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Intellectuals vs Academics
August 28, 2013 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Academics are farmers and intellectuals are hunters - and the hunters may be the future of the liberal arts, writes Jack Miles.
posted by shivohum (47 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
...but which one is the hedgehog?
posted by leotrotsky at 11:00 AM on August 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


Academics are paid and intellectuals do it for free.
posted by subdee at 11:15 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


...but which one is the hedgehog?

Found him.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:17 AM on August 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


intellectuals do it for free.

Like the rabbis of yore.
posted by No Robots at 11:17 AM on August 28, 2013


Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 3.

In the decades since this was written, a new beast has arisen on the quad. Perpetually hungry. Roaming widely across disciplines, through programs, into the narrowest subfields. Continually casting a jaundiced and ravening eye for the fat, the weak, the underperforming, the unfashionable.

We call him The Administrator and we survive at his pleasure.
posted by R. Schlock at 11:17 AM on August 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Academics are paid


Ahahahahah-hahahahahahahaha *gasp* hahahahahahah...haaaaa...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2013 [22 favorites]


"Let's cut to the chase. There are two kinds of people: sheep and sharks. Anyone who's a sheep is fired. Who's a sheep?"
posted by Demogorgon at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


The liberal arts will be kept. They can staff courses with part timers and/or grad students and the classes bring in huge profits--no labs, etc. a money maker.
Surprise! colleges offer what students want to get jobs. Back when they used to offer (Ivies) , nay, require, Bible courses in Hebrew for those going into the clergy.

On administrators: usually not recognized but the numbers of administrators has gone way up and that in large measure accounts for tuition rise since teaching costs gone down with larger classes, electronic teaching, use of part timers (no benefits and lousy salaries).

In addition: public colleges have taken on a much greater percentage of out of state students at much greater tuition to put money into budgets that state legislators will not give them.
Where would a former academic apply for work as Intellectual"? Graig's List or Christian Singles or Angies List?
posted by Postroad at 11:28 AM on August 28, 2013


It's hard to tell where to start with this tripe, which reads like a mid-90s Gerald Graff think piece rewritten by a somewhat confused fan of Chesterton and Buckminster Fuller, but here goes:
To confinement by field, academe too often adds a further, more interpersonal deformation. A typical newly tenured associate professor will have spent six years or more anxiously mind-reading his senior professors and at least another six years doing the same for his senior colleagues, and this is the best, most expeditious case. If a first negative tenure decision is followed by a second, doubly anxious six-year apprenticeship in a second university, a generation may have passed between the start of graduate school and the acquisition of tenure. It would be unrealistic to expect a man or woman to recover in the twentieth year all the daring that he or she has painstakingly suppressed during the preceding nineteen.
The above seems to be an argument that the tenure track destroys academic and intellectual freedom, resting on a few cliched notions of "the daring of youth" and some notion of anxious, mind-reading candidates who...what? Tailor their research to the interests of senior faculty? The author blithely describes "the typical newly tenured associate professor" as a stock type, not as an actual person or as an ideal type drawn from systematic data or observations. No one's hiring people with duplicate academic interests in the age of shrinking tenure rolls!

The section on the resources of the university is inane. The author praises a bookselling site over the university library, but seems unaware of the miracles of Inter-Library Loan and Worldcat. This is without considering the actual expense of the sorts of things a good university archive or special collections section will have; and hey, academics can get funding and leave to go look at those for their research! Another miracle! Visiting professorships can be prestigious, career-enhacing things.

Additionally, multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity have been the buzzwords in the humanities for at least two decades now; good luck finding a professor of, say, English, who does only literature. Most tackle everything from film to digital media to theology to anything else. And there's also the alt-ac movement to consider, strangely overlooked here.In general, Dr. Miles seems weirdly unaware of the models of circulation and interdisciplinarity well-established in the university as it was in 1999 and is today.

The final nail in the coffin, aside from the unreflexively regurgitated pop-MBA notions of "farmers" and "hunters," presumably from Venus -- no, make it Ceres -- and Mars, is the peculiar notion that the piece is tellingly short on credible claims about how and where these, er, free-range intellectuals will work and live. There are some gestures towards nonprofits and other extra-academic cultural institutions, but these live and die by pubic funding and offer numerically fewer positions, even today, than the university system.

In short, this piece is shocking in its intellectual laziness; the author's ability to produce it despite the credentials and professional achievements implied by his own academic post are a better argument for some of his points than anything he's written
posted by kewb at 11:29 AM on August 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Most of the best intellectuals seem to be academics....
posted by 256 at 11:32 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a little wary of this sort of rhetoric:

As more and more colleges and universities adopt the market model, providing students not what tradition says they need but what the students themselves say they want

Students have choice over their studies in a similar (though not quite as restricted) way as patients have choice over their medical care. That is, there are an awful lot of people telling students (especially young ones) that (a) university should be about preparing for a good job, and (b) that means studying certain subjects. Within a choice of major, us faculty and university programs as a whole often tell students how to focus their time and what is important to study. Some of this is quite reasonable, similar to how, when I go to the doctor, I expect them to be the medical expert and don't often question the medical advice or directions that I am given. But you see, for example, more students taking courses in a broader array of subjects or more students choosing majors or at least minors in the arts and humanities at schools where such "choices" are institutionally valued and encouraged. And this changes with time and institutional priorities, in ways that can be fairly directly tied to changes in curriculum requirements or how the college or university describes the role of higher ed and of individual majors to students.

