Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Against psuedo-intellectualism: The hackery of the academic mind

It is the mark of a man who has allowed himself to be tested, who has actually turned to face the bitterness of life, that he remains committed to an ideal. The moment you hear the broad sweeping gestures about some idea or piece of art being 'pretentious' is the moment you know for sure that you are in the presence of not only an ignoramus, but a coward, someone whose disdain for themselves has locked them in a sardonic, arms-length, existential prison by which they get to judge others to distract themselves from how much they hate their own lives.

It is also a mark of these people that they claim 'irony' and 'reason' for themselves, as if they alone are the champions of the 'facts on the ground'. They act like they are the ambassadors of science and logic and clear thinking, but their evangelic preaching on these matters amounts to protesting too much.

Again, those who have actually been tested by life, who have bled and wept when confronted by their own failures, and by the cruel meaninglessness of life, are filled with nothing but awe for their fellow human beings. They will see defiance in any creative act, or any piece of work, scientific or aesthetic, which bares the soul. It is all the more awesome for its coming up short, for its inability to capture the heart of the matter. Only the person who is confined to the echo of their own barren mind, will launch spite on such vulnerability.

Such people are the enemy of society. They are the real terrorists, because it is their narrow-minded philistinism that is only a few restless breaths away from Nazism or Talibanism.

Those who are suspicious of vulnerability must themselves be treated with suspicion. They will, believe me, be the first join up and wear the uniform. They are waiting for their fuhrer, their messiah to make everything easy and simple and uncluttered. They don't care how many eggs an omelet takes to make, as long as the damn thing gets made and they get to eat. On time.

'Reason' is not the process of confining oneself to 'the facts'. On the contrary, it is the process of eliminating superstition. What the 'untested' will claim however, is that everything that is not what they consider a hard, tangible fact, must be confined to superstition. This is a misconception. Reason is not a matter of confining our perceptions, but being open to having them challenged. It is about letting our own experiences take precedent over the hearsay and the hand-me-down knowledge of our culture. It is about nurturing the freedom and the freshness of mind, so much so that we constantly review the assumptions and norms that no longer serve us. This can apply to creative thinking, as much as it can to scientific experiment.

A piece of poetry is like a hypothesis. And like all scientific hypotheses it comes to us as an intuition, a workable intuition that seems to fit broadly with our wider principles. But a poem, like a hypothesis, must be tested, over and over again. It may reward the poet, the laboratory worker of the soul, or it may not. It works or it does not.

But ask any scientist, any real scientist who has actually been tested in the field instead of bastardising the logic of science to quell their own childhood anxieties and eliminate the need to confront life's existential conundrums, and she will tell you that failure is crucial. An experiment that does not yield the results of the hypothesis has enormous value. Not only for demonstrating the limitations of a hypothesis, but for showing how it can be refined, and how it can be better tested.
But there is another aspect to this analogy. Failed experiments often lead to accidents of discovery. What is important in science is not the quality of the hypothesis but the act of experimentation, and how a scientist integrates their failed results into the wider context of the knowledge in their field.

The same is true of the poet. A poem's value is not simply in its success in impacting the crowd. A poet aims not to please, but to discover and foster the spirit of discovery. Almost all poems fail. The question is not which poems fail and which are successes, but how do the inherent failures measure up to the requirements of success?

A true poet has a lot of bad poetry to write before she can realise the power of her intuitions. For every 'Ode on a Grecian Earn' there is an 'Endymion'. But every 'bad' poem has value in the same way as every failed experiment. Obviously, it has so in the simple truth that a failure is a step closer to success. The only failure in a poet, as much as a scientist, is their failure to commit to their craft. Perseverance is the stuff of success and it can only be cultivated through refining that very craft. And that requires failure.

But a poem also has value in an of itself because it is part of this very process of refining. This is the poem's true value. A bad poem is a poem that is not finished. More often than not it is the first draft of a poem that will be written down the line, when the poet has integrated her failures and allowed them to refine her ability to transcribe the beauty of an intuition.

The critical mind is the mind that seeks not to refine itself. And it resents that process of refining in others. Why? Because it doesn't have the grit and guts to follow through on its own failures. Such minds will dress up their cynicism as 'reasoned judgement . But what they are hiding is not reason, but the very antithesis of it. Such people have clenched hearts, and have given up on their own experiments. They have never set foot in a laboratory, scientific or metaphorical. 

Intellectual hackery


Cynicism is a kind of intellectual hackery, and it has a number of identifiable features.

You can spot an intellecual hack by idenfying the following features.

1. Consistent superiority.
All of us exist on some kind intellectual hierarchy. But the cynic is someone who will always try to put themselves ahead of others. If they were truly intellectual, if they were truly people of ideas and truly thinkers, they would relish the opportunity to raise others up, to elevate ideas as ideas, rather than as a kind of astral fashion statement, which is what these types of people see ideas as.

