Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Intellectual's Crapbook

I want to switch gears for a moment, while this is fresh on my mind. It involves a conclusion that forces itself upon one after reading Kimball's highly raccoomended Experiments Against Reality and Lives of Mind: The Uses and Abuses of Intelligence.

The two books are similar, in that they mainly consist of short but extremely rich -- not to mention beautifully written -- biographical essays or book reviews concerning various cultural luminaries and illuminaries. We are particularly interested in the latter, first because they are so influential, second because they are so completely nuts.

In this regard, we will treat it as axiomatic that it is not a good thing for a culture when its Founding Fathers are, yes, brilliant perhaps, but also certifiably cuckoo.

I couldn't help contrasting these fellows -- names will be named below -- with, say, Thomas Aquinas, who was quite literally about as far from nuts as it is possible to be, at least if you believe that sanctity lies at the farther shore of pneuma- and psychopathology. Does this matter, or is truth independent of the flawed medium?

I say, it depends. For example, Gödel was clearly one dot shy of an umlaut, but that doesn't make his theorems any less true. On the other hand, I would hesitate before seeking psychological counsel from him, or more generally, advice on how best to live one's life.

In fact, in Lives of the Mind, Kimball says that he considers his subjects both "in terms of their fidelity to truth and their quotient of what one might call spiritual prudence: their healthy contact with reality" (emphasis mine).

Schiller made an apt observation along these lines (quoted by Kimball), that "extreme stupidity and extreme intelligence have a certain affinity with each other" in that "both seek only the real and are wholly insensible to mere appearance."

Marx, for example, and Schuon, both saw through appearances to an underlying world of permanence and unity. But how different the visions of that permanent reality -- or of reality and unreality, O and Ø.

Recall from past discussions that prudence is indeed the cardinal virtue, because in its absence the other virtues are rendered dubious or nul. For example, it no doubt takes a degree of courage for a Palestinian terrorist to blow himself up in his depraved quest for dead Jews and live virgins. But it also requires a complete absence of prudence.

Even truth handled imprudently can become dangerous and destrutive. To cite a contemporary example, the classified information the Obama administration has leaked to the press appears to be true, but most people presumably don't think it prudent to subordinate national security to Obama's desire for political power.

"It is one of the guiding themes of this book that intelligence, like fire, is a power that is neither good nor bad in itself." Rather, it is "like freedom" or "any human grace," in that it "can be abused as well as used."

Obvious when you think about it, no? So how come few people do? For example, Noam Chomsky, the Last Totalitarian, probably has a higher IQ than, say, Ronald Reagan. Can we conclude from this that the United States is therefore an evil empire?

Although he doesn't aim his deadly pen at the target-rich Chomsky -- where's the sport in that? -- Kimball's essays take down many other giants of academia, and form the highly insultaining "scrapbook of an intellectual pathologist."

Intellectual pathologist. This is -- or should be -- a subtle vocation, because it is all too easy to pretend to undercut an argument via a kind of sublimated or rarified ad hominem. I know this, because I used to engage in it myself. Any psychologist can take a figure whom he doesn't like, and cut him to ribbons with the misguided application of psychological theory, for example, this credentialed bozo.

But the intellect is distinct from the self. We think of it more as a function than a person (although in the healthy person it should be integrated with everything else).

And even then, we must draw a distinction between the function and its content, so to speak. As they say, even a broken cock will crow once a day. I suppose what I'm driving at is how it is possible for a brilliant person to be systematically wrong, in such a way that virtually everything he touches turns to falsehood.

Here is one of the threads that runs through these figures, and really jumped out at me. Kierkegaard, for example, in "an early journal entry" wrote of a party at which "everyone laughed and admired me," but afterwards wanting "to shoot myself." And in what may have been his last journal entry, he described himself as having been "bereft of all lust for life." So at least he was consistent.

Bertrand Russell wrote that during his adolescence he "hated life and was constantly on the verge of suicide," and the latter half of his life was spent in the sheer kookery of various political wackdivisms. Today he would no doubt be right there with the OWS crowd if only their hygiene were a bit better.

Similar to Chomsky, Russell said of JFK and Prime Minister Macmillan that "they not only want to kill all the Jews but all the rest of us too. They're much more wicked than Hitler.... They are the wickedest people that ever lived in the history of man."

So claimed the co-author of one of the most important books on cold logic ever written. Interestingly, his co-author, Whitehead, was a happy family man who forged a philosophy that has much to recommend it to the average Raccoon. I don't agree with all of it, but none of it is offensive, let alone insane.