Now to read the rest of the article past the first paragraph... :P
posted by eviemath at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


the deprofessionalization or proletarianization of college teaching

Meh. He's quite possibly saying some stuff I might agree with at least in part, based on the pull quotes others have cited. But the tone... if this is one of those "we should preserve the liberal arts because elitism is good" arguments - well, I agree that a more-or-less liberal arts philosophy of higher ed is important for other reasons, but not sure I care to spend my time on this particular article.
posted by eviemath at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2013


I am always baffled by the conflation of "intellectual" and "academic." Sure, many academics are intellectuals, but not all intellectuals are academics.
posted by lunasol at 12:03 PM on August 28, 2013


And some intellectuals deliberately eschewed academe, Spinoza for example.
posted by No Robots at 12:14 PM on August 28, 2013


Mmm, I'd say that this article is very much showing its age. Nearly 15 years later, the academy has grappled with a lot of the author's concerns (authors' concerns? Sometimes there was a 'we' mentioned and sometimes there was an 'I' mentioned).

Things like the Adjunct Project and the many, many, many articles written in both the popular press and academic trade presses about the perils of post-PhD employment, the equally numerous articles detailing the rise of the administrators due to increasing legal requirements, even the PhD webcomic and other less formal sources, have all done a great job of illuminating the problems within the academy. I don't think anyone in 2013 is proposing a network of independent scholars as the solution to these problems.

I also had to laugh at the conceptualization of librarians as help-meets to those poor lost independent scholars (due to increasing irrelevance thanks to websites like the sketchy bookfinder the author loved in 1999). The modern academic library has problems, but I elbowed my way through a huge crowd of undergrads at my academic library to get to lunch today--our average gate count is 17,000 people per day.

Libraries adapted in ways that the author did not foresee at all in their article ( to be fair, I'm not sure how many libraries foresaw the ways things would change, either). The library as place, as intellectual heart of the campus even in the computer era, is an idea well launched by this point. Perhaps this was not the case in 1999, but then, that's why a more recent article would be useful as comparison and perspective on the limitations of the one linked.
posted by librarylis at 12:35 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


a more recent article would be useful as comparison and perspective on the limitations of the one linked.

How about this Metafilter thread from earlier today?
posted by No Robots at 12:40 PM on August 28, 2013


Isn't this just a restating of the geeks vs. nerds debate?
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:41 PM on August 28, 2013


Isn't this just a restating of the geeks vs. nerds debate?

In the context of the earlier thread, it is about how many intellectuals are being forced to build a life outside of academe.
posted by No Robots at 1:48 PM on August 28, 2013


Personally, I prefer Flâneur.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:31 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


How about this Metafilter thread from earlier today?

Yep, saw that right after I closed this thread and haven't had a chance to finish reading the full article yet. So far, I'm intrigued. It's definitely better at relevant criticisms (degree as credential, exorbitant student loans, etc.) than this article but to be fair is--so far--aimed at student problems not faculty/staff ones. It also, and deservedly so, has more traffic than this thread.
posted by librarylis at 2:45 PM on August 28, 2013


aimed at student problems not faculty/staff ones

Keep reading.
Is there anything new to be said about the humiliation that the lumpen-profs suffer at the hands of their so-called colleagues? Can I shock anyone by describing the shabby, desperate lives they lead as they chase their own university dream? Will it do any good to remind readers how the tenured English dons of thirty years ago helped to set the forces of destruction in motion simply because producing more PhDs meant a lighter workload for themselves?
posted by No Robots at 2:57 PM on August 28, 2013


One of my professors liked to divide academics into hunters and farmers. I remember him explaining to me, in the final year of my PhD, that even though I could never hope to be a hunter striking out boldly into unexplored territory, I could still make myself useful as a farmer cultivating my own narrow little strip of land.

In retrospect, that was the point when I really should have started looking for another academic referee.
posted by verstegan at 3:00 PM on August 28, 2013


The initial read of the farmer vs. hunter metaphor had pictures, in my head, of rosy faced farmers vs. Paleo dieters with skinny jeans. It is not the farmer vs. hunter, but both against the industrialist.
posted by jadepearl at 4:52 PM on August 28, 2013


I am always baffled by the conflation of "intellectual" and "academic." Sure, many academics are intellectuals, but not all intellectuals are academics.

