Delusions of Intellection

“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”
Honore Daumier, 1865-1867

Delusions of Intellection

 “People live and die by ideas!”

 “You are what you think – much more than what you eat!”

With encouraging words like these, I would try to persuade students in an intro course to see the study of philosophy as a help and benefit to themselves.  Many did, at least for a little while, I think.

What I believed then, and still think, is that philosophical study gives your thinking more scope and range.  You see alternatives.  The screen of your vision is wider.  You have more chance to understand a stranger by inquiring into how he or she thinks.

Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, where I taught, is a way station on the way to America.  My students were the children of immigrants or, in some cases, immigrants themselves.  It was a challenge – and enormous delight for me – to keep recasting a philosopher’s view, in the garb it would wear in Somalia, in India, in Texas, in Albania, in Russia, in Arabia.  The same thought from different vantage points!  And to see that philosopher’s thought come alive in the mind of that student!  We are not so far from each other as we look, provided we recognize that we each begin our lives rather differently.

For students to acquire this sense of shareable thought-worlds, and learn to move with relative ease between them, seemed to me a great benefit for them.

But there is a more troubling aspect to the fact that we each inhabit thought-worlds that define us in some degree.  We can wrap ourselves in delusive thoughts.  Intellectual delusions seem uncannily easy to fall into and astoundingly hard to get out of, once we’re inside one.

Just now, I’m reading a book called Prodigal Sons by Alexander Bloom.  It’s about the world of New York intellectuals, largely Jewish, formed in the 1930’s.  That’s as far as I’ve got, so I don’t know as yet, from the book, how they went on intellectually after the 1930’s.   Not all of them were Jewish, of course.  The young intellectuals included sons of established American families who had suddenly fallen on hard times in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  The Jewish boys, sons of very poor immigrant parents, were of the generation excluded from ivy league colleges because of the tight quotas then barring Jews.  So they went to the city colleges, where the student population was in some cases almost 90% Jewish.

The boys were trying to figure out how to enter American society and how to fulfill their parents’ dreams for them.  It was the era when the Soviet Union promised to be the great experiment that would bring to all a just society, overcoming class inequality, giving birth to a world where, as Karl Marx (and later Antonio Gramsci) envisioned it, all people could be renaissance people.  The whole human race would be able to fish in the morning, farm in the afternoon and philosophize or paint in the evening!

Look, kids, each one of these skilled activities takes time, training, moxie and concentration of life energies.  Ask the working farmer, fisherman, philosopher or painter.  No one who has actually done these things for a living could imagine that objective as feasible.  That you could run an economy, much less organize the human species, on the basis of such an end-in-view, was a delusion.  Yet highly intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning young men and women managed to believe it.

Of course, it wasn’t just a case of belief.  In the circles of the believers, you could meet influential people who would publish your stuff in the New Masses.  Or in the Partisan Review, which you and your friends had just launched.  You could put your talents as a writer and dialectician into play!  Suddenly, you had a world!  America – the shining new world that had kept you out or let you down – was coming to you.  Heeding you.

When the Soviet Union finally fell in 1989, I recall one sign that a demonstrator was holding up in a Moscow street:

70 YEARS TO NOWHERE.

The “nowhere” was actually quite blood-drenched.  There is a thick collection of essays, one on each country in the world where the regime called itself by the name of communist, put together by French scholars.  The collection is titled The Black Book of Communism.  The estimate in the Black Book is between 60 and 100 million dead of unnatural causes.  That’s a whale of a lot of murders, boys and girls.  Bad karma.

It’s obviously not the only case of intellectual self-deception.  It happens to be the one that comes to mind as I read about the exciting ferment of life among the New York intellectuals of the 1930’s.

The real question is, why is it that we let ideas lead us “to nowhere”?  Sometimes we come under someone’s influence.  We meet a pied piper with an idea.  But at other times, it’s the idea itself that grips us, and then we find the pied piper to lead to nowhere under its shining banner.

Why? who are we? what are we? that we let ourselves be led in this way, pulled along by an idea that turns out visibly bad only later?

As may be surmised, I’ve done my share of believing things that turned out not to be true, or not as true as I believed them to be.  Ideas are like flashlights, lighting up the dark in front of us.  Or like guiderails, keeping our footing seemingly firm on the rocky escarpments we climb.   It’s hard to put down the flashlight or let go of the guardrail, before you have something else to see by, or to grip.

Even when we begin to sense the holes or gaps in the ideas we presently hold, we fear to let go at the risk of also losing

peer approval,

opportunities for advancement,

and a shared thought-world.

We fear standing alone to face the unknown.

On the other hand, wouldn’t life be dull if we knew in advance just what to think and if truth were handed to us,

on a silver platter,

risk free?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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