Likewise, Wittgenstein "was the epitome, almost the caricature, of the angst-ridden genius" who was frequently preoccupied with suicide. He made his fellow eccentrics at Cambridge appear almost normal by comparison: "his emotional life was always edged with anguish" and with "a certain coldness and unbridgeable self-absorption that made him unresponsive to the feelings, one might even say the reality, of others."

This is going to be especially problematic if reality involves an irreducible element of subjectivity, e.g., the dynamic love of the Trinity.

Now that I think about it, the following odd hominems were all unmarried and childless: Sartre, Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Foucault, obviously; Descartes had a child by a servant girl, who didn't live long. Almost none of the men discussed by Kimball had happy or even remotely normal personal lives.

Out of time, and I've hardly begun... to be continued...

31 Comments:

Blogger ted said...

Wow, I love this post. This was probably my first big insight as a youngster on the path. Why are so many smart people so f'd up?! It really made me cynical about education being a tool to cure social ills, and I realized there was more to the self than IQ. So Bob, when you say "intellect is distinct from the self," it makes the idea of the self all the more significant. Hence, I had to look more deeply into my self, and I saw much I didn't like and much I desired. But I realized there was a deeper place I could respond from that had nothing to do with all the stuff I learned in school. Still making distinctions from this place of unity is useful. From there, we make distinctions without divisions in service to something ever deeper than the self.

8/21/2012 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I've mentioned before that this was an idea that first came to my attention during my psychoanalytic training -- that in order to presume to be a "healer of souls," one's own soul had to be healthy. The right knowledge or theory becomes inoperative in the wrong person, whereas merely being in the presence of a healthy soul is itself healing.

8/21/2012 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Cond0011 said...

" The right knowledge or theory becomes inoperative in the wrong person, whereas merely being in the presence of a healthy soul is itself healing."

Well, there go the liberals... :)

8/21/2012 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Good stuff. Christians typically view pride as the root sin of humanity, so it is natural to think of humility as the cardinal virtue. Humility, though, can be seen as a function of prudence. Prudent people will be humble to one degree or another because pride is imprudent. Most humans know instinctively that arrogance is going to kick their butt at some point.

I think a lot of really stupid people are under the illusion that they are, if not very smart, at least above average. (Joe Biden famously told some guy that was asking him questions that he, Biden, probably had a higher IQ than the questioner.) Most highly intelligent people are aware that they are smarter than most people around them. I am not particularly bright, but I was quicker and knew more facts than most of the kids I went to school with up through 12th grade. It’s pretty easy to get arrogant when you could tell the teacher what question she was about to write on the board or if you had to explain molar concentrations to the chemistry teacher. And, yes, it messed me up.

8/21/2012 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

"For example, Gödel was clearly one dot shy of an umlaut..."

:D

Relevant to the topic at hand, and also to what happens when people are forced to confront their scotomas, atheists supposedly find the cross debilitating.

If there's any truth to that at all, you'd think it might make them consider why. Though I don't buy it; I suspect it's just more whining in the name of all that isn't holy...

8/21/2012 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Relationship advice from Schopie: "Marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties," and "to grasp blindfolded into a sack hoping to find an eel amongst an assembly of snakes."

8/21/2012 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Wow. He'd fit right in with the bitter woman-haters of today.

8/21/2012 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Bob, you musta been radiating the coon vibe this morning; out especially far. Otta the blue comes this thought that I would not want, nor would I recommend mental health advice from somedoc I knew was an atheist.
What are the statistics, btw? ...if something like this is even roughly known.
Tell me it's better than I think.

8/21/2012 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Julie, that's funny about the atheists being affected by the cross. Atheism is a strange religion.

8/21/2012 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

I guess when they said demons fear the cross, it might've not been hyperbole.

just sayin'

8/21/2012 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

Madness is cousin to Genius---Creativity/Art is oft left on the table or walls when they meet for tea, and please notify me when it is!
For my taste, no 'madness'? = no art [that I will likely like].

I also wouldn't poo-poo the possibility that Art emerges from more 'feminine' [internally] men and more 'masculine' [psychologically] women, the Androgyne role being as humanly valid as the Patriarch/Matriarch

8/21/2012 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...


It seems to me that if one is not tethered to reality, intellect only defines to what degree they are nuts.

8/21/2012 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Coincidence -- I was just looking up something unrelated on amazon and stumbled across this: Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love.

8/21/2012 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Looks like a stupid book, but it still counts as a coincidence. Does not rise to the level of synchronicity, however.

