Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

What It Means To Be An Intellectual

A friend sent me an email this morning and at the end of it, almost as an afterthought, he responded to a quote I’d sent him from an author praising books. “He would say that,” my friend replied, “he’s a writer.”

I want to quibble with this statement — how is it that we can dismiss someone’s argument simply because of their job? — but doing so would seem bizarre. There’s a social norm that how much we discuss something should be roughly proportional to its importance. Mountains of print may be spilled on the issues of international relations but spending a couple emails discussing punctuation would seem dreadfully bizarre.

There’s just one problem: I enjoy deep discussions of punctuation and other trivialities. I could try to justify this taste — some argument that we should think about everything we do so that we don’t do everything we think about — but why bother? Do I have to justify enjoying certain television shows as well? At some point, isn’t pure enjoyment just enough? After all, time isn’t fungible.

But of course, the same drive that leads me to question punctuation leads me to question the drive itself, and thus this essay.

What is “this drive”? It’s the tendency to not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual.

The word “intellectual” has a bit of a bad rap. When I think of the word I hear a man with a southern accent sneering at it. But this stain seems appropriate — the idea has a bad rap.

And why is that? One reason is that many people simply don’t like to think about things. Perhaps it reminds them of school, which they didn’t enjoy, and they don’t want to go back there. Another is that they’re busy people — men of action — and they don’t have time to sit and think about every little detail. But mostly it’s just because they think it’s a waste of time. What’s the point? What difference does it make what you think about punctuation? It’s not going to affect anything.

This is the argument that’s often used when demonizing intellectuals. As Thomas Frank summarizes the argument:

The same bunch of sneaking intellectuals are responsible for the content of Hollywood movies and for the income tax, by which they steal from the rest of us. They do no useful work, producing nothing but movies and newspaper columns while they freeload on the labor of others. (116)

When I think of intellectuals, though, I don’t really think of Hollywood producers or politicians or even newspaper columnists. But the people I do think of seem to have something else in common. They don’t just love thinking, they love language. They love its tricks and intricacies, its games, the way it gets written down, the books it gets written into, the libraries those books are in, and the typography those books use.

Upon reflection this makes perfect sense. Language is the medium of thought and so it’s no surprise that someone who spends a lot of time thinking spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their thoughts as well. And indeed, all the intellectuals that come to mind write, not because they have to or get paid to, but simply for its own sake. What good is thinking if you can’t share?

This contrasts with how intellectuals are commonly thought of — namely as pretentious elitist snobs. But real intellectuals, at least in the sense I’m using the term, are anything but. They love nothing more than explaining their ideas so that anyone who’s interested can understand them. They only seem pretentious because discussing such things is so bizarre.

This stereotype actually seems more like the caricature of the academic than the intellectual. (It’s perhaps worth noting that most of the intellectuals I can think of aren’t academics or at least have left the academy.) Far from being intellectuals, academics are encouraged to be almost the opposite. Instead of trying to explain things simply, they’re rewarded for making them seem more complicated. Instead of trying to learn about everything, they’re forced to focus in on their little subdiscipline. Instead of loving books, they have to love gabbing — up in front of class or at office hour with students or at professional conferences or faculty meetings.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. At the beginning I declined to justify my being an intellectual on any grounds other than pure personal enjoyment. And here, at the end, I can’t think of any better justification. Certainly people should think deeply about their actions and the world’s problems and other important topics. But the other ones? That’s little more than personal preference.

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April 17, 2006


i enjoyed this :) … i think you are getting at it from a gut viewpoint that is very refreshing. you are right to contrast the intellectual with a person of action … certainly there is a preference in our culture for the latter … though even i count myself among the former … though frequently i malign that in myself; because to prefer to think rather than act is rarely wise. i find the intellectual in myself is self conscious … he recourses … he anoints my creations … like a vulture he must devour that which i do.

posted by Seth Russell on April 17, 2006 #

The book you’re looking for: Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1966) by Richard Hofstadter.

posted by t e whalen on April 17, 2006 #

You are not alone. There’s a lot to be learned from understanding the little things. Most interesting problems in the world have subtle complexities that appear to people as “little things”, especially when you try to pick them apart. Without the little things, you can’t truly understand the problem, and instead accept whatever simplified frame a journalist or academic has put the problem in.

posted by Ofer Nave on April 17, 2006 #

Far from being intellectuals, academics are almost the opposite. Instead of trying to explain things simply, they often try to make them seem more complicated.