If someone affects supreiority in all things, particularly when it comes to the mind and ideas, then they are hack. How could they not be? Intellectual debate and free thought are marked by one thing: a pursuit of failure.

Falsifiability and a commitment to testing ideas. Anyone who assumes consistent cleverness is not really clever. This was the true meaning of what Socrates was saying when he said 'I am wise because I know I am not wise.' It's not a statement of intellectual method, so much as a statement of intellectual integrity. Those who profess intellecual superiority as a matter of course, as an extension of their egos, are to be avoided. They are hacks.

2. Reliance on 'the counterexample'.

The counterexample is a well honed intellectual trick of the cynic and the hack. Every idea is risky. Every theory is a shot in the dark. Unlike science, whereby a theory can be tested, most ideas in the political and the moral sphere, in most areas of human experience, cannot be tested. Scientific theories on the other hand, exist in a realm of relative mathematical certainty. A basis of common laws and assumptions necessarily governs the dialogue. Ultimately, what is right is what works. To find out if a theory is limited, one must identify a set of circumstances in which the theory fails to account for the objects of the experiment.

The intellectual hack, the cynic, is someone who elevates the 'counterexample' to this level of scientific certainty. They conflate a pathological need to provide examples of where an idea fails, with the testing of a theory.

Ideas are not theories though. This is the biggest mitake of the hack. The cynic and the hack, the intellectual baffoon, would love it if ideas could be tested in this way. But an idea is not a mathematical formula. It is not a map on some abstract terrirtory. Therefore, identifing instances in which the idea appears to fall short are not enough to constitue intellectual certainty.

Counterexamples can be useful, to a true thinker, a poet and an intellectual experimentor who endeaours to develop an idea. They can help someone refine their intuitions, in the same way that a poet refines the consistencies of his metaphors. But a pathological attachment to the 'counterexample' as if it were the sole indicator of truth, betrays a formulaic mind. The hack is committed to certainty, rather than truth, and he mistakes the two as one and the same.

Constantly thinking up 'counterexamples' becomes a satisfying game in itself, an automatic, Pavlovian response of the academic hack. Such behaviour is a wanrning sign that no amount of truth and innovation is capable in a debate with such a person.

3. Confusing simplification with truth

This is perhaps the most insidious form of intellectual hackery. It is a tool used all the time, and it has become such a commonly accepted technique of debate that no one wants to question it. The reason is that it makes the most overwhelming intellectual problems seem bearable.

The worst instance of it, is the way the intellectual hack will treat the very concept of Truth itself. Since the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, there has been a sickening insistence in reducing the idea of truth to verifiability. They are not the same.

Verifiability is just the opposite of falsifiability. It is the extent to which a given theory can be said to be true. The extent to which, not the grounds upon which. But outside the realm of science, such notions are useless. The greatest of truths cannot be falsified of verified. There is no set of principles by which we test an accurate account of human anture for instance. For every idea about human nature, there is necessarily a counterexample, an instance, or many instances, in which an idea fails to account for our experiences. To treat ideas in this realm as if they were equations of the physical sciences is mindless and infantile. It is the mark of a narrow mind that tries to reduce the world to its own blinkered perspective, rather than open the appertures of its own perceptual range.

Truth, like most things, cannot be reduced to a set of first principles. Only localised physical phenomenoa, usually in the crude world of engineering, where approximations can feasably taken for facts, does the world seem to be reducable to first principles.

If you have an idea A, the hack will first of all say something like - 'I see your idea A, which I take to be B'. For the rest of the debate, the cynic and hack will use every low-blow, and intellectual broadside to keep you focused on B rather than A. On the face of it, you might think it would be an easy tactic, to bring it back to A, to show him that he is wrong in his assumptions. Sometimes it is, but often, the hack has developed his own charm offensive by which he bewitiches you into thinking of A as B, before decnstructing the much simpler and easily undertood B, all the while ignoring the full resonance and implications of your original idea A.

This is the academic's favourite sleight of hand. In fact, it is the governing formula of our modern intellectual marketplace. If you don't understand the problem, reduce it to something that you do undersstand and try to solve that one instead. If an idea is too overwhelming, too expansive in its range, reduce it to a narrow conceptual framework, usually one rigged towards your own ignorant sensibilities, and then proceed.

All the while, truth itself is cyphoned off into an intellectual sewerage. The intuitive and emotional resonance necessary for truth to exist end up in the carcingenic tunnels of our mind, festeering and congealing. In order for the hack to preserve his career, he must treat truth like a big salami, he chops off a little bit here and and a slice there, so that the biggest questions and mysteries of existence, become so small and so narrow, that solving them becomes an irrelevant intellectual feat at best.

What matters to the cynic, is that their own intellectual egos are gratified. That they preserve their careers. That the tried and tested formulae of dialogue remain the gifts that keep on giving. If ideas and intellectual risks are the necessary casualities, then so be it. Such things matter not to the courtly philistines of modern academia anyway.

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