The dangers of dialectic

by PhilGoetz 2 min read5th Aug 201412 comments


I'm reading The Last Intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe by Russell Jacoby (1987). It contains many interesting and important observations and insights, but also much stupidity. By the last chapter, I was as interested in the question of how a person can be so smart and stupid at the same time as in the author's actual arguments.

Jacoby's thesis is that Intellectuals (I capitalize to denote a definition with scope local to the book) are socially-engaged intellectuals who stand outside institutions, culture, and class to critique society and call for change. Their natural habitat is the coffee shops of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and New York City, where they lived lives of social activism fueled by coffee, cigarettes, sex, poetry, and perhaps resentment. The species has gone extinct, driven out of urban areas by crime, high rent, and (literally) automobiles, and having been co-opted by the academic establishment. Academia provides would-be Intellectuals with a paycheck and possibly tenure, in exchange for their disengaging from politics and instead making only harmless, jargon-laden theoretical arguments readable only by other specialists. Jacoby documents that the generation of leftists since 1960 have retreated into purely academic arguments and politics; for instance, from 1959-1969, "the three leading political science journals published but one article on Vietnam".

The stupidity arises when he goes into detail about good guys versus bad guys. He blames all of the following for the decline of intellectualism:

  • the inherent conservatism of privately-funded colleges
  • high rent
  • crime
  • the automobile
  • suburbs
  • publish-or-perish
  • modernism and post-modernism
  • academic elitism (judging people's work by their institutional affiliations)
  • leftist ideals going mainstream
  • specialization (especially jargon and self-imposed isolation)
  • technology transfer ("capitalism")
  • grants ("academic capitalism")
  • quantitative science

Every person and every idea at play must be either for him or against him. He can never quite acknowledge the existence of conservative intellectuals, though he admits there are smart conservatives who have learned and activist journals; his vocabulary does not admit terms that don't have a single position on the conservative-leftist axis. "Intellectual" is a synonym for "leftist", which is a synonym for "Marxist". Everything that is not Marxist is another insidious force suppressing intellectuals.

Yes, even quantitative science. The craziness is at its peak when he spends pages bemoaning the new emphasis economic journals place on data and mathematics. This he opposes to the older generation who "still confront the economic reality lucidly". He cites a study that was aghast to find that, of 159 papers in The American Economic Review from 1981-1983, "only 6 used words alone," and says, "The obsessive use of statistics, diagrams, and 'explicit simulation' has damaged the field." I'm more shocked that the AER published 6 "economics" papers with no numbers. How, exactly, do you do economics without numbers?

Like Marx did, I suppose. Jacoby is a Marxist. I don't know what that term means anymore, but it does seem to still include adherence to a materialist historical dialectic. That means that social structures are the outcomes of conflict from two opposing views.

(Brief digression to justify applying Marxist dialectic to ideas: Hegelian dialectic took two opposing ideas and resolved them via synthesis. Marx said that Hegel was wrong in imagining dialectics applied to ideas, but that it applied to history and social structures instead, and that he had therefore "turned Hegel on his head". But since the ideas that Marxists discuss are all about social structures, there is a one-to-one mapping between social forces and ideas in their discussions. So they've had to turn Hegel over again, and think of ideas as being in dialectical opposition. I am still confused about the "synthesis" part, which Marx seems to have global-find-and-replaced with "violent annihilation of the older".)

Marxism claims that the proper way of thinking about problems is to realize that forces are relevant only if they are aligned with one of two opposing viewpoints. It deliberately trains people to collapse their analysis of every problem into a single dimension. The rise of grants, and of quantitative economics, are significant developments during the same time period Jacoby is analyzing; therefore, they must take positions on the conservative-leftist axis.

In short, dialectics tacitly prescribes mandatory use of one of humanity's major irrational biases.

Once he's identified every major change over a time period, and assigned each to either the conservative or the leftist side, his analysis is done! Because he has an explicit ideology that says that change is caused by conflict between two opposing and incompatible forces. There is no point looking for compromises or technological solutions. There is no way forward but for one of these forces to overcome the other. At that point the job of the Intellectual can only be as a cheerleader, to motivate everyone on his side to push harder. And this is really what Jacoby is bemoaning in this book: that intellectuals are not doing enough cheerleading anymore.


(Question: Should I post this to Main? Should I make certain changes before posting to Main?)