The Fire of Learners
On the Necessity and Danger of Intellectuals and Nonconditionality
Paul Johnson tells us that ‘the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key favor in shaping the modern world […] it is in many ways a new phenomenon.’¹ The Intellectual comes from the line of ‘priests, scribes and soothsayers,’ from those who have ‘laid claim to guide society from the very beginning.’² But today there is a difference: our Intellectuals are no longer ‘limited by the canons of external authority and by the inheritance of tradition.’³ If we follow David Hume, this means our Intellectuals are forces of rationality without assent to truth, which means they are “autonomously rational,” and following Hume, that is very dangerous. Intellectuals today are ‘free spirits, adventures of the mind,’ and as romantic as that sounds, it can lead to terror and totalitarianism.⁴ Where rationality lacks nonrationality, rationality is unbound, which means we cannot hide, and that means there is a dire problem if Intellectuals forget that ‘people matter more than concepts and must come first.’⁵ Moving forward, please note that I will capitalize “Intellectual” to help designate “an educated class,” with emphasis on “class.”
Johnson continues the tradition of Julien Brenda, author of The Treason of the Intellectuals, on warning about the dangers of Intellectuals, as does also the great Thomas Sowell. ‘Intellect is not wisdom,’ Dr. Sowell immediately tells us in his Intellectuals and Society, and then he suggests it’s not even intelligence.⁶ ‘[I]ntelligence […] involves combining intellect with judgment and care in selecting relevant explanatory factors and in establishing empirical tests of any theory that emerges. Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect.’⁷ ‘Wisdom is the rarest quality of all,’ Sowell adds, which is ‘the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding’ (a point that brings to mind the “(non)rationality” which I discuss regarding Benjamin Fondane, though that would be another topic for another time).⁸ He adds:
‘Wisdom requires self-discipline and an understanding of the realities of the world, including the limitations of one’s own experience and of reason itself […] the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is […] dangerous.’⁹
Dr. Sowell suggests that Intellectuals are dangerous, but why? Sowell explores many reasons, but a main reason is because ‘[a]n intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas.’¹⁰ ‘There is no external test,’ he puts it bluntly, which means Intellectuals cannot be “checked and balanced” by people outside the Intellectual Class.¹¹ They live in their own world yet shape ours.
Intellectuals are powerful and dangerous — both Johnson and Sowell make that case clear — but does that mean we would be better off if colleges didn’t exist? That’s a different argument, but it’s hard not to consider it after reading The Treason of the Intellectuals and Benda’s arguments on how Intellectuals contributed to WWII by indulging in politics. This point seems very similar to Dr. Sowell on the dangers of Intellectuals being given “practical power” to organize society — shouldn’t then “The Intellectual Class” just be abolished? That’s tempting, but I think Intellectualism just needs to be reformed into something I will call here “The Learner Class.”
Before moving forward, it should be noted that this paper emerged out of a discussion on Benda with Joshua Hansen, the genius behind Metacritique. I’m grateful that Mr. Hansen suggested the book, and this paper is indebted to his brilliance. Please look more into Mr. Hansen’s work — he is a prophet in the wilderness, and we ignore him at our own peril.
Metacritique The disenchantment of the world has led to a re-enchantment of the Metaverse-meaning not just FaceBook but…
America is often accused of being “Anti-Intellectual,” which indeed can be very problematic, but it also depends on what we mean. Dr. Sowell makes that point that, despite these accusations, ‘the American public honors intellectual achievements in science, engineering or the medical profession.’¹² All of these occupations require incredible intelligence to accomplish, and yet we don’t tend to think of scientists or doctors as “Intellectuals.” For this reason, being “Anti-Intellectual” is not necessarily the same as being “anti-wisdom” and/or “pro-stupidity,” which can be what critics suggest. In fact, if Intellectuals can in fact be as dangerous as Johnson, Sowell, and Benda argue, being “Anti-Intellectual” could easily be a good thing. It simply depends, and there is a danger in a society unintentionally becoming “Anti-Learner” in being understandably skeptical of Intellectuals. And, unfortunately, it does seem like the West has gone too far and become “Anti-Learner.”
In The Treason of the Intellectuals, Julien Benda tells us that intellectuals betrayed their profession in becoming political and focused on truths “that can be used,” for the role of intellectuals is to focus on “impractical truths” which transcends “the practical sphere.” Brenda calls intellectuals “clerks,” associated them with a religious tradition, and basically suggests that the world can suffer when Intellectuals are “unbound” — a point which needs elaboration. Like Benda, Dr. Sowell stresses that a reason Intellectuals are dangerous (moving forward, I will capitalize the term in this paper to designate them as a class) is precisely because they are “self-contained,” meaning they focus on ideas, work on their ideas, and their end result is ideas which only other Intellectuals can really judge and assess. This makes “capture” very possible (like “regulatory capture”), and if it were to occur, only Intellectuals would be in a position to know and realize it has occurred. If Intellectuals, in this circumstance, were to grant themselves power and authority, only the Intellectuals would be in a position to judge if that power actually should be granted, was used well, should be given back up — on and on. This also suggests Intellectuals have a kind of monopoly on themselves and their work, and, as we learn in economics, monopolies can cause inefficiencies.
The Intellectual Class and position is thus total in itself, which is risky, for it engenders the possibility of totalization and totalitarianism. However, as will be argued, Intellectuals (of some kind) are necessary, so the removal of this possibility entirely will not prove beneficial to the society, as wouldn’t the banning of fire in order to keep people safe from burns. The name of the game is to keep Intellectuals “bound,” which Benda argues had been the case for centuries. Intellectuals or “clerks,” as he calls them, were restricted to “the impractical domain,” which is a limited and necessary sphere of activity. Unfortunately, Benda saw Intellectuals expanding into “the practical realm” of politics, which was for the unstoppable “Prometheus to be unbound.”
All practice occurs within ideas of what constitutes “the practical” (a point elaborated on in “Ideas Are Practically Eyes” by O.G. Rose), and those ideas must be created outside “the practical” (for once a person “is” practical, they are already operating within a set of ideas on what constitutes “the practical”). This is one reason why Intellectuals are needed: in “an impractical space,” they help us determine what and how we should practice before we practice and it thus too late. More will be said on why Intellectuals are needed, but to start I wanted to outline why Benda associated Intellectuals with “the impractical” and the understanding of it.
Why are Intellectuals “unstoppable” in “the practical realm?” This is an important idea which is expanded on in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose, but basically it is the problem of “autonomous rationality,” which is the problem of “rationality unbound by truth” and/or “coherence unbound by correspondence” (which I call “Pandora’s Rationality”). Ideas can be about anything, can explore infinite possibilities, and precisely because ideas cannot provide their own grounding (for that is the role of “truth”), ideas can deconstruct anything at all. This is a large point, and I hopefully have justified it in The True Isn’t the Rational, but if you take my word for it, it means that an “unbound rationality” could destruct all of society.¹³ And yes Intellectualism is needed — we must play with fire.
To allude to Hegel, I can think of things that are not in the world, and that means, for good and for bad, I can think of the world as being that which it is not. To make a thing that which it is not could be an act of either deconstruction or evolution (Hegelian sublation), but unfortunately Intellectuals (as opposed to Learners, as we will discuss) tend to cause negative deconstruction (precisely because they have not completed Hume’s “philosophical journey,” meaning they are also not bound to something like “Phenomenological Pragmaticism”). This is basically what Benda warned about at the start of the 20th century, but he was ignored. Sowell and Johnson can be seen as continuing to sound the much-needed alarm.