I'm always baffled by the conflation of both "academic" and "intellectual" with the liberal arts.
posted by erniepan at 7:33 PM on August 28, 2013


It's hard to tell where to start with this tripe, which reads like a mid-90s Gerald Graff think piece rewritten by a somewhat confused fan of Chesterton and Buckminster Fuller, but here goes: […] The above seems to be an argument that the tenure track destroys academic and intellectual freedom, resting on a few cliched notions of "the daring of youth" and some notion of anxious, mind-reading candidates who...what? Tailor their research to the interests of senior faculty? The author blithely describes "the typical newly tenured associate professor" as a stock type, not as an actual person or as an ideal type drawn from systematic data or observations. No one's hiring people with duplicate academic interests in the age of shrinking tenure rolls!

This is not a fair reading of the paragraph. In this passage the author is considering a) temporality, b) power relation, and c) difference in intellectual approach (i.e. interests, goals, capacities, and styles, of which "daring" is specifically suggestive of and is given context by an entire preceding paragraph, rather than being any "cliché"), and observing that every individual who enters the system will confront and must cope with, respectively, a) the high opportunity cost and related contingencies, b) the task of ideological (re-)alignment, and c) the task of how best to yield one's intellectual autonomy. The process of negotiating these implicit problems occurs invisibly, with low support or accountability, thus giving a picture of institutional fragility.

There is no "destruction" argument being made here, he is explicitly talking instead about "deformity", using a structural argument to reason about the existence of unintended and socially undesirable aspects of the enterprise of knowledge production as we currently know it. Nor is he stereotyping or overgeneralizing actual experiences; he is describing the existence of a problem by illustrating a maximally adverse outcome. There is a logic to his writing, if one is sensitive enough to listen to it. For example the metaphor of the "hunter" is what the author tries to suggest as something in contrast to and outside of existing structure. Again, the author is not the first nor the last to echo these concerns—about general academia and not just the humanites. Perhaps others have done it more concisely or more compellingly, but because the general points in the article describe a status quo that, in a certain light, is self-contradictory to its own mission and that indeed affects real people, they are worth at least thinking over. It would be anti-intellectual otherwise.

The section on the resources of the university is inane. The author praises a bookselling site over the university library.

He did not suggest any comparison or remotely similar attitude; his construction "But if /it does so as well" in the second sentence makes this clear. I think you have read that paragraph incorrectly.

Tailor their research to the interests of senior faculty?

Interesting the word choice of tailor, which is a sloganistic euphemism for a particular reaction to exactly the problem condition that the author has been describing.

In short, this piece is shocking in its intellectual laziness; the author's ability to produce it despite the credentials and professional achievements implied by his own academic post are a better argument for some of his points than anything he's written

The article could even be summarized as a line in his Notes: "Education for the market is not education for life, but then education for life need not be sought only at school." That's all he's really saying, and such an obvious-but-too-oft-forgotten idea seems fair and perceptive to me.

In this article, which was written in 1999, he estimated the doctoral attrition rate to be 50% (paragraph 7). It is 2013 and that rate is the same. Now that's a piece of data.
posted by polymodus at 8:47 PM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


> In short, this piece is shocking in its intellectual laziness

No, your comment is shocking in its intellectual laziness, but that's no more than I expected from this crowd, convinced as it is that nobody can tell them anything about anything ("MeFites are the smartest people on the internet!" as people keep saying in self-congratulatory MeTa threads). I think that for a piece written in 1999, it's quite perceptive and still relevant (and the idea that there's no need to read or think about anything written before, say, last month is itself profoundly anti-intellectual). Yes, it's overlong and somewhat pompously written ("would fain," forsooth!), but hey, the guy's an English professor. Anyway, for those who might wonder if it's worth at least skimming, here are some representative bits I found thought-provoking:
What is called for, paradoxically, is less a store of knowledge than a "store" of ignorance. By forcing oneself to go where one is oneself the blinking beginner rather than the seasoned expert, one learns to turn one's own narrow intellectual sophistication into a broadened version of itself. A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility.

A secretary of culture in need of generalists as well as specialists would need to bear in mind, above all, that academic life proceeds by the channeling of curiosity, which is to say by the benign but systematic suppression of unchanneled, general curiosity. ... Academe requires this of them, and the sacrifice they make in meeting the requirement should be honored. However, what academe requires and what the culture as a whole requires are not always identical. Sometimes, what the culture requires is a mind stocked with the memory of innumerable tangential excursions rather than with the harvest of the long, hard, stay-at-home cultivation of a given field.

An academic is concerned with substance and suspicious of style, while an intellectual is suspicious of any substance that purports to transcend or defy style.
Of course it doesn't have any answers, but nobody has any answers (though plenty of people think they do), and it seems to me a useful overview of the problem.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Is there a word for such people?"
Here's a suggestion.
posted by doctornemo at 9:54 AM on August 29, 2013


Thank you, doctornemo. That paper is most inspiring.
posted by No Robots at 10:31 AM on August 29, 2013


And some intellectuals deliberately eschewed academe, Spinoza for example.

