Onkur Sen

"The way to be is to do." Confucius

The Fall (and Rise from the Ashes) of the Intellectual

Jul 1, 2011

In today’s world, we are constantly obsessed with doing things for some practical purpose, some way to “make a difference.” This isn’t inherently a bad thing—numerous scientific breakthroughs and other progressive advances have made been made possible by the tireless efforts of individuals trying to achieve this kind of goal. However, it has also marked the decline—and perhaps the marginalization—of the true intellectual, one who thinks and does not to meet a deadline or to fill and order, but rather for no purpose, that is, just to satisfy his own driving impulses. In other words, the person who does things for their own sake is being outcast by people who do things for the sake of something else.

Before I go further, allow me to elaborate on the characteristics of this individual. Intellectuals would usually adhere to the Socratic method of questioning as a means of engaging in conversation. This relies heavily on the use of definitions to establish mutual clarity. After some common ground has been laid, then any valid argument should be derivable from the basic definitions. If there is some inconsistency, then it is promptly noted, and an alternative must be formed. Additionally, ideas are constructed and pursued not for an ulterior motive, but for the possibilities and intrigues that that idea presents, no matter how tangential to reality or practicality they might seem. Interestingly enough, it is precisely this type of endeavor that usually results in the most useful of products, as the famous mathematician John von Neumann, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, notes in a quote regarding usefulness: >A mathematician usually means that a theory is directly useful if it can be used in theoretical physics…after which he still has to say that insight in theoretical physics itself is only useful if it is useful in experimental physics. After which you must say that a concept in experimental physics is, by ordinary criteria, useful if it is useful in engineering… The majority of mathematical concepts were developed with very little regard to usefulness, and very often without any suspicion that they might become useful later…A large part of mathematics which became useful developed with absolutely no desire to be useful…This is true for all science. Successes were largely due to…refusing things which profit, relying solely on guidance by criteria of intellectual elegance. It was by following this rule that one actually got ahead in the long run, much better than any strictly utilitarian course would have permitted…The principle of laissez faire has led to strange and wonderful results (The Genius of Science 201).

Of course, this is a rather radical line of thinking that is completely different from that which is encouraged today. We live in a world that thrives on specialization—the general practitioners and internists have been discarded in the eyes of society in favor of cardiologists, OB/GYNs, and dermatologists. And while this categorization may lead to spectacular efficiency and results—the Shouldice practice in Canada is particularly renowned for its quick and precise hernia operations, finishing what is usually a multiple-hour task in other places in under 30 minutes (Complications)—is there no room for the jack of all trades, the Renaissance man? Can he really be made irrelevant as a master of none? Before we come to a definite answer, consider another domain with a trend entirely opposite to the aforementioned: research. It is often said that progress does not occur in isolation, and nowhere is that more true than in research. Rarely will one see development or work by one person in one discipline, other than the most abstract confines of theoretical mathematics and physics. Rather, an explosion of interdisciplinary connections and breakthroughs has been made. Computer scientists and economists join forces in studying game theory as a means of analyzing scenarios of interactions; government security agencies, such as the NSA, hire mathematicians as cryptographers to design layered, sophisticated algorithms to protect data. Political science and biochemistry have even had a brainchild in the study of effects (or lack thereof, according to some) of climate change (The Economist’s Voice, The Post-American World).

It is precisely this which I wish to bring to the forefront of the discussion: Everything is connected. A cumulative knowledge of many fields is now more valuable than the discrete expert. We are entering the Renaissance of the Renaissance man.

So why the marginalization? Look at history: the majority doesn’t like a threatening and viable minority. The response? Displace them. It only makes sense that specialists want specialization to remain in demand: who would want to make themselves useless? The strange thing, however, is this: in the future to facilitate progress, it is the well-rounded individual who acts as a link between the different specializations and is capable of integrating them into what will be a very tightly knit society (in terms of professional development; I ignore the actual network dynamics for now). In his magnum opus Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that developing one’s capabilities by improving on those which he has already endowed with is the key to escaping from a state of “unfreedom.” Though this argument was originally formulated and expounded in a sociological context, I argue that it can be generalized in the following. Developing one’s knowledge in areas other than one’s specialty allows one to escape the unfreedom of a closed mind. Speaking from personal experience as well as what seems like an educated and logical line of thought, it would seem that the more perspectives one is exposed to, the more variety he has when approaching a given scenario. Perhaps more importantly, it allows one to approach life with a certain degree of freshness and perspective. One might make an argument similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—escape from your inner limitations in order to free the mind.

How then, after realizing his freedom and developing in such a manner, does one find a place in society? One approach hinted at before is to act as a bridge between different specialists as someone who can communicate on all fronts—a translator of sorts. More likely, however (and one might argue more practically), he attempts to make headway on a problem in a particular field (of combination thereof) and integrates knowledge from the different domains (e.g., mathematical biology).

Here we see the emergence of the intellectual’s most valuable tool: the isomorphism. Originally a mathematician’s construct to render two systems equivalent, the isomorphism stands as the ultimate metaphor, allowing two concepts which seem worlds apart to be within arm’s reach. It acts like a giant equals sign—the ultimate communication paradigm. As an example of the power of this equivalence, the famous physicist Werner Heisenberg, known for discovering the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, was said to explain his work to his wife in terms of music. In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter created an “eternal golden braid” of isomorphisms between mathematics, music, art, and philosophy in a study of the cognition of formal systems, whose components themselves are brain-dead. The isomorphism also allows reality to be interpreted not as an absolute, but rather as a frame of reference, as in special relativity. Indeed, this is exactly what we do in practice: humans count in base 10 while computers use base 2; Americans drive on the right side of the road while the British drive on the left (and some might say that Indians drive on both).

With the isomorphism in his hand, the intellectual rises as the sole threat to, and ironically the savior of, the so-called practical man. In his book The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria coins the phrase “the rise of the rest” to indicate the decline of the United States as the sole world superpower in favor of a collection of smaller powers. More specifically, America has to give up its spotlight for emerging players, like China and India, in the game of politics. Similarly, the rise of multidimensional individuals is poised to happen now, as singularly-focused progress becomes unlikely and unattainable. Moreover, this poses a possibility to revolutionize the way we think by opening the minds of the general population. Watch out, specialized world—here we come.

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