Benda suggests that Intellectuals are to not focus on politics, but instead something like “the forms” which humans seek to understand the universe (or at least that is how I put it). “Forms” is an allusion to Plato, and we can then associate with “the formative principles” of a society (the “orbit a planet follows” versus a planet, to allude to Book VII of The Republic and “Geometry, Astronomy, and Platonic Forms As Ordering Principles” by O.G. Rose). Generally, the “form” of a leaf is what makes a leaf a leaf despite the fact that a leaf can vary in shape and color: it is “the constant” which maintains the leaf despite any changes in “accidents” or characteristics. If leaves did not have “forms,” then they could not change colors without ceasing to be “leaves”; similarly, it would prove difficult if not impossible to see more than one thing “as a leaf” — patterns and similarities would vanish from the face of the earth. Where there are no patterns, life become chaotic and unintelligible — a problem we might be suffering today.
Geometry, Astronomy, and Platonic Forms As Ordering Principles
On understanding “forms” like “invisible guardrails” in which things “be-come” themselves.
Ideas are “formal,” and humans require ideas to function. Of all the “forms” which matter, “truth” is arguably the most important, and we could say “the ultimate nonconditionality” which Intellectuals are “impractically” concerned with is “truth.” If this is the case, truth is the nonconditional formal principle which Intellectuals are meant to discover, defend, and teach to a society so that the society may “form” itself in conformity to that truth. Assuming this is indeed the role of Intellectuals, then when Benda says Intellectuals have committed tyranny, he means they have betrayed this mission in favor of the exact opposite purpose, which is the concern of politicians and power. Now, today, truth is doubted, and instead Intellectuals seek to use ideas for “practical ends” like defending corporate interests, framing Liberals as Anti-American, or the like. Whether this is the case or not I leave up to readers to decide.
Why exactly are “forms” and “nonconditionality” so important? Because they are what unify a society emergently; the only other alternatives are tyranny or anarchy. What is nonconditional is that which is the case “regardless,” which means that anyone from any background, in any sociopolitical system, of any intellectual level, could theoretically agree to it and organize themselves accordingly. That doesn’t mean everyone will ascribe to X (I’ll use an uppercase-X to represent “nonconditionality” in this piece), but everyone could, and that means X is not conditioned by anyone or at the mercy of anyone: the king cannot change X anymore than can a blacksmith, and X “will be the case” regardless what the king rules. X is thus.
Alright, but still, why are X, nonconditionalities, and/or “forms” so important? Well, why is language important? Without it, social organization would prove difficult if not impossible. But it’s not merely “language in general” that we need, but a common language. No, that doesn’t mean everyone has to use the same words in the exact same way, but everyone does need to fall “within a similar range” of language, words, and the like. Language makes “commun-ication/ity” possible, but so it also goes with “metaphysical values.” If one person had just an idea for justice, another for freedom, and another for money, a society couldn’t form: we all need to share freedom, justice, and money as principles. Otherwise, how we organize our lives would be too different for “living together.”
Now, as with language, we don’t all need to have the exact same idea of freedom or justice, but our ideas have to be “similar enough” for us to function (which is a space of constant negotiation and renegotiation, but that “act of negotiation” functions as a structure and center of orbit itself). If roads changed every week, if the law was altered by the month — nobody would have any idea what was going on. Likewise, we need “similar” values and principles, which means the critical and necessary role of the Intellectual is to maintain “an environment of similar-enough nonconditionalities” (of what “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose calls “givens”). For Benda, Intellectuals were not only abandoning this necessary role in favor of politics, but they were also turning around and attacking Xs. This is indeed not merely a betrayal, but an act of tyranny.
Please note that I am not arguing in this work that “the only truths” are nonconditional — we’d have to know all truths to determine that — for perhaps some truths are indeed contingent upon “observers” (say in the quantum realm, as I understand it). However, nonconditional truths are notably important and unique precisely in being nonconditional and what Intellectuals need to focus on clarifying and defending (according to Benda). Even if some truths are indeed conditional and relative, these truths can be studied, but they must not be treated as equivalent to “nonconditional truths”: a role of Intellectuals must be to clearly define these apart and focus on the Xs, because it is the Xs which can “emergently form” the society in a way that isn’t oppressive or “too loose.” According to Benda, Intellectuals betrayed this mission, and in so doing contributed to the collapse of the social order which they were assigned to help formulate.
Now, Foucault is right that Xs can be used to oppress people, and it is also true that “the givens” according to which a society can “emergently form” can contribute to “the banality of evil” which Hannah Arendt wrote on, so it is understandable why Intellectuals have turned against the role of “finding forms.” But the other side of the coin is also dangerous: as argued throughout Belonging Again, where there are no “givens” or “formal principles,” there is existential anxiety, a “meaning crisis,” and more, all of which makes totalitarianism appealing. Thus, the role of the Intellectual becomes clear as an act of “difficult balancing”: if Xs are “too similarly,” people will be oppressed and difference attacked, but if Xs are “too different,” shared intelligibility and “sensemaking” will be lost. Following Benda, this “balancing act” is so difficult to strike and maintain that Intellectuals mustn’t have their minds concerned with anything “practical” that might improperly sway them one way versus the other (especially once we understand that it won’t matter if Intellectuals find the right balance if nobody trusts them because they have lost legitimacy in political involvement). Once this occurs, “shared sensemaking” will be lost.
Xs guide us — keep in mind “the meaning crisis” is “a direction crisis” — but the risk of Xs is that we are “emergently guided” into horror like Josef K (I would argue most of Kafka entails stories about characters participating in their own “capture” by following “rationality” and “values,” but that is another topic for another time). If nothing is “nonconditional,” then everything can be changed, and that means nothing can stop us from changing ourselves into a world where we end up “like a dog” (for where any “line of flight” is possible, we can fly by hanging and swinging from a line on a tree). Where there are “forms,” there can be “formulations” into horror, but where there are no “forms,” the social order cannot be organized, and “things will fall apart” (as Yeats wrote). Intellectuals are meant to help us guide this difficult space between “givens” and “releases” (by carefully defining terms, maintaining a sense of plausibility of what cannot be proved, helping us determine morals, etc.), which is to say Intellectuals are meant to find a way to articulate and express Xs so that there is “room for difference” in them but not “so much room” that we cannot relate (which suggests that we can associate intellectualism with “cooking,” an “art-form”). Where there is no “form,” there is no “formulation,” so that means there is no movement, which suggests there is death. This is the temptation of stressing “form” in a way that makes it stagnant, that does not approach “being” as needing to be “becoming,” but where there is “becoming,” we could lose common ground and common sensemaking. There is no way to avoid this difficult balance, and so “the Intellectual class” was created to help us strike “the right balance” (which requires constant attention and reconsideration). According to Benda, intellectuals not only abandoned this role, but actively started undermining it, which is why Benda thought incredible violence was inevitable right before World War II.
“Forms” are incredibly hard to define, understand, and follow, which is to say “truth” is incredibly difficult to find and live by. We need Intellectuals so that we learn epistemology, “mental models,” incubate ways to fight self-deception, and the like: as we need masters to learn material arts, so we need teachers to learn “minds arts,” per se. As it is doubtful we will be able to learn how to become a black belt on our own, it is similarly very unlikely that we will gain intellectual ability without guidance. When a nation loses Intellectuals, or when Intellectuals betray “forms” (both of which might be happening in America today), we should not be surprised to see a distrust of the news, a spread of conspiracies, and overall epistemic torment. Where Intellectualism has failed, “Pandora’s Rationality” will likely prevail. Ideas are a navigation system, and when ideas are gone, we shall all be like Dante, in a dark wood, but without even the aid of a she-wolf, for being tormented by lust requires understanding it.