Is this supposed to apply to all (or most/ or the archetype of) people that work in the academic world? If it is, IMHO your description is just as far off as the (“caricature” of a) description of intellectuals that you cite. Trying to be precise may make stuff seem more complex, but then it is [often] necessary complexity (“make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”).

Of course there may be differences between “hard sciences” that deal with the physical reality, and other types of sciences (some would say “so-called” sciences) where a lot of distinctions and precision seems almost arbritrary. (Forgive me for missing the correct terminology, maybe someone else can fill that in.)

posted by Sencer on April 17, 2006 #

The bit about academics being pretentious elitist snobs, the opposite of “real intellectuals”, is just bullshit. The rest of your post is interesting though.

posted by Jacob Rus on April 17, 2006 #

I corrected the most to make it clear that I was talking about what academia encourages, not making a statement of most academics. I think the pressures apply to both hard and soft sciences, although clearly there’s a lot more justification for jargon in the harder stuff.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 17, 2006 #

I’m not sure your clarification made anything more clear(!) Why do you suppose academics obfuscate ideas? Isn’t it possible that they develop clear and precise terminology for things that the majority have no interest in understanding. Thus to the (dare I say it) non-intellectuals their output only seems more complicated.

PS are you sure you didn’t confuse intellectual and amateur?

posted by Benjamin on April 17, 2006 #

I didn’t say academics were this way; I said they were encouraged to be this way. There are very real rewards in academia for being obscure and very real punishments for writing popularizations.

Certainly, there is a need for developing precise terminology which naturally makes things hard to understand. But the problems go far beyond jargon.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 18, 2006 #

Jeez, of all things, why are you committing the very same error that you accuse the anti-intellectuals of? There are academics, and then there are… academics. Physics, Psychology, Economics, History, Philosophy, … each of these fields have their own cultures and each of them encourage and discourage different things. But of course, such fine-grained distinctions don’t matter to the true anti-intellectual, um I mean intellectual, no?

Seriously, check out Peter Montgomery’s paper some day if you can find it in your library. It’s only two pages.

posted by bi on April 18, 2006 #

Hi Aaron,

It is often interesting to read your posts, regardless of if I agree with them or not. Hmmm…well, this essay definitely belongs in the ‘not’ category. Why?

1) Dismissing an argument because of someone’s job? Nothing wrong with that - depending on the context. For example, I would be inclined to give more credence to a software engineer’s views on what makes a ‘good’ s/w eng than say a patent lawyer.

Of course, the patent lawyer may have been an excellent s/w engineer in the past, but the point is that profession is often an excellent first approximation to the authority of a person’s argument. And don’t forget that some topics are inherently profession-agnostic.

2) I don’t agree that ‘how much we discuss something should be roughly proportional to its importance’ is a social norm. You need to define what you mean by importance. Because, last time I checked, the number of people discussing the last episode of Desperate Housewives is probably comparable (if not greater) to the number of discussions around poverty….

3) Your definition of intellectual is reasonable, although I’m not sure that a love of language is a prerequisite. It is possible to be pragmatic about language (ie, its just a means to express ideas; I have a good command of English, so I’ll just focus on the ideas and not spend my finite energy on the vague intracicies of the language) and still be an intellectual.

4) I find it humorous that you feel that intellectuals are undeservedly viewed as ‘pretentious elitist snobs’, and in the next sentence explain how they enjoy explaining their ‘complicated ideas’ that seem esoteric or ‘bizarre’. Apart from implicitly judging the merit of an idea based on its complexity, it seems kind of condescending when you put it that way.

5) I totally disagree that academics aren’t intellectuals. This is one of the stranger things I have read in a while. First, to tar a group of people with a single brush is definitely an intellectual short-cut.

Secondly I have met and learned from many excellent academicians who stood out in their profession by virtue of their ability to clearly and succintly convey their knowledge. (Hmmm…now that I think of it, my father is recognised by his field in this way for his teaching of anatomy).

