our time, and I would never be the wiser for it. I'd go to my grave still thinking he was not understanding everything that was most obvious, when in fact it was I who had failed to understand that he actually had unmasked the baselessness of everything that I had taken to be obvious. As Ernest's godfather chides him in The Way of All Flesh, "The men whom you would disturb are in front of you, and not, as you fancy, behind you; it is you who are the lagger, not they."

But of course, this possibility doesn't really trouble me, just as the possibility of being damned doesn't really trouble me, since I'd never know in any case. It may well be that I am consigned to an eternal torment that I cannot experience as such, or a separation from God that I cannot regard as such. It would seem in any case that I won't know what I'm missing. (I have somewhat similar feelings about the doctrine of annihilationism that is taught by some Christian sects -- while we're on the subject of theology. Supposing that this view is correct, and the reprobate will simply cease to exist upon death, while the saved are resurrected, it occurs to me that I will have no way of knowing it, because to me annihilationism and my current belief in the nonexistence of personal immortality would look just the same (assuming, as I think we all may safely do, that I am one of the reprobate).) 

To return to the question of intellectual superiority, however, it seems to me that the result of all of this is that the more intelligent will never be able to convince anyone else that they are such, and the less intelligent will never realize that they are such. Edgar Allan Poe, in his "Marginalia" muses to this effect as follows:
I have sometimes [...] endeavor[ed] to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior [….] that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.
If we look past Poe's rather hyperbolic Gothic prose, however, we realize that this is no speculative scenario, but a description of the world we currently inhabit.

Now, I admit that I did end my write-up of the Wolfe book with advice that would seem to fly in the face of this observation -- demanding the impossible, that is to say. I argued there that we should all make more of a habit of acknowledging the superior intelligence of others in certain fields, when we encounter it. This, however, is very much the sort of advice that one only really means to apply to other people. Oneself would of course acknowledge the superiority of others, if there were any such to be found. But given the fact that one is, alone among the Earth's people, actually the most superior, there is no particular instance in which one need to live up to the still generally binding rule that one should acknowledge superiority in others. 

I think at least on some level, each of us actually perceives ourselves this way. "Because really, it's no use pretending, one is superior, isn't one?" as D.H. Lawrence put it. We perforce regard ourselves as hovering somewhere at the upper bound of the possible reaches of human intelligence. Those who might appear, at times, to have obtained a higher threshold than us, are merely faking it. Or cheating in some way, perhaps. After all, if I could actually perceive -- and I mean really comprehend it -- that someone else's view was a smarter one than mine, then I'd already be well on my way to adopting it. 

This inability of the lay person to realize that something a specialist does or says actually is more in line with superior knowledge -- or, vice versa, the incapacity of the specialist to understand that the people they regard as simple-minded actually have overthrown their system in a way that they were too limited to perceive -- afflicts all the academic disciplines in some measure. But it seems to be especially bad in the humanities, I would say, whereas the natural sciences (at least some of them) tend to be handed more credit for actually dealing in higher truths.

It seems to me that there are at least two reasons for this. For the first, I am assisted -- as I have been throughout this post already, albeit in unseen ways -- by William Hazlitt's essay "On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority." He writes:
"Those things in which you may really excel go for nothing, because [others] cannot judge of them. [...] You recommend them to go and see some Picture in which they do not find much to admire. How are you to convince them that you are right? Can you make them perceive that the fault is in them, and not in the picture, unless you could give them your knowledge? [...] Intellectual is not like bodily strength. You have no hold of the understanding of others but by their sympathy. Your knowing, in fact, so much more about a subject does not give you [...] a power over them, but only renders it the more impossible for you to make the least impression on them."
Now, this is terribly true as regards the person possessed of humanistic knowledge of the sort Hazlitt has in mind. It has become rather less true since he wrote it, however, of the master of the physical sciences -- which are physical, lest we forget. Hazlitt could not have known all this, writing as he did in the early years of the industrial revolution. But nowadays we know that science can blow you up, and genetically re-engineer your children, and steal your work. Those who are able to command its sorcerer's powers, therefore, do actually have power over you and me, as a kind of bodily strength. Thus, people are more willing to grant that the Silicon Valley overlords and their legions have something on the rest of us.