What do we say to the idea that “truth is power?” Rightly or wrongly, this notion is associated with Foucault, and it should be noted first that even if it was true that “truths are power,” it is not the case that all power is bad. Power can empower, and though Christianity could give the priest power over me, I can also be empowered by the priest to overcome the meaninglessness of life. Empowerment is impossible without power, and if the world had no power, it would have no energy and die. There is a risk with power, but removing that risk may require removing empowerment with it. How could anyone be empowered if there was no power? Likewise, how could anyone be right if there was no truth? Now, I understand that many Postmodern Thinkers are concerned with “systems of power,” not just “mere power,” which is to say systems that keep groups oppressed and the like, but then our goal should not so much be “the removal of power” but “establishing the perpetual openness of systems.” This is why, for me, both Hume and Hegel are appealing (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose), and if something like this is what Postmodern Thinkers seek, I am all for it.
If we are alive, we will be “using our power” to eat, go to work, and the like: where there is life, there is energy, and there is a directing of that energy. All of this describes power, so power is unavoidable. The question is only what will ground that power (and potentially weaken it in advantages ways, like “grounding electricity”), and that would be “the truth” which “the rationality” is organized relative to, so gaining being as itself. Generally, it is rationality which is power, while truth empowers. Truth grounds, doing nothing in of itself, while it is rationality that is organized according to a truth which expresses and enacts power (for truth is nonrelational, while rationality and power are relational). This suggests why “autonomous rationality” is so dangerous for David Hume, because it is unbound power. As discussed, this suggests that Intellectuals who discard truth (perhaps unintentionally when they become “practical”) have unbound power, which means that the Intellectuals who worry about “stopping oppressive power” can be the most powerful and potentially oppressive of all.
Paradoxically, when truth is called power and truth removed, then rationality becomes unstoppable. Since everything is given meaning through rationality and everything can be reasoned/rationalized about, this would mean that everything becomes power. Power is necessary, yes, but only in “proper bounds”: when everything is power, then it will not be bound properly. If truth empowers, then rationality without truth is “power without empowerment,” and that’s violence (power “over others” versus power “into others”). Power over us that doesn’t empower us is oppression, while power directed at us that empowers us is a graceful gift. In this way, we can say the “true rationality” is “empowering power” while “autonomous rationality” is “oppressive power.” And, worse yet, since this “oppressive power” is not “grounded” or “bound” by a truth, it is “all powerful.” Everything thus becomes a potential source of “omnipotent oppression,” as someone like Benjamin Fondane seems to have realized, which to oppose rebels might “rationally” use their own “omnipotent power” to stop, causing a back and forth, ever-worsening the world.
As already claimed, “true rationality” empowers, while “autonomous” or “raw” rationality “powers over,” but since we require power to live, we must deal with power and risk. “Raw rationality” also feels arbitrary, so it becomes “arbitrary power” — the worst kind of totalitarianism. If there is no X or truth which applies to the totalitarian force, then there is nothing that could be appealed to in order to establish power over the totalitarian power: its control becomes complete. For Benda, it was utilitarianism and pragmaticism that caused rationality and truth to be separated, about which I believe he is right, though I still defend elsewhere what I call “Phenomenological Pragmaticism.” If “truth is use,” then “the true is the rational,” and power is unbound.
Far from truth being “just power,” truth is one of the few things (if not the only thing) which can contain power, because it is “unconditional,” meaning under no circumstance can “the powerful” change it. Yes, power can hide the truth and make it hard to access, but power cannot destroy it. And power can make truth seem to be bad (rationality can attack nonrationality), and rationality is easily incentivized to do so for its own glorification: if truth is seen as the problem, the only thing which can stop power will be discarded. The power of rationality will then be unlimited precisely when we think we have limited it once and for all.
I do not gain power from “2 + 2 = 4,” only perhaps from knowing 2 + 2 = 4, if say I can convince you to believe I have power for knowing “2 + 2 = 4.” Power doesn’t come from the truth, but in me using that truth to convince others to organize their rationality as I think best. A priest does not gain power from God Existing, but in convincing the congregation that the priest has “special access to God” and that thus it is rational for the congregation to do what the priest says (God could just as easily be used by the congregation to “check and balance” the priest, do note). For me to derive “power” from a truth, I must convince people to organize their rationality accordingly: it seems like it is the truth which is creating this power dynamic, but it is actually the rationality which is organized according to the truth. But that rationality “races in” and consumes the truth so quickly that it seems like truth is the problem and always was the problem. Truths just “are” (“empowering”), while power is found in the realm of rationality.
Now, truth can empower a rationality to oppress people, and from a truth like “God Exists,” I can use rationality to establish a truth such as “I have the power of God in being a priest,” but notice how this second supposed “truth” doesn’t clearly arise from the first premise that “God Exists.” To get to this second premise, I must reason from the first truth to the second — I must use rationality. The truth of “I am sad today” tells me nothing on what I should do or what “ought” to happen — Hume was right to split “isness” and “ought” and replace it with “suchness” and “ought,” which “binds” truth from empowering dangerous rationalities, similar to how Benda binds “intellectualism” with “the impractical.” I can use the truth that “I am sad” to suggest that my friends and family should cater to me and help me feel better, which is to say that I could use my emotions to suggest that “the rational response” to my sadness is to buy me dinner. The truth that “I am sad” adds weight and “empowers” my request “for someone to buy me dinner” — if I were to suggest this when I felt wonderful, people might think I was lazy or egotistical. In this way, I can use a truth to empower a request, perhaps transforming it into a demand that people won’t even recognize as forceful. After all, I just need help.
This might seem like a small and technical distinction between “truth” and “rationality,” but I think it is very important for us to say that “rationality is power” versus “truth is power.” Words control and organize our thinking: if we use the phrase “truth is power,” it will be easy for us to start thinking that “truth is oppressive” without realizing it, when actually truth is what can “bind” the oppressive forces of rationality. Yes, truth can “empower” oppressive rationalities, but it can also “empower” rationalities which fight and correct those “bad rationalities.” This is very similar to Hume’s idea that “good philosophy” is needed to stop and correct “bad philosophy”: if we abandon philosophy entirely, we will be at the mercy of “bad philosophy” and find ourselves with no way to stop it. Likewise, if we entirely abandon truth because we are trying to escape the possibility of it empowering a “bad rationality,” then “bad rationalities” will still formulate (for all “bad rationalities” need is “an idea of the truth,” an imaginary premise, an impression, etc.), but there will be no “good rationalities” to fight them. Can’t “good rationalities” be created based on impressions and ideas of the truth too? I suppose, but if truth is off the table, how can there be any guarantee that “the good rationalities” will prevail? Why should they? Also, “bad rationalities” probably have an advantage over “good rationalities,” precisely because “bad rationalities” can easily appeal to the worst dimensions of human nature, cater to political powers, and the like. If there is no “truth” which can break the tie, then “bad rationality” is probably going to win, which is to say that it’s only a matter of time before “bad philosophy” defines and rules the world.
To sum up my point, I would prefer for us to say that “rationality is power” instead of “truth is power” — the first phrase is fine, and what Foucault and other Postmodernists were getting at isn’t a case with which I disagree. Language matters, as metaphors matter, and in saying “truth is power” (versus say “truth empowers”), we have gradually and subconsciously come to see the pursuit of truth as contributing to oppression. This is a terrible mistake, precisely because truth can stop oppression and “bind” totalitarianism (as can “suchness,” according to Hume). Because of unfortunate language, I think we end up strengthening the power we cease to curb — language which I believe also erroneously suggests that “the true is the rational.” They are not identical; they are distinct. Truth empowers. Rationality is power.
