More On Intellectual Decline
The friend who pointed me to Joseph Epstein’s essay in the first place takes exception to some of what I wrote earlier on Epstein and the (non)decline of intellectual life:
I’m glad you posted on Epstein, but I think you were too tough on him. Yes, he pussyfooted around the state of Commentary magazine and the state of conservative intellectuals (what other choice did he have?),
Yes, in fairness to Epstein, it’s too much to ask that he risk his livelihood (or a source of livelihood) merely to express some private opinion he has. What struck me was not that Epstein prudently downplays his contempt for today’s Commentary — which admittedly is not all that surprising — but that his method of gingerly hinting at his reservations can (and, I think, has) become the preferred way in which conservatives criticize each other.
but I think he is right that there has been a general decline in the quality and quantity of intellectuals (even if that is a small factor in the fate of Commentary and conservative intellectual life in America). Have you read Posner’s book on the subject?
I remember browsing the book when it came out. Largely, if I recall, he makes sport of a many of his fellow opinion-mongers. E.g., he has that whole chapter dismissing conservative “declinist” literature (Bork, Himmelfarb).
While some of it is silly (particularly his quantitative obsessions), I think it’s quite persuasive that the market has shrunk for smart, bookish people who want to write simultaneously for the specialized and general reader. One of Posner’s examples is Keynes, who wrote books that were at the same time first-rate economics and understandable by non-specialists.
It’s hard to judge based on Keynes, since he shined in everything he did. Still, aren’t economists who write for both academic and general audiences legion these days? Keynes’s successors include Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen and Steven Levitt — respected scholars and bestselling authors all. Until recently, you had John Kenneth Galbraith (ok, maybe not much of a scholar) and Milton Friedman, and the like.
Other scholar/writers today include the Darwinist triumvirate, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. I think one could go on. How to compare this generation of intellectuals to previous generations? I’m sure Posner had methods (though I can’t remember what they are), but intellectual decline seems like a rather hard thing to measure.
There are a number of factors: the academicization of intellectual life (which has no room for gadflies, generalists, or professors who dare write journalism in addition to their scholarship); the increasing specialization of knowledge; the demise of print journalism (which pays far less than in the past); the rise, especially on the Right, of think tanks (which bottle palatable, preformulated ideas mainly for wonk and establishment consumption).
All these are plausible candidates for causes of decline. But has there been a decline in the first place?
To this I would add the tremendous rise in the cost of living in the American brainland, New York City; the Partisan Review crowd could send their kids to public schools, after all.
That’s true. On the other hand, the cognitive stratification of our society has resulted in a lot more kids who don’t have to worry very much about making a living — which in turn increases the supply of potential intellectuals.
I really do think it is harder to be an engaged yet unattached writer nowadays. On the Right, who are the maverick writers? Jim Manzi ain’t Mencken. Frum is no (young) Lippmann.
That’s a good question. Does the Right have any consistently interesting, “maverick” writers? For all that I beat up on the conservative movement, I still think that it has some very good writers — but the pressure to conform is immense. The problem is that if you alienate one conservative, you’ve alienated them all.
I’m not going to try to argue here the blogging is just as worthy as, say, writing 10,000-word expository essays. Still, the more I read Cowen, Yglesias et al., the more impressed I am with by what they do.
Of course there’s Steve Sailer, but he’s been ostracized.
Steve Sailer has a huge closet following. Half the op-ed page of the New York Times are Sailer-holics. I agree of course that Sailer is disgusting — literally disgusting. When I first read him I found myself simultaneously assenting to much of what he was saying and getting sick to my stomach that he was saying it at all. Taboos are so powerful that breaking them has psychosomatic effects.
And as for the old saw about intellectuals being mere idea traffickers, I would respond, pace Hayek, that dealing in second-hand ideas is where the profit is–not for the dealer, but for the public. Good ideas deserve application and publicity; Darwin needed a bulldog. Moreover, originality is just one aspect of intellectual or cultural life, and as conservatives, I think we can agree that it has been overrated–especially by modernism, but even going back to romanticism. Politically and morally, I’d rather be right than original. And artistically, I prefer beauty to novelty.
