Wanted: American Intellectuals Thinkers

Helen [Mom]: "Everyone's special, Dash."

Dash [Son]: [muttering] "Which is another way of saying no one is."
 - from the Pixar movie, The Incredibles
One of the tragedies, and paradoxes, of our post modernist age is the dominance of the sympathetic "intellectual" as opposed to the hardheaded "thinker" in Western culture. Everyone is a kindly intellectual and almost no one is an objective thinker. (I will explain the difference between the two in a moment.)

Our present situation is not good for the Republic.  By selling feel good snake oil intellectualism, we have polarized America into unwavering ideological camps, each camp filled with phony sophisticates. How we got ourselves into this pickle is an interesting story.

Friedrich Nietzsche saw this situation coming to the West over a hundred years ago:
No Shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels differently goes voluntarily to the mad house....

All are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. All still quarrel, but are soon reconciled - else it might spoil the digestion....

"We have invented happiness," say the last men, and they blink.[i]
For at least 50 years we have been taught by our society that all values, cultures, and ideas are relative. Different people have different belief systems and we must respect those differences. (I have written extensively about this issue in American Thinker here and here, so I will not go into detail about the problem. I urge the reader to revisit those articles for a more complete explanation.)

This relativism is a cultural, not an ideological, problem. Relativism affects the entire society. For example, I attended a baseball (t-ball) game for very young children a few weeks ago. Some local Christian churches in southern Idaho sponsor the league. America doesn't get much more conservative than Christian churches in southern Idaho. 

I was shocked to find that the league did not keep score.  There were no winners and losers in the games. I was told that the idea was to teach the kids basic baseball skills and "self-esteem."

"Great effort Jimmy!" The coach congratulated one little kid who was not wearing his mitt, who wandered aimlessly around the ball field, and had not a clue what was going on in the game of baseball. In other words, Idaho's conservative Christians, just like East coast liberals, offered the poor little kid relativistic cultural psychobabble instead of the hard (and true) lesson that life is full of winners and losers.

With utmost brevity, here is what happens to a culture that declares all values are relative:

First, everyone becomes a moral expert or moral intellectual. In fact, everyone is forced to become an intellectual. If only I know what is right and wrong for me, and if only you know what is right and wrong for you, then we are each the only agents qualified to make judgments on our individual actions. We are each our unique moral envoy.

This purported ability of each of us to create our own values not only makes us each our own intellectual guru. It is also supposed to bring about an era of peace and happiness where no one judges anyone else.

And then ... and then ... and then ... human nature kicks in. Sometimes (in reality many times) my values might be in conflict with your values.

Take, as a most amusing example, Obamacare. Now if our society really believed that I created my values and you created your values, then insurance companies and drug companies would go about creating their values and selling their products because ...  well, those are their values.

But Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid drop the whole pretense of relativism when it comes to drug and insurance companies.  The people who run those businesses are evil.  When someone disagrees with Nancy and Harry, relativism is suddenly irrelevant.

What this conflict of real values indicates is that the intellectual (as opposed to the thinker) is actually close-minded. The intellectual believes you have a right to your opinion -- as long as it agrees with his opinion. The intellectual is not a thinker.  Here is why:

I discovered the difference between the intellectual and the thinker during college.  I kept hearing the buzz around campus about a philosopher named John Rawls and a book called A Theory of Justice. I found John Rawls and sat in on his lectures.

Rawls was the prototypical intellectual.  He knew everything.  He had figured out what no philosopher -- since at least Socrates -- had been able to figure out: Rawls grasped the meaning of justice! "Justice is equality," he proclaimed and sold hundred of thousands of books. (That was easy. Damn, how I wish I had been intellectual enough to figure out that justice is equality.)

Rawls knew how to end poverty -- and not just his poverty by selling a lot of books.  Rawls knew how to end all poverty. (Think Obamacare and those who claim they can provide universal medical coverage and not raise taxes.) If memory serves, Rawls called his solution "the difference principle." It went something like this: the just regime owed its greatest benefits to the poorest in society. Such a simple plan. Take from the rich and give to the poor. Rawls' disquisitions sounded like Robin Hood, or Bob Dylan ... or Jesus. (Again, think Obamacare.)

Yup. Professor Rawls had all the answers. And most of my fellow students at Harvard treated Rawls like a legend, or a rock star ... or a savior.

