Intellectuals and Politics
The rise of Newt Gingrich, Ph.D.— along with the apparent anti-intellectualism of many of the other Republican candidates — has once again raised the question of the role of intellectuals in American politics.
In writing about intellectuals, my temptation is to begin by echoing Marianne Moore on poetry: I, too, dislike them. But that would be a lie: all else equal, I really like intellectuals. Besides, I’m an intellectual myself, and their self-deprecation is one thing I really do dislike about many intellectuals.
What is an intellectual? In general, someone seriously devoted to what used to be called the “life of the mind”: thinking pursued not instrumentally, for the sake of practical goals, but simply for the sake of knowing and understanding. Nowadays, universities are the most congenial spots for intellectuals, although even there corporatism and careerism are increasing threats.
Intellectuals tell us things we need to know: how nature and society work, what happened in our past, how to analyze concepts, how to appreciate art and literature. They also keep us in conversation with the great minds of our past. This conversation may not, as some hope, tap into a source of enduring wisdom, but it at least provides a critical standpoint for assessing the limits of our current cultural assumptions.
In his “Republic,” Plato put forward the ideal of a state ruled by intellectuals who combined comprehensive theoretical knowledge with the practical capacity for applying it to concrete problems. In reality, no one has theoretical expertise in more than a few specialized subjects, and there is no strong correlation between having such knowledge and being able to use it to resolve complex social and political problems. Even more important, our theoretical knowledge is often highly limited, so that even the best available expert advice may be of little practical value. An experienced and informed non-expert may well have a better sense of these limits than experts strongly invested in their disciplines. This analysis supports the traditional American distrust of intellectuals: they are not in general highly suited for political office.