Despite all this talk on “discarding truth” and “deconstructing it to deconstruct power,” we practically cannot live as if “truth doesn’t exist,” because the moment I do something, I must “practically believe” (even if not consciously or intellectually) that it is “true” that it is best to do that thing versus something else. We are constantly and inescapably always “practicing a truth” — it is part of our very being — which means that if we “abandon truth,” we won’t actually abandon it. We’ll just “think” we’ve abandoned it, all while we continue to practice a truth, which is to say we will enact something which is “empowering” without taking ownership of it, training it, or figuring out how best to use it. In this circumstance, “empower” will be unbound and applied randomly, and who knows what kinds of powers will be unleashed in this circumstance. It will be random, and like a lightning storm which “randomly” launches down bolts, it is unlikely this power will be harnessed for good over destruction (to borrow imagery from “Metaskills, Indirectness, and Power” by O.G. Rose).
It is impossible to “practice” outside a truth, and this is perhaps why Benda is so concerned that Intellectuals have become focused on “practical truth.” Truth is always practiced: we do not really need to worry about “practical truths.” for if we just focus on truth, practice will follow. We are adding an unnecessary layer of consideration and complexity that will ultimately just increase the probability that we end up biased, compromised, and worse. If I believe something, that will be reflected in my practices, even if I think the belief is “impractical.” If I am convinced of a truth, that will be reflected in how I live my life.
Even if Intellectuals are genuine in their pursuit of truth, the very fact people see them as “politically concerned” could impact the likelihood we believe what they tell us (“the legitimacy crisis” Benda warns about and that Habermas expands on). If my English professors teaches me Hamlet, and everything he says reflects the top scholarship of the day, but he also says things here and there about the stupidity of Liberals, I might become skeptical of what he teaches me on Hamlet. A truth does not tell us that it is true, and more important it does not force us to see it as true: I could be looking truth right in the face, and not recognize it as true. Thus, “receiving the truth” is not enough: I also must trust that it is truth, and I generally tend to derive that trust from how much I trust my teachers. If I don’t trust them, even if they give me the truth, I will struggle to believe it is true.
Grasping this point helps illuminate why Benda is so concerned that Intellectuals began considering “the practice” versus remain “laser focused” on “the impractical”: it is not because “impractical ideas” have no practical consequences (they of course change how we live our lives), but because students would see that their professors were concerned about politics, and that would threaten the ability of the students to trust their professors. It’s perhaps too broad of a claim, but I think it’s generally true that we all struggle to trust politicians. Even if we share their ideological orientations, we know they have agendas and are “playing a game,” and so we take what they say with “a grain of salt” (even when we believe in them). This is what Benda is afraid will happen with professors and teachers, I think, and since metaphysical and “impractical” ideas have no form if we don’t believe in them, this loss of trust would be the utter loss of the ideas (which means we would lose control of our “formulations” as a society, leading to chaos and perhaps violence). If I don’t trust a politician, the politician will not vanish from the face of the earth, and he or she will still easily receive my vote and go on to implement the agenda I didn’t believe in. But if I don’t believe or trust a given idea about justice or freedom, it cannot manifest into my life. I must trust an idea to live it: “I am” its possibility. This is why ceasing to trust professors is not the same as ceasing to trust politicians, even if I learn to cease trusting both together. For us to treat professors like politicians is must more consequential than treating politicians like politicians: “metaphysics” and “forms” cannot survive the skepticism. They “practically exist” to the degree they are lived, and the skeptic will have “good reason” not to practice them.
Earlier, I said, “If I am convinced of a truth, that will be reflected in how I live my life,” and here I want to draw attention to the word “convinced,” which is very important. As argued in “Compelling” by O.G. Rose, very little of what we think is thought because we were “convinced of it” (and yet that is necessarily how we experience what we believe when we think about it); rather, the high majority of what we believe is “absorbed.” To convince someone of something, or to be convinced of something, is incredibly difficult and rare, especially if the belief is deep and cherished. Why exactly this is so hard is explored throughout The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose, but basically it is because “the truth isn’t the rational” and the truths by which we organize our lives are “prerational” or “nonrational,” which suggests that they are ascribed to without rationality, so why in the world should rationality be able to deconstruct them? There is a mismatch: rationality isn’t so much what leads me to ascribing to a truth, and so rationality is not well-equipped to replace it. It can, yes, but not easily, and especially not easily if we don’t trust our Intellectuals.
It is very unnatural for humans to change their minds: to happen, everything must “come together” and line up perfectly. Our professors must speak clearly; they must speak with authority; they must speak with vision; and we must believe in them. The stars must algin, and if they don’t, “the transfer of wisdom” will rarely occur. The younger generations will not benefit from the knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom of prior generations: the transfer of civilization will fail. And, again, this suggests why Benda was so horrified by the “tyranny” of Intellectuals: they were forfeiting the legitimacy they needed to successfully transfer civilization and “formal principles” without which society would collapse.
When Benda stresses the need for Intellectuals to “be impractical,” he is not saying that ideas don’t have consequences or that we shouldn’t consider politics at all or ever. To not focus on “the practicalities” of ideas is to focus on and learn the ideas well, which means, in different contexts, when it’s time to practice the ideas, what we practice will prove to bear fruit. In order for us to use truth to “empower us” and restrict “the power of autonomous rationality,” we must be able to identify truth, and that is one of those most difficult tasks in the world. Mental models, epistemological skills, skepticism — these are all needed if we are to have any hope of identifying truth and being empowered by it, and “political concerns” will likely only “get in the way” as we try to gain and master these skills. The vast difficulty of determining truth is why education and something like an “Intellectual Class” is needed, but if truth doesn’t matter, then education will likely become “a force of autonomous rationality” and lead to the very expression of the power it is supposed to exist to contain. If we decide that — the truth is — truth is power, then power will be truth. Power will be everything, and efforts to oppose it will express it.
Wait, isn’t it a strawman to say that we no longer care for truth today? We focus on science as a source of truth: it’s only metaphysical truth that has been deconstructed. Isn’t science all we need? Can’t science prove “forms” according to which we formulate ourselves? A very fair point, but science must by definition provide us with “forms of materialism,” which is to say that we will “formulate” ourselves “as material.” It’s discussed throughout O.G. Rose, but this has contributed to “The Meaning Crisis” which John Vervaeke discusses: “autonomous scientism” is reductionistic, and has contributed to us all feeling “explained by not addressed” (as described in “Explained and Addressed” by O.G. Rose). Many thinkers are working to correct this problem, such as Alexander Bard and Alexander Elung behind “Vector Theory,” and there are arguably ways to do this “within” science, but I would dare to suggest that accomplishing this move is not easy. It can be done, but such new “forms” and “ways of formulation” are not readily “at hand” from the scientific literature. Thinkers like Bard and Elung respect metaphysics for a reason, it seems to me.
It could be argued that today we don’t believe in a need to focus on truth, just on facts, that we believe in “material reality” as capable of functioning as a “nonconditional standard” which we could “form” ourselves according to and by. Facts certainly matter and are essential to “the truth,” but problematically facts “don’t tell us what they mean” (which is to say that “pure observation” is not possible, as discussed in (Re)constructing “A Is A” by O.G. Rose). Facts do not tell us how to structure them into a narrative: facts themselves must be “formed,” and they must be so formed relative to our values, our plans, our ideas, and the like. It is not self-evident from the fact that “x person is dead” that a murder or only killing was committed: this will ultimately come down to a motive that will not easily be captured by “the facts of the case.” I will ultimately have to make an “educated case” on the motive, and even if I conclude the person intended to murder, I then have to decide if the person should be “given a second chance” or not. Though it “seems like” all of this is “given to me” by the mere fact that “x person is dead,” it is not: I “add that” to the fact from my own thinking and according to the “formal principle” which my mind follows. Where did I derive these “formal principles?” In the past, the source was church and religion, but today things are different. Today, we’re still trying to figure that out (the topic is explored in Belonging Again by O.G. Rose).
