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 Gene Expression Blog / IntellectualsTeasers

gal The above talk is from Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. I don’t know Dreger personally, but she seems like a brave and courageous person. In the broadest strokes there’s very little where we disagree. Yes, our politics, and many of our specific beliefs, diverge, but we generally at least hold to the ideal of truth.

There is one section of her talk where Dreger waxes eloquently about the Enlightenment, and freedom of thought, which caught my attention. We have always missed the mark, but at there was a point where in Western intellectual culture the idea that freedom of thought and striving toward truth was at least the paramount method and goal. I am not so sure that is the case today.

When Dreger pointed approvingly on Twitter to University of Chicago’s statement on “safe spaces,” I told her that most of my liberal Twitter follows were enthusiastically sharing this piece, UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. The piece makes some coherent points, but mostly it is self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation. At a certain point the cultural Left no longer made any pretense to being liberal, and transformed themselves into “progressives.” They have taken Marcuse’s thesis in Repressive Tolerance to heart.

75812 Though I hope that Dreger and her fellow travelers succeed in rolling back the clock, I suspect that the battle here is lost. She points out, correctly, that the total politicization of academia will destroy its existence as a producer of truth in any independent and objective manner. More concretely, she suggests it is likely that conservatives will simply start to defund and direct higher education even more stridently than they do now, because they will correctly see higher education as purely a tool toward the politics of their antagonists. I happen to be a conservative, and one who is pessimistic about the persistence of a public liberal space for ideas that offend. If progressives give up on liberalism of ideas, and it seems that many are (the most famous defenders of the old ideals are people from earlier generations, such as Nadine Strossen and Wendy Kaminer, with Dreger being a young example), I can’t see those of us in the broadly libertarian wing of conservatism making the last stand alone.

Honestly, I don’t want any of my children learning “liberal arts” from the high priests of the post-colonial cult. In the near future the last resistance on the Left to the ascendency of identity politics will probably be extinguished, as the old guard retires and dies naturally. The battle will be lost. Conservatives who value learning, and intellectual discourse, need to regroup. Currently there is a populist moood in conservatism that has been cresting for a generation. But the wave of identity politics is likely to swallow the campus Left with its intellectual nihilism. Instead of expanding outward it is almost certain that academia will start cannibalizing itself in internecine conflict when all the old enemies have been vanquished.

Let the private universities, such as Oberlin, wallow in their identity politics contradictions. Dreger already points to the path we will probably have to take: gut the public universities even more than we have. Leave STEM and some professional schools intact, and transform them for all practical purposes into technical universities. All the other disciplines? Some private universities, the playgrounds of the rich and successful, will continue to be traditionalist in maintaining “liberal arts,” which properly parrot the latest post-colonial cant. But much learning will be privatized, and knowledge will spread through segregated “safe spaces.” Those of us who read and think will continue to read and think, like we always have. We just won’t have institutional backing, because there’s not going to be a societal consensus for such support.

I hope I’m wrong.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Intellectuals 
Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg was no Nazi. But his Nobel is obviously well deserved. But, I think it is safe to say that he, like many Germans, made his accommodation with the Nazi regime, as a patriot, if not an ideologue. In contrast Konrad Lorenz actually aligned his understanding of the nascent science of ethology rather explicitly with Nazi thought during World War II. He later disavowed this era in his intellectual life, and became sympathetic to the Green party (though it must be remembered that European right-wing thought has long had a green aspect which might confuse American conservatives). Lorenz won a Nobel for his eminence as a scientist. R. A. Fisher, one of the founders of population genetics and statistics, was famously an unpleasant and self-centered person. If you wish to be confirmed of this simply read the biography coauthored by this daughter, R. A. Fisher: Life of a Scientist. His lack of personal humanity, which his colleagues and family experienced firsthand, does not diminish his contributions to humanity as a whole. Apparently Fisher, a traditionalist Tory, had a much dimmer view of women than the man who he supplanted as the doyen of statistics in Britain, Karl Pearson. This stands to reason, as Pearson was a man of the socialist Left. He supported women’s suffrage and refused an offer of knighthood in 1935. Yet Pearson held conventional views on eugenics and race for his era, highlighting the importance of the “the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race.” I doubt this distasteful view will prevent readers from making recourse to the Pearson’s correlation when needed. Just as truth of the tool’s utility has no bearing on the character of the toolmaker, so the character of the toolmaker has no bearing on the utility of the tool.

