The dangers of dialectic

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?)