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This content was posted on  11 Jul 20  by   Brent Cooper  on  Medium
Anti-Intellectualism in American Strife

From Post-Truth to Paradigm Shift

“There is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” — Martin Luther King Jr

Prologue: Thinking about Think Tanks

Thomas Medvetz’ book Think Tanks in America (2012) presents a great fusion of some my interests: think tanks, public sociology, and intellectualism. The impact of think tanks — havens for knowledge production and policy shaping — falls very short of the ideal behind them. They tend to degrade into a “lobbying firm in disguise” (p. 29), coming to conclusions that confirm bias and crowd out other voices. Think tanks have effectively become powerful political actors with little to no accountability. Few, if any, make a reflexive turn and consider their role from a meta- perspective, converging their resources on honest public policy, reflective world disclosure, and addressing the meta-crisis they help perpetuate. Medvetz has a good definition of an anti-intellectualism that pervades the think tank space and beyond:

“…the charge of anti-intellectualism is best understood as a strategic stance or “position-taking” in the intellectual field — one that typically involves an attempt by a relatively autonomous intellectual group to discredit its less autonomous counterparts.” — p. 20, Medvetz, Think Tanks in America (2015)

This is different from the typical definitions of anti-intellectualism, which are in terms of public or private opposition to philosophical practice in general. This reframes the problem of think tanks and intellectual production as a fragmented and conflicting field, rivalrous to its own detriment. Rather than foster public trust and distill truth, think tanks are drawn to sell out for political clout, media attention, and donor needs. Think tanks are supposed to perform a role of public sociology, but they eschew it or distort it while sociologists (or otherwise) have not coalesced into any kind of consensus (which we need). This is in part over-determined by increasing pressure on academics and tighter economic conditions. Medvetz demystifies the problem of how professional intellectual culture has failed civil society, as they contradict their own mandates:

“…the chief obstacle to civic-sociological engagement in the United States: namely, the rise of heteronomous knowledge producers in the space of public debate since the 1960s… By issuing policy prescriptions tailored to the preferences of sponsors and consumers (especially politicians and journalists), think tanks tend to relegate the most autonomous sociologists to the margins of policy debate and draw others toward a more technocratic style of political-intellectual engagement.” —p. 21–22, Medvetz, Think Tanks in America (2015)

Medvetz suggests that think tanks become biased echo chambers that actually constrict public discourse rather than enable it. As an autonomous sociologist relegated to the margins, this resonates with me but also on behalf of all critical sociologists who have limited opportunity to translate their research to the public. In lieu of think tanks and media organizations employing the critical approach that we advocate, technocratic politics and intellectual games dominate. The recent article Think Tanks Must Abandon Their Saviour Complex does a great job of confirming all this, but perhaps they could try living up to their reputation too.

I begin with this prologue because it speaks deeply to the anti-intellectual crisis which is endemic even to knowledge workers and critical thinkers. It somewhat mirrors the flaws in the other spaces I critique, underpins the breakdown of communication, and speaks to the lack of convergence on meta-solutions. I’ve written brief commentaries on The Role of Think Tanks in Meta-Governance and Think Tank Knowledge vs. Corporate Power which contextualize what I’m trying to do here. I occasionally take inspiration from meta- think tank sources like On Think Tanks and Think Tank Watch, which are unconventional like us, but The Abs-Tract Organization is also a pataphysical, satirical, metamodern ‘think tank’ and media project designed to subvert the status-quo and usher in a paradigm shift.

Thus, think tanks are a fitting segue into addressing the vexing problem of anti-intellectualism head-on, which has been a major theme in my work, featuring in The US Policy Environment and Political Climate Change, The (New) Reproach of Abstraction, and Social Paradoxes and Meta-Problems, as well as directly or implicitly in my critiques of the Intellectual Dark Web (#2), Integral Theory, Game B, and Emerge network. The latter four articles refer to ostensibly ‘intellectual’ spaces, but each limited by their own constituencies and ‘thought leaders’ who have various allergies, dogmas, and at best misaligned priorities, insulated and ossified by particular exclusive conversational and professional modalities. To varying degrees they all have strengths but also fallaciously eschew (or give lip service to) progressive politics and the radical tradition, helping scapegoat ‘the left’ (bypassing its intellectuals altogether) in the culture war.

These groups (as well as various think tanks) all express some moderate or reactionary anti-intellectual ideas and behaviour prior to, and especially in the face of, critique. These pathologies must be purged (through autocritique) for them to even achieve their own goals, but the intellectual meta-problem is even deeper than their shortcomings. Denial is the most common theme underpinning it all from cognitive bias to climate change. We have to drill down to the root of the meta-crisis to see how it is reproduced in almost everything we do via anti-intellectualism. So, onward to the matter at hand.

– Introduction to Anti-Intellectualism
– The Critical Context
– Revisiting and Revisioning
– Rethinking Thinking (about Hofstadter)
– Intellectual Sociology
– The Devil Inside is in the Details
– Autocritique
– Conclusion

Introduction to Anti-Intellectualism

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken, The Baltimore Sun, 1920

To amend Rousseau’s famous dictum: Humans are born smart, but everywhere they are plain. Our species is as ingenious as it is idiotic, and the latter seems to dominate. It is not the fault of individuals alone; people are made stupid by distraction, deprivation, disinformation, etc… This is a timeless truism as far as I am concerned (and the sociology of knowledge and mass politics confirms), perhaps a perennial paradox defining us since ancient philosophy. As such, the dumbing down of democracy has been a running joke with diminishing returns since long before the likes of George W. Bush and then Donald Trump made it so (purposefully) exaggerated and cartoonish. While they do possess a certain intelligence and cunning, intellectuals they are not; they are anti-intellectual. Much has been written on this, but most recently New Republic published The GOP’s Murderous Anti-Intellectualism.

