Intellectual Arrogance

One trait that one can see through history is a belief that we can actually understand our world and improve it.  This creates a tendency towards intellectual arrogance; people become sure that their theories about reality are right, and can build rational arguments and cherry pick data to buttress their belief.  Yet shouldn’t we strive to understand the world in which we find itself and make improvements? 

Yes, but sometimes the results are horrific.   Over 100 million people were killed because people thought various forms of the ideology of Communism were accurate, and would produce a utopia if only a country could be reshaped, by force if necessary.   We in the West are not immune.   The neo-conservative thought that brought a destructive war to Iraq — and which in its early stages envisioned a kind of American imperium with Mideast states reshaped to become pro-American democracies — was based on similar arrogance.    Our democracy and capitalist institutions are the right ones for the world, the neo-conservatives argued.   We should be bold in even using force to expand their reach.    Why do we so easily get seduced by illusions of certainty?

 The problem, as noted by Renaissance Guy is that we have uncertainty in a world that requires us to act.   Moreover, while any claim to certainty can be doubted, experience often proves beliefs to have been effective.   I may be wrong, but my experience suggests that I’m probably right, so I’ll act as if I can assume certainty.  For all practical purposes I’m certain gravity won’t cease to function, or that gas won’t change to wine in my car’s tank.  Almost all of life runs that way — we can assume we are right in our beliefs because of practical experience, and we can act with certainty.

But what about complex and abstract beliefs, like ideologies, moral codes, or core values?   Here things get murky.  Experience is less likely to give one an answer about what is right or wrong.   Moreover, experience is so vast that when you move from the concrete to the abstract you can choose the evidence you use and the interpretations you make in order to justify or rationalize any belief.    Often the consequences of acting with certainty on a false abstract belief are not directly observable, or may themselves be ambiguous.   China’s one child policy forced birth control and abortions on people, but the result is that they got their birth rate under control.  Does that mean they did the right thing?   Do we know the long term consequences yet?

While consequences determine how we judge ‘correct’ beliefs in the world of objects, it may be that in the world of values and morality the consequence is either irrelevant or invisible.  It could be that a morally correct action requires one to sacrifice ones’ own life and gain nothing.   It may be that results of doing the right thing won’t be observable.  I may not realize that by stopping to remove that debris from the road I prevented a car from an accident that would have taken two lives.  We can’t know what might have happened differently if we acted differently.

Why does this matter?   First, I want to live the best life possible, so I try to figure out what is moral and good — so a question like this is practical.  Secondly, as a social critic entering into a major research project, this question is at the core of my analysis.  It touches on the economic crisis we’re experiencing, how we’ve gotten involved in numerous wars, and the fundamental values of our culture.  I fear that at this point we’re lost in a kind of post-modern conundrum, whereby truth is less important than political victory.  Positions are determined and argued based on emotion and tactics, there isn’t a lot of listening or interaction.  Indeed, it’s become very easy to demonize the other side, and through insults convince oneself that those idiots are simply wrong.  It all becomes a discursive war, whoever wins gets their way.   The most dangerous opponent is someone who agrees with you sometimes and wants to understand you — they may force you to consider their positions and compromise, and that’s would weaken core principles. 

How can one conceptualize an alternative where one doesn’t need to claim certainty or being right, and one can listen to other perspectives, and try to figure out ways to learn and understand — how to see the situation through diverse lenses?    On the one hand this seems like it should be easy — politicians need to start acting the way we teach kids to act in kindergarten: respect each other, talk nicely, share and listen.  We seem to know how we should act.  But in the real world of politics where people get emotionally invested in debates, ideologies and causes, it’s easier said then done.  Moreover, our culture and way of thinking breeds this kind of intellectual arrogance, an arrogance which causes all of us to far too often ignore those basic modes of behavior we teach our children.   We personalize our intellectual differences, the “other” becomes not just a different person, but a personification of a different/dangerous/wrong way of thinking.

That’s a key question I’m delving into.    Being at a university that is not publish or perish, I have the leisure of being able to read a lot, develop a research plan that reflects my interests (in this case it’s connected to consumerism and militarism), and try to address a major issue of the day, to make a real contribution.   I’m currently grappling with trying to understand Theodor Adorno, and have a list of other thinkers — even ‘out there esoteric’ philosophers — I’m going to consider.  This is going to involve psychology, sociology, philosophy, and bring together diverse approaches.  Peter Berger is another important thinker in this regard, he and Thomas Luckmann wrote the classic “The Social Construction of Reality,” and Berger has been involved in exploring the sociology of religion.  Art is important, I plan to work with people in the arts to develop this approach.  I may fall flat on my face with something totally unpublishable.   But I’d rather do that then engage in the cookie cutter writing that people at publish or perish institutions are forced to engage in.   Being willing to risk failure is necessary to success — and probably a good antedote to intellectual arrogance.   And if I have fun and learn something, all’s well.

