A Woman, Thinking

Hofstadter AIiAL: Definitions, Part 2

Words on WordsPoppy LochridgeComment

Aristophanes might be down as the earliest recorded anti-intellectual critic, after mocking Socrates in his play The Clouds for having his head in, ahem, the clouds, and asking ridiculous questions. (measuring the distance jumped by a flea? Why on earth would you want to know THAT?) If Aristophanes is the first, hard on his heels is Meletius, who brought Socrates up on charges of corrupting Athenian youth by making their elders look foolish before them.

And so it goes. As much as intellectuals define themselves as people who employ abstract reasoning and problem solving for personal enjoyment, the rest of the world has defined them as people with their head in the clouds, out of touch with what's important to the rest of society, and potentially dangerous around your children.

Hofstadter claims that the challenge of the intellectual as impractical and out of touch has faded. His reasoning is that the intellectual, in the guise of the expert, is no longer impractical, but necessary to understand the complex economic and social systems that underlie our modern world. I respectfully disagree with Prof. Hofstadter here - criticism leveled at modern intellectuals often focus on their lack of emotional volatility, calling them "wooden" and uncaring. The underlying message is that intellectuals could not possibly understand how "we" feel - we who are common people who feel love and fear and hate.

This charge is seconded in the mass media, by #1 songs like "Chicken Fried", which extols the simple life - fried chicken, a cold beer at the end of the week, and the love of family: we "common" people know what love is. It's evident in the popularity of a book and movie series about a boy with no special attributes other than the knack of choosing the right friends and the magical memory of a mother's love. It's evident in the wide variety of children's programming where the villain is cold-hearted, unemotional and learned - while the hero is young, untrained, and passionate.

These negative definitions are not false. As discussed earlier, an intellectual does not follow the priorities of the rest of society, often leading her to investigate topics which no-one else has any interest in. As such, she is often intentionally out of touch with her fellows. Likewise, to become emotionally attached to an idea restricts the ability to play with different conceptions of that idea - and so being emotionally detached is generally a useful habit. These definitions are valid - and the other side of the coin to the more positive self-definition of an intellectual as a person who plays with abstract reasoning and problem solving for his own purpose, not on behalf of another's priorities.