Just to be clear, I was not trying to disparage the New York intellectuals by calling them mere traffickers in ideas. Trafficking in ideas is important work, not to mention entertaining when done well. My point is that their claims of intellectual superiority don’t hold up in retrospect.
For all of their flaws, generalists do have their strong points. In his book Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock empirically shows that generalist experts are better predictors of the future than specialists, which comes as no surprise to me. In the same way that a political leader can’t make sound decisions without some knowledge of politics, economics, history, and people as they actually are, the best political and cultural critics are those with panoptic range. In fact, I would daresay that the truly wise are almost always generalists.
Shades of Oakeshott here. I think there’s something to this. Walter Bagehot and G.K. Chesterton — both legendary generalists — had sensible things to say on every subject that came their way. On the other hand, today’s generalists, like Christopher Hitchens, say perfectly foolish things on virtually every subject!
Speaking of critics, I think you focused too much on the so-called New York intellectuals, who might get a lot of attention, but are not necessarily representative of American let alone Western public intellectual life.
(The highbrow/lowbrow debate was a sideshow. Jacques Barzun wrote intelligently about detective stories.)
The distinction is central to every account I’ve read of the New York intellectual scene — including Epstein’s. It was also essential to their embrace of Modernism. The collapse of the distinction in the 1960s even engendered an important reaction — e.g. Hilton Kramer founding The New Criterion.
On the other hand, it’s true that the modernists the New York intellectuals championed were themselves fascinated by popular, “mass” culture. The idea of erecting a wall between high and low was always quixotic.
Epstein himself, while saying some nice words about Norman Podhoretz (again, how could he not?), offered T. S. Eliot’s little magazine as an example of his ideal. Also, don’t forget that among the late-mid-century New York intellectuals were Nathan Glazer, David Riesman, Daniel Bell, and arguably Patrick Moynihan–respectable figures all.
That’s true. I think the best of the New York intellectuals were the later “neocon” generation.
Riesman, a bit older, I couldn’t finish. Too much psychoanalysis.
Robert Warshow’s film criticism is still worth reading, as is Trilling on literature, and William Barrett on existentialism. And even if most critics are overrated by other back-patting critics, that doesn’t mean that we still need the few good ones we can find.
It may be true that literature no longer has a central place in our culture, something John Gross discusses in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, but literary criticism isn’t the only kind of criticism there is. If movies are where the cultural center of gravity is, then what we need is more film critics and fewer reviewers (and editors who know the difference). As you may know, The New Criterion doesn’t even print film or TV criticism.
Yes, The New Criterion’s policy is completely wacky. I saw the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man just recently, and was amazed at the creative energy that went into it. How could an intelligent, disinterested critic resist this stuff? Especially when Coen brothers never hint at what they’re up to. Just as they denied that O Brother Where Art Thou was based on the Oddysey, so they never mention that A Serious Man is based on the book of Job. That The New Criterion won’t publish movie criticism, to my mind, is an example (along with the massive pile of crowd-pleasing sarcasm served up with every issue) of its fundamental frivolousness.
Last, I accept the importance of status-striving, but don’t let it become a theory-of-everything (as it appears to be for Tom Wolfe; is cynicism the ultimate proof of high status?).
Ok, ok, I admit I go overboard exposing status-climbing motives. Status doesn’t explain everything… but it does explain a hell of a lot! Wolfe is actually a good example. He admits that he discovered early on that status could be the motive for everything, and it obviously shows. Still, even in Wolfe’s world of relentless status-thinking, there is room for other motives. Wolfe’s paean to protestant virtue, such as he finds in Sam Walton, are positively naive.
I might add that focusing on status striving is also wonderfully therapeutic.
There really are and continue to be thinkers and artists who would never trade their integrity for fame and money. Surely I don’t have to name examples.
