America the Philosophical?

America the Philosophical (cover)Carlin Romano’s book America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012), opens with an acknowledgement that American culture is not widely perceived, even by Americans, to be very philosophical. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that “in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States” (p. 5) as well as Richard Hofstadter’s observation in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963) that “[i]n the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence” (p. 3). Romano observes that while in England philosophers “write regularly for the newspapers” and that in France philosophers appear regularly on television, “[i]n the world of broader American publishing, literature, art and culture, serious references to philosophy, in either highbrow or mass-market material barely register” (p. 11). Yet despite these facts he boldly asserts that the U.S. “plainly outstrips any rival as the paramount philosophical culture” (p. 15).

I know Romano. I’m on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium and Romano has attended some of our meetings. He’s an affable guy, so I was predisposed to like his book despite its wildly implausible thesis. Maybe there is a sense, I thought to myself, in which Americans are more philosophical than people in other parts of the world. We tend to be less authoritarian, I realized hopefully, and authoritarianism is certainly antithetical to genuine philosophical inquiry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to reflect long to realize that we tend to be less authoritarian than other peoples because we have little respect for learnin’, especially book learnin’. We don’t believe there really are such things as authorities.

How is it possible that the U.S., despite all the evidence to the contrary that Romano marshals, can be “the paramount philosophical culture”? Romano’s answer is that the evidence that suggests we are not philosophical consists of nothing more than “clichés” of what philosophy is. He asserts that if we throw out these “clichés” and reduce philosophy to “what philosophers ideally do” (p. 15), then it will become obvious that America is the “paramount philosophical culture.” That is, Romano makes his case for America the Philosophical by simply redefining what it means to be philosophical, which is to say that he simply begs the question.

According to Romano what philosophers ideally do is “subject preconceptions to ongoing analysis.” But do most Americans do this? It’s not clear to whom he’s referring when he asserts that Americans are supremely analytical. Some Americans are very analytical, but the evidence is overwhelming that most are not. Public discourse in the U.S. is littered with informal fallacies such as ad hominen, straw man, and post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments that are almost never exposed as such. Americans like to “think from the gut”–which is to say that they tend not to care much for reasoned analysis.

Even if most Americans were analytical in this sense, however, that alone, would not make them philosophical. Subjecting preconceptions to ongoing analysis is certainly part of what philosophers do, but it isn’t all they do. Philosophers have traditionally pursued the truth. That, in fact, is the classical distinction between the genuine philosophers of ancient Greece, figures such as Socrates and Plato, and the sophists. Socrates and Plato were trying to get at the truth. The sophists, on the other hand, were teachers of rhetoric whose primary concern was making money (not unlike for-profit educators today). They were characterized, in fact, as advertising that they could teach their pupils how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. That is, they taught persuasion with relative, if not complete, indifference to the actual merits of the arguments in question. That’s why they were reviled by genuine seekers after truth.

Romano is unapologetic in presenting his heroes as the sophist Isocrates and the “philosopher” Richard Rorty. He devotes a whole chapter of the book to Isocrates, attempting to defend him against the characterization of sophists presented above. He does a good job of this, but at the end of the chapter, the fact remains that Isocrates was far more practical in his orientation than was Socrates (or any of his followers). “Socrates,” observes Romano, “in the predominant picture of him drawn by Plato, favors discourse that presumes there’s a right answer, an eternally valid truth, at the end of the discursive road. Isocrates favors discourse, but thinks, like Rorty and Habermas, that right answers emerge from appropriate public deliberation, from what persuades people at the end of the road” (p. 558).

But people are often persuaded by very bad arguments. In fact, one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the informal fallacies mentioned above is how effective they are at persuading people. Truth has to be more than what people happen to agree it is. If that were not the case, then people would never have come to consider that slavery was wrong, and slavery would never have been abolished. It won’t work to point out that slavery was abolished precisely when the majority of humanity was persuaded that it was wrong, and not simply because masses of humanity had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that insight, but primarily because someone had to do the dragging. That is, someone, or some small group of individuals had to be committed to the truth of a view the truth of which evaded the majority of humanity and they had to labor tirelessly to persuade this majority that it was wrong.

Right answers have to be more than “what persuades people at the end of the road” (unless “end of the road” is defined in such as way as to beg the question). The sophists were the first PR men, presenting to young Athenian aristocrats the intoxicating vistas of what can be achieved through self promotion when it is divorced from any commitment to a higher truth. In that sense, Romano is correct, Isocrates, to the extent that he elevates what actually persuades people over what should persuade them, is more representative of American culture than is Socrates.

But is it fair to say that most Americans are followers of this school of thought in that, like Isocrates and Rorty, they have carefully “analyzed” traditional absolutist and foundationalist accounts of truth and found them wanting, that they have self consciously abandoned the Enlightenment orientation toward the idea of the truth in favor of a postmodern relativism or Rortyan pragmatism. There’s a small portion of American society that has done this, a small sub-set of academics and intellectuals who’ve fallen under the Rortyan spell. Most Americans have never even heard of Richard Rorty, let alone self-consciously adopted his version of pragmatism.

That’s not to say we Americans are stupid though. Hofstadter distinguishes, early in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, between “intelligence” and “intellect.” Intelligence, he observes,

is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality—one of the most eminent and endearing of the animal virtues. …. Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole. Intelligence can be praised as a quality in animals; intellect, being a unique manifestation of human dignity, is both praised and assailed as a quality in men (p. 25).

These characterizations of intelligence and intellect seem fairly uncontroversial, and according to them, philosophy would appear to be an expression of intellect rather than intelligence. That is, it’s possible to be intelligent, indeed to be very intelligent, without being at all intellectual. Hofstadter asserts that while Americans have unqualified respect for intelligence, they are deeply ambivalent about intellect. “The man of intelligence,” he observes