That is true, but Spinoza is a unique case, both as a person and a philosopher. He did have friends and colleagues in academe who supported his works, kinda like a peer review.
posted by ovvl at 3:43 PM on August 29, 2013


Spinoza was completely opposed to the academic system:
Academies, that are founded at the public expense, are instituted not so much to cultivate men's natural abilities as to restrain them. But in a free commonwealth arts and sciences will be best cultivated to the full, if everyone that asks leave is allowed to teach publicly, and that at his own cost and risk.--Political Treatise
Spinoza is the model for those who wish to free themselves from the constraints of academic scholasticism.
posted by No Robots at 8:26 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


polymodus: This is not a fair reading of the paragraph. In this passage the author is considering a) temporality, b) power relation, and c) difference in intellectual approach (i.e. interests, goals, capacities, and styles, of which "daring" is specifically suggestive of and is given context by an entire preceding paragraph, rather than being any "cliché"), and observing that every individual who enters the system will confront and must cope with, respectively, a) the high opportunity cost and related contingencies, b) the task of ideological (re-)alignment, and c) the task of how best to yield one's intellectual autonomy. The process of negotiating these implicit problems occurs invisibly, with low support or accountability, thus giving a picture of institutional fragility.

No, I think it's quite fair. Miles's argument, as set up in the prior paragraph, is that the university system creates and values specialization and narrow disciplinarity at the cost of generalist modes of intellectualism. Leaving aside my objections above -- that university faculty now tend to value interdisciplinary work over monodisciplinary work, that few if any professors (Miles himself is a good example!) are really locked into the narrow channels of research and thought he describes, and that there are few actual positions for "generalists" outside the university -- he nontheless offers not a hypothetical "worst-case" scenario, but rather a living, anecdotal picture of the embattled generalist in a world of vicious, sneering specialists:
Who in academe has not heard of a generalist effort dismissed at the departmental meeting with an arch witticism or discounted as publicity hunger at merit raise time? In this way, the stalwarts of the discipline make themselves into highly effective disciplinarians indeed! The culture of specialization which they thus inculcate is not easily escaped even by those who would wish to do so, even by those who think they have done so. I pass over as beneath comment the political correctness imposed on occasion by authoritarian university administrations.
Even the faculty member who supports interdisciplinary work is, per Miles, merely the victim of a kind of false consciousness inculcated by the university's monopoly on knowledge production. (And I'll even be nice and assume the line about "political correctness" refers to the term's original meaning, and is not a "culture war" toss-off as it is in may other think-pieces about the university's destruction of the intellectual life by folks like Alan Bloom.)

Miles suggests that "the culture as a whole" -- There is a whole culture? Whose culture is it, and what are its features, and what are its borders? -- "[s]ometimes...requires a mind stocked with the memory of innumerable tangential excursions rather than with the harvest of a long, stay-at-home cultivation of a given field." Many aspects of this argument and its wording seem rather objectionable to me. The notion that intellectual memory is a set of stockable items, the implicit valuation throughout of the "hunters" over the "stay-at-home" gatherers with its connotations of gender hierarchy, and an unreflexive series of references to the "liberal" or "humane tradition" all position him as a rather conservative thinker for whom "the liberal tradition" and its contents go unspoken. That is ideological deformity.

Miles seems to regard the cultural tradition as originally holistic, splintered into disciplines by the specialist faculty. Its original wholeness might be recovered by the young and daring autodidact, the familiar New Critical figure, really, of the widely-read modernist in the vein of Eliot or Pound. Curiously, for someone who refers to tenured academics as " the aristocracy of the university," Miles rather blithely tosses off a line about their successors being "intellectuals, paid or unpaid." His primary hope for salaried, rather than unsalaried intellectual work relies on either a hypothetical department of culture, a sort of civil service of the mind, or on the more concretely realized figures of the "venture capitalists" and their new models of online learning.

With all due acknowledgment of the historian's fallacy, an article in 1999 that thinks of venture capitalists and online, privatized education as possible remedies for the decline of "the liberal tradition" of scholarship reads quite differently in 2013. More to the point, it provides us again with a good sense of just what sort of "daring" Miles might be attributing to the young thinker, whose intellectual ventures he seems to imagine might be spontaneously organized into an extra-academic mode of knowledge production by venture capital. That, too is ideological deformity as bad or worse that anything Miles attributes to his colleagues in the university.

He did not suggest any comparison or remotely similar attitude; his construction "But if /it does so as well" in the second sentence makes this clear. I think you have read that paragraph incorrectly.

