Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
In the Beat decades, William Burroughs wrote something incendiary in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings, almost an echo of Plato's Allegory of the Cave:
To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth.
The American public is still notoriously fickle and manipulable — and still getting rapiered — just because at most it excites itself about superficial, circumstantial issues. Like a craft with no ballast, it can't keep a course or defend itself against bluster and surface turbulence.
Weight, penetrating power, stabilizing substance: where these are lacking, minds become toys and fools of those with the loudest voices.
This column is written against the narcosis: against the lotus-eaters, of every sort: and especially against the intellectual flyweights, who give thinking a bad name.
Daniel 5.27: Mene mene tekel upharsin. Even post-literates ought to be able to read the writing on Belshazzar's wall.
An inaugural column ought to show a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, however much it intends to abuse them later. The two questions by which most discriminating readers orient themselves — What's it about? and What's it good for? — deserve a preliminary nod.
This column is about issues. More abstract issues than most periodicals take up, probably, but in these precincts "abstract" does not mean what it might usually mean: abstruse, unappetizing, inconceivably unimportant. Abstract issues are conceptual issues, comprehensively put: they are not necessarily cured of their life-juices, and certainly should not be uprooted from their contexts in the currents of our lives.
Kierkegaard remarked in his Journals that being objective about objective matters is no great accomplishment — what is difficult is being objective about subjective matters. Philosophy is the art of doing that, a continuous task of articulation in dialogue with the mythic and subliminal strains in individual and historical life. It clarifies and consolidates not just the mind but the soul as well, the undertones and overtones of our conscious thoughts and acts. It is as much subtler and more expansive than our everyday thought, as the entire realm of radiant energy is beyond the narrow band of visible light.
The world is not in fact a playground for hedonists; it is a battleground for ideas, most of which are far from innocuous, and the majority of human beings are unwitting recruits. No revolution has ever occurred and succeeded without a potent spine of ideas directing it; no influential or authoritative individual holds his life together or has his effect on others by means of transient feelings — there is a concept, an intellectual strategy behind every remarkable person, whether he be James Dean or Jim Bakker. It is the tide of his life and source of his energy, whether right, wrong, or maniacal. All those who are conceptually illiterate are not only confused and self-defeating, they are the licit prey for those empowered by ideas, against whom uncertainty and obscurity are no defense at all.
All life is politics, a contest for authority, a power-struggle that is by turns subtle or brutal as history will have it. The most potent but also the most irresistible power is that of ideas: even crass materialists, pragmatists, and opportunists owe their effectiveness to a particular mode of ideation which is designed to coordinate perfectly with the tenor of the dominant ideas of the time. It is by ideas that we orient ourselves, not by realities — if nothing else, then by the ideas of "theorists defunct for centuries," as Keynes put it. State-of-the-art ideation is not everyone's privilege, and here as elsewhere, acuity gives the edge.
Philosophy is our self-understanding, the comprehensive valuation by which we order ourselves into the particular (or generic) organism we are, with the particular composition of perspective, judgments, and attitudes that make up our psychological organ-systems. Simple or complex, philosophy provides the formula or recipe for what we think and believe we are, and what we imagine we can become. Philosophy is the intelligence-gathering service by which we incorporate strategic information about that murky terrain we call our selves, bogs quaking as most selves are with misleading and self-deceptive manifestations and latent aquifers of motive that tax our most sinuous abilities of inference and extrapolation. Philosophy is the ligament in an integrated and autonomous life, the primal constitution for the processes of moral conduct: philosophy is the crowning virtuosity of an education designed to liberate the most and the best a human being can be. Philosophia biou kybernetes, philosophy the pilot of life: the very idea that philosophy should need to explain or justify itself is, in itself, a mortal indictment of a barbaric society, a civilization with no inkling of what culture is for. Philosophy has no apologies to make. What it's for is for the most radical quality of intelligence and moral sanity, the wholeness of life, the resiliency of our powers of articulation, the honesty in our self-understanding and self-justification: philosophy is for the intellectual and spiritual hygiene, the athletic exercise of our most decisive powers, the intelligence by which we correct, complete, and energize our lives. Philosophy is the legislative, judicial, and executive in one function: it is the essence of competent and cultivated individuality, it is intellectual and moral capital in a form unsurpassed after 3000 years of civilization.
In an article for The Center Magazine (Sept.-Oct. 1983) the noted professor of philosophy Richard Rorty was so obliging as to defend, in print, the ludicrous and trivializing perspectives that laymen cannot bring themselves to believe are taken seriously by academics. The perspectives amount to a kind of intellectual minimalism so anemic and sterile one would think human beings would have to be tortured into accepting it as a way of life. Rorty grants as a matter of course that wisdom has fled from their midst — one observes that the Owl of Minerva is deader than the dodo among these intellectual technicians. "Only a Philistine" would ask where all the sages have gone, says Rorty. Philosophy as his colleagues practice it does not even try to solve social problems — analytical theorists are concerned only with highly abstract problems posed in technical jargon, and their solutions could not conceivably interest anyone other than analytical theorists. In Rorty's estimate, the truly great mind imbued with wisdom only comes along "about once in a century." He does not overmuch emphasize that his colleagues are unconcerned to read or understand any such great mind, or that they are without exception unionized in antagonism against anyone with substantive aspirations for philosophy.
Engels could not possibly have imagined that his dictum would go on gaining in force geometrically over the decades: what these thinkers do is indeed "intellectual masturbation," or, to make proper allowance for a dialectical change in quality with the change in quantity, they have now become "intellectual voyeurs" at the masturbatory ceremonies of others. It is as grave a mistake to confuse a professor of philosophy with a philosopher as (in Twain's phrase) to confuse a lightning bug with lightning — the difference in wattage is about the same in both cases. And academic philosophy too has no apologies to make for squandering its birthright for a mess of micro-distinctions: there is none that could possibly exculpate such vandalistic atrocity.
I apologize for bringing up a remotely academic topic — my only excuse is, it is imperative not to confuse this column with the precious compilations of professorial dung-beetles. I dread to recall my times on campus and the Lilliputian Captivity of Academe that today immiserates students by the millions: verily, the Age of Insects is upon us. In later columns I will in fact make inroads on the great American pudding of Mediocrity, because it is not just a social but also a civilizational and ideological issue. And, for that matter, Ideology itself and the mania of ideas deserve the same attention. It is hardly just faculties in America that have become a sluggish beast, a pack-animal for trivia while the issues of their times go begging for clarity: the quality of our cultural and intellectual life has sunken to Eisenhowerian depths, just as our moral life seems to be reveling in a Nixonian pigsty. Ah Yeats, where are you when we need you? "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." Let us thwack these porkers, and see if such mass can still move.