With the pandemic and protests amidst economic and climate crises unfolding, a constant state of strife has replaced a sense of life.

How could the horrors of slavery and fascism, past and present, even come to exist in the first place if not for systemic anti-intellectualism? States often have a way of being at war with themselves, against their own people, and that is no less true than in a place like the United States, where generating structural inequality and violence is akin to a national pastime. With the pandemic and protests amidst economic and climate crises unfolding, a constant state of strife has replaced a sense of life. Not that America ever truly had any kind of ‘golden age’ to descend from, today there are many metrics by which the knowledge gaps and epistemic injustices are objectively getting worse. The long forecasted collapse of US Empire is finally at hand, being swallowed up by a globalism it partly designed, adding insult to injury by senselessly grinding its populace into an atomized precariat.

30 years ago, the US ranked 6th globally in healthcare and education; as of 2018 it is 27th. The OECD reports that half of American adults can’t read a book at an 8th grade level. And roughly half of Americans indulge in one conspiracy theory or another (which of course is contrasted by a very real military-industrial-etc complex). 20 more metrics on US inequality defy reason and progressive values. What explains them is 50 years of blind faith in neoliberal abstraction, the active offloading of social responsibility to market forces and neoconservative foreign policy.

This is not so much an indictment of ordinary people (it is a little), but rather more of elites and the system that create these conditions, making people ignorant and apathetic towards complexity and truth. Above all, it is an indictment of certain intellectuals themselves, the lesser of them who often rise to the top in a dysfunctional meritocracy. It speaks to the intransigence towards reconciling different ‘intellectual’ points of view. What is the corrupting influence and how did it bring us to the brink of idiocracy?

Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism, commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy and the dismissal of art, literature, and science as impractical, politically motivated, and even contemptible human pursuits.” — Wikipedia

The problem can be summed up as anti-intellectualism: the wilful disinterest in particular ideas, knowledge, expertise, and thinkers themselves. Anti-intellectualism is the grease on the slide to fascism, and fascists in fact target and eliminate intellectuals, whereas ordinarily they are captured (co-opted) or maligned and ostracized. It is part and parcel of America’s paradoxical foundations (being founded by polymath slaveholders over a fledgeling democratic ideal) and a latent ominous potential within all of us, even among so-called intellectuals.

In many ways, opposition to the Bernie Sanders movement was anti-intellectual at its core, whether through denial of the discussion, disinterest in politics, partisan hackery, naïveté about media manipulation, corporate media itself, apathy and skepticism of social movements, neoliberal centrist collusion, climate change denial, and even anti-semitism. Bernie’s relatively intellectual bonafides (ie. taught political science at Harvard, anti-war track record, etc.), his comprehensive progressive platform, and high profile surrogate network were derailed by the forces of anti-intellectualism.

There are many seemingly rational reasons to be anti-intellectual, such as academia being alienating, experts being occasionally wrong or disembodied, and moral dilemmas and cognitive dissonance threatening our critical thinking and agency. Sometimes knowledge is dangerous, but also sometimes you have to just turn your brain off to feel good. But the meta-problem of anti-intellectualism is how our zero-sum arrangement of society perversely incentivizes such strategic ignorance.

Anti-intellectualism is an elusive concept, even as so deeply expounded by Hofstadter (book pictured above) across American history up until 1963, necessarily working with flexible definitions, its artefacts going in all directions. The most broad expressions of anti-intellectualism include the traps of dogmatism, pseudoscience, ideology, and fundamentalism manifest in individual and/or group discernment. Who in their right mind would be for any of these things? And yet they persist. One can be aware of them but still taken by them. In these basic forms anti-intellectualism is obviously bad, but I stress the importance of nuance here to understand the more subtle forms between intellectuals, which are more morally ambiguous. In lieu of spending any time in this article diving into the more popular and superficial minutia of anti-intellectualism, this diagram explains quite a lot:


Conversely, the question arises of what is really ‘intellectual’ in the first place? Intellectuals pursue ideas for their own sake, but often with some higher purposing in mind too, exploring the fractal edges of truth, pushing the envelope of what is knowable and critical, and what animates the spirit and enables social progress. Intellectualism is not reducible to scientific enlightenment thinking because the romantic counterpoint can be just as intellectual, if not more. The topic becomes increasingly revealing and yet more repressive, for knowledge isn’t a neutral body of facts and figures, but rather a site of struggle, and the stakes can be life and death.

Case in point, [anti-intellectualism] has enabled our civilization to effectively repress and deny anthropogenic climate change — the ultimate existential threat — for over a century while we mobilized our intelligence towards wasteful world wars instead.

The anti-intellectualism described herein is not just an update of Hofstadter’s chronicles, but about a meta- perspective on the issue and an urgent call for (auto)critique. Anti-intellectualism is a wicked problem that should be exposed and cured for the cancer that it is, undermining everything from our individual journeys to collective progress. Case in point, it has enabled our civilization to effectively repress and deny anthropogenic climate change — the ultimate existential threat — for over a century while we mobilized our intelligence towards wasteful world wars instead. Though these wars are framed as ‘necessary evils’ in hindsight, states and bad actors continue to fight over trivial differences rather than being grounded in a common struggle. And to call back to the prologue, what have all the think tanks done to prevent this? Quite frankly, not enough.