No. Come to think of it, one project for a prominent blogger (or upwardly mobile blogger) would be to give out “Profiles in Courage” awards for intellectuals who put their careers at risk in order to speak the truth as they see it. Who behaved honorably during the last Two Minute Hate?
Conversely, you could give out a Profiles in Domineering award to those writers who “challenge” their audience by complaining that the restrictions on what you can say just aren’t stringent enough.
Your friend is correct, I ain’t Menken.Report
@Jim Manzi, There can only be one Mencken… but to be considered the next best thing today must be quite flattering 😉Report
Okay, I know the blowback will be immense here, but if we accept that Andrew Sullivan is still a conservative- and, at least, I don’t buy that he’s a liberal- then he strikes me as more of a maverick than most conservatives, especially those who call themselves mavericks.Report
@Rufus, I see no reason not to consider Andrew Sullivan a conservative (that is, if “conservative” means something other than “what the movement says ‘conservative’ means”). So, I agree, he’s maybe not a bad example. I disagree with him a lot, but he is sincerely trying to apply some general conservative principles to particular circumstances.
Of course, I myself gave up caring about general conservative principles some time ago, so I have no stake in whether Andrew is a “true” conservative or not.Report
Thanks for directing me to these postings, but I’m afraid that prima facie, your argument seems a bit beside the point. You attack some rather frivolous window dressing on Epstein’s argument – the business about eschewing money, etc., but it seems to me that you leave the more substantive point unexamined. I would simplify it thusly: Our public intellectuals used to do useful and impressive things that they no longer do. If you grant that a broad, relatively sophisticated analysis of art, culture, religion, society, politics, etc. is useful and impressive, then I can’t see how you could reject Epstein’s claim.
Arendt, Trilling, Sontag, Bell, Greenberg – who are their equals right now in contemporary letters? That group produced serious, in-depth, conversation-changing (and sometimes deeply flawed) writing on totalitarianism, representation and interpretation in art, existential philosophy, the relationship between capitalism and culture, the relationship between art and culture, etc., etc., etc. And all of this in addition to commenting on pressing political, cultural and artistic issues of the moment.
How many of our present day thinkers have the mix of broad, deep learning and intellectual chutzpah to attempt this today? I see only one or two really world-class literary critics writing in America right now. One is of course James Wood (praised as such by such old-school types as Sontag, Bellow and Bloom), and when he turns to non-literary matters he’s still rather good – see his denunciation of the New Atheists in the New Yorker last summer – but he rarely does this. There are lots of other people who frequently have interesting things to say in the public square (Wieseltier, Wyatt Mason, Nussbaum, Eagleton, Elshtain, Douthat come to mind) but this seems like rather slim pickings compared with the efflorescence of in-depth criticism about which Epstein is waxing nostalgic.
Those were different times, of course, and we ought not be surprised if conditions today are less conducive to the sort of long-form intellectual journalism of Partisan Review, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost anything of value with its passing.
@Ian Marcus Corbin, Thanks Ian. Sorry I haven’t been able to respond earlier.
I think this is coming down to an unanswerable “battle of the books” type question. You have list of impressive intellectuals from mid-century, and a list of impressive intellectuals of today. There’s no obvious way to compare the two. Plus, there’s always a danger of cherry-picking. (Although I admit that there are some rather unimpressive names in your list of contemporaries.)
As a world-class intellectual today, how about my friend’s example of Richard Posner? His range is quite extraordinary. I have a feeling that defenders of the “ancients” against the “moderns” would dismiss him as a philistine because, I don’t know, he’s analytically rigorous and reductive in his approach. Well, in my view, that’s precisely what makes him superior.
In rejecting Epstein, I am really just making three points: (i) you can’t really know that the mid-century intellectuals were superior and (ii) their implicit (if not explicit) claims to actually be superior should be treated skeptically, especially given their intellectual limits visible in hindsight.Report