This comes to mind after reading Rebecca Schuman’s Heidegger’s Hitler Problem Is Worse Than We Thought. By Heidegger, she refers to Martin Heidegger, the famously inscrutable but inexplicably influential German philosopher who wrote Being and Time. Invariably when discussing Heidegger one has to make mention of his Nazi years. As a practical matter he was marginalized rather early on in Hitler’s reign. Werner Heisenberg likely gave much more direct material aid to the Nazi regime. But Heidegger’s involvement, like Lorenz’s, does seem to involve more explicit espousal of National Socialist beliefs. Or at least in Heidegger’s case a synthesis of his own esoteric worldview and that of the Nazis. But he would be a footnote were it not for his substantial influence upon Post-War French philosophy, and Continental philosophy more generally. As an undergraduate I had to deal with somewhat lame apologia on Heidegger’s behalf by a philosophy lecturer who was clearly moved by his ideas, but shaken by the reality of his idol’s association with Nazism (for what it’s worth, the individual was of Jewish background, and also admitted a debt to Martin Buber). Schuman’s piece was triggered by the revelation of personal letters from Heidegger which indicate more longstanding and deeper anti-Semitic attitudes and such (totally unsurprising from where I stand, casual anti-Semitism was not uncommon before World War II). She finishes:

You’d have to search far and wide to find an actual Nazi sympathizer working in legitimate academia—but soon, teaching Heidegger may have people wondering. So, should academic sources be subject to the “Hitler Test”? And if they fail, does this mean responsible teaching simply includes a thorough critical contextualization—or banishment from the canon altogether?

Me, I’m a Wittgenstein fan, the Shark to Heidegger’s Jet, so it’s not a question I’m particularly fit to answer. But for those who do use his work, it’s an issue whose undeniable Dasein they must address.

It’s the part about being a fan of Wittgenstein that leaves me confused. Perhaps to the average reader this does not need further exploration, but as an Oberlin undergraduate might say, Wittgenstein is also somewhat “problematic.” To get a sense, just read Ludwig Wittgenstein on Race, Gender and Cultural Identity. I’m not saying that Wittgenstein was on Heidegger’s level, most certainly not, but he was no saint, and a close reading of his biography indicates real inner conflicts with issues such as his self-hatred as an ethnic Jew, as well as unreflective classism and sexism.

Does any of this matter? Why is that humanists have to judge their intellectual forebears by the standards of a modern Oberlin seminar? Would any of us withstand critique and deconstruction a generation down the line? Instead of grappling with the ideas, it seems that in much of the humanities there is grappling with personality’s who can no longer argue, and inveighing against ages long dead. I can compute Pearson’s correlation coefficient without being troubled by Karl Pearson’s socialism and white supremacism. Obviously it is too much to ask the humanities to be view their intellectual production in a similar manner, but it strikes me that they have gone too far down the road of putting the dead through ghostly show trials meant to solidify conformity in the ranks. As I stated on Twitter, the problem with fashionable intellectuals is that they need to be careful not to outlive the fashions of their age.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Intellectuals 

This opinion by Norman Finkelstein on writing really spoke to me:

Yeah there’s definitely a place for style and creativity, for good writers it’s definitely an advantage to have. The problem is when – maybe this is going to sound patronizing – but when English majors decide they want to do politics and they have no background in the field of inquiry and that’s quite common. There’s a left-wing tradition of that and they have deep roots but the most obvious prototype was Trotsky who was a revolutionist part of the day and as he famously had done, as he’s under sealed train going to the front waging the civil war in Russia, he’s writing literary criticism. And Trotsky was both a brilliant political analyst and brilliant literary critic. He happened to combine both.