A reason Intellectuals may have become “practically minded” is because they wanted to be seen more as scientists, for great honor and status does indeed seem to go to the scientists. “Being scientific” is considered a noble and necessary goal, and if by “scientific” here we mean “epistemologically reliable” or “epistemically responsible,” I’m all for it. Science is practiced and external to the mind, so if Intellectuals could become “practical,” they would be “closer” to the sciences. And certainly, I stress, there is a need for epistemic rigor, for a lack of that contributes to a “fluffiness” in the humanities that costs them legitimacy. At the same time though, material reality doesn’t tell us how we “ought” to live in it, what we should do with it, and how we should understand the meaning of our lives. There is no justice or equality in the forest: if we are to live by these values, we must “bring them to life.” And that means we need training, debates on what those values should be, lessons on how to be intellectually rigorous — all of which is to say that we need Intellectuals.
I admit, it seems like it would be nice if we could replace Intellectuals with scientists, and I do think Jonathan Rauch successfully argues in Kindly Inquisitors for why “the scientific method” deserves a special place in our hearts and minds. But it is not the case that we can determine from material reality “how” we should “formulate” it, ourselves, or our communities in light of material reality: that requires thinking “over” materiality. The earth does not tell us what kind of world we should want to live in, suggesting that the debate “comes down to us.” Unfortunately, we could easily “form” the earth into a world far worse than the earth left to its own devices.
“Forms” are “like” the earth and reflect it, but they are also not reducible to the earth. “Forms” make the world “out of and on” the earth, which doesn’t mean they are “better” than the earth, but it does mean the earth is meaningless without them (please note meaning is not always good, as discussed in “The Meany Crisis” by O.G. Rose: a world without meaning would be a world without paranoia). We live our lives between the earth and world, and if we’re too much in one versus the other, we end up in trouble. Intellectuals are supposed to help us find a good “dialectical balance,” but when they are too concerned with “the earth” (“the practical”), Benda saw them as failing in their duty to “the world.” Intellectuals are necessary, because we cannot rely on facts to organize our lives in terms of a balanced “dialectic of earth/world,” which is also a balance between “givens” and “freedom” (to allude to Belonging Again). The earth is deterministic, while the world is free; where there is only earth, there is no freedom, which can often be what we want “practically,” because freedom is terrifying. Intellectuals are meant to keep us free, but when they are “practically minded,” they end up serving determinism and necessity. These are the conditions of totalitarianism, so it makes sense that the misguided Intellectual Class lead the world into the trouble it did, as Benda warned.
Because Intellectuals are supposed to be focused on “nonconditionalities” (Xs), their subjects are supposed to be “unfalsifiable” (which means they cannot be scientific). This is because there are no conditions into which the Xs can be brought into to be verified and tested. Thus, the subjects of Intellectuals are more “transcendent” and not easy to critique. As discussed by Thomas Sowell, this is why Intellectuals are dangerous, but I think it is also the case that they are necessary, seeing as we need “forms” which materialism cannot provide. As we’ve discussed, if Intellectuals are bound to “the impractical sphere” (as Benda claims they should be), this “nonconditionality” is bound and contained. However, once Intellectuals move into the “practical” and “public” sphere, since their topics are “unfalsifiable,” the Intellectuals are very powerful (which suggests they might have incentive to commit this trespass). Also, to question their “transcendent subjects,” one would have to be an Intellectual themselves, meaning that the power cannot be “checked and balanced” outside of itself. As we’ve discussed, this is a dangerous recipe, but as long as Intellectuals stay focused on “impractical life,” the danger can be “bound” and managed. And this danger is necessary, for otherwise we will lack “address” and end up in a “Meaning Crisis” (exactly as we have).
Let us take a moment to defend the desire to escape “forms,” as arguably Intellectuals attempted following Benda, for though I think this effort is impossible and leads to totalitarianism through existential anxiety (as discussed in Belonging Again), the existence of “forms” also makes us intelligible and thus “capturable” (as Deleuze describes), which suggests why “materialism” was perhaps so desirable, though that has I think caused “The Meaning Crisis.” We cannot escape “forms” (“formulation principles”), even if “forms” put us at risk.
As discussed in “The Most Rational of All Possible Worlds” by O.G. Rose, Benjamin Fondane argued that we need to focus on “the possible” and “the exception,” for otherwise we will find ourselves trapped in rationality (and Nash Equilibria) without any hope of escaping “the suboptimal result” which must necessarily follow (such as the rise of Hitler). By “the exception,” Fondane means to channel Kierkegaard, who stresses the biblical examples of Abraham and Job, those “one times” when God did tell someone to sacrifice their son and did give Satan authority to test a believer. Perhaps God doesn’t “normally do this,” but the very possibility of an “exception” means we must always be “open” to something unexpected and different, which is to say rationality can never “race ahead” and “map out” everything which must happen and will happen. This thought also recalls David Hume (and Hegel, though I will focus on Hume), who argued that we can never establish a “natural law,” only “constant conjunctions” and informed guesses. This might seem like a picky and technical detail of no practical use, but if we realize that Hume’s argument can keep us “open” like Fondane argued we must be to avoid the tyranny of someone like Hitler (of “autonomous rationality”), then Hume’s “playfulness” suddenly becomes some of the most seriously and consequential argumentation in the world. (It also becomes foundational in reaching the conclusion that a “real choice” is required, as argued at the end of (Re)constructing “A Is A” by O.G. Rose).
Generally, “the exception” is the collapse of “similarity and pattern,” and thinking without similarity and pattern is ultimately impossible. Thus, “the exception” cannot be thought about, only lived. Also, to avoid being “captured” (and/or not ending up in a Kafka story), we require “the exception,” both so that the State cannot locate a “pattern in us” that they can predict our lives according to and consequently “capture” (perhaps with the help of algorithms), and so that we ourselves do not “fall into a pattern of operation” that we ultimately “capture” ourselves in and by (emergently and organically). However, this suggests that we avoid “capture” by escaping intelligibility, and wouldn’t that mean we cease being human? Ah, we escape “capture” by being an animal in a world where the best we can do is be “animal-like” — but explaining that requiring diving into Kafka, which we cannot do justice to here (but will try in The Breaking of the Day by O.G. Rose).
I think we can associate Fondane’s “exception” with Deleuze’s “line of flight,” and yet if it is the case that we need both “rationality” and “nonrationality” (as “(non)rationality”) we can never be entirely immune and “safe” from possibilities of “capture.” Risk will always be with us. Deleuze stresses the need to be “unintelligible” to avoid being controlled, but a society that cannot be controlled at all is anarchistic and unable to understand itself (there are no “oppressive givens,” but that means there is also no “direction”). Yes, perhaps there is no Hitler, but there is also a Meaning Crisis and mass tribalism (and who’s to say that we don’t turn to a Hitler to escape this condition?). Furthermore, Deleuze may not appreciate that we “capture” ourselves if we are intelligible, as seen in Kafka, which means it’s not enough to be “unintelligible to the State”: we must also be “unintelligible to ourselves.” Would that have us all be like Iago, whispering, ‘I am not what I am?’ Is that even possible, let alone desirable?
Forgive me for being vague here until “The Animal-Like Hunger” by O.G. Rose, but it is in Kafka that the real “Deleuzian Solution” is suggested: we must become animals. But Kafka, a literary genius, adds an ironic and tragic twist: the most we can become is “animal-like.” The Deleuzian Solution cannot be taken “far enough,” and if it could, the moment it did, we wouldn’t realize our success, for we would have become animals. Thus, even if there is success, it is not a success we can ever achieve and know we’ve achieved. What good is it to us then? Kafka does not say, but rumor has it that, during his readings, people couldn’t stop laughing.