And finally, it is possible to love gabbing and to love books, you know. One tendency doesn’t necessarily diminish the other.

And to back an earlier point, I would probably give your opinion on this less weight, precisely because you aren’t a professor (neither am I, but I’m not making an argument against the professions’ ‘intellectual-ness’).

Anyways, the more I think about what you have written, the more I feel that the thinking behind it is flawed. To wit - an intellectual loves thinking (agreeed), language (disagree), typography (definitely disagree). Intellectuals are unfairly branded as pretentious and elitist, but they shouldn’t be (disagree, in many cases it is deserved); they just want to share their wonderful ideas (who judges the validity of these ideas? What separates an intellectual from a crank??) Academics are the snobs, not intellectuals (strongly disagree, because it presupposes Academics != intellectual, and other reasons outlined above).

Forgive the extended criticism; your arguments didn’t make sense so I had to address them all.

posted by Ajay on April 18, 2006 #

I wasn’t talking about the fields; I was talking about the institutional structure of academia. I’ve updated the post again to make it clear I’m speaking of a caricature.

Montgomery’s paper is available on JSTOR. What about it did you think was interesting?

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 18, 2006 #

The article only touched upon the job thing in passing, but ad hominem attacks are a classic logical fallacy. There’s a big difference between giving more credence to someone’s views because they’re an expert and completely dismissing an argument because of someone’s job.

The point about Desperate Housewives is a good ona and I should think about it a little more but I don’t think it fundamentally affects my argument.

I didn’t say love of language was a prerequisite; I said it was a correlate.

I’ve updated the paragraph you mentioned in 4 to fix the things you criticized.

Once again, I didn’t say academics aren’t intellectuals. I said the people I think of as intellectuals aren’t academics. Take Edward Tufte, for example. He left a tenured position at Yale to give public presentations and write publicly-oriented books.

What difference does it make whether people’s ideas are valid to whether they’re an intellectual?

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 18, 2006 #

Oh, and one more thing, I misread one thing - that academics are encouraged to be almost the opposite of intellectual.

Basically, you still state academics != intellectual, but place the blame on the university.

Well, that is still not correct. Based on my personal experience, universities regularly reward excellence in teaching (ie, exposition of ideas as per your definition of intellectual).

And let’s say that academia actually does reward non-intellectual behaviour; it still does not follow that a professor must become the opposite of intellectual merely because the system encourages it.

Finally, your re-edited post still states “This stereotype actually seems more like the caricature of the academic than the intellectual.”. And this is still a generalization. Feynman was an academic; I doubt that you’ll find many people who would think of him as a pretentious elitist snob, or wouldn’t think of him as an intellectual. There are so many counter-examples to your argument that I’m a little surprised that you made this claim.

Your analysis of what constitutes intellectualism turns into a bashing of academia. A system which while not perfect (and what system is??) has produced and been associated with more intellectuals than any other body in history.

posted by Ajay on April 18, 2006 #

Kids are encouraged not to smoke. Does that mean all kids don’t smoke? Just because academics are encouraged to do something doesn’t mean they do.

Excellence in teaching, even if valid, is still limited to the small group of people who are actually in the university classroom.

Is Feynman the caricature of the academic? Hardly.

Just because academia has been associated with intellectuals doesn’t mean it made them.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 18, 2006 #

Aaron Swartz:

Montgomery’s paper is interesting in several ways. As I said, it’s awfully short. At the same time, it’s quite easy to understand (one only needs elementary number theory knowledge!). And finally, it was actually accepted for publication.

Anyway, the differences in the disciplines are the institutional structure. It’s all about how many of your papers get published where, and different fields have different ideas (among the reviewers) of what `should’ get published.

posted by bi on April 18, 2006 #

I wouldn’t bother whether academics are encouraged to write popularizations, which pretty much by definition rarely advance knowledge in their fields. Likewise, as stated, a defining characteristic of intellectuals is their willingness to communicate their ideas. To which I say no, that’s some combination of charisma and enthusiasm, but not intellect as such. Some very intelligent people may formulate their ideas best in private, perceiving the need to communicate as something of a nuisance. So I wouldn’t impose much in the way of requirements. I’m also bothered by your last paragraph. Whenever I hear anyone describe himself as an intellectual, I feel around for my wallet. And it’s not that people are too busy or that they don’t like to think!

posted by Mike Sierra on April 19, 2006 #

Even if we grant your premise (that popularizations rarely advance knowledge in a field), surely the larger public deserves to learn things as well? But I don’t even grant the premise — it seems like popularizations help advance fields by both collecting and synthesizing their ideas and by encouraging the general public to share theirs. Most major new ideas come by transporting things that are commonly done in one field to another; this kind of stuff would happen a lot more with more popularizations.

