Reply to Nathan Jurgenson on anti-intellectualism

Thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for a thoughtful critique of “Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?”  I wish I had more time to respond, especially since it is so earnestly intellectual itself.  The following will have to do.

Jurgenson provides a definition (which he says is based on Hofstadter’s discussion in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), which combines anti-expertism, anti-reason, and “unreflective instrumentalism” or the view that ideas must be put to work if they are to have any value.  I think that “isms” are, since they are theoretical inventions, either trivially easy to define (just quote the inventor), or else very difficult.  I don’t feel qualified to evaluate this definition, but neither do I want to accept it uncritically.  Instead I’ll just skip ahead to the part where Jurgenson starts using it to formulate some interesting questions and claims on behalf of geeks:

…are [geeks] evangelical/dogmatic in their knowledge justification (beyond populism)? Do they appreciate knowledge and thinking for its own sake, or does it always have to be put to work towards instrumental purposes? Neither of these points are substantiated by Sanger (yet).

I would argue that geeks are not dogmatic, but instead typically rely on reason (e.g., they employ reason in their defense of populism and the “wisdom of the crowds”; even if I and many others are unconvinced). Further, geeks indeed do seem to engage in knowledge projects for fun. Part of the success of Wikipedia is that it allows for purposelessly clicking through random entries for no other reason than because learning is fun. However, my task in this essay is to better conceptualize Sanger’s points and not really make the case for a geek intellectualism. I’m only half-convinced myself of these last two points. I’ll leave it to Sanger to describe how geeks are anti-intellectual on these other two dimensions of anti-intellectualism. Until then, the story of geek anti-intellectualism remains mixed.

I haven’t encountered geek anti-intellectuals of a fideist stripe–those who regard faith as a cardinal virtue and who criticize over-reliance on reason and science.  Computer geeks are mostly scientistic rationalists, or at least, they try to be.  (Sometimes they seem not to be simply because so many of them aren’t actually trained in rational argumentation or the scientific method.  They learned how to argue on Internet forums.)  If there is something weird about calling geeks intellectuals, it would surely be this.  Indeed, geek rationalism actually explains why there was such an interesting response to my essay.  It didn’t surprise me that geeks replied in various highly rational ways to my essay.  That’s not the sort of response that a lot of religious anti-intellectuals, of the sort Hofstadter studied, would have, if I had made them my target; they probably wouldn’t have responded at all.

As to the second point (on “unreflective instrumentalism”), however, I think Jurgenson lets geekdom off far too easily.  Of course geeks “engage in knowledge projects for fun” (so do many religious fundamentalists).  But geeks frequently talk about how the humanities are useless (this ties in to my point (2)) and for that reason, a waste of time.  One of the recent geek arguments for the pointlessness of college is precisely that college features so much abstract theorizing which doesn’t have any practical application.  A lot of geeks love books, to be sure, but some of them reject books not merely because they prefer ebook editions over paper books, but because they have become true believers that social media is what Clay Shirky described as an “upstart literature” which promises to become the “new high culture,” just give it some time.  Besides, we often hear, books are becoming outmoded because they are not collaborative, and they’re boring and irrelevant because they were not made recently.  And if you try to argue that college might have a non-vocational purpose, their eyes seem to glaze over.  They just don’t get that.

Here’s a couple of points elaborated, also probably related to “unreflective instrumentalism,” or as I would put it, to the devaluing of theoretical knowledge.  First, if you diss the classics, if you reject the intellectual basis for Western civilization wholesale, as some silly-clever geeks (to say nothing of culture-warrior college professors) do, then by golly, you’re anti-intellectual. This isn’t because you are an instrumentalist, it is because you reject the conceptual-historical basis which allows you to think what you’re thinking, including even the math and computer science that forms the basis of the computers you’re working on.  If you ignore the giant shoulders you’re standing on, and pretend to be thinking through issues a priori or innocent of all scholarship, then you’ll certainly fall prey to all sorts of significant errors and confusions.  A person who pretends to be able to speak intelligently on the political issues of capitalist democracy but who has not read theorists like Locke, Rousseau, or Marx is almost certain to make various sophomoric mistakes (regardless of his political leanings).  And that’s just one example from one field.  If you don’t care about making such mistakes based in historical ignorance, and the whole idea of understanding the content of the ideas you’re so passionate about leaves you cold, then you are to that extent not intellectual, and perhaps not really as much of a rationalist as you’d like to think of yourself.  If you go farther and say that persons who inform themselves of the intellectual underpinnings of Western civilization are wasting their time, then plainly, your contempt for the knowledge that people get from such study is so great that you do deserve to be called anti-intellectual.

Second, there’s my point (4).  If you reject the necessity of learning things for yourself–if you actually endorse ignorance merely because certain things can be looked up so easily now–then you’re anti-intellectual in the rather basic sense that you’re anti-knowing stuff.  The three-part definition Jurgenson gives is ultimately grounded, I would argue, in this basic concept: an anti-intellectual undervalues knowledge for its own sake.  That’s what explains the stance of anti-expertism, anti-reason, and unreflective instrumentalism.   And if you had any doubt about whether there were a lot of geeks who undervalue knowledge for its own sake, just look at the comments on my essay.  There, on Slashdot, and in other places you’ll find plenty of people dismissing college not just because it’s a poor economic decision but because the sort of theoretical knowledge you get in college is allegedly a waste of time.  The very claim is anti-intellectual.

It would be different if I saw many geeks hastening to add, after dissing lit crit and philosophy and political theory, that they really mainly have it in for an over-politicized academe, while they still do have respect for the likes of Aristotle and Locke, Michelangelo and Picasso, Thucydides and Gibbon, and for those intellectuals who, along with most scientists, continue to work in the old tradition of advancing knowledge instead of deconstructing it.  But I don’t come across geeks saying things like this too often.

The people I’m describing use their minds (often professionally, and very competently), and therefore their minds have a life, so to speak.  But many do not go in for, in Jurgenson’s phrase, “the life of the mind.”  That involves some level of commitment to understanding the world, including the humanistic elements of the world, at an abstract level, bringing the tools of reason and science to bear.  Just because you write computer software and are fascinated by a few geeky topics, it doesn’t follow that you have this commitment.

But then, a lot of academics don’t, either.  As I said, it’s no contradiction to speak of academic anti-intellectuals.  Their influence is no doubt one of the reasons certain geeks are anti-intellectual.




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2 responses to “Reply to Nathan Jurgenson on anti-intellectualism”

  1. Thank you for the very thoughtful response to my comments. You make a good case for geek “unreflective instrumentalism” here. The remaining issue in your original piece that remains has to do with conflating intellect and intelligence with respect for your disagreement with geeks over memorization.

  2. […] powerful read (even though I wrote a sort-of critique of Sanger’s post here; and he replied to me here). Sanger’s fundamental point is that modern geek culture is characterized by an anti-intellectual […]

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