Reason number two for the failure of superior humanistic knowledge to get any respect whatsoever from the general public is that everyone thinks they already know everything about the fundamental questions of the humanities. This is so because not knowing the answers to humanistic questions would require us to change the way we live, which no one is going to do. Math, meanwhile, is not like this. I can know nothing at all about Boolean algebra, or even what it is, and that's okay because math is, as Schopenhauer put it, "pure form." It is an internally coherent logical system, but not one that conveys to us knowledge about fundamental reality -- at least not directly. The humanities, on the other hand, are something else entirely. Each of us, in order to live, has to go around with some kind of working answer to the question of whether and in what sense we exist, what is the basis, if any, for knowledge or morality, whether there is an afterlife or a God, etc. To say that someone else knows more than I do about those things is to say that I will have to change my mode of life entirely. If I am made aware of this, it will trouble me, and I will probably start to think about it, and will very quickly become a humanist, most likely. If I am not aware of it, then I will remain a non-humanist, who thinks he already knows everything about philosophy and religion and the rest of it.


Very well then. If you feel that I have sufficiently demonstrated the point that, after all, we are all eternally and necessarily condemned to the condition of thinking we are the brightest philosophers and poets and thinkers who ever lived, then we can readily see why the popular press is so bad at judging the merits of academic humanists. Given that the educated reader is already convinced that she or he knows everything about the field of study in question, then any expert they encounter who repeats back to them exactly what they already think will be celebrated as "brilliant" -- (benefiting as they do from, as it were, the reflected glory of the optimal brilliance of the reader). Anyone who disagrees with the reader, meanwhile -- or who tells them something they don't agree with or don't like -- is a poseur, a quack, and ultimately, a menace. 

Of course, the reader can learn a little bit of new information from anything they read, but it has to fit into a conceptual scheme that they had already long since made their own. Samuel Butler is again helpful on elucidating this point:
 It is on this rock that so many clever people split. The successful man will see just so much more than his neighbours as they will be able to see too when it is shown them, but not enough to puzzle them.  It is far safer to know too little than too much.  People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other.
You and I are as subject to this Iron Law as everyone else. Those things we both think are moronic might actually turn out to have something to them after all, and we'll never know. Maybe Hegel and Heidegger were actually saying something, all appearances to the contrary. Maybe "process theology" truly is something more than atheism squirreled away behind a smokescreen of obfuscation, contrary to the evidence as I understand it.


It is just hopeless then? Will we never be able to communicate? Maybe. But I actually take a certain democratic comfort in this idea, similar to the one William Ian Miller derives at the end of his remarkable essay "Upward Contempt." The truth is that, as frustrating as this mutual incomprehension between laity and expert is to any hope for ultimate and static social harmony -- well, who ever said that democracy had anything to do with harmony? Democracy is about everything but harmony, it is about each of us insisting on our own preposterous, boisterous pretensions, the heaven-sent pecking order be damned.

The fact that each of us believes and is pretty much certain to go on believing that he or she is the most intelligent person around is enough in itself to ensure that there never will be -- never could be -- any such thing as "humble submission" to a "natural order." Let "all of us be little aristocracies on our own," Lawrence demands in his call for a "Sane Revolution" -- except that it turns out we don't need the injunction, because we already are, in spite of ourselves. Those who deny it, those neo-reactionaries and agrarians and feudal traditionalists of various kinds who call for humble submission from the lower orders (and, exotic as they are, this type of intellectual has never really left us), are always implicitly (often explicitly) assuming that the submission in question will be to them -- or to their church, or to their values -- never to anyone else. The day someone writes the treatise calling for their own humble submission -- then we'll have something to talk about.

And this is why we need democracy at all. If each of us did actually comprehend who was smarter than us when we met them -- if we could recognize automatically and with uniform judgment across the species that certain values or worldviews are superior to our own -- then we could all agree to hand control of the state over to some scholar-bureacracy or other Mandarin elite that was trained in those values. But that's not the world we live in. In our world, I happen to think I'm smarter than you, and you, I trust, believe you're smarter than me. It's a less idyllic foundation for democratic governance that Langston Hughes' "as I learn from you/ I guess you learn from me," to be sure, but it is such a foundation nonetheless. Each of us being superior ("and really, one is superior, ins't one?") we are in consequence never likely to agree on which of us should be king. So we shall have to live amongst each other on a basis of equality, then, there is really no other choice. Vive la république! 

No comments:

Post a Comment