I sat through his classes. I read A Theory of Justice.  I was unimpressed. Rawls' discourses and his book could best be described as "Karl Marx lite." Rawls told his students, and his readers, exactly what they wanted to hear: if everyone was nice and everyone "shared" (this "sharing" would be enforced by the central government -- which would be run by the intellectuals from Harvard who had read and understood John Rawls) we would all live in peace and harmony. (Obamacare, anyone?)

At about the same time I was studying Rawls, I stumbled on to a real live thinker: the philosopher Robert Nozick. I have written about my relationship with Professor Nozick elsewhere and I will not revisit that topic here. The point for our current discussion is that it took a man like Robert Nozick, rather than John Rawls, to teach me the difference between being a real thinker and a faux-naïf intellectual with a high IQ.

In the preface to Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, (written, partially, as a response to Rawls' A Theory of Justice) Nozick explained the need to stop intellectualizing, once in a while, and to actually start thinking:
Works of philosophy [and science, religion, and politics, I would add] are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it's not, surely, that each philosopher [or scientist, theologian, or politician] thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it.

I like to think that intellectual honesty demands that, at least occasionally, we go out of our way to confront strong arguments opposed to our views.  How else are we to protect ourselves from continuing error?
Carefully consider that last paragraph. How can we protect ourselves from becoming spellbound ideologues -- trapped in a continuing error -- unless we openly and honestly consider powerful alternative viewpoints from time to time?

Notice that this is not a question of ideology. (Ideologies can be right or wrong.) This is a question of intellectual integrity, or "honesty" as Nozick puts it.

This is a question that too many intellectuals on the left and on the right are loath to contemplate. They already have the truth because they have their ideology. Their truth is their ideology. (Justice is equality and Bush is Hitler. Or the truth is in the Bible and Obama is Hitler. Left and right. Class dismissed. We can stop thinking now. We have the answers. We are all intellectuals.)

Intellectuals are marked by two distinct characteristics: [ii] 1) They believe in a vague ideological position that, they contend, solves numerous specific political and social problems. 2) Intellectuals tend to project their own immediate difficulties and needs into the abstract venue of their ideology. (They confuse saving the world with saving themselves.)

As I have indicated, intellectualism is not a prerogative of the left or the right. Since the left dominates the academic setting in the US (and in most of the free world for that matter), it is much easier to understand the abject failure of intellectualism by examining the thinking of contemporary "progressive" intellectuals. Everyone on the left is an intellect (though few are thinkers). The left's head over heels love affair with Friedrich Nietzsche provides a perfect example of the shallowness of intellectualism.

Nietzsche is famous for his prediction of the appearance one day of an intellectual Übermensch or "superman."  Nietzsche claimed that the existing (and decaying) moral values of the West would one day be overthrown by a single superior human being - the creator of a new "table of values" (a new Decalogue).   He said that this man (and this creator would be a man -- it is very clear that Nietzsche considered women inferior creatures) would be a one of a kind warrior poet.

Nietzsche was also a salesman to the masses - to the new class of intellectuals - his potential readers.  Even though it is crystal clear that there can be only one Übermensch, Nietzsche never tires of stroking the intellectual:
You creators, you higher men! Who in fact is your neighbor? And even if you act "for the neighbor" -- you don't create for him!
The left has swallowed Nietzsche's promise hook, line, and sinker. Every "progressive" intellectual is his own artist warrior. Writing his values. Bravely confronting the empty world through the sheer power of his mighty intellect!

Create your own rules! (The liberal intellectual actually believes that this is what Nietzsche has told him.) Every one is an Übermensch! Do you own thing! Be an intellectual! Buy my book!

From Friedrich Nietzsche to John Rawls the cunning con continues. The intellectual, smug in the superiority of someone else's ideas, thinks he is smarter than the rest of us. It is enough to make a rational person stop ... and think.
"I learned early in life that a man not fiercely committed to a single point of view is as apt a philosopher as anybody else."
 - John Gardner, The King's Indian

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of The Order of the Beloved, and the new memoir, Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market.

[i] I translated "Man ist klug und weiss," etc. into the plural since the passage obviously applies to each of the "last men" - that is to us.  As I read those lines from Nietzsche I thought of the relationship I have seen between the Democrat Party and the Republican Party during my lifetime ... and then I shuddered in fear.

[ii] Highly recommended reading -- for understanding the psychology of the intellectual -- is Paul Johnson's classic work Intellectuals.