It’s possible that you’re right and there are a large group of intellectuals who think deeply about things and don’t communicate their ideas. Of course, I’d probably never hear of them, since they don’t communicate. Still, until I’d like to see some evidence before assuming they exist.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 19, 2006 #

I have no evidence other than personal observation: it’s often the quiet one who turns out to be the smartest one in the room. Or perhaps extroverts rub me the wrong way. But neither of us have substantial evidence of either assertion, only preconceptions of what we expect from intelligent people.

I’d distinguish advancing a field from merely popularizing it; “collecting and synthesizing” strike me more as a shoring up than serious advancement. (I’m sure we can name a field or two that remain static despite such periodic regurgitation?) I think you may also be overestimating the value of interdisciplinary activity, and misidentifying popularizations as their main conduit.

Regardless, even if offering up popularizations is valuable, I’d hire it out. Think for a moment about what it would take for you to explain to a general audience everything you know about software development. Would that be a more productive use of your time than actually developing software?

posted by Mike Sierra on April 20, 2006 #

“GM - the company which while not perfect (and what company is??) has produced and been associated with more cars than any other company in history.” What a joke. The point is that while that’s what they sometimes claim they are doing, they do an extraordinarily bad job at it. I agree with Aaron’s bashing of academia and would go much further (didn’t see much of what I would call teaching going on myself). Keep exploring these veins of thought, Aaron, regardless of how these mediocre minds respond. If it makes sense to you, write about it and only make changes, after talking to others, if it makes logical sense to you, not for social or political reasons (I’m thinking of your paragraph about sex that was excised from a previous post).

posted by another Ajay on April 20, 2006 #

Ah, so bringing up concrete examples of simplicity in academia — Montgomery’s paper, Feynman — is the work of “mediocre minds”! Such a practice is clearly beneath the great profound minds such as Another Ajay, who will deal only with sweeping generalities and fluffy abstract fact-free assertions!

That’s a problem, you see, with the word “intellectual”: it’s largely a self-applied label. Just as ESR tells us that a hacker is someone like ESR, and Paul Graham tells us that a painter is someone like Paul Graham, we have AA telling us that an intellectual is — surprise! — someone who’s like AA.

Now if only I can just use “academic” as a self-applied label… :-B

posted by bi on April 21, 2006 #

Coming up with examples of kids who smoke doesn’t refute the thesis that kids are encouraged not to smoke.

I’m not sure why labels that are self-applied are problematic. The labels “left” and “right” are largely self-applied, for example.

I’m tempted to ask Maciej whether he thinks this essay is “a big distributed act of participatory narcissism”. Obviously to some extent it reflects my personality — the observations are based on my friends, who I choose to be sort of like me — but the essay is only interesting to the extent that the attribute it discusses is. ESR and DW’s essays are problematic because they try to claim a term that many people want to be — hacker, blogger — and tell you you should do it by being like them. My essay takes a trait that many people dislike and tries to give it a name. I happen to give it a name that’s already in use, but it would probably work just as well with any other word.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 21, 2006 #

Aaron Swartz:

Let me point out again that Montgomery’s paper was accepted for publication. So were the original papers on the Cooley-Tukey FFT and Bresenham’s line-drawing algorithm. Not only were these papers written, they were accepted for publication, and they’re now widely cited. That should say something about The Establishment(tm)’s resistance to simple ideas, doesn’t it?

Clearly, the onus is now on you to give concrete evidence for your thesis that this “academia” as a whole favours obscurantism over clarity. So far I’m seeing nothing but an argumentum ad nauseam.