But most people don’t and what you have now is versions of George Packer, Paul Berman. There’s just a large number of people who know nothing about politics, don’t even think it’s important to do the research side. They simply substitute the clever turn of phrase. The main exemplar of that in recent times was Christopher Hitchens, who really hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. But what he would do is come up with three arcane facts, and with these three arcane facts he would weave a long essay. So people say, oh look at that. They would react in wonder at one or the other pieces of arcana and then take him for a person who is knowledgable.


People unfortunately don’t care very much about content. They care about cleverness. That’s the basis on which The New York Review of Books recruits its authors, you have to be as they say, a good writer. And the same thing with The New Yorker. Now obviously there’s a great virtue to being a good writer, but not when it’s a substitute for content.

He’s alluding to a general, not specific, problem. It isn’t just brilliant prose stylists who can pull a fast one. Engagement, and the ability to weave a good story, is one of the reasons why someone like Malcolm Gladwell is such a great success. But there’s a flip side: truth need not come in an obscure and awkward package. Great scientists such as Charles Darwin were also great communicators. The unfortunate reality though is that for far too many of the chattering class science as filtered through The New Yorker is science. The same with history, politics, and foreign affairs.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Intellectuals 

Year Event
1000 BC Alphabet
500 BC
0 AD The codex
500 AD
1000 AD
1500 AD Printing press
2000 AD The internet

There has been an issue I have wanted to bring up, but my thoughts have been rather inchoate. If you read this blog closely it won’t surprise you that in general my idealistic sympathies in regards to “access” of scientific publications are in line with Michael Eisen‘s. He (and others) do a good enough job in this area that I don’t feel like I have much to add, aside from cheering, or noting an open access success now and then.

But a broader question and concern came to mind after an exchange with Patrick Wyman. In the furtherance of my aim to not get swallowed up by one disciplinary interest I’ve always maintained a robust reading program in areas like history, psychology, economics, etc. As a historian with a focus on late antiquity and the early medieval period I have crossed paths with Patrick Wyman, and he mentioned to me offhand how inaccessible some journals are (I have academic access, and I can’t get to many history journals, one reason I read books), and, that he had to be circumspect about outlining his arguments on a particular point lest he be “scooped.” That is, his idea might used by another scholar without attribution and then published (we were on Twitter).

And with that I had to wonder, is that the sort of situation which explains why humanistic scholarship has to be severely gated? Why does any humanistic scholarship have to be distributed in inaccessible journals in the first place? Many scholars bemoan the fact that their interests are on the radar of perhaps a few dozen fellow specialists, but perhaps one reason that this is so is that there are few incentives to disseminate the scholarship. And at the end of the day that’s certainly one point of scholarship, above and beyond the individual moment of illumination at the uncovering of truth.

In antiquity there arose among intellectuals a culture of correspondence. This reemerged during the Renaissance and matured into the Republic of Letters. Today many scholars sit at terminals engaged in the process of correspondence at a much more furious pace than in the past. But is scholarship more relevant? Is it more well known?

Technological changes have been catalysts for a revolution in intellectual production the past. It seems possible that the ferment of the Axial Age was contingent upon the widespread literacy among elites which was enabled by the alphabet. A huge field of inquiry around the role of the printing press in stimulating changes in Europe has long existed. What has the internet done that is equivalent in a revolutionary sense? (I’m talking scientifically, not economically)

Are we living in an age of scholarly brilliance? Should we be? Are intellectuals sending emails of marginal utility at a faster and faster rate, saying less and less as their “information exchange” increases at an exponential pace? We live today in an age of affluence. If you wish to be an intellectual of modest ambition you require little to carve out a space of leisure. So what are we carving?

And just to clear, I don’t think we are at the point of diminishing returns to scholarship. Rather, I think it seems we are because for whatever reason the new communication technology has not revolutionized the way scholarship is done as much as you’d have thought a few years ago.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Intellectuals 
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