Saturday 11 September 2010

What *is* the use of intellectuals? Sages and shamans

In a society run by intellectuals - or, at least, one where intellectuals control all the major public discourse - this may seem a strange question.

But as our intellectual ruling elite descend into an ever-deeper psychotic state of denial, delusion and hallucination; it is worth recalling that most societies are at best merely tolerant of intellectuals, in small numbers, so long as they keep out of trouble.

So what is the use of intellectuals? there are two: as sages and shamans.


Intellectuals are good at learning stuff, much better than most people. So when you want a lot of stuff learned, or new stuff, intellectuals are useful to have around.

This especially applies in unnatural societies, where instincts are a poor guide, but also to illiterate societies, or societies where there are few books and difficult access to information.

Of course, left to their own devices, intellectuals will learn a lot of weird or useless nonsense; so there needs to be a clear structure which points intellectuals at the relevant material.

But then they can become a valuable resource: a kind of mobile, fast access encyclopedia. This is the intellectual as sage.


Another use of intellectuals is solving problems which are not yielding to common sense.

Because intellectuals are good at learning, and also because they have strange interests, they can sometimes hit on a useful new angle for solving problems.

Of course, most intellectuals are dull and uncreative, but even so they might nonetheless have come across some similar, relevant, analogous situation in their conversations and reading; and be able to make a suggestion or two.

On the other hand, the best hope for a new angle on a new problem is to ask an intellectual who is both clever and crazy: a shaman - someone who has insights in an altered state of consciousness, a flash of inspiration, a trance, a dream...

Most suggestions that a shaman makes will be obviously-ridiculous, reckless, hazardous, or even fatal - but the idea *might* be both off-the-wall and also good; and so long as there is someone sensible to filter suggestions before acting on them, then shaman-intellectuals can be very useful.


But it is very important to keep intellectuals - whether sages or shamans - far away from problems to which you already have an answer provided by common sense and instinct - because intellectuals will want to suggest something different.

Since common sense is common, intellectuals will want to change the usual answer - and the sillier their new suggestion, the more ingeniously and vehemently that they will push it.

Look around: there is nothing too silly that some intellectual will not have said it, argued it, shouted it... and if you let him get get a grip on the levers of power, he will implement it.


This very obviously applies to semi-crazy shamans, but it is the sages which are more deceptive, hence dangerous.

Sages seem wise, but they are not really wise - because most wisdom is mere common sense. Sages feel that common sense is beneath their professional dignity. They will always want to advise something other-than common sense; and in situations where common sense is right then the sage will be wrong.

The thing is, when a sage is propounding a lunatic idea, it is much less obviously-mad than when a shaman is sounding-off. Indeed, a shaman might be merely common sensical without noticing it (spouting platitudes, but in a weird way) - so shamanic advice might be right in situations where a sage's advice will certainly be wrong.


It is also worth remembering that intellectuals have the unusual ability to lie without realizing it, indeed while for the moment being utterly convinced of their own truthfulness and virtue. And the big problem is that intellectuals will lie without good reason. Or, at least, the real justification for their lying may be so remote, so fantastic, so childish, and involve so many contingent and stochastic causal steps, as to be all-but unfathomable - even to another intellectual.


So, while it is certainly worth keeping a few intellectuals around, and being nice to them, it is a bad idea to let them get too much influence. The problem with modern intellectuals is that there are too many deceptively-normal-seeming sages and not enough obviously-crazy shamans.

Too many tame pets and not enough feral creatures.

The great thing about shamans - mad inventors, nutty professors, bohemian artists - is that we get the benefits of their ideas but we instinctively know *not* to give them power.

But when the intelligentsia becomes populated by apparently-normal sages, we are hoodwinked into thinking that because they are dull they are also sensible.

The assumption that sagacious dullness implies possession of that wisdom in judgment which is most desirable in a leader has proved to be a big mistake of the modern world: look around...


joetexx said...

Glad to see you have resumed blogging. I ran across yours a month or two ago - I think in the context of net surfing on phamaceutical research - and found it a pleasant surprise - I might have gone the rest of life unaware there were others with a shared interest in Big Pharm, Seraphim Rose and Tolkien. I have already benefited to the extent of reading Chargaff's Heraclitean Fire for which I must thank you!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joseph Ebbecke - thanks for this. It is a small world!

dearieme said...

"It is a small world!"

I came across a wonderful rebuttal of this a few years ago.
"No, the world is a small middle-class conspiracy."

Bill said...

This is a wonderful post. Though it is predictable from me at this point, I think it is important to understand that normal people are drawn into academia (which is roughly coextensive with intellectuals for present purposes), because it is such a nice place to be.

Shamans would be professors at a third of the current wages of professors. Careerist sages, not so much. Shamans would be professors if professors were barely tolerated cranks, the constant butt of jokes. Careerist sages, not so much.

Xamuel said...

Where do mathematicians fall in this scheme? The requirement of rigorous proof pretty much makes it impossible for a mathematician to lie, at least in his mathematics. There is some unjustified dogma, like "You should never memorize math!!" or "Calculus is a prerequisite for abstract algebra!!", but that's really more the fault of the math educator than the mathematician himself...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Xamuel - the main dishonesty in mathemetics is - I guess - pretending to be doing something (e.g. working in a particular field, or pursuing a specific line of work) for *mathematical* reasons (i.e. in order to correct or advance the subject) when you are in reality doing it for career reasons.