The Critical Context

Since 2016, many people know we live in a “post-truth” era, but that hasn’t stopped “IDW” ‘intellectuals’ and others from waving little flags announcing their ‘truth’, dogmas of which are often debunked but the critique doesn’t get through. With the proliferation of people, social issues, cultural contexts, and academic subfields, anti-intellectualism has too many subtle forms to count, making it all the more pervasive and difficult to track in a sea of information flows. Nobody ever seems to win debates, or the debates aren’t even had, the bullshit just gets spread around further.

I shall try capture the essence of anti-intellectualism as erroneous exclusivity — a deeply rooted fear or incentive that leads to the privileging of one idea or discourse over another at the expense of some greater truth. Anti-intellectualism is self-interested wrongness. We can chalk this up in part to the complexity of modernity and division of (mental) labour endlessly increasing such that we can provide ‘evidence’ to substantiate almost anything. This is what can pit one intellectual against another, and make both of them anti-intellectual, where the accusations go both ways and are weaponized to defend false premises. Who are the real intellectuals? Intellectualism seems endlessly relative, until its not. The truth must prevail. We’re all armchair (anti-)intellectuals in the internet age, giving us a false sense of confidence and a low level of veracity, confirming the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Contrary to the conventional view, anti-intellectualism should no longer be considered simply (albeit complexly) as an intrinsic tension between knowledge and power, a side effect of democracy and mass society, a bias between conflicting interests, or a pretentious exclusion from or fear of the life of mind. It is these things, but much more, as the meta-problem is how anti-intellectualism is so unnecessarily over-determined, a constant uphill battle on a slippery slope, not least because knowledge perfection is a Sisyphean task, but because it is actively repressed and artificial scarcity is created. Recall the senseless burning of the Library of Alexandria, Mayan texts, or countless other acts of destruction.

Anti-intellectualism is a threat to us all, an innate enemy within, mystifying and exacerbating moral and epistemic conflicts rather than solving them. Anti-intellectualism is not just a populist sentiment against experts, but a structural and systemic denial of critical reason and truth. We must recognize our own bottomless stupidity and fallibility everywhere we’d least expect to find it; within ourselves and our intellectual spaces in subtle forms. A big blind spot worth mentioning is emotional intelligence (or lack there of), for it has become both a weapon and a shield for many anti-intellectuals, hiding bad ideas behind performatively being offended when critiqued, as so many contemporary ‘intellectuals’ are wont to do.

I have been naive or wrong about a great many things, and my positions continually evolve as I get older, study more, and my horizons expand. It’s okay to be wrong, so long as you can correct it as soon as possible. When you realize the much greater costs of denial, admitting you are wrong should be the easiest thing in the world. One of the smartest things a person can do is realize how incredibly ignorant they are, in the grand scheme of things. After all, this was Socrates’ great insight. As we will see, even the smartest of us all make subtle — practically invisible unless its pointed out — anti-intellectual mistakes in our work.

Revisiting and Revisioning

“Hofstadter’s lesson is that those who oppose anti-intellectualism should conceive of their lives as a struggle that will never conclude in victory but that also need not ever end in total defeat.” — The Tea Party is timeless

The above quote packs some wisdom, that we have to be vigilant and accept partial wins, but incrementalism will no longer do either. The article The Tea Party is timeless (Nicholas Lemann, 2014) reviews and celebrates Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Though a profound treatise for its time, winning the Pulitzer Prize and making a lasting impression on the life of mind, it has hardly stopped the world from getting any dumber. Looking back over 50 years on its legacy is as much intellectually arousing as it is anxiety inducing. I love the book, but I also want to turn it on its head.

According to Lemann, Hofstadter was “a mainstream liberal, not a radical”, apparently put off by the coming student movements of the 60s. Though it did not seem evident to Lemann in 2014, we were on the cusp of a 60s redux moment then, expressed in student disenfranchisement, widespread social justice concerns, and a reactionary wave mirroring McCarthyism of the 1950s (in particular exemplified by red scaremonger Jordan Peterson). It was a formative year for what became the IDW. For whatever its worth, Lemann complains that Hofstadter neglected conservative intellectuals of the time, citing a few examples and expanding to more recent conservatives and their consequences such as “supply-side economics, deregulation, originalism in constitutional law, and neoconservative foreign policy” (all of these have had destructive effects). Thus it would seem anti-intellectualism has further increased, and under the guise of intellectual advancement.

Lemann points out some faults in Hofstadter, namely the neglect of African-American and women’s movements. This is accounted for by a relative lack of awareness of race and gender issues, the discourses of which were still emerging and formalizing at the time but certainly existed prior. We have to recognize this as a deeper symptom of systemic anti-intellectualism, one perhaps just outside Hofstadter’s purview. Moreover, while Hofstadter acknowledged the dominance and anti-intellectual qualities of business, he could not have predicted the pseudo- and anti-intellectual hegemony of business that annihilates critical thought and appropriates progressive messaging today. So where would Hofstadter weigh in if he was still around? Lemann ends with a strong endorsement for nuanced thinking on the subject:

“Experts try to dwell in the realm of rigorously derived knowledge and facts. Intellectuals dwell in the much more difficult realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification, and where contention, contradiction, and uncertainty are inescapable. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life. If you ever begin to think of American life as a struggle between the superior, enlightened few and the mass of yobs, pick up Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It ought to cure you.” — The Tea Party is timeless

