The Portuguese language lacks a distinction English does not – the one between
philosophes and philosophers. The former are deeply concerned with formulating programs for social change and concocting social critiques. Prime examples are Voltaire, Diderot, and Paine, who wrote extensively on the maladies of slavery, State-imposed religion, unwarranted claims to authority, the infringement of Human Rights, along with the pressing importance of education and political reforms. The latter are, in contrast, concerned with constructing philosophical systems and the unbridled search for universal and timeless truths. Some seem to be fond of reclusion, as was Hume and, even more so, Kant – something that brings me comfort.
To be sure, the distinction is not clear-cut, as there were figures who are not so easily classified, as exemplified by Russell, Leibniz, or Sartre, who are system-builders as well as deeply concerned with the state of human affairs. This distinction, however, has been useful in my attempts at uncovering what are the principles that should guide my intellectual journey.
As an exordium to my tale, I should speak of my esteem for generalisation over specialisation. I do not aspire to become an academic who pushes the boundaries of knowledge in a very specific sub-field, nor do I have delusions of provoking the large-area effect of a paradigm shift. Up until recently, I have been drawing on something I picked up in a blog: “Surely half the pleasure of life is making sardonic comments on the passing show.” This meant I got myself involved with the natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy, practical thinking, and human art practices, merely because it was fun and interesting to do so.
However, there are great pitfalls to being a generalist. Great generalist minds might already be showing signs of inadequacy as the amount of highly relevant knowledge goes on expanding in every field. It is not as easy to be widely-read and up-to-date in a wide range of areas, an activity Leibniz exemplifies par excellence. Recently I found out that the generalist George Steiner has been heavily criticized by some as “a pretentious name dropper … whose immense range comes at the price of inaccuracy”. The original article is interesting enough to warrant one reading: (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/mar/17/arts.highereducation)
From that, I have been led to the idea that generalisation, even if very well executed, might not be ideal if one is chiefly concerned with the pursue of Truth – that is to say, truthful comprehension of what is and what should be. Problem is: while a knowledge of the proceedings and results of the natural sciences might aid one’s inquiry into human affairs, it is not by understanding quantum mechanics that I advance my comprehension of historical processes and cultural change. Experience with and comprehension of one field can nurture one’s comprehension of another aspect of reality, but only up to a point.
Human lives are finite and the amount of material to study and think about is tremendous. Thus, any generalist concerned with truthful comprehension will inevitably have to choose a few chief lines of inquiry, forgoing most others. Finding myself in this predicament, I cannot apply the love of truthful comprehension, or merely Truth, as a criterium to choose between lines of inquiry, for it was that very passion that lead me to this conundrum.
The desire to arrive at accurate beliefs and reliable judgements – traveling the philosopher road unbridled by political concenssion, public opinion, and contingent social affairs – does not fully define an intellectual journey. There must be a guiding principle on what aspects of reality will be studied and with what purpose. The most intuitive would be to choose that field of study which best suits my dispositions and preferences – that from which I derive the most pleasure. However, the biggest satisfaction comes from a sense of purpose, which is not satisfied merely by an appeal to joie de vivre.
Perhaps the highest possible purpose for an intellectual is that of the philosophe, who aspires to exact social change by virtue of the power of his rhetoric and air-thight thinking. This conflicts with questing for true comprehension, for passion and politics are often mind-killers. This outlook also suggests that, if the improvement of the human condition is to be one of my chief goals, then social work and charity should also figure on my list of priorities. I want to quote an interview made by Humans of New York that inspires me to consider such a thing very seriously:
“I used to work as civil engineer in Nepal. I worked on government projects: bridges, roads, things like that. But I was sitting in my office one day in 2004, watching television coverage of the tsunami that hit Indonesia, and I realized that government work was not the best use of my abilities. So I joined the UN and helped build 380 schools in Indonesia. Then when the earthquake hit Haiti, I moved there and began building shelters. Any engineer could do this work. But there just weren’t many available. So all I did was make myself available. Now I’m working with the UNHCR to construct camps for refugees. The first priorities are basics: shelter, health, food, water, and toilet access. My next priority is to respect the dignity of the refugees. When they arrive, they are very anxious, so I want to make sure they feel like they have a place. We leave four meters of space between every tent. We also leave the camp open so they can enter and leave whenever they like. And I added this cover over the entry way, because I wanted to be sure they were shaded the moment they walk in.”
Of course, it is also possible that, by the sheer power of good rhetoric, as a public intellectual, I could create a cascade of beneficial consequences that would outweigh any social work I could perform by hand. It sounds unlikely, though.
Apart from striving for the improvement of the human condition, it is possible that I should devote part of my life to indulge in refinement – or, as J. S. Mill calls it in one of his treatises, higher pleasure, in opposition to the lower pleasures. This is a very contentious proposition, but the reasoning goes as follows.
What is it better to be – a satisfied pig, or an unsatisfied Socrates? If we answer in favor of the latter, then there should be a field of study worth engaging with not for my own satisfaction, nor for the pursuit of Truth, nor for the collective well-being of humanity, but for its own sake. That would justify valuing the aesthetic contemplation of a contrapunctal fugue by Bach or the Fifth Symphony, or the comprehension of a sonnet by Shakespeare and a poem by Goethe, as one of the purposes of human life. Those are works filled with meaning and beauty, and allegedly represent the finest and most noble things humanity has to offer.
It would be useful now to comment on a SMBC comic, in which a youngster accuses his parent of “having access to all of Shakespeare for free, but watching, instead, gameshows four hours a day” – to which the parent retorts: “I’m old and therefore I have earned the right to make bad decisions.” Is it really a bad decision? And if so, is it because reading Shakespeare makes one wiser and one’s life more meaningful, therefore contributing to one’s happiness, or because contemplating a Shakesperian work is an end in itself?
The question is posed because I do not have the answer; I am merely investigating. So far, we have stated four different purposes for the intellect: (i) fun for fun’s sake, joie de vivre (ii) the exercise of just and truthful Judgement, (iii) the improvement of the human condition, and (iv) the contemplation of that which is sublime, noble, and refined.
To be sure, it is very plausible that all of them should be part of anyone’s lives, but which is more important? The answer will decide whether I should devote myself to the advanced study of (i) useless fields such as General Knowledge and the esteemed art of Name-dropping, (ii) hermetic and unapplicable fields such as Metaphysics and Ontology, (iii) something closer to Social Sciences and Ethics, or, finally, (iv) Literature and Music.
The first one was discarded as meaningless. Since I do not enjoy being wrong nor being unjust, the second one is in many ways equivalent to the first one. It is not perfectly equivalent, for I feel greater meaning in understanding the basic structure of reality (for example) than in studying whatever makes me happy. The third one is the most charming, though it puts so many burdens on my shoulder that I am very eager to find an easier alternative. Lastly, not only the fourth option sounds fishy, as I do not think it would fully provide my intellectual journey with meaning. I am at a loss.