Monday, April 07, 2008

"Common Genius" by Bill Greene -- A Review

The only thing more annoying to me than anti-intellectualism are intellectuals themselves.

Of course, this depends upon your definition of an intellectual. One of the things that always annoyed me about conservatives was their anti-intellectualism. For many, it typically makes conservatives appear anti-intelligence, anti-higher education, and even anti-art (thank you Greene for excluding us artists from the ranks of Intellectuals) -- and I have little doubt that for too many that is precisely what it means. However, Bill Greene gives us an anti-intellectualism I can (mostly) side with.If your definition of an intellectual is a really educated really smart person who thinks and writes a lot, then Bill Greene is not an anti-intellectual. For Greene, an intellectual is one whose ideas are divorced from any sort of empirical evidence. In other words, for Greene, an Idealist and an Intellectual are one and the same -- though I suppose the Intellectual has the added benefit (anchor?) of an advanced degree. An example may help to explain the way he differentiates an Intellectual from a scholar. Adam Smith based his ideas in The Wealth of Nations on observation; thus, he was a scholar. Rousseau based his ideas of the Noble Savage on no evidence at all, only his fanciful imagination; thus, he was an intellectual. Greene's anti-intellectualism is thus narrowly defined, and based on the results -- or the lack of results -- of those he defines as Intellectuals. Taking Greene's more narrow definition of Intellectual, I have been an anti-intellectual for a long time (though I suspect we may disagree about who should be in his newly defined category of Intellectual). I always considered myself an intellectual, but it seems I'm not one if we accept Greene's definition. I avoid the label precisely because I always try to derive "ought" from "is." In fact, that might be a good definition of an intellectual: anyone who attempts to divorce "ought" from "is."

Greene observes that societies are most prosperous when individuals are free to self-organize into more complex systems, while societies collapse -- or at least stagnate -- when intellectuals try to impose order in a top-down fashion. Indeed, intellecuals tend to try to simplify the world and impose a linear (rational) order on a nonlinear, complex world. If you "simplify" a cell, you turn it into its constituent chemicals -- but this is also known as killing it. The real irony is that the kind of top-down structuring intellectuals want to impose seems to destroy intellectualism too. Randall Collins says in The Sociology of Philosophies that:

"The closer the identification of Buddhism with the state, the more closely sectarian fortunes within Buddhism were tied to politics; this in turn restricted the playing field on which intellectual activity took place. Although there were flourishing centers of studies in Malaya and great temple complexes at the Burmese capital, state enforcement of orthodoxy kept philosophy in these countries largely traditionalist and uncreative. We see the same pattern at the very end of Buddhist patronage in India. The Pala kings of Bengal not only founded a new set of monastic universities but also kept them under close royal control; all posts in an elaborate hierarchy of teachers and administrators were held on commission, and all degrees were awarded by the king. Intellectual creativity did not flourish under this tight control. This situation is comparable to the stagnation in Confucian philosophy after it became adopted by the Han bureaucracy, and again during the enforcement of state orthodoxy during the Ming; by contrast, the creative period of Confucianism during the Sung occurred when both religious orthodoxy and the state ideological apparatus were in flux. In India the greatest intellectual creativity in Buddhism took place when states eclectically patronized not just Buddhism but non-Buddhist religions as well, leaving a breathing space in which Buddhist factions could take maximal advantage of their organizational base for intellectual life" (187).

He observes that this is the case worldwide. When the intellectuals get in charge of a country, intellectual creativity languishes with everything else. Indeed, Greene shows in his book that there is a strong positive correlation between intellectuals' influence and the demise of a culture and government.