Initially, he seems to say they're of equal worth and utility, but in the sentence I paraphrase, he tips the scale in one direction: "Already, a scholar in search of an out-of-the-way, out-of-print book may have better luck with Bibliofind.com, which offers 'nine million used, antiquarian and rare books, periodicals and ephemera offered for sale by thousands of booksellers around the world' than with a local university library, even a large one." [emphasis added] He's pretty clearly saying that the commercial website is already better than most university libraries, and will soon be better than nearly all of them. As with his notion of venture capital giving the embattled adjuncts a salaried out, Miles here puts a lot of faith in market solutions to problems he defines as distinct to the university.

The article could even be summarized as a line in his Notes: "Education for the market is not education for life, but then education for life need not be sought only at school." That's all he's really saying, and such an obvious-but-too-oft-forgotten idea seems fair and perceptive to me.

The statement you hold up here is exactly the problem with the article I am trying to describe: it relies on a very old set of platitudes about "the educated life" and "the culture," without ever really managing to explain how such a person's biological and economic life might be supported.

Miles is right about the complicity of tenured academics in the proletarianization of the academic workforce, but his notions of a "secretary of culture" or "venture capitalists" really don't provide a rival vision. (Indeed, the notion of a "secretary of culture" conjures a notion of official or unitary culture, hardly a concept free of ideological baggage.) Read with a kinder spirit than mine, perhaps, the article implicitly calls for public support for intellectual work outside the university system, support which Miles seems to imagine as coming through a variety of options organized through partnerships between the sorts of non-profit, private, and public arts funding organizations he offers as extra-academic sites for the library, the research center, and so on.

But in that case, it's hard to see why he aims criticism at the university rather than at the public itself, which happily supports the gutting of such institutions and their funding sources in exchange for lower tax rates. Private funding for the humanities, in turn, tends to be far more problematic for intellectual freedom that whatever deformation Miles -- questionably -- identifies with the university faculty. The places where his generalists might end up -- magazines, museum boards, think tanks, and the like -- impose a far more rigid set of ideological boundaries on the knowledge work they sponsor than does the university.

The most generous reading I can give this is that, amid a lot of rather questionable assertions and assumptions, Miles is calling on his readers to start imagining radically different economic and social structures for knowledge production. That's what clearly appeals to the article's supporters, and I can see why the notion of, say, anarcho-syndicalism for intellectual work seems like an alternative to the troubled university system.

But Miles has very little in the way of workable suggestions for that; the suggestions he does make are even more problematic than the institutions he critiques and, based on those he cites, rely on market-based and quasi-governmental institutions (though this is already the niversity, and much of the university's troubles). This is perhaps a "gadfly" argument, but between the lines it reads to me much more like nostalgia for an older social order of mid-20th-century American liberalism, a questionably accurate recollection of a world in which bright people with good educations wrote widely read think-pieces in popular magazines rather than abstruse articles in scholarly journals. The Closing of the American Mind is the more overtly conservative version of the same lament, and to his credit Miles does not seem to toss in reverential references to particular cultural concepts.

Miles has appended a very old sort of critique of the academy to the academy's latest troubles without really doing a very good job of showing how or why "generalist knowledge" inherently resists proletarianization. The adjunct, he notes, is already close to the position of the freelancer, but the adjunct is also a "helot," not a knight, and both the adjunct and the freelancer in a dying industry like the one Miles describes face precarity, in the form of uncertain professional futures, work without benefits or rather than boundless opportunity. If Miles is assuming that a strong social safety net or a real secretary of culture might come along, his position makes sense; he does not, however, so it becomes very hard to see why real people would be better off in his

Miles's notion of "the humanistic tradition" would be better off, of course; that's his point. But that's the problem: despite the bits of rhetoric here and there, he seems to worry about preserving certain cultural qualities of work a lot more than he does about the economic conditions of the workers. Having linked the economic structure of incentives within the academy to the character of the intellectual work it produces, he seems curiously unwilling to reverse the operation and "work back to [intellectual laborers]" and their real conditions from the He assumes either a magical influx of public funding or some notion of market response or "spontaneous organization" coming in to fill the real gap that would be left by the further diminution or outright elimination of the university.

No Robots: Spinoza is the model for those who wish to free themselves from the constraints of academic scholasticism.

Spinoza is a remarkable figure, but he exists amid a particular constellation of historical conditions that made his independence possible. The forms of circulation and intellectual community of the Dutch 17th century will not recur in the 21st century.

First, the faith community he grew up in was also the community in which his initial education, far from that of the average person in his time, was possible. Secondly, he was rather lucky to meet the right people at the right time: his family and community brought him into personal contact with radical and exceptional thinkers in the context of his early formal education. Granted that dropped out and was expelled from that community, he got from it a good base of knowledge and an awareness of how to make intellectual contacts that he likely would not have gotten elsewhere or otherwise.

