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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The function of Intellectuals in society?

I just read an interesting article on a UK based online magazine called "Transforming Management - Original Thinking Applied" and felt compelled to reply. Click on the link above to read the original.

Here is my reply:

You write well and ask a good question, but ignore your own answer, Buddha like e.g. the answer lies within…

“Time was when a shared classical education could be assumed. The whole of the electorate was highly and similarly educated. That is no longer true. Shared references are less common; the nation does not in fact have a shared curriculum, even about its own identity.”

Absolutely true. Because of the splintering of knowledge (the decline in religions and a subsequent civic-minded sense of public morality, Deconstructionism and the Breakdown of the grand meta-narratives et al) we all have lost a shared sense of identity. Where once we could appeal to not only a higher altar of truth, but also one that had largely been agreed on over time, now we are left without any place to appeal to, and like Nietzsche’s idea of ressentiment and master-slave morality we are like the latter who have no identity because the rulers, the masters are the ones who define what is good, right, noble and true.

It stands to reason then that there can be no higher ideal to appeal to, nor such person as a modern intellectual who can appeal to us collectively, en mass. It is ironic that the only thing that nowadays successfully appeals to us on this plane is consumerism and so the intellectual has in some senses been replaced by the latest brand or marketing gimmick. (This is also incidentally why the sound bite has been so successful in recent years.)

I was surprised that you mentioned Christopher Hitchens and his own definition of an intellectual yet neglected to mention Socrates who, if ever there was someone who epitomized the essence of an intellectual, then it is he in following all of Hitchens’ defining characteristics and one or two more…

“Public intellectuals, he says, are “men and women who do their own thinking; who are willing to stand the accusation of “elitism” (or at least to prefer it to the idea of populism); who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who are willing and able to nail a lie….. the attitude towards authority should probably be sceptical, as should the attitude towards utopia, let alone to heaven or hell. Other aims should include the ability to survey the present through the optic of a historian, the past with the perspective of the living, and the culture and language of others with the equipment of an internationalist.”

…the other to be able use rhetorical devices (the syllogism in particularl) which you mentioned and, most importantly, to be prepared to die for his principles which Socrates aptly demonstrated.

John Stuart Mill’s dictum about the philosopher and the pig also underscores the value of the intellectual idea over others,

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

This sense of blissful ignorance is exactly where most people are nowadays when it comes to intellectual debate and not because of a lack of imagination or some perceived idea of snobbery. It is in many ways a cocoon against the vagaries and uncertainties of their lives, their mistrust of politicians, bankers, religious leaders and yes, intellectuals. In short, they are fed up of being lied to. If intellectuals are present at all these days, they have been reduced to scarecrow puppets of the real thing and there is no better example of that than Boris Johnson. I rest my case.

Tom Tuohy

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