Monday, September 28, 2015

218. Eclipse of the intellectual?

 Is the intellectual, the moon of reflection, approaching eclipse?

I adopt the definition of the ‘the intellectual’ from Foucault[i]: ‘The person who uses his knowledge, his competence, and his relation to truth in the field of political struggles’.

A scientist mostly is not an intellectual. In item 99 of this blog I suggested that the difficulty of applying science to policy is threefold. First, the scientist posits him/herself as an outside spectator, objective and disinterested, while politics is about reconciling differences of interest. Second, he/she engages in abstraction, seeking universal truths, laws or regularities, while politics is about specific problems in specific conditions. Third, the scientist is specialized in a certain field, while policy needs to be integrative, including a variety of perspectives.

To resolve the tension, I proposed the pragmatist approach that I advocate in this blog. That entails a process orientation, in fallibilism, imperfection on the move, rather than an orientation towards presumed optimal and stable outcome, and an endeavour to combine disciplines. That turns policy advice into discourse rather than presentation of fixed and univocal conclusions.

Here, I reconsider the issue more widely and philosophically. As in the preceding items in this blog, I employ views from Foucault, adding to them and deviating from them.

In pragmatist and ‘postmodern’ philosophy, if that is still a useful term, philosophy developed away from the Cartesian view of the subject as an outside, objective, disinterested observer of the world, building on some prior foundations of knowledge and morality. Philosophers Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein take the view of the subject as developing its identity, cognition and judgement in interaction with the ‘object’, the world, muddling through and improvising, in ‘bricolage’. Meaning of words is found in their use. Universals have become suspect, and attention has shifted to individuals and specific conditions. Attention has shifted from substance to process, from being as a substantive to being as a verb.

Foucault proposed a transition from the ‘universal’ to the ‘specific’ intellectual. His example of the latter is the expert (he used the example of Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist), knowing of specific features of specific phenomena.

If the intellectual is defined as the bearer of universals and free-floating abstractions, then indeed he/she is inevitably in decline, or eclipse, and deservedly so. Or not? Do we now only have use for technical experts? I think not.

In a pragmatist, process-oriented view of knowledge, there is a dynamic of alternation between the general and the specific and between stability and change, between the abstract and the concrete, between Pascal’s spirit of geometry and spirit of finesse.

I argued that in my proposal of a ‘cycle of discovery’ in items 31 and 35 of this blog, and in the ‘hermeneutic circle’ in item 37.

This brings me back to my earlier plea for the intellectual as engaging in pragmatism and debate, with practitioners and people from other disciplines, deriving lessons from failure of abstractions and generalizations to work in specific contexts, shifting ideas to cope with failure, abstracting and generalizing from that, and so on. Not apodictic edicts, but pragmatist, fallibilist intellectual practice and discourse.

Isn’t that what Popper proposed with his falsificationism? 

Counter to Foucault, this entails more than technical expertise. But in agreement with Foucault, it requires that the intellectual have not only the scientific knowledge (‘connaissance’) but also the knowledge of the power system in which knowledge is embedded (‘savoir’).

However, it is also part of the concept of the intellectual to maintain independence, not to become a partisan of vested interests or dogma, an intellectual mercenary even. It is hard to combine independence with close knowledge of the system. ‘Savoir’ requires some degree of approach, familiarization, and this can easily slide into co-optation. Smart, educated people ‘in the know’ easily become virtuosi of the status quo. They become public figures, mandarins, but in my book are no longer intellectuals. The intellectual should have the moral courage to opt out. Is that too much to ask?

[i] In an interview on ‘Truth and power’ in 1976, reprinted in James D. Faubion (ed.), Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, volume 3, Power, The New Press, 2000.