He also managed to inherit the family business, which supported him until it went bust due to external factors. And while it is true that Spinoza next worked a technical manufacturing job, whose side effects eventually killed him, and produced a lot of his intellectual work on his own time, later in life he was supported by a sort of trust fund inherited from a friend who had died and a pension from Jan de Witt, a government official from an old-money family. That's not a viable option for most people, and it's not a twenty-first-century life story for anyone except a privileged few.
posted by kewb at 12:37 PM on August 30, 2013


The point is that Spinoza explicitly condemned the academic system, and lived according to his principles on the matter. More recently we have the anti-academic examples of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. I would strongly suggest that interested parties take a look at Schopenhauer's essay, "On philosophy at the universities." It must be made clear that existence outside academe is no dishonour, is no abandonment of intellectual life, and is in fact an excellent route to the highest reaches of thought and action.
posted by No Robots at 1:12 PM on August 30, 2013


Who in the world is talking about "dishonour" or "abandonment of the intellectual life?" I'm talking about the very simple reality that becoming the new Spinoza requires financial support and early educational and social opportunities not available to most people today, or even most people in Spinoza's time.
posted by kewb at 1:38 PM on August 30, 2013


And what I am saying is that thousands upon thousands of highly educated, highly intelligent humans are forced to face the fact that they cannot hope to have a life in academe. I am suggesting that they can look for inspiration to great figures of past and present.
posted by No Robots at 1:42 PM on August 30, 2013


And I am pointing out that your examples are deeply unrealistic; if you want to create intellectual work outside the academy, railing against those nasty tenured professors will not magially provide opportunities to your "thousands and thousands," who have the unfortunate habit of desiring food and shelter and perhaps the possibility of leisure. Dismantling the university will not result in capital descending upon the underemployed or non-academically employed educated class, will not bring back the 40-hour work week, and will not bestow upon them the patronage which all of your examples relied upon at multiple points in their intellectual endeavors. Most people aren't going to meet a Ja der Witt or a Richard Wagner or a

In any case, Wittgenstein should probably be struck off of your list; for all his complaints about academia, he kept circling back to it, and even chaired the philosophy department at Cambridge for eight years. When he wasn't working for his own family (some of the richest people in Europe; Wittgenstein gave away his share of the inheritance, but took money from his sister in what amounted to a patronage job), teaching, or at a university in some official or unofficial capacity, he was working as a gardner for a monastery.

For that matter, Nietzsche was chair of philosophy at Basel -- the youngest in its history -- and was a professor there for ten years. He resigned because of health issues, not out of hatred for the academy, and lived off of his rather generous pension after leaving, supplemented by donations from his friends. His anti-university statements seem to stem from his failure to secure a lecturing position at Leipzig due to his well-known anti-Christian polemics. But he's not someone who made his way outside the university so much as someone who managed an early retirement from it and then died young of disease.

If these are your examples, then the path to freedom for these thousands you mention will involve making rich friends and becoming a department chair at some university for the better part of a decade before turning on the whole system....and, naturally, making sure to take its pension.
posted by kewb at 2:10 PM on August 30, 2013


kewb, where in academia today would the writing of the likes of Emerson's essays or Thoreau's, of Beyond Good and Evil, of James' Pragmatism, or of Civilization and its Discontents be considered great academic work that would promote the career of an eager graduate student or assistant professor?

However multi-disciplinary departments are, there seems to be a clear distinction between the kind of work that earns approval and reward in the academic environment and the kinds of works I just mentioned. How would you define that difference if not in specialist vs. generalist terms?

One can be a multi-disciplinary specialist, it seems to me, without being anything like a real "hunter" and generalist.
posted by shivohum at 2:25 PM on August 30, 2013


I'm not arguing that the university produces that sort of work: I'm arguing that the real sea change has happened outside the university, with the disappearance of social and financial systems that made such work possible. A lot of the thinkers everyone's mentioning came from wealth, existed as parts of a stabler bourgeosie than today's, or leveraged existing university affiliations.

That said, it's pretty telling that no one has an example younger than 100 years; no one brings in Ezra Pound's Guide to Kulchur, which is getting near a hundred but isn't there yet? Hell, what about John Rawls? A Theory of Justice is less "generalist" than the books listed above? The works of Thomas Nagel? Luc Ferry?

I notice that basically every example of "generalism" lised so far seems to be in the German Romantic or Anglo-American philosophical tradition. Is "generalism" effectively a codeword for "non-Continental humanist inquiry" or just "studies compatible with popular classical liberalism?" Because there's lots of that even in the university if you know where to look.

Define the "generalist" work, and then we can see if "generalist" thought has actually died in or out of the university. Is the Big Book the only unit of "generalist" knowledge? For all the complaining, I don't see an actual explanation -- not a list of examples but a list of criteria -- that lets us recognize or detect the "generalism" of this intellectual work people are certain now goes undone and unloved.

Or perhaps the notion of the "generalist book" also runs into real trouble when "culture" isn't just America and Western Europe anymore, and you have to take in so many different traditions, many of which have rather complex historical relationships to one another, that the sweeping statements of old don't work so well anymore? I can't find an example above that doesn't implicitly see "the liberal tradition" as almost entirely American and European thought and its offshoots or assimilated materials.
posted by kewb at 2:46 PM on August 30, 2013


Put another way, why isn't the death of "generalism" in non-humanities fields a problem? I hear no cries for the specialization of physics, chemostry, biology, and so forth since the time of Franklin or even Darwin, when you could just be a "natural philosopher" and talk about everything from ecology to genetics to physics in the same book?