If x is “nothing like” anything else, then we cannot easily identify from what we should absorb information and “truth” to organize action: we must just be paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to “read” the situation. But if x is intelligible and “readable,” then it must be “capturable,” as we must be capable of “capturing ourselves” if we are capable of understanding, giving meaning, and “reading” (as shown in Kafka). Though it must be expanded on in The True Isn’t the Rational, for me this is why we require a dialectic of rationality and nonrationality which centers on “conditionality” (which I have called “Aesthetic Epistemology”) — but all of that is another topic for another time. Here, I mean only to suggest that there is good reason to try to escape “forms,” even if we ultimately cannot: “forms” make us susceptible to “capture” and control (for they make comprehension possible), both by the State and by ourselves. If we erased “forms” though and lived just by facts (“pure observation”), we might be safe — but unfortunately “pure observation” is impossible (we always smuggle in “forms”). We wouldn’t have to worry about “conflict of mind”-situations in which “epistemic responsibility” came in conflict with “epistemic possibility,” but we also wouldn’t have to worry about “epistemic possibilities.”
As I wanted to express sympathies with attempts to escape “forms” here, I will also express sympathies with efforts to be “practical.” Julien discusses the need of Intellectuals to avoid “the practical,” for Intellectuals who want to “put into practice their ideas” can lose legitimacy in the eyes of society (similar to judges who “enact moral principles versus just interpret the law”) and because their thinking will be easily swayed by practical concerns and hinder their ability to think clearly. Yet I also support “Phenomenological Pragmatism” and take seriously the points of Thomas Sowell and Jonathan Rauch on the need for empirical tests — how can this be balanced? Well, whether Julien intended it or not, it helps me to think that ideas need to be “useless” in the sense that they should only be “used in light of truth,” which is to say they need to be founded on a “truth” which cannot be used except according to a rationality which may or may not be right. The “truth” is “useless” in this sense, or perhaps rather “non-usable,” meaning it is outside the dichotomy of “useable versus useless.” This brings to mind Fondane again and “the nonrational,” and here I mean to say that “the truth cannot be used,” but rather it is rationality which is “used” as so shaped and organized by the truth (which again suggests that “rationality is power” while “truth empowers”). It is like we see the truth and then try to form our rationality (as if made out of clay) in its image and likeness, but it is never “the truth itself” which we use. Hence, the truth is “non-usable,” but instead we “use rationality as shaped in its image and likeness.” We use rationality “in light of the truth,” but we do not use the truth itself.
Here, we can begin to see ways for why dividing “the truth” from “the rational” can help us avoid Deleuzian “capture” while maintaining “forms” and without us having to become animals like in Kafka. If our “standard” of organizing rationality is “usable,” then that means it can be “put into finite and human terms,” for it can be used, and if that’s the case, it can be “captured” (as we can “capture” ourselves and others). In Fondane, the “nonrational” is generally “the human,” and by setting limits on “rationality,” Fondane protects something that is “human,” something that is forever safe from “capture” (which brings to minds the efforts of the Counter Enlightenment to place something beyond reason, like tradition, so that the social order would not collapse). I think Hayek makes a similar move when he makes a distinction in his “Knowledge Problem” between “abstract knowledge” like 2 + 2 = 4 and “particular knowledge” like “the number of plastic spoons the nearby restaurant needs to order next week,” with this second kind of knowledge only being knowable by those who work in the McDonalds. Hayek establishes a kind of knowledge that can only be known in the human experience, and so protects “the human” (protecting “form” while also “binding it” with “suchness,” to allude to “Dialectical Ethics” by O.G. Rose on Hume). “Autonomous rationality,” on the other hand (which is basically rationality which sees itself “as truth” versus something which needs to “honor truth”) places nothing beyond the bounds of reason. In this world, as Mr. Joshua Hansen pointed out during out discussion, its only rational to try to solve Hayek’s “Knowledge Problem” with quantum computing, mass surveillance, and other efforts currently seen in China. Why not? Isn’t “the best of all possible worlds” the most rational?
Personally, it helps me understand Benda’s emphasis on “Intellectuals needing to stay impractical” if I think of him as arguing that truth is “useless” precisely to stop “autonomous rationality.” Indeed, truth isn’t mere power, but empowering, while rationality is “the expression of power,” for it is the thing we use “in the image and likeness” of whatever truth to which it is we ascent. Yes, I am biased to see “the true isn’t the rational” in everything I read, but I also think the framing approximates what Benda believed in. If I’m reading into him, I hope the misreading at least proves helpful.
Starting in this section, I will now begin to discuss “Learners” as opposed to “Intellectuals,” whereas so far I have mostly combined the terms. I like to call the genuine scholars “Learners” because I want to emphasize that there is far more left for them to read than not. They never read more than perhaps 1% of all the books in the world, and none of them are a world expert on everything. They are always “open,” and they are more in the business of learning than intellectualizing. “Intellectualizing” is secondary, a description of a byproduct: the main drive of the Learner is learning, and there is always more to learn.
Now, St. Augustine warns on the dangers of “avid curiosity” and “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” — “intellectual curiosity” can become a sin when disordered — so Learners are also in the business “of learning how to rightly apply what they learn” (an effort I associate with “Phenomenological Pragmatism”). Learners want to learn about the real world, not simply the intellectual world: they are in the business of “learning for learning’s sake for the sake of what’s out there” (they stay true to Benda but also commit to The Real). They are focused on learning, trying to do the best they can at it, genuinely, without political or economic concern, but they know that it is only through this “risky” and genuine focus that there is any chance that they will live “as they ought to live,” thus showing others how they “ought” to learn as well. They try to respect the (impractical) truth as “the truth” while at the same time figuring out how to “live impractically” well.
C.S. Lewis warned about the need for us to “put first things first to get second things also,” and the irony is that if we try to be “practical” with our thinking, as Intellectuals according to Benda have attempted, we end up failing to be practical. Worst yet, we contribute to “bad philosophy” (to allude to Hume) and empower totalitarianism with rationalities which cannot be stopped with truth, because truth has been discarded along the way (despite the ultimate impossibility of such, “behind the scenes”). But if on the other hand we dive deep into “learning for learning’s sake,” accept the risk and anxiety of potentially being “useless” and “impractical,” then there is possibility of discovering and using ideas for “good philosophy,” for making the world a better place. This is what Learners realize, and in refusing to make themselves into an “Intellectual Class,” they accept all the risks and difficulty of doing a work that might ultimately prove worthless. But this is the risk of real learning, the risk Learners take, and if there are not people who take this risk, “bad philosophy” will likely prevail. No one will speak truth to power, which is to say no one will be able to “bind rationality” into its proper bounds. Learning saves.