(More later…)

posted by bi on April 21, 2006 #

Who said good papers don’t get published? Who said The Establishment(tm) is resistant to simple ideas? I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.

If you’re actually interested in what I’m talking about, the classic books are Robert Merton’s On The Shoulders of Giants and Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 21, 2006 #

bi, you’re going off the deep end here. Just hang on and read carefully. I never used the word “intellectual” in my last post so I could hardly have applied it to myself. Read the first sentence of Aaron’s last post (about kids who smoke) and apply it to the first sentence of your last post. I agree that we’re all speaking in generalities here (including you, who would generalize from two concrete examples to an entire system) and that none of us have bothered to list concrete evidence of systemic problems. While I agree with most of Aaron’s statements about academia in the second to last paragraph of his original esssay, he hasn’t presented specific evidence to show that it is so.

And I’m not sure how he would. These are generalities that he has extracted based on many smaller observations. He could list those observations in more detail, but that might take some work, and I’m not sure it would satisfy you.

As for what Maciej would say (WWMS :), Aaron, any creative work that attempts to secure an audience can be described as “a big distributed act of participatory narcissism.” The issue is whether or not that audience ultimately finds that act to have any value.

posted by another Ajay on April 21, 2006 #

Another Ajay:

How hard can it be to give at least a few concrete examples over a wide range of fields where “academics” were actively encouraged to write abstruse gobbledygook? Besides, whether listing such examples will satisfy me or not, surely it’s a useful thing — as he claims himself — to distil the evidence into a more digestible form for The Rest Of Us Unwashed Masses Who Can’t See The Truth? Methinks a book with quotes that go

“…the concern to control his discourse, that is the reception of his discourse, imposes on the sociologist a scientific rhetoric which is not necessarily a rhetoric of scientificity: he needs to inculcate a scientific reading, rather than belief in the scientificity of what is being read — except in so far as the latter is one of the tacit conditions of a scientific reading…”

is clearly screaming for a simplification. (I mean, what the hell?)

Anyway, my point was precisely that you can’t just generalize like that. Different fields of academia simply have different cultures, and it makes more sense to study the dynamics of specific disciplines first.

posted by bi on April 21, 2006 #

I’m not sure if that paragraph is clearer in the original French, but while the translation is poorly-written English, the meaning comes thru pretty clearly to me: sociologists want their work to be accepted well, so they’re forced to write it in a scientific style, even when the work itself isn’t very scientific.

As for good examples of being encouraged to write abstruse gobbledygook, just look under the category “postmodernism”.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 21, 2006 #

Aaron Swartz: gah, I’m pretty sure I did specifically mention “over a wide range of fields”. :|

posted by bi on April 21, 2006 #

A more colloquial term for an intellectual is a “highbrow”, and that has a clear reference to snobby elitism. It immediately brings to mind an image of a person that only considers “highbrow” culture (classical music, opera, theatre, dead-white-men taste in reading and otherwise) real culture, and condemns the “lowbrow” culture of the “masses”. In my experience, such cultural preference and being an “academic” or otherwise in a privileged position, does tend to correlate with snobby elitism. It is not that the person (when an academic) couldn’t or wouldn’t want to explain his own field to “lay people”, but that the person considers his other interests far superior to those of lay people, and doesn’t (and can’t!) explain these interests, and what makes them so great. There’s also the elitist/meritocratic tendency to think that people with “lowbrow” pastime interests should be governed by those with “highbrow” interests; those part of the dead-white-european-men cult.

It is these people that give bad reputation to “intellectuals” in general.

Otherwise it is a good article, though, but I don’t agree that people don’t want to think. They just don’t want to think of the same things, and too much work can dull you so that you seldom are able to do that. An “intellectual job” is often just as or even more exhausting in this respect than a manual job.

posted by tuomov on April 21, 2006 #

bi, postmodernism did affect a wide range of fields. As the Wikipedia article on it states, “Postmodernism has had large implications in philosophy, art, critical theory, architecture, literature, history, and culture.” Since when is math the only field?

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 21, 2006 #

bi, the point we’re trying to make with your concrete examples is that they don’t make a trend. For us to sit here and list out large numbers of examples would take a long time and if the trend we’re talking about is sufficiently pervasive, it should be obvious to anyone who has read a sample of papers or been in academia. However, I agree with you that there are fluctuations across disciplines so why don’t you tell us about the disciplines that you claim don’t suffer from being obscurantist and highly specialized?