I say positive correlation because I'm not sure I'm in complete agreement in regards to causation. Philosophy with Plato seems to have arisen in response to the collapse of Athens after demagogues pressed for war with Sparta -- and continue to push for that war's continuation even after it started to look bad. In Clouds, the poet Aristophanes makes Socrates out to be one of the sophists, and if we take Plato's arguments against the other sophists along with the fact that several of Socrates' students were members of the 13 Tyrants who took over after Athens' defeat, then there is certainly an argument to be made against sophists and demagogues. Plato in his political theories was perhaps reacting more to the collapse of Athens and looking toward the victor -- Sparta -- as a better political model precisely because of their victory. While the Intellectuals, as defined by Greene, did influence the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Maoist Revolution, what we perhaps see here in the U.S. is less the influence of intellectuals as of sophists and demagogues. If that is the case, we should expect a birth of philosophy in the U.S. very soon, thus signaling our fall is in the making.

For Greene, Intellectuals aren't just Fundamentalists, but Fanatics. One could even equate them to cult leaders, desirous of power -- especially the power to impose their version of reality on not just people but the world. They have the arrogance to believe the world can and should bend to their wishes. The non-intellectual understand that to rule nature, you must first obey it. In other words, they live in the real world and submit to reality in order to prosper. In other words, the Intellectuals' "concentration on pure theory severed from practical experience will normally relegate their ideas to utopian exercises that do not work" (28). Remember that "utopia" means "nowhere."

The Common Man + Security - Oppression = Economic Freedom --> Prosperity

Greene supplies example after example of how countries and peoples became prosperous throughout the ages. He then does what should be the true work of intellectuals and looks for patterns. What patterns does he see repeating over and over? "A free government system requires courts, deeds to property, coinage, patents, corporate entities, juries, and representative assemblies" (12). More simply still, what is needed is "simply the safety and incentive of secure private property, free of interference and regulation from above, so that the common man would be motivated to create prosperity" (18). Thus, Greene argues that "the market" or "the culture" are insufficient explanations for prosperity -- that the particular individuals were needed at the time to make the specific works they did. Indeed. But we mustn't forget that "the market" and "the culture" are in fact real entities which emerge from the work of the individuals and which feeds back to influence individuals. It's a nonlinear feedback loop. But we must remember that to have a productive economy or culture that we need good rules which will free the energy of the people to make what creates the great culture which inspires more people to greatness. Michaelangelo wasn't the first Renaissance painter -- but he was its greatest. Greene identifies those rules, as stated above, and he does recognize that "the market" and "the culture" is a bottom-up process. It is people who make markets and cultures. And people need the freedom to act to create strong markets and great cultures.

Since this is the case, what need is there for Intellectuals? If prosperity is created from the bottom up, then top-down solutions won't work. And if the culture is created from the bottom up, then top-down impositions will only work to destroy culture (consider how much great French literature has been written since the French Language Council came into existence to dictate what words were properly French). Greene observes that intellectuals are frustrated because the market shows they aren't needed for people to live their lives and have what they want. Not happy helping people understand the different things a poem means, theorists like Stanley Fish have to tell us how to live our lives as well. For a wonderful argument on how absurd this is, I recommend Plato's Ion, in which Socrates is asking an expert in Homer exactly what it is he is an expert at?

THis of course opens up the question of what it is intellectuals could be for. Intellectuals could be working to educate people into having less "vulgar" tastes in the arts, but how can they legitimately do so when they argue nothing has value or meaning? In the end, they can't even educate people to have better taste (having rejected notions of "better"), and so feel they have to force people to accept/watch/listen to what intellectuals think is good -- typically things that undermine value and meaning. So there needs to be some serious reform in the upper eschelons of education. Thus, I disagree with Greene that Intellectuals have "only a poor future" in a culture with a capitalist economy -- unless one is counting the social engineers, in which case, they do, and good riddance. They cold and should have a future -- if they want it -- teaching people to value more complex works of art and literature and, thus, to live fuller, more beautiful lives.