I get the feeling that the plea for generalism in the humanities is basically an argument against critiques of Enlightenment consensus, against multiculturalism, and for the idea that intellectual specialization is only legitimate in the arena of quantitative thought.
posted by kewb at 3:07 PM on August 30, 2013


Kewb, we're talking about building a life of the mind outside of academia. This would apply to all realms of endeavor. Although the humanities seem to be in the most acute condition, I do no some unemployed scientists.
posted by No Robots at 3:11 PM on August 30, 2013


Hell, what about John Rawls? A Theory of Justice is less "generalist" than the books listed above? The works of Thomas Nagel? Luc Ferry?

Most of their work is written in ponderous and often technical language. That's true to some extent even of A Theory of Justice, in my opinion.

Using Amazon's "Surprise Me" feature to pick a random page, the first couple of sentences that came up for AToJ:

'Therefore, if one supposes that the concept of justice applies whenever there is an allotment of something rationally regarded as advantageous or disadvantageous, then we are interested in only one instance of its application. There is no reason to suppose ahead of time that the principles satisfactory for the basic structure hold for all cases.' (8)

The same procedure applied to Emerson's Essays:
'He hears the commendation, not of himself, but, more sweet, of that character he seeks, in every word that is said concerning character, yea further in every fact that befalls,--in the running river and the rustling corn. Praise is looked, homage tendered, love flows, from mute nature, from the mountains and the lights of the firmament.' (5)

To Walden:
'All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant. Confucius said: "to know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.' (11)

Civilization and Its Discontents:
'He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moemnt, whereas other sources evade him from time to time--among them what he desires most of all, his mother's breast--and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an 'object' in the form of something which exists 'outside' and which is only forced to appear by a special action.' (14)

Luc Ferry's The New Ecological Order:
'In truth, if the democratic space is indeed one that incorporates an internal critique, they should, since they call themselves democrats, celebrate this liberating and salutary mourning, as for the first time no doubt in the history of humanity, we are living in a time when this critique, which the eighteenth-century Aufklarer were already calling for, has reached the minimal threshold of maturity. Reformism is not the model we must be content with for want of better when revolutionary hope fails, but rather the only position consistent with leaving the world of childhood.' (138)

Seems to me there's a difference.

I'll take a rough stab at criteria for generalist work.

It's work:
a) written in non-technical language
b) with an eye to verbal beauty and prose style and not mere utility
b) addressed to the intelligent layman rather than to academic specialists
c) which addresses questions of general human concern directly
d) through a new and insightful synthesis (not mere summary) of existing knowledge to produce new knowledge
posted by shivohum at 3:11 PM on August 30, 2013


In that case, certain works by Thomas Nagel and a whole host of Anglo-American philosophers working today qualify perfectly well. For that matter, whatever you think of their quality or their ideas, books by people like Maureen Dowd, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, Richard Dawkins, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky ought to count. Cornel West writes for a popular audience, though I suspect you wouldn't find his prose beautiful.

But then, I don't really see that the sample of Ferry is all that outrageous. He's translated from the French, uses a vocabulary that ought to be simple enough for the educated but nonspecialist reader, and he (or at least his translator) employs some subtle parallelism in that last sentence to help get the idea over.

Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and others in the "creative nonfiction' tradition -- arguably one of the things the "generalist" notion turned into -- should fit your criteria as well assuming that you don't insist on a very specific, mostly 18th and 19th century notion of balanced and beautiful prose style.

Now, point "d" is something that by definition gets harder with the passage of time, and certainly with greater multicultural awareness. The more disparate or opposed the material you have to synthesize, the more likely you will have to either load up on clauses and qualifiers or develop a rigorous language. Consider, perhaps, that Emerson and Thoreau were able to write about a comparatively "smaller" and "newer" world; Walden, in particular, is remarkably provincial (and a bit deceptive in its framing) given the book's lasting reputation. Both could take "man" as their subject because what was meant was really "the American liberal individual" and nothing more. If the Enlightenment consensus does not hold, then the question of what you imagine they synthesize rises up and ruins your point "d."

Some of the problem may also be simply that the entire notion of ornamental or balanced, essayistic prose in nonfiction has become markedly less fashionable, not just in centers of education but also in the wider reading public. Popular writing has gotten less like that of Emerson, Thoreau, etc., and it's not entirely or mostly because there are no intellectuals writing outside the academy. People seem to prefer a more utilitarian, unadorned prose style. A generalist of their style would have a hard time with a world that demands data as evidence, and some of the death of that sort of "generalism" has been the rise of popular empiricism -- hardly a trend the humanities professors support, at least not stereotypically.