I agree with tuomov that coming home from a busy workday can leave you unwilling to think some more, but we can think of a test that avoids that. What do people do in their abundant leisure time (by historical standards), say the weekends or vacations? I think it’s pretty clear that they’re not spending it thinking. That implies that people don’t want to think and I think the reason why is pretty clear: it takes effort. People don’t want to put in the effort when the gains are uncertain.

posted by another Ajay on April 21, 2006 #

Ajay: You can’t really compare leisure (weekends, vacations) with a lifestyle that isn’t filled with work. Leisure is just time used to recover and regenerate for more work. People used to and schooled for work find it hard to fill their time not spent in work with anything else but torpor.

posted by tuomov on April 21, 2006 #

So your point is that everyone who is “used to and schooled for work” (who might that group include? Everyone?), can do nothing more than sit around in a daffy haze once they leave work? If so, why do a significant minority exert themselves in sports or exercise if they’re so wasted by work that they can do nothing else? I must say I’m taken aback by your assertion that nobody can do anything meaningful outside of a 40-hour work week (paltry by historical standards). Are you referring to a particular group of people when you mention those “with a lifestyle that isn’t filled with work” or are you suggesting that that hypothetical group is the only one that can spend any time thinking? (I suppose that would include Aaron.)

posted by another Ajay on April 21, 2006 #

Almost everyone in this society is schooled for work, even those fortunate enough to not have to work for a living. By a “lifestyle that isn’t filled with work” I refer to something that isn’t possible for most people in this society; something close to a lifestyle of play. Even those for whom it is possible, do not always exert it, the irrational pursuit for more wealth than one can ever use being connected with the protestant work ethic.

And it is not that people can’t do anything outside the working hours. It’s just that being ruled by the clock and bosses for most of one’s waking hours tends passivise people; it is hard to take on any novel pursuits that have not been your daily routine for long. It’s not impossible, but it takes more effort than it would be when you had a lot of time on your hands. And if you have to exert some capability (physical or mental) a lot by the clock (and that is a keyword), it does tax on your capability to use it outside those hours. On the other, not being able to use that capability also has an atrophying effect.

I can from personal experience state that not being ruled by the clock and very little by bosses (being a grad student), I tend to do a lot more thinking on other things as well besides my research, than while I had a “real job”. Those times one would impatiently wait the last few hours of the day to for the 8 hours to be full to be able to leave for home, and then crash on the sofa, watching telly. I actually do more “work” these days than back then, but I’m closer (but not even nearly close enough) to a lifestyle of play rather than work.

posted by tuomov on April 22, 2006 #

Hmmm, so your thesis is that following a set 9-5 schedule and following orders from your boss acculturates you to not want to think? It’s clearly not the work itself that is exhausting you as you claim you’re doing more work now and still thinking about other things. I don’t buy it. Maybe you mean that having a more intellectual lifestyle in graduate school acclimatizes you to spend more time thinking, as opposed to a regular job that doesn’t require much thinking. But that’s like saying having a job that doesn’t require physical labor makes it hard for you to exercise. It’s just an excuse.

I checked out your blog, btw, some interesting stuff. You’ve got to change that dreary color scheme however.

posted by Ajay on April 22, 2006 #

I find Jackall’s piece http://zpedia.org/Work_and_Life helpful for understanding this point.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 22, 2006 #

It’s a combination of being ruled and doing the work that is exhausting. Your capabilities are stretched beyond their limits by being forced to do work — work that you usually don’t even like — by the clock. Personally, I can’t do more than about 6 hours of work (including lunch and coffee breaks) in a stretch without becoming listless and exhausted, if what I’m doing is not very exciting — and that can only happen rarely. And even that 6 hours is sometimes stretching it. After that it is time to switch to doing something completely different for some hours, and maybe do some more light work later at night.

I’m not saying that a job that doesn’t require physical labour would make it physicall hard for you to exercise, although along with the car culture (lack of utility sports), it does contribute to it, if you do not excercise otherwise. What work does, is make it mentally difficult to adjust to excercising, if it isn’t already part of your routine.