  1. #1 by Adrian on March 26, 2009 - 21:07

    Prof Erb,

    I wish you the best of luck in your project(s)! And I’m glad that you haven’t been too busy to share your thoughts with us.

    One word of caution, however (which I assume you’re aware of): Many great works are great because they focus on specific things at the expense of others and weren’t overly ambitious.

    Regardless of what you do, at this rate you’ve amassed a nice collection of blog posts which may also amount to something publishable in the future.

  2. #2 by megdzyak on March 26, 2009 - 23:07

    Hey Scott!

    Yay for the Adorno! Anyway I have some reading material for you if interested (we’ve been using some of this in my popular music genres seminar – however, it is far reaching beyond music.)

    “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”
    from Dialect of Enlightenment

    Alex Thomson
    Adorno:A Guide for the Perplexed

    Pierre Bourdieu
    “The Field of Cultural Production”
    from The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature

  3. #3 by megdzyak on March 26, 2009 - 23:11

    PS- I should have specified that these readings may be helpful to your research.

    Ciao, M

  4. #4 by henitsirk on March 28, 2009 - 02:08

    I like to compare rigidity of thinking with physical rigidity, specifically that of aging and death. When we are babies, we are completely round and soft and flexible. Our lives are truly open to possibility. Toward the end of our lives, we tend to become rather set in our ways, and at the same time our arteries harden, our skin loses its elasticity, the truly elderly often have very thick nails, and so on. Older generations stereotypically are not open to new ideas and technologies, as well.

    I think this idea of moral and intellectual certitude is a strong facet of American culture, shall we say even the American spirit. We can look back on the intolerant Puritans, Manifest Destiny, and so on, all the way to the events and decisions you mentioned of today. Maybe part of it is that we have more or less taken over a relatively unpopulated, vast land — in comparison with densely populated Europe that has had centuries of interrelations within its numerous states. (And of course being a scholar of German history, you know I am vastly generalizing. One certainly could point to moral and intellectual certitude in German culture as well!)

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2009 - 20:03

    Meg, thanks — I have the “Guide for the Perplexed” (borrowed from Steve), and “Dialectic of Enlightenment.” I’m going to look over a German language copy, I’ve heard Adorno is easier to understand in German. I’ll go order the Bourdieu (though so far Ursus hasn’t had much luck with having this sort of book in the U Maine system, I’m having to go outside via interlibrary loan). I’m trying to make a kind of map in my mind on how various thinkers approached these issues (well, not just in my mind, but on paper too). I get the feeling we’re at an end of a particular era, which is both exciting and scary.

    I’m also ordering some books that deviate a bit more from the norm, like Rudolf Steiner. I think he’s similar to the kind of theosophic influences that Steve talked about on Scriabbin. I’m not sure how much of all this is going to go into the project, I’m casting a wide net early, and plan to send the next few months just reading and taking notes…(well, beyond teaching and the rest of the normal routine).

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2009 - 20:12

    Henitsirk, Watching my three year old play, I certainly envy his flexibility! I do notice that a lot of core beliefs remain similar to what they were thirty years ago. Actually, I can trace most of them back to general predispositions that I had in my teens. Perhaps I brought them with me into this life.

    I’ve always found the differences between American and British pragmatism and German idealism to be fascinating. There seems to be a meeting ground between Nietzsche and William James. The two were vastly different stylistically and in emphasis, but the similarities beneath the surface are striking.

    I definitely think that the American frontier had a profound impact on our psyches, compared to the settled and densely populated Europe. That’s one thing that makes the Frankfurt School (Adorno, discussed above, and others like Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc.) so interesting — they were Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany, and they were observing America as outsiders. They praised much of what they saw, but also noticed a dark side to our style of capitalism — a consumerism and commodification of life that reminded them of the fascist Germany they left behind (Goebbels said all he needed to know about propaganda he learned from Madison Avenue). Oh, and I’m ordering the Steiner book you recommended, and look forward to that too. I feel in the mood to read….

  7. #7 by henitsirk on March 30, 2009 - 02:57

    Hmmm…commodification of life. I guess I’d say the Third Reich (and communism) subsumed the individual into a commodity to support the state’s aims. But in the US it can’t quite be that obvious and direct because we have such a strong streak of emphasizing the individual — even though we really do also get commodified by our state if only because of the sheer population size that needs to be governed.

    Steiner was the head of the German branch of the Theosophical Society but broke away from them in part because of their belief in Krishnamurti as the Maitreya. Many of the beliefs are similar, though Steiner went farther on an esoteric Christian path and also expanded his work into numerous practical areas (agriculture, architecture, education, etc.).

  8. #8 by Scott Erb on March 30, 2009 - 20:18

    Thanks, Adrian. Yes, you are right to warn against over ambition. That is a problem I sometimes have, I try to do too much, and end up doing nothing!

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