8/21/2012 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Does make me wonder, though - can someone who fails at love as spectacularly as some of our revered philosophers truly be called a lover of wisdom? (Sorry if that's a stupid question; it's hard to tell at 3 AM...)

8/22/2012 12:41:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

Sex and Schopenhauer

amore among the moles...

8/22/2012 05:11:00 AM  
Blogger Cond0011 said...

"Relationship advice from Schopie: "Marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties," and "to grasp blindfolded into a sack hoping to find an eel amongst an assembly of snakes."

Some of the most charming/entertaing/fun people are sociopaths. A good friend of mine haunting words puts it most eloquently: 'Marriage is a crapshoot'.

If you have the knack of really knowing who your friends are, then by all means, marriage is the way to go. But for the vast majority of us it is a major risk and I try not to judge someone by their choice in spouses as it probably seemed 'like a god idea at the time'.

"Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke." - Brigid at 'Home on the Range' Website.

8/22/2012 05:59:00 AM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...


Maybe I'm too simplistic or idealistic - but I think love is more simple than complicated. Love grows or erodes based on the amount of genuine giving to the other - giving of oneself, one's time, one's trust. That's not to say it's easy.

8/22/2012 07:03:00 AM  
Blogger Cond0011 said...

" ... I think love is more simple than complicated."

I agree, ER.

If each loves the other more than they love themselves, it ought not fail.

8/22/2012 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

The philosopher's problem is probably that he tries to concoct a theory of love.

Ain't no such thing sirrah.

8/22/2012 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Cond0011 said...

Nah... seen it with my own eyes Rvier C.

There are people like that out there.

8/22/2012 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

@Cond0011 - I'm reminded of a graphic novel I read where one character asserted that people were either intelligent or attractive, and if both, crazy. So his idea was to compromise with characteristics.

Shallow, obviously... but it's those sort of ideas I remember hearing a lot of when I was single. They wouldn't be unique in being a superstition about love, would they?

But yes - love is sort of the desire for desire for another, if you will, the mutual giving being the sign of its presence.

8/22/2012 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger EbonyRaptor said...

It seems to be hard for some to understand that love is a willful choice. Love gets conflated with lust so often that the getting obscures the giving.

God loves me because of His capacity to give, not because of my attractiveness or lack thereof.

8/22/2012 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

" I suppose what I'm driving at is how it is possible for a brilliant person to be systematically wrong, in such a way that virtually everything he touches turns to falsehood."

And when those who spread their touch AS systems of thinking (Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, Kant...), then WMD's become cute in comparison.

8/23/2012 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

" Now that I think about it, the following odd hominems were all unmarried and childless: Sartre, Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Foucault, obviously; Descartes had a child by a servant girl, who didn't live long. Almost none of the men discussed by Kimball had happy or even remotely normal personal lives."

Rousseau failed at that a few times, but he immediately rectified the situation each time by removing the newborns from their mothers breast and dispatching them to certain death abandonment. Fitting, no?

8/23/2012 08:15:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Perhaps non-trivial trivia, Socrates & Aristotle both had families. Cicero too (though with mixed results).

8/23/2012 08:28:00 AM  
Blogger PatrickH said...

I hope Kimball avoids the trap that I believe Paul Johnson fell into in his disappointing "Intellectuals".

I'm curious as to whether you agree with Bruce Charlton's argument that extremely high IQ is somewhat pathological in and of itself.

8/24/2012 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

PatrickH said "... the trap that I believe Paul Johnson fell into in his disappointing "Intellectuals""

What was the trap?

8/24/2012 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger PatrickH said...

I believe Johnson failed to show any kind of *causal* relation between left-wing ideology and the personal failures of those he profiled. All he did was establish a correlation between having fashionably left-wing opinions of the time and being an awful human being. And it wasn't even clear why he ascribed leftism to some of his subjects, like Munch and Ibsen, for example. Nor did he make his case that the artistic influence of his subjects was uniformly destructive.

8/24/2012 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger dwongmeichi said...

As an M.F.T student each level I progress I see how really f'd up these "therapists" are, working out there own shit through students and clients. I would quit tomorrow but the student loans....

8/26/2012 08:45:00 PM  
Blogger dwongmeichi said...

I am an M.F.T. student and the more I progress in my studies I see how f'd up these therapists are, and how they work out their own shit through students and clients. Most are megalomaniacs, "The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history."...but not great therapists.

8/26/2012 08:50:00 PM  

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