This raises an important point. Hofstadter debunks a simple dualism about anti-intellectualism, as being between smart and anti-smart people. Anti-intellectualism is ultimately the rejection of true ideas, which can come from scientists and laypeople alike. It is a constant struggle, and the least we can do is keep striving to universalize education. I want to review some highlights before moving on from Hofstadter’s book, which is packed with anti-intellectual vignettes across American history. The Introduction in particular consolidates the most salient (12) examples from the previous decade:

Exhibit A: Word “egghead” becomes pejorative (1952)
Exhibit B: Eisenhower disparages intellectuals (1954)
Exhibit C: Quid pro quo ambassadorship; unqualified appointment (1957)
Exhibit D: Department of Defense defunding pure research (1954)
Exhibit E: Right-wing (McCarthyism) contempt for left/ intellectuals (1950s)
Exhibit F: Right-wing hostility to universities; anti-communism (1951)
Exhibit G: Right-wing amateur economists over experts (1958)
Exhibit H: Anti-communism and anti- art (1946, 1949, 1952)
Exhibit I: Anti-intellectualism of evangelists; Billy Graham (1958)
Exhibit J: Anti- experiments in curriculum, pro-rigidity of education (1960)
Exhibit K: Rigid uncreative teaching and grading in kindergarten (1940)
Exhibit L: Anti-standards in high school (1951)

These themes are historically situated, and the exclude a lot of other social issues as noted, but they still exist today in various forms and provide a nice snapshot. Anti-intellectualism follows us everywhere, even into the classroom sometimes. The point is not that its completely ubiquitous, but that its a tendency we should correct. Hoftstadter’s history defies compression and so I have to consciously gloss over much in order to focus on our present purpose of operationalizing it for the current crisis.

Rethinking Thinking (about Hofstadter)

The article Three Kinds of Anti‐Intellectualism: Rethinking Hofstadter* (Daniel Rigney, 1991) celebrates Hofstadter’s book as “cultural event” for the post-McCarthy era and a “scholarly polemic against the suppression of critical thought”. Rigney asserts that social critics are often united by valuing education and public discourse, as they should be, but there is scant attention paid to this phenomenon of anti-intellectualism. The book is considered an implicit contribution to the sociology of knowledge, where Rigney extrapolates three distinct types of anti-intellectualism — “religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism” — and tracks the intellectual commentary on such trends.

Anti-rationalism has two strains; 1) “Warm” Emotion vs. “Cold” Reason and 2) Absolutism vs. Relativism. The evangelical tradition is typically against reason because it is seen as emotionally empty and undermines religious convictions. Postmodern philosophy emerges to challenge rationalism as well, but in an intellectual way. Rigney wondered if these conflicts, typically “confined largely to the battlegrounds of academic symposia and university politics” will spill over into the public sphere, which of course has happened in the past decade in particular.

Anti-elitism stems from mistrust of the educated class and their potentially self-serving claims, and is inherently political. It can be irrational in some cases but also justified in others. Rigney aggregates a few critics that sensed Hofstadter’s elitist narrative of American history, citing cases where ruling-class snobbery provoked the very anti-elitism it was trying to assuage. Alvin Gouldner noted the emergence of a more reflexive intelligentsia in the 70’s, which could benefit further by being more inclusive to those systemically excluded, but ultimately this hinges not just on the adaptation of education but the universal expansion of access, which is still lacking.

Lastly, ‘unreflective instrumentalism’ is the devaluation of knowledge and knowhow that does not have an obvious incentive or practical application. It privileges technical reason, such as that exercised in business and economics to crank out profit without sufficiently paying it forward to the population for their hard work. Like the other types of anti-intellectualism, this one existed throughout history, and was substantially transformed by industrialism, intensifying into conflict between socialist intellectuals and capitalist apologists that remains unresolved today. Unreflective instrumentalism is the one that applies to professional (anti-)intellectuals the most, as they are less prone to fall for anti-rationalism or anti-elitism, reminiscent of think tanks:

“And so unreflective tendencies in American culture continue to reproduce themselves in the day-to-day operation of its dominant institutions, each institution producing its own distinctive kind of contempt for the reflective mind. Hofstadter’s analysis demonstrates that anti-intellectualism is not a unitary phenomenon, but that it takes multiple forms in American life, each with its own institutional history. Here is a lesson in the sociology of knowledge that intellectuals can scarcely afford to ignore. — Rigney, p.448

To close this section, and mirror Hofstadter’s historical points with some sociological ones, the reader should reflect on the following concepts. It’s important to know your logical fallacies (here’s 15), but here is just 5 general trends that I see perpetuating anti-intellectualism all the time — call them symptoms of stubborn stupidity. Every time one of these tactics is deployed by know-it-all to a real intellectual, an angel loses its wings and baby Jesus cries:

Willful ignorance: “A decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.”

Whataboutism: “A propaganda technique where criticisms are deflected by raising corresponding criticisms of the opposite side.”

Contrarianism: “In science, the term “contrarian” is often applied to those who challenge or reject the scientific consensus on some particular issue.”

Denialism: “a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.”

Self-deception: “a process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical argument.”

I cannot stress enough how active and ubiquitous these cognitive traps are, compounded by a general hypocrisy where applied by intellectuals. These feature prominently in all three types of anti-intellectualism, but again, are particularly subtle and pervasive in professional and political contexts with unreflective instrumentalism. We find them in almost every intellectual space, every mainstream media forum, every debate event, and in particular almost every political disagreement. We find them in the masses of people and their elite expert counterparts. They hurt ourselves in the long run, and carry heavy negative externalities that hurt each other in the short run. We need to all critique the wannabe intellectual and partisan hack within.