To make an example of how Learners can differ from Intellectuals: during our discussion, Mr. Hansen discussed how academia today can contribute to hiding the ideological underpinnings of Modern Capitalism while simultaneously claiming to critique Modern Capitalism, which suggests why a “meta-critique” is necessary (as Mr. Hansen is carrying out). The university is a structure that defines theory and practice, but this whole structure “hides under it” a truth that, if we knew, would radically change our relationship to the university (for example, it might no longer be “rational” to support and attend it, especially if we’re Progressive). As suggested in our talk (though examples could be made just as easily of Wall Street, government, etc.), perhaps the university is supported and even made possible by slavery in third world nations, but that support is hidden by a structure within which students are debating if justice is the ultimate value and how to then practice that value in the world. But this whole debate conceals the slavery which makes the debate possible, a slavery we are less likely to suspect precisely because the debate is about justice.¹⁴
“Learners” try “to learn about the hidden,” per se, while “Intellectuals” may participate in the “visible” structures and systems which contribute to “the hiding” (all while perhaps they discuss “unveiling truths”). In my other works, I talk about “lacks,” which are “present absences,” things which aren’t here and yet at the same time are (please see “The Philosophy of Lack,” found at Dr. Cadell Last’s channel, as well as “Lacks Are Not Nothing” with Thomas Jockin).¹⁵ Using that language and referencing again Mr. Hansen’s point, we could say that “the truth” of a university is lacking from the schema of “theory and practice” which the university enacts, and that truth is hidden by that schema. To offer a visual:
Learners search below and beyond “the visible,” which is to say they keep “their eyes on the unseen.” Learners tell people about it, but precisely because “the truth” is invisible, the Learners might seem crazy. And this suggests why perhaps the temptation is so great for us to be “Intellectuals” instead: Learners must risk being seen as stupid (they discuss what is “outside the system,” and thus can be seen as “outside their minds”). Do not conspiracists “keep their eyes on the unseen?” Do not fools believe in illusions? The Leaner must thus participate in an act which necessarily makes them “seem like” a fool, as perhaps Jesus had to “seem like” a heretic.¹⁶
Following Dostoevsky, Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness to prove to the world that he was the Son of God: turning stones to bread, leaping from towers for angels to catch him — all of this would prove to all doubters that Jesus was divine. Instead, in the name of a freedom the Grand Inquisitor disdained, Jesus denied those temptations and arguably ended up being seen as “the worst of all possible people” in his Jewish communities. Similarly, the Learner must deny the temptation to participate within systems of “autonomous rationality” in which the Learner can be seen as wise, intelligent, and brilliant. Instead, the Learner operates outside of systems which could “prove” the intelligence of the Learner, precisely in order to unveil and point out what is “lacking” from and “hidden by” the system. That said, Jesus did not denounce and “leave” Judaism, and likewise the Learner doesn’t necessarily have to leave universities and have nothing to do with them. In or out, the Learner is always willing to point out what is “lacking” from the system, but it is this act which risks everything for the Learner. And if Learners lose everything, it will easily seem like he/she should have lost everything, in the same way Jesus, who acted like he could forgive sins, “deserved” to be treated like a heretic. After all, Learners are “outside their minds” and “seeing things which aren’t there” — right? Right.
We could say that Learners pay attention to foundations, which by definition are always “lacking” from the structures they found. Because people walk on and use those foundations though, it’s easy for people to think that they are “foundationally aware” too, but the proof is in the temptation. Where we are not tempted, we could be “captured.” Generally, the Learner is prophetic and willing to “speak truth to power,” which is notably difficult, because Intellectuals describe themselves as “speaking truth to power,” and so blur with Learners in a way that gives the honor and praise to Intellectuals without the risk. Learners really must be “outsiders,” and why would we actually be outsiders when we can just be seen as outsiders? Indeed, the incentives are very difficult to resist, hence why Jesus really was tempted in the wilderness. Learners must risk not being seen as “intellectual” at all, yet Intellectuals are part of the problem for why the world falls into destructive “autonomous rationality.” Failure for the world to provide and incentivize Learners is a reason for troubles in our world which we cannot even identify or see.
A central role of Intellectuals is to determine the noncontingent values of a society so that everyone can be “relatively unified by them,” without contingency. If Intellectuals instead seek to be practical versus focus on determining, refining, and deepening “the impractical” and noncontingent, society will suffer for it (and, funny enough, end up “less practical”). Worse yet, if Intellectuals attack “noncontingencies” and “impracticalities,” Intellectuals will not only fail to fulfill their task, but do the exact opposite, hence why for Benda they have committed “treason” (‘the accreditation of […] cynicism’ particularly horrified him).¹⁷ At that point, even if Intellectuals “come around” and begin to focus again on “noncontingencies,” they may have lost the legitimacy they need for anyone to believe in them or care. Once this “legitimation crisis” occurs, as Benda writes on and Jürgen Habermas later titles his book after, recovery and redemption become all the harder, hence why “the legitimation crisis of our (entire) lives” is so dire. Arguably, a role of Intellectuals is precisely to help us understand and believe in the values our institutions embody, follow, and enact, which is to say that Intellectuals are invaluable for maintaining institutions, but that means if Intellectuals fail us, we lose both the system of supporting institutions and the way to redeem them. “The fall” and loss in that way is total and remarkably difficult to recover from, hence why Benda’s concerns are so important to take seriously.
Do we accept Benda’s arguments? I find him compelling, and if we accept his points, we can both understand why an educated class is needed and dangerous. Why do we need Learners? To summarize:
1. Maintain belief in “forms” that can keep society from becoming unintelligible.
2. Maintain a feeling that those “forms” are plausible (which requires for thinkers to stay “legitimate” and thus avoid politics).
3. Make sure those “forms” don’t become too oppressive and rigid so that they destroy “difference.”
4. Keep “the invisible visible to us,” which is to say study and discuss “lacks.”
“Forms” can consist of history, stories, tradition — many of the fields in college are indeed fields which can provide “common orbits” to a people so that they can all be relatively intelligible to one another. Unfortunately, now problematically distinct from Learners, the Intellectuals today are damaging and effacing the “forms” which make society possible, all while failing to keep “the invisible visible,” which helps power and systems of oppression (which Intellectuals nevertheless discuss trying to deconstruct). In this way, Intellectuals fail to address “two invisibilities”: forms and “lacks” (which often overlap).
Learners observe “forms,” which is to say Learners honor them, while Intellectuals try to own and control “how things form.” When “forms” are not observed, they end up destroyed, which means society ends up losing any “tract” or “orbit” (of similarity/difference) along which the society can maintain intelligibility. But can’t forms oppress us? Absolutely, thus why the Learner must be in the business of somehow defending “forms” while keeping them “open” to difference. I see Hegel as useful this way, as I similarly see locating ethics in “absolute moral conditionality” (“conditionality” seems critical to me), but those are topics I will elaborate on elsewhere.
In closing, this paper has alluded heavily to Belonging Again by O.G. Rose, which explores extensively the connection between “givens” and “releases.” This paper has suggested that a Learner, versus an Intellectual, is someone who teaches us how to navigate the “space between” “givens” and “releases,” and to find the right balance. They also teach us how to “live with” that right balance, which is to say Learners help us be more like “Deleuzian Individuals” than not (as discussed in “Beauty Saves” by O.G. Rose). Learning to occupy the space between “givens” and “releases” is part of how we learn to “cultivate aesthetic sensibilities, which has been argued throughout O.G. Rose is necessary (along with “intrinsic motivation”) if we are to avoid the temptations of totalitarianism found in “too much release” or “too many givens.” In this way, if “Belonging Again” is correct that failure for the majority to learn to live this way under Pluralism will likely lead to incredible problems, then cultivating a world of Learners versus Intellectuals is paramount. Will the academic institutions allow this change? Well, it depends on what they think.
¹Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988: 1.
²Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988: 1.
³Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988: 1.
⁴Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988: 1.
⁵Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988: 342.
⁶Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 1.
⁷Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 2.
⁸Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 2.
⁹Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 2.
¹⁰Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 3.
¹¹Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 6.
¹²Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009: 283.
¹³For elaborations on the problems of “unbound rationality,” see “The Greatest Problem of Philosophy Is Philosophy,” which is inspired by Samuel Barnes, who is also writing The Iconoclast, a book that also makes the case on why philosophy can be dangerous. Please also see our discussion, “O.G. Rose Conversation #45: Samuel Barnes on The Iconoclast, The Dogmatist, and The Meta-Question.”
¹⁴This point was suggested when Mr. Hansen and I discussed Jane Austin, not that I don’t adore her fiction and wit.
