Intellectual Vices

straw man

Two illustrations of a very serious, and very common, intellectual vice:

One: When Jon Monfasani write a highly critical evaluation of Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern for Reviews in History, Greenblatt responded — and this is the whole of his response —, “I plead guilty to the Burckhardtianism of which John Monfasani accuses me. That is, I am of the devil’s party that believes that something significant happened in the Renaissance. And I plead guilty as well to the conviction, regarded by my genial and learned reviewer as ‘eccentric’, that atomism – whose principal vehicle was Lucretius’ De rerum natura – was crucially important in the intellectual trajectory that led to Jefferson, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.”

Now, if you read Monfasani’s review, you’ll discover that Greenblatt has simply ignored the detailed and careful argument that Monfasani makes in order to pretend that Monfasani has said ridiculous things. Oh yeah, Monfasani, that guy who thinks nothing significant happened in the Renaissance.

Two: Thomas Pfau, in his recent Minding the Modern, adopts a version of what I have called the neo-Thomist interpretation of history — sort of the opposite of the Whig interpretation of history — according to which a handful of late-medieval Franciscan nominalists broke down the great edifice of Thomist thought and thereby brought about the great catastrophes we call the Reformation and Modernity. Pfau has done his reading, so he knows that there are dissenting historical narratives out there, notably that of Bonnie Dorrick Kent in her 1995 book Virtues of the will: the Transformation of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century. Here’s how Pfau deals with Kent’s argument:

Among the most strident accounts in this regard is that by Bonnie Kent, who rejects Alasdair MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas as having achieved a synthesis of Aristotelian and Augustinian thought and — particularly in Whose Justice? and Three Rival Versions — relying excessively on Étienne Gilson’s master-narrative, which unfolds the History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages from an unabashedly Thomist perspective…. Thus Kent rejects “the tendency to describe thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thought in anticipation of developments centuries later. Knowing what will come, the modern writer easily slips into foreshadowing, dividing those masters and doctrines that were ‘properly’ medieval from those that anticipated, even helped to produce, the ultimate divorce of philosophy from theology.” Needless to say, the present argument reaffirms — albeit also seeks to demonstrate at the level of close textual interpretation — the viability, indeed the necessity, of narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.

Two moves of note here: first, before allowing us to hear what Kent’s argument is, Pfau preemptively describes it as “strident”; second, he casts her dissent from the neo-Thomist narrative as a wholesale rejection of “narrative continuities in the domain of intellectual history and philosophical theology.” But of course absolutely nothing that Kent writes repudiates “narrative continuities.” Rather, she argues (persuasively, to my mind) that one particular claim of narrative continuity is mistaken.

So to critics of The Swerve Greenblatt says, “I guess you don’t think anything significant happened in the Renaissance.” And to critics of the neo-Thomist account, Pfau says, “I guess you don’t believe in narrative continuities in intellectual history.” Pure strawmannery, of course; it’s just sadly interesting to see it at work on what are supposed to be the Higher Levels of intellectual discourse.

tech intellectuals and the military-technological complex

I was looking forward to reading Henry Farrell’s essay on “tech intellectuals”, but after reading it I found myself wishing for a deeper treatment. Still, what’s there is a good start.

The “tech intellectual” is a curious newfangled creature. “Technology intellectuals work in an attention economy,” Farrell writes. “They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message that they can make a living from it.” This is the best part of Farrell’s essay:

To do well in this economy, you do not have to get tenure or become a contributing editor to The New Republic (although the latter probably doesn’t hurt). You just need, somehow, to get lots of people to pay attention to you. This attention can then be converted into more material currency. At the lower end, this will likely involve nothing more than invitations to interesting conferences and a little consulting money. In the middle reaches, people can get fellowships (often funded by technology companies), research funding, and book contracts. At the higher end, people can snag big book deals and extremely lucrative speaking engagements. These people can make a very good living from writing, public speaking, or some combination of the two. But most of these aspiring pundits are doing their best to scramble up the slope of the statistical distribution, jostling with one another as they fight to ascend, terrified they will slip and fall backwards into the abyss. The long tail is swarmed by multitudes, who have a tiny audience and still tinier chances of real financial reward.

This underlying economy of attention explains much that would otherwise be puzzling. For example, it is the evolutionary imperative that drives the ecology of technology culture conferences and public talks. These events often bring together people who are willing to talk for free and audiences who just might take an interest in them. Hopeful tech pundits compete, sometimes quite desperately, to speak at conferences like PopTech and TEDx even though they don’t get paid a penny for it. Aspirants begin on a modern version of the rubber-chicken circuit, road-testing their message and working their way up.

TED is the apex of this world. You don’t get money for a TED talk, but you can get plenty of attention—enough, in many cases, to launch yourself as a well-paid speaker ($5,000 per engagement and up) on the business conference circuit. While making your way up the hierarchy, you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.

The last point seems exactly right to me. The big tech businesses have the money to pay those hefty speaking fees, and they are certainly not going to hand out that cash to someone who would like to knock the props right out from under their lucrative enterprise. Thus, while Evgeny Morozov is a notably harsh critic of many other tech intellectuals, his career is also just as dependent as theirs on the maintenance of the current techno-economic order — what, in light of recent revelations about the complicity of the big tech companies with the NSA, we should probably call the military-technological complex.

The only writer Farrell commends in his essay is Tim Slee, and Slee has been making these arguments for some time. In one recent essay, he points out that “the nature of Linux, which famously started as an amateur hobby project, has been changed by the private capital it attracted. . . . Once a challenger to capitalist modes of production, Linux is now an integral part of them.” In another, he notes that big social-media companies like Facebook want to pose as outsiders, as hackers in the old sense of the word, but in point of fact “capitalism has happily absorbed the romantic pose of the free software movement and sold it back to us as social networks.”

You don’t have to be a committed leftist, like Farrell or Slee, to see that the entanglement of the tech sector with both the biggest of big businesses and the powers of vast national governments is in at least some ways problematic, and to wish for a new generation of tech intellectuals capable of articulating those problems and pointing to possible alternative ways of going about our information-technology work. Given the dominant role the American university has long had in the care and feeding of intellectuals, should we look to university-based minds for help? Alas, they seem as attracted by tech-business dollars as anyone else, especially now that VCs are ready to throw money at MOOCs. Where, then, will the necessary voices of critique come from?