[Paleopsych] Project Syndicate: Steve Fuller: The Vanished Intellectual
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Mon Mar 28 22:47:53 UTC 2005
Steve Fuller: The Vanished Intellectual
This spring marks the centenary of the birth of two all-round
intellectuals, those ideological avatars of the Cold War era, Raymond
Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre. Aron was born on March 14, 1905, Sartre on
Sartre and Aron began their 50-year acquaintance with a shared elite
French education that included a formative period in Germany just
before the rise of Nazism. Each in his inimitable way displayed the
contrariness both loved and loathed in intellectuals: Aron fancied
Anglo-American liberalism before it became fashionable, while Sartre
remained a Communist sympathiser after the fashion had passed.
Aron wrote cool, sleek prose about the most heated geopolitical
conflicts, while Sartre could turn any triviality into an existential
crisis. Yet they often stood together against the French political
establishment. Both joined the Resistance when France was a Nazi
puppet state, and both called for Algerian independence after France
regained its sovereignty.
Unfortunately, Sartre and Aron are also joined in death: both have
been disowned, ignored, or underrated by all the academic disciplines
- philosophy, literature, sociology, politics - to which their
voluminous works might be thought to have contributed. Silenced by
death, Sartre and Aron are remembered more for the attitudes they
brought to whatever they wrote about than for what they actually said.
Theirs is a fate perennially suffered by intellectuals. Great
intellectuals like Abelard, Erasmus, Galileo, Voltaire, Zola, and
Russell each challenged the pieties of his era, and we now regard
their success as a good thing. But most of us are likely to recoil at
the methods they used in their work as intellectuals: caricature,
deception, and even fabrication. Consider three examples.
Abelard is credited with the introduction of theology as a critical
discipline in Christianity. Yet, he did so by juxtaposing
contradictory quotes taken out of context, showing that neither the
Bible nor the Church fathers speak in one voice and that readers must
decide for themselves.
Similarly, Galileo is now known to have committed what we now call
"research fraud" in his famed physical experiments. Assuming he
conducted them at all, they very probably did not produce the neat
results that he used to assail his opponents.
As for Zola, who defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus from charges of
treason fueled by anti-Semitism, he was easily convicted for libel
because he merely questioned the motives of witnesses without offering
any new evidence.
All three were subsequently vindicated - sometimes in their lifetimes,
sometimes not. What they shared is a paradoxical ethic common to all
intellectuals: the end cause of truth justifies whatever means happens
to be at your disposal. This is because the whole truth is rarely what
passes for the truth at any moment.
Such an ethic is abhorrent in today's world, where knowledge is
parceled out to academic disciplines like bits of real estate. To an
intellectual, an academic may look like someone who mistakes the means
of inquiry for its end. But to academics, intellectuals look like
ramblers freely trespassing on other people's property, picking the
fruits and despoiling the soil.
Intellectuals differ from ordinary academics in holding that the truth
is best approached not by producing new knowledge, but by destroying
old belief. When the Enlightenment philosophers renovated the old
Christian slogan, "The truth shall set you free," they imagined a
process of opening doors, not building barricades.
In short, intellectuals want their audiences to think for themselves,
not simply shift allegiances from one expert to another. The
intellectual's ethic is both exhilarating and harsh, for it places
responsibility for thinking squarely on the thinker's shoulders. Every
act of deference thus becomes an abdication of one's own intellectual
The slogan "Knowledge is power" may be familiar, but only
intellectuals see its full implications. Obviously, greater knowledge
enhances our capacity to act. What is much less obvious is that such
empowerment requires the destruction of socially sanctioned knowledge.
Only then is a society's space for decision opened up, enabling its
members to move in many more directions than previously deemed
Aron and Sartre developed contrasting, but equally controversial,
styles of destroying received belief. Aron preferred demonizing fellow
intellectuals as alarmists than conceding that the Cold War might
eventuate in a nuclear holocaust. Sartre castigated those who failed
to resist oppression when they could have, while excusing those who
enforced oppression given the chance.
Aron exaggerated the power of reason, while Sartre inflated the power
of action. Each wanted to take French society in radically different
directions, but both never ceased being critical of the status quo. In
the end, the two appear to have thought both in and out of their time.
While this makes them awkward candidates for any academic discipline,
such is the ambivalence of any intellectual's legacy.
Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.
He is the author of The Intellectual, a book inspired by Machiavelli's
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