¹⁵Though it requires much more elaboration, my thinking of “lacks” is tied strongly to Freud and literature, where I argue that “lacks” often appear in quick and fleeing “breaks” or “cracks” between “the map” and “the territory.” Far from universal and abstract truths which can be considered at any moment, these “breaks” require watching, participation, and attention to catch (hence the title, The Philosophy of Glimpses). They are found in experience and the phenomenological, and yet these “breaks” can paradoxically suggest certain “nonconditional truths” and/or “universals”” — “forms” are experienced under very particular conditions, like “Freudian slips” of reality itself, versus under general conditions which anyone can access at any time (an idea elaborated on in “The Gödel Point” by O.G. Rose). In this way, the philosopher finds truth by being in the world and watching it closely — “active watching,” per se, a synthesis of theory and practice.
Admittedly, this sounds like I support intellectual work that disregards “the impractical,” but I assure you I greatly sympathize with Benda’s work: my point is that “non-practical” “forms” (if we want to use that language) are “glimpsed” more than causally pondered whenever we like, which is all the more reason to not let ourselves get distracted by political or “worldly” concerns. Yes, I might be stressing for intellectuals to have “a more active life,” to be living in the world, but that is different from them sitting in Ivy Towers and writing political policy for “practical reasons.” This distinction cannot be overstressed: to say Learners are those who “think about ‘the impractical’ while living and acting in the world” isn’t to be “practical” in the same way Intellectuals are when they live in universities and consult with politicians. It is this later group which horrified Benda, as that group also horrified Hume.
¹⁶The Learner must seem like one who has fallen into the horrors of “Pandora’s Rationality,” and perhaps The Learner is always one step from indeed making that mistake.
¹⁷Benda, Julien. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Translated by Richard Aldington. Transaction Publishers, 2009: xiii.
1. Deleuze’s “essential difference” indeed helps us all escape “capture,” but in also causing a “meaning crisis” with the loss of “similarity,” none of us may care.
2. Those who control knowledge control what is known as “destruction,” and if those who control knowledge are causing destruction, they won’t be.
3. Incentives would have Learners becomes Intellectuals.
4. Forms are “the paths” things maintain themselves “in” while changing. Forms are more so “paths” than “ideals” which things can be oppressed into become “like.”
5. To be educated is to avoid “underfitting” and “overfitting,” a balance which we could strike right now and lose a moment later.
6. Why do we want to create reality? The Real. And because then we create the morality which justifies the effort.
7. Truth isn’t power, but empowerment; rationality is power. If truth was power, then the loss of truth would be a world in which we didn’t have to worry about power. But where truth is lost, rationality is “all powerful” — it alone has power — and there is no truth to empower anything against it.
8. If rationality requires tradition to function, rationality requires that which it naturally undermines. Why shouldn’t it?
9. In Emancipation After Hegel, Todd McGowan tells us that Hegel was skeptical of philosophers who tried to fix the world. Yes, that mean ‘[t]he danger of Hegel’s political philosophy [was] that it [would] justify the world as it [was] […] [But all the same,] [f]or Hegel, the philosopher’s task [was] to interpret the world, not to change it.’¹ That might sound foolish and even selfish, but if we consider Hegel’s position in light of Benda, perhaps Hegel was wiser than most?
‘For Hegel, attempts to change the world through philosophy will misfire. They will recapitulate what they struggle against […] Philosophers that give practical political advice almost inevitably express the hidden logic of the system they attempt to contest.’² Indeed, Benda seems to describe exactly this occurring, and perhaps Hegel’s emphasis on “contradiction” can help us understand why this happens. For Hegel, ‘when philosophers propose alternatives, they limit their interpretive power and create the impression that we might overcome contradiction with the proper social arrangements.’³ This is not possible for Hegel, and yet practicality is “toward” “non-contradiction,” meaning the philosopher who tries to be “practical” will simply abandon “the thinking of contradiction” which for Hegel was so critical.⁴ Funny enough, this means ‘[t]he problem with Marx’s solution is that it is a solution.’⁵ Hegel, on the other hand, wants us to always ‘accept the insubstantiality of whatever authority we worship.’⁶
This doesn’t mean philosophers have absolutely nothing to do with politics, but to say that they best influence political “dialectically,” and dialectics work best with the different sides maintain their independence, differences, and uniqueness. If philosophers try to be practical, they will try to be political, and in that way they will become less useful politically precisely because they will become worse philosophers. Philosophy for Hegel is the consideration of contradiction, and if no one considers contradiction deeply, it will not be possible for us to think dialectically in light of contradiction. Since it is natural for us to abandon contradiction, we need philosophers to “hold our feet to the fire,” per se, but they will fail in this if they are trying to be practical and political.
¹McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021: 209.
²McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021: 210.
³McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021: 211.
⁴Similarly, Isaiah Berlin understood that politics was naturally “toward” either Fundamentalism or Relativism, and would have to work hard to maintain a commitment to Pluralism and/or Conditionalism — but what I mean by this will have to be expanded on elsewhere.
⁵McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021: 211.
⁶McGowan, Todd. Emancipation After Hegel. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021: 211.
10. Derrida recognized how ideas could be used to oppress, but I fear in attack metaphysics and possibilities of truth, versus locate the possibilities of oppression in rationality, I fear he contributed to a deconstruction of the concept of truth which could have helped “empower us” against the oppressive powers of “unbound rationality.”
11. If we need a truth to be “empowered” against “the oppressive powers of autonomous rationality,” must we return to metaphysics? Perhaps — I do think the fate of beauty is the fate of us.
12. As we tend to “absorb” what we believe versus are “convinced” to believe what we believe, when we change our minds, it’s often more so from “exhaustion,” from simply not wanting to think about something anymore. When we suffer a “conflict of mind” long enough, we eventually just say, “x is the case,” not because we’ve reached a place where this move is justified, but because we simply are tired of thinking about it. It is possible that the State is aware of this and uses “exhaustion” to its advantage. After all, how can you investigate everything about the State? It’s “practically infinite.”
13. A good education helps us avoid overfitting or underfitting — not that this is easy to determine, assuming it can be, when really we might just need to figure out how to keep our mistakes from being so dire that things fall apart.
14. If certainty was possible in this life, we would perhaps not need Intellectuals, because we would not need “forms,” just facts. Alas, we can only hope for confidence.
15. As it would be the case if facts told us how to structure them into narratives, if language was perfect, the need for “forms” would be much less.
16. A world that requires “forms” is a world that might benefit from the thinking of Austin Farrer on “proofs,” as discussed in “Austin Farrer and the Problems of Verifiable Education.” Proving a “land title” requires us to walk the land, while a mathematical proof requires nothing of the sort. And we cannot “walk the land” without having an idea of where to walk, a “form” we are trying to match.
17. Intellectual history is perhaps a story of learning things, forgetting them, and learning them again for the first time. Afraid of this, Intellectuals perhaps sought to be scientists.
18. The Enlightenment is an Anti-Enlightenment without the Counter Enlightenment, but with it the Enlightenment can indeed be an Enlightenment.
19. We need “dialectically (non)rational” Intellectuals, per se — Learners like Hegel, Fondane, Kierkegaard, and the like — thinkers of “Aesthetic Epistemology” and Conditionality.
20. The loss of “the nonrational” is the loss of the human, but there is no totalitarianism in nature, in collections of facts.
21. When “going off script” becomes part of the script, we can at least stop feeling mentally exhausted by sticking to our lines. (As those trying to “capture” us know and Learners perpetually try to “keep visible.”)
22. If truth was undeniably true, we wouldn’t need to think only see.
23. Thinking is found in The Real, which means the loss of The Real is the loss of thinking.
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