Intellectual Sociology

Steve Fuller’s The Sociology of Intellectual Life: The Career of the Mind in and Around Academy (2009) is tour de force, I can’t possibly summarize its value here. The book concerns Fuller’s field of ‘social epistemology’ — “the empirical and normative bases for producing and distributing knowledge” (p. 1) — and his experiences in various intellectual spaces. He argues that universities have become “a victim of their own success” (p. 2) in the sense of being so critical (though far from perfect) as to invite capitalist retribution. Despite knowledge being a ‘public good’, access is still not universal, creating “the problem of epistemic justice” where knowledge is a “positional good” (p. 3). The old maxim ‘knowledge is power’ becomes the leverage through which it is abused.

I invoke the book here because anti-intellectualism is discussed a fair amount in a few sections. Curiously, Hofstadter is not invoked at any point (perhaps yet another symptom of anti-intellectualism in the least likely of places, or perhaps not). Fuller is skeptical there are many real intellectuals left in the 21st century, in part due to our dependence on past ideas with built in flaws or ‘Platonic residue’ (p. 91). For the decline of intellectuals he blames ‘psychologism’, the reductionism to mental processes to explain or frame everything. This entirely comports with the way I have framed the liberal vs. left culture war divide along lines of psychology and sociology elsewhere. Sociologists arguably have a more intellectual task to perform, and more complex subject matter, while being less hindered by psychologism.

As Hofstadter does with history, Fuller draws a chain of idea transmission through philosophy and sociology. The dialectic runs through each of us as it does through the interplay of ideas, and sometimes that carries forward past errors through conceptual reification. Philosophers then can get lost on the surface of language rather than see through it. The dialectic leads to postmodernism, with the importance of ‘difficult writing’ (cf. Adorno and Derrida), and critique through irony and paradox. First, postmodernism makes intellectual life necessarily troublesome, and second Latour’s ‘technoscience’ — the attempt to “embed normative ideals into the architecture of the life-world” (p. 92). This, like postmodernism, finds itself captured and co-opted by capitalism.

The Passage of Postmodernism (source)

On the mutation of ideas to ideology, we tend to follow Kant’s categorical imperative within ourselves for moral guidance. Fuller suggests a contemporary of Kant, Marie-Francois-Pierre Maine de Biran, as an alternative that works ‘outside-in’. A public intellectual thus brings Plato’s forms down to earth (perhaps in Latour’s sense too, now), and personalizes and contextualizes them. In perhaps a Marxist sense, we are to assert ideas “against a recalcitrant materiality” as intellectual embodiment. To return to the intellectual spirit, and recalling the critique of think tanks, our job is to “to enact this personal struggle in public” (p. 94) because;

“…ideologies are produced by psychologizing philosophical ideas to make them easier to appropriate for political purposes. So far this sounds like the Sophist’s trade, and it may even capture the client-driven market for ideas that propel the proposals that flow from ‘think tanks’ today. However, the predominance of the will in Maine de Biran’s moral psychology makes all the difference in converting someone with a knack for selling ideas into a proper intellectual.” — The Sociology of Intellectual Life, p. 93–94

Fuller identifies two epidemiologies of the intellectual, the 1) intellectualist (more cynical; bad ideas spread, good ones require support) and the 2) anti-intellectualist (more naive; good ideas spread, bad ones require force). In the first, intellectuals are considered “necessary correctives, even moral heroes”, while in the latter intellectuals are a “a nuisance and… source of value-destruction” (p. 95). He further aligns these with deductivism (intellectual) and inductivism (anti-intellectual). While these dualities are helpful, it reproduces a binary we should be wary of, and Fuller, for all his gifts, misses the third pillar of logic: abduction/ abductivism — inference to the best explanation. Finally, Fuller traces inductivism to the problem of modern psychologism rooted in the ‘availability heuristic’ (ie. the first thing that comes to mind).

In the following section, Fuller traces a genealogy of anti-intellectualism. He argues that the “invisible hand” expression is in fact anti-intellectual. It depends on self-interested actors learning from each other while differentiating skills for mutual gain, which is fine in theory, but fails “by virtue of its studied refusal to subject that flow [of ideas] to a normative ideal on whose behalf an ‘intellectual’ might speak.” (p. 100). I take this to mean that the market is not typically favourable to intellectuals, while also aggressively appropriating their more practical inventions.

The “invisible hand” fallacy from the age it was birthed is (mis)informed by two assumptions; that citizens actually engage as free and equal (when this is rarely the case), and that it leads to a more stable order than the state can administer (when instead financial speculation immediately begins to influence said ‘hand’). Fuller goes deeper to identify two more assumptions which are more applicable to the modern forms of anti-intellectualism; that we’re cognitively inclined to know our interests, and have an equal ability to realize those interests. These are assumptions — homo economicus, if you will — that don’t hold up (enough) in reality to guarantee moral progress. In other words, while the “invisible hand” may seem like an intellectual idea, it’s anti-intellectual to trust it to rule our lives, and to believe the dogmatic leap of faith that market efficiency directly leads to good and moral ideas.

Carrying over from the psychologism theme are the ideas of ‘suggestibility’ and later memetics, which Fuller considers anti-intellectual because it defers cognitive responsibility to the collective, justifying herd mentality. Evidently, it helps spread flawed or bad ideas from the invisible hand to the election of Donald Trump. If we have to at least grant these forces exist, Fuller suggests we “strengthen the body politic by improving its collective immunity” through “inoculation” which is done by intellectuals filling the role of “loyal opposition” and “devil’s advocate” to challenge orthodoxy. Of course, mass education is fundamental to that process in the first place, but public intellectuals have a unique opportunity to rehabilitate public opinion.