That link Aaron posted has some good reading in it. (Unfortunately the formatting is broken.)

posted by tuomov on April 22, 2006 #

Aaron Swartz:

The phrasing “Postmodernism has had implications…” is so vague that it’s practically meaningless. Some time ago I came across this military history paper, a paper on linguistics, and a social science paper… and I found they’re actually quite readable. They’re all accepted for publication too. If postmodernism has such profound “implications” on these fields, I’m not seeing these “implications” very much.

posted by bi on April 23, 2006 #

Perhaps I was unclear. What I meant was that there’s postmodern philosophy, postmodern lit crit, postmodern crit theory, postmodern art, etc. all of which is largely incomprehensible.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 23, 2006 #

Based on the responses to your post, you have provided people something to think about (for those people who like to think). I agree that some people don’t like to “think” to much because it reminds them of school or they’re lazy or maybe because they realize that at some point thinking is going to have to take a back seat to doing - at least if we want to take out the trash, or build a bridge…or whatever it is we are thinking about.

I tend to have a less rosy view of intellectuals than I sense from your post. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I know what being an intellectual is, but I can say what my perception is.

I see intellectuals as those who value theory over practice, ideas over actualities and maybe mind over heart (e.g. the author’s of Freakonomics). Someone who would like to talk, think or write about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin as they say. On the other hand intellectualism, or mental focus, is necessary to bring forward theory and eventually put it into practice.

Intellectuals brought us communist cultural revolutions and the associated human suffering and loss of freedom and attacks/censorship of the intelligentsia (artists, writers, professors).

On a side note…I noticed you referenced Alfie Kohn in one of your posts. I really like some of his writings as well. You might want to read some of Eric Hoffer’s work, notably “The True Believer” . When asked if he was an intellectual, Eric Hoffer liked to tell people he was a longshoreman…which was true - but he was one of the brightest philsophers of the 20th century…

I’m starting to ramble so I’ll sign off.

Like your blog…keep on thinking…I’m going to try that Shangri La diet.

posted by Jack on May 2, 2006 #

Here’s some good evidence that “gobbledygook” is rewarded:

“The hoax was revealed by Sokal in an article for another journal, Lingua Franca; he explained that his Social Text article had been “liberally salted with nonsense,” and in his opinion was accepted only because “(a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” Sokal’s hoax served a public purpose, to attract attention to what Sokal saw as a decline of standards of rigor in the academic community, and for that reason it was unmasked immediately by the author himself.” http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/weinberg.html

posted by Kari on May 18, 2006 #

I read almost all the postings. I find it interesting how we can get carried away with the details of what is trying to be said. I believe Aaron�s version of an “intellectual” is a breath of fresh air. I understand it and can appreciate the thinking that leads to it, without judging the ‘parts’ on its own.

Being a person of Business and not much of academia (other than a degree I can show for ) I am constantly reminded of how un-attached people are with the �Big Picture� of things (for lack of a more intellectual word) and how showing results now (action) is better than having a better understanding of the whole picture (ei: purpose ).

Enjoying “…deep discussions of punctuation and other trivialities…” and Aaron�s stating of …”That we should think about everything we do so that we don’t do everything we think about — but why bother?” is an exact version of my thinking of an intellectual, right or wrong, indulging in analysis paralysis comes to mind. But I do agree, as well that many intellectuals should of course be allowed to analyze the minor details or the big picture by pulling it apart as a sport; Nothing wrong with that. I go to comedy clubs to acquire the enjoyment of the artful and colorful way comics see the world around us in their own colorful language as well. Comedy language and level of intellect is brutal, but still witty, still very real, and highly entertaining. Common Intellectuals just have another level of entertainment most of us (including myself at times) can�t relate to.

“There’s a social norm that how much we discuss something should be roughly proportional to its importance.” Now this statement alone really nailed it for me.

And here I thought dictionaries and encyclopedias were going to help me understand this better. I love best the art of using your imagination and keeping it simple in your own language.

So, Aaron thanks for the clarification. P.S. I had to use spell check to make sure my grammar and punctuation was to your standards. :-)

posted by Emili on March 2, 2008 #

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