Greene asks: "Has the intellectuals' permanent role in history been simply to play catch-up with the actual doers of history . . .?" (41). The short answer is: yes. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Think about the example he gives of Locke, Hume, and Kant being 500 years behind the Icelandic founders of parliamentary government. Obviously they are behind the Icelandic people. But what did these thinkers do? They recognized this one small island of few people (even if they did not acknowledge that recognition) and their form of government, explained it, and brought the idea to many, many more people. The proper role of the intellectual is to recognize and explain the patterns in history, society, culture, works of art, music, or literature, etc. Their proper role is, again, as educator. Unfortunately, too many have divested themselves of their proper role, which underlies Greene's complaints against them. His complaint seems to actually be against Romantic or Idealist intellectuals, not against those who stay rooted in reality (many intellectuals would then ask "what is reality," at which Greene would undoubtedly roll his eyes and say, "You're exactly who I'm talking about").

One problem I find with Greene is his tendency to discount a person's work in one area just because the person shows himself a fool elsewhere. A case in point is Noam Chomsky, whose work on language is very important and which Greene should recognize as the kind of work he approves of. However, Chomsky commits the fallacy of all the people Plato's Socrates complains about and thinks that just because he's an expert in one field, he's an expert in everything. His non-linguistics work is all the worst example of intellectualism and shows him to be at best a complete fool and at worst a paranoid conspiracy nut. The fact that Chomsky is the latter doesn't negate his brilliant work in the former, as a linguist.

Along these lines, one could challenge many of those whom Greene includes in his list of Intellectuals. If we take his definition of Intellectuals as "that large group who fall in love with their abstract and utopian ideas, care not for actual results, and come to their tasks with no actual work experience" (43), then he would have a hard time including people like Aristotle, who did biology experiments and was very practical-minded, or Descartes, who was a mathematician of great note.

Still, Greene is right about most of the intellectuals he mentions, especially when it comes to their understanding of politics and economics. I have often argued with one the kinds of intellectuals Greene complains about -- those who look to natural resources as the reason for prosperity (the oil-rich countries would seem to be strong counter-examples of this thesis) -- arguing that we can and will find alternatives to whatever their pet resource is. They alway demand I explain how I know people will develop alternatives -- and the answer that history shows we always do is never a good enough explanation for them. Apparently historical precedence is not enough -- absolute certainty of the future (from people who otherwise argue against absolutes) is what they demand. Lord knows, if I knew what the actual alternatives would be, don't they think I would be out making them rather than taking with them?

All in all, though, Greene shows what systems science is beginning to show: that in order to have a healthy, complex system, you have to have bottom-up self-organization with good rules of interaction. With bottom-up processes we get complex entities like cells, which are able to adapt to their environment and grow and even go so far as to reduce entropy. All top-down processes are like engines -- which are simple and can only do one job, which they do inefficiently before they finally run down, overcome by entropy. This is what the intellectuals promise when they try to impose unnatural top-down processes on a natural system. They want to do so because they think they know better than anyone else what everyone else needs (though if we look at their lives, we typically see they don't even know how to run their own lives well). Their elitist attitudes --- meaning they think they are smarter than anyone else, not that they typically are -- make them think that it is they and they alone who know what is best for everyone. In the meantime, the average person is getting along just fine without them. And this, after all, is the overall -- and correct -- message of Greene's book. It is a book I wold recommend to anyone who is interested in learning the true source of prosperity in the world. Greene asks the right question, where intellectuals get it backwards. Intellectuals ask "what is the cause of poverty" -- as though wealth were what is normal. Greene asks "what is the cause of wealth" -- correctly recognizing that it is wealth which is unusual in world history, and needs to be explained. In the end, if you can't even ask the right questions, how do you expect to get the right answers?

"Common Genius" is a book everyone should read -- especially our political leaders, intellectuals, and demagogues. If anyone needs to learn how the world actually works, it is them. The rest of us already know.

One last thought: Greene observes that the differences between materially successful societies and materially unsuccessful societies boils down to having property rights protected, meaning people get the fruits of their labor, and that it has nothing to do with race, class, culture, society, or (certainly) presence or absence of intellectuals. There is only one way of knowing if this is true: we should test this by giving everyone the world over property rights protections and see what happens.
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