But you are somewhat cherry-picking from Freud there. Another paragraph from the same work:
Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our own self, the ego. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. That such an appearance is deceptive, and that ont he contrary the ego is continued inwards, without any sharp delimitation, into an unconscious mental entity which we designate as the id and for which it serves as a kind of facade -- this was a discovery first made by psycho-analytic research, which should still have much more to tell us about the relation of the ego to the id. But towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state -- admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological -- in which it does not do this.
It goes on like that for quite a while, and remember, "id" and "ego" were Freud's own invented jargon in this context.
posted by kewb at 3:40 PM on August 30, 2013


Another note, given Thoreau's use of Confucius: the "generalist" seems to be a great cultural appropriater and a ruthless decontextualizer, pulling bits and pieces out of their context and presenting them in often deceptive, inaccurate, or misleading ways to support the generalist's thesis.

The Golden Bough or even Worlds in Collision are in that sense good "generalism" and horribly wrong about almost everything, because the generalist has to construct parallels and syntheses even when the materials of the world rebel. To favor generalism is to assume ahead of time that cultural materials point towards a universally apt idea, one true now and forever, here and everywhere else.

In short, it requires a preexisting agreement with a very specific, politically non-neutral set of premises. It's hardly a surprise that people who disagree with these premises not only don't produce generalist works, but don't mourn them either. I think it's become clear to me in this discussion that generalism is the desire for or the dream of monoculture.
posted by kewb at 3:45 PM on August 30, 2013


Well, kewb, I certainly don't see you offering any kind of help to the intellectual in extremis. For myself, I look forward to the day when les sans paie-cheques storm the humanities center.
posted by No Robots at 3:56 PM on August 30, 2013


But almost the people you cite are either non-academic, or are writing work that would not be approved of in the academy. Thomas Nagel got pilloried for his most recent -- and I would argue, yes, definitely generalist -- work.

Those academics who write generalist work write it in spite of their academic position and institution, not because that work is encouraged by it.

No one really argued that the generalist doesn't exist at all today; academia was argued to favor specialization, that's all, and generalists to be largely outside of it. That still seems to be eminently true.
posted by shivohum at 4:00 PM on August 30, 2013


In short, it requires a preexisting agreement with a very specific, politically non-neutral set of premises.

Wait, so you're saying that ideas from other cultures cannot be explained in terms that the lay public can understand?
posted by shivohum at 4:03 PM on August 30, 2013


If the Enlightenment consensus does not hold, then the question of what you imagine they synthesize rises up and ruins your point "d.

I don't mean that they have to synthesize all knowledge or come up with rules that apply to everything. Montaigne synthesized knowledge, but claimed his essays only described himself. And I would argue that he was a quintessential generalist.
posted by shivohum at 4:13 PM on August 30, 2013


No, I'm saying that "grand syntheses" in cultural terms tend towards monoculturalism. That might be a global monoculture, but in practice it usually seems to mean assimilation into a Western canon. Certainly all the examples seem to fit that tendency, and they also all come from a period prior to full-tilt capitalist globalization.

Again, the history of generalism as a widespread, influential cultural force seems to end around a century ago. (I don't know that I'd count Wittgenstein as a generalist, at least not as shivohum seems to define it.) That doesn't seem, in terms of the historical idea, to fit very well with the idea that it's entirely down to the expansion and modernization of the university. I'm also curious about comparatively modern examples of non-Western generalists; are there any examples that don't date back to antiquity.

It's always dangerous to pint back too far. Are those really generalists, or people who are old enough to become part of the tradition, to have been "generalized"? Gandhi, perhaps? Maybe Franz Fanon? Maybe some things seem "generalist" because they are old enough to be widely familiar. I'm not entirely sure that I'd call William James a writer for the layperson in his own time, for example, so much as a kind of academic writer who seems less "academic" today because some of his ideas are so ingrained into our received ideas. (There are also folks like Kant who are clearly not writing for laypeople, but are still grist for a generalist mill.)

I do see a couple of distinct genealogies of "generalism" emerging, as I've noted before. There's a strain that flows through the German Romantic tradition, and another that flows through the Enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers from their direct inspirations and down to Thoreau and Emerson in the 19th century. Who comes after them? Again, Gandhi would seem a possibility, since he was influenced by Thoreau, but he's more known as a public figure and leader than as a writer specifically.

As to me personally helping the intellectual in extremis, I'm not rich enough to do much for them directly. I support the idea of a basic minimum income, I oppose copyright and journal lockdowns of knowledge produced with public funds, and I like nonprofit cultural centers even if I think their funding situation is likely to get worse and worse. Beyond that, what exactly is your demand here? That I immediately agree with you wholeheartedly?

In any case, this has pretty clearly turned into me threadsitting and taking on all comers, and I'm probably not doing the conversation any favors at this point.
posted by kewb at 4:25 PM on August 30, 2013


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