“…the public intellectual is a professional crisis-monger…[and] becomes a recognizable role once society — operationalized in terms of the nation-state — is envisaged as an organism, a ‘body politic’, that possesses a collective mind in which a variety of ideas, some long repressed, vie for the forefront of consciousness.” —The Sociology of Intellectual Life, p. 107

Further along the lines of the ‘invisible hand’ and psychologism fallacies, Fuller ultimately blames heuristics themselves for the anti-intellectual epidemic, for the very reason that they are mental short cuts, adapted for their functionality, not their truth. I don’t think heuristics need be inherently anti-intellectual, but Fuller makes a good case for how agents are “encouraged to operate within its limits” because it has wide applicability, and are discouraged from finding disproof. The heuristic is anti-intellectual because an agent’s worldview then depends on fitting into the heuristic, regardless if it actually serves anyone’s ultimate interests. This is how bad ideas spread, and even good ideas turn bad.

“Validation of the heuristic has nothing to do with general issues of fairness or social justice but simply with whether the heuristic allows agents to make similar judgements in the future… it meant that we stake our souls to close the epistemic gap — that is, a heuristic is at bottom a moral judgement of how we would prefer the world to be, given that we lack a perfect knowledge of how it is… To fail to see heuristics in the full light of moral certainty is to succumb to prejudice, the worst sin and the easiest vice facing the intellectual in the twenty-first century.” —The Sociology of Intellectual Life, p. 106

The public intellectual has a duty to intervene whenever they can, as did Emile Zola on the Dreyfus Affair (basically a political scandal turned public referendum on the miscarriage of justice), whom Fuller invokes. Zola’s intellectual editorial ‘vaccine’ “enabled the literate public to mull over” the corruption of government out in the open, which served to strengthen the republic. Fuller argues that ultimately, “[t]he public intellectual is ultimately an agent of distributive justice” (p. 106), situated in a privileged epistemic position, hence why Chomsky wrote “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

In contrast, the NY Times, for example, facilitates no such interventions, instead disgracing itself with one terrible op-ed after another, up to and including advocating military suppression of a protesting public, which led to James Bennett’s resignation. The recent “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” from Harper’s has caused controversy for its plain hypocrisy, insisting on the free exchange of ideas and signed by a mix of people, some notable critical intellectuals (including Chomsky), but some of whom are just contrarians silencing dissent and taking up space. We need to do much better, along these lines:

“I mean to draw attention to a crucial element in the cultivation and evaluation of intellectuals: negative responsibility. Negative responsibility belongs to the discourse of utilitarian ethics, whereby one always judges the moral worth of an action in relation to the available alternatives not taken by the agent. The implication is that those with a wider scope for action bear a greater responsibility to do good. A failure to do good when one could have easily done so is thus tantamount to doing bad.” — The Sociology of Intellectual Life, p. 108

It is painfully clear that the bulk of prominent ‘intellectuals’ are anti-intellectuals. Those who actually speak out against injustice are ostracized the most, such as the case with Norman Finkelstein (intellectual) vs. Alan Dershowitz (anti-intellectual) over the Israel-Palestine conflict. The sharpest social critics are the most suppressed, while people who consistently have bad takes hide behind elaborate rhetorical defenses and powerful networks. There is no just sense of proportionality from elitists who whine about being criticized and can’t lift a finger to advocate for people’s basic needs and human rights through system reform.

A distinction is made by Fuller between reckless vs. feckless intellectuals. Reckless are those from Plato onward that favoured authoritarian rule in some way, while feckless are those who failed to speak truth to power when they could have (with minimal risk). I have critiqued both kinds… and if I fall more into one of those two categories it is reckless, though not in the sense of allying with power but of wagering my own. I would rather do what’s right and fail, than fail to do what’s right. Fuller argues that intellectuals have a moral responsibility to speak out, not least because being silent is very easy to get away with:

“Such fecklessness goes unnoticed because it does not leave an evidential trace: it simply consists in the refrain from action.” — p.108

The Devil Inside is in the Details

A curious artefact that Hofstadter missed, likely only because it was published in the same year, is The Enemy Within: Anti-Intellectualism (Kurt H. Wolff, 1963). This article critiques a symposium on anti-intellectualism from 1955 in the Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 11, №3, which Hofstadter did in fact cite in passing in the opening pages of his opus. Wolff mocks the introduction to the issue for committing an anti-intellectual mistake of its own kind, that of over-simplifying or fetishizing the intellectual tradition of America, using language padded with exceptionalism and nostalgia around ‘uniquely’ American “principles” like “freedom” and “dissent.” In theory this sounds fine, but Wolff nevertheless playfully calls out the hypocrisy of the writing style as a form of “merchandization of our culture”. This sentiment also echoes the now tired phrase the “marketplace of ideas”, which first appeared in 1953.

Though Wolff does not intend to write-off the entire volume (though he doesn’t refer to any other parts of it), he has a very important point in roasting the Introduction of said symposium; that anti-intellectualism can be found among the intellectuals in the most subtle ways. Wolff’s main thesis is that fear of humans forms the root cause of anti-intellectualism, and thus is very self-limiting when it comes to having value-judgements and speaking truth to power. He astutely observes ho “focused fear is more tolerable than diffused anxiety” and so people seek scapegoats and target intellectuals who are the first to remind us of our cognitive shortcomings. Perhaps even deeper it is a fear of knowing itself. The truth shall set you free, but at what cost?

Traditions often conflict with each other, generating the pattern of anti-intellectualism, though intellectualism has its own tradition, which Edward Shils described as “…of awesome respect and of serious striving for contact with the sacred…” and with “history-conscious language”, Wolff adds. Wolff then considers an intellectual not just a person “concerned with ideas” but also a person “devoted to the spirit.” Wolff locates the problem in those who intellectualize social issues to the point of distancing them beyond recognition, “philosophizing”, otherwise sometimes these days called ‘intellectual masturbation’ — displays of intelligence without a true point or grit. So in normative anti-intellectualism, the hostility is directed to “misplacers, abusers, squanderers of intellectual issues,” not just any anti-intellectuals. For these reasons, Bertrand Russell eschewed the label ‘intellectual’ for himself, and Schopenhauer favoured the generalist over the specialist.

Ortega y Gasset’s “learned ignoramus”, who employs the unreflective instrumentalism discussed earlier, is indifferent to tradition, but will tend to be antagonistic towards experts who speak outside their field like Einstein did for socialism. In this way, someone can employ any of the anti-intellectual tactics to deny someone speaking the truth. A physicist or even layperson may have great respect for Einstein, up until of course it conflicts with their own bias and beliefs, feeding anti-intellectualism all over again. To return to the issue of fear and anti-intellectualism within, Wolff concedes it is reasonable in the age of Hitler and Stalin (and their followers), yet Arendt reminded us we must reflect on our capacity to participate in evil or be brave against it.

“Here, as in so many other places, academicism is the anti-intellectualism in ourselves which comes from our fear of human beings, because we feel alienated from history, past or future, from tradition, from a world in common.” — Wolff, p. 62

Intellectuals have a duty to “purvey knowledge”, to “tell the truth”, to “clarify their convictions” such that they are “relatively absolute.” Wolff, in the vein of a classic gadfly (a la Nietzsche), condemns the bulk of academics as passive vessels, lacking the necessary outrage perhaps because they place too much faith in ‘objectivity’. Wolff argues they have in fact “not been objective, have not called a spade a spade because of their fear of “value judgements”. The dilemma of the ‘intellectual’ is then how to debate and destroy the ‘anti-intellectual’ within, as sometimes it would seem that almost the fate of civilization depends on our collective ability to do so.

“Courage only takes encouragement; but no matter how hard this may be to come by, to tear ourselves out of ignorance or pseudo knowledge is much harder yet. In such a situation, we have nothing to begin with but ourselves, and we therefore must take ourselves seriously, trusting that the spirit to which we are devoted has not gone out of us. If it were not such a crisis, it would not be worthy of our unconditional effort, and it would not be the extreme situation in which we are if it did not call on us whole.” — Wolff, p. 63


“Nothing could be more foolhardy than to cut ourselves off from such a worthy heritage; nothing more proper than to reaffirm our ties to the Enlightenment and to continue the process of autocritique.” — The Autocritique of Enlightenment, p. xx

The book The Autocritique of Enlightenment (Mark Hulliung, 1994) announces this great concept in its title but no explicit definition is given. The word appears but a few times, and the meaning is implied — self-critique, beyond postmodern “critique”, critique of the discourse reflexively, and as I like to think, ideally done somewhat recursively, iteratively, and auto-matically. Even though critique is sharpened through postmodernism, the seeds of autocritique (which I consider the metamodern equivalent) were planted in the Enlightenment. Hulliung’s book is chiefly about Rousseau, but I want to examine the idea of autocritique more broadly. The concept was developed more formally during the French-Algerian War in the 1950s:

Autocritique was defined as the intellectuals’ methodological attempt to step away from themselves through a process of self-objectification.” — Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria, p. 7

Much of autocritique arises in the context of reflection for past or present (though I would also like to extend it into an anticipated future) atrocities, such as Khrushchev had to do over Stalin’s crimes, and later what Hulliung calls “Cold War soul-searching” in the case of Edgar Morin. Camus’ autocritique involved not just questioning France’s occupation of Algeria, but going further to help the Algerians be who they are as “one of the proudest and most human populations”, and to let it be a lesson to us, to reveal the “troubled conquerors” that we are. Auto-critique involves a meta-reflection on such structures of evil, and often in a dialogic way as became the case between French and Algerian intellectuals — as such decolonization is a central part of it. In these ways, autocritique is synonymous with ‘examination of conscience’, and is clearly not just critique or deconstruction but perhaps metamodern reconstruction;

Examination of conscience is a review of one’s past thoughts, words, actions, and omissions for the purpose of ascertaining their conformity with, or deviation from, the moral law. Among Christians, this is generally a private review; secular intellectuals have, on occasion, published autocritiques for public consumption.” — Wikipedia

In The Concept of Mode of Exchange: An Auto-Critique (2014), John Lie critiques his own dissertation, which in fact critiques the “invisible hand”, something we discussed via Steve Fuller above. Lie does not define the concept despite being in the title but does note that “auto-critique, in fact, compromised the project from the beginning” while suggesting that such a complex topic just kept growing and he was unable to contain it — which I can relate to. This evokes the feeling that the project of autocritique is indeed so meta- and comprehensive as to be much more difficult and painstaking than regular research or critique. One has to fill gaps and debunk all sorts of assumptions one had along the way, it is potentially never ending.

“Criticism goes without saying. Self-criticism can be explained in two ways. First of all, because I devote myself to one of the articles below. Well, I must admit I am one of my favourite authors, there is no point in hiding it. Then, and more profoundly, is that I estimate, I think, I am absolutely certain that whoever judges others reveals himself and in so doing cannot lie. In other words, any criticism, whether benevolent or not, undoubtedly constitutes a self-criticism (autocritique), sometimes ruthless, of its own author.” — preface in Critique et autocritique (Pierre Gripari, 1981)

The above paragraph is my Google translation of the preface or Avertissement (“Warning”) at the beginning of the book Critique et autocritique. As the book is in French I cannot translate all of it, but it proves another of self-criticism instance anyway. It appears that book also does not develop it explicitly, but perhaps it is done throughout the text. I found ‘autocritique’ used in a handful of other articles and books such as this example, where a scholar critiqued their own work. Some sources include In Paper Prophets: An Autocritique (Tinker, 2001), An outline of the social history of socialism or an auto-critique of an auto-critique (Ivan Szelenyi, 2001), and Alexander Wendt’s auto-critique of his Social Theory of International Politics (2004), which later led to a full-on paradigmatic move in Quantum Mind and Social Science (2015/2017), although Wendt has neglected to critique himself on the subject of UFOs.

Autocritique is self-criticism and the examination of (collective) conscience, but is already perhaps more; a research process that is hyper-critical, pre-figurative, generative, and metamodern. Deconstruction and reconstruction together, worldview-synthetic, paradigm-shitfting, sincere-ironic, etc… always with an eye to what is most true and just. But it begins with the self, with learning itself, and nurturing the autodidact and critic within. For what its worth, over a decade ago I embarked on a deep commitment to the critical intellectual tradition, hoping that I might decode and de-escalate the meta-crisis, and so naturally nothing has proved a bigger foil than anti-intellectualism. Intellectual life requires patience but also acceleration, ironically, and ‘killing the liberal innocent’ and naive ideologue within, so that the metamodern dividual can be born.

Autocritique should be intellectual par excellence, erudite yet accessible. It is at once an exercise in pataphysics but grounded in material reality. It should provide the most refined diagnoses and the most pragmatic solutions to the manifold global crises we face, of which anti-intellectualism is a cause and obstacle. Autocritique should be psychoactive, enlightening, depolarizing, and socially transformative. It should critique itself and anticipate critique, perhaps to land itself beyond reproach. It should lead to truth and reconciliation before the big atrocities happen, because there are little ones happening every day.


Are mass enlightenment, world peace, and sustainability even possible? They have to be. We need to smarten up, and no, you can’t have a little stupidity as a treat anymore. The meta-problem turns out to be anti-intellectual; as much in ourselves as the perversely structured social world, which by and large does provide a lot of meaning and opportunity that was never available en masse in the past. But with our increasing omniscience of the dark side of globalization, we vividly can see what a mess we’ve made. Idiotic elites and uncritical masses perform a post-truth tango while the world burns. The meta-crisis is built in to the logic of our lives and capitalism, and realizing it can be paralyzing. Thinking you may have some solutions can prove even more alienating, as proper intellectuals throughout history have been killed or exiled for the sake of maintaining a status-quo.

This long read began with a vignette on Thinking about Think Tanks, these incredulous institutions that can attract the brightest minds in service of the most self-serving capitalist ends. Even as institutions start producing meta-solutions, knowledge production is so compartmentalized and fragmented so as to be impotent when it comes to actually being deployed and achieving progressive ends. Think tanks and popular intellectuals engage in studying the world as it is, hardly as it should be, lest they risk their own necks. Then we have an Introduction to Anti-Intellectualism which covers the baselines of this stupid disease. This leads into to The Critical Context which is the paradox of all the finger pointing, and the insolubility of this problem in short order. Anti-intellectuals first need to recognize themselves as such, since disproof is not enough.

Revisiting and Revisioning and Rethinking Thinking (about Hofstadter) are subsections that necessarily take a tour through the classic understanding of anti-intellectualism, focusing on that primary scourge of ‘unreflective instrumentalism‘. It is here we grok a sense of how well known this problem actually is, and yet how unfamiliar most people are with it. It can never be over-emphasized that education is the biggest lever of change here, but only insofar as it is backed by socialist values that make it universal. The hegemony of capital ironically keeps civil society and governance profoundly disabled well into the information age… which leads us to Intellectual Sociology, the promised land of cognitive curatives, where we zero in on the nature and role of real intellectuals, those who can critique in the face of crisis, and how we get hung up on anti-intellectual ‘heuristics’, while the reckless and feckless fakers have brunch.

The last two sections bring it home with understanding the subtle nature of anti-intellectualism that can ironically pervade even academia. The Devil Inside is in the Details draws from one particular source to provide a meta-critique of the classical form and turn the focus within. Wolff provides some inspiration for the ‘unconditional effort’ and commitment to values in order to come close to addressing the deep crisis in things. Autocritique serves the same purpose but with a slightly different spin. My modest goal through all these sections was to thread somewhat of a narrative based on research and make anti-intellectualism salient so awareness of it can be integrated and we can strengthen (auto)critique in the spirit of metamodernism. It is a theoretical survey that retroactively contextualizes my critiques of presumptive intellectuals yet to have their metanoia — change of mind (and heart).

There is still loads more sources to unpack, and more to be said on this topic, so, to be continued… Prior to this article Layman Pascal and I had two discussions on anti-intellectualism based on our reflections on Hofstadter’s book and the general problem as it manifests these days in society at large and various epistemic communities. Below are the two videos, which may provide some insights this article does not, and vice-versa.

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Anti-Intellectualism in American Strife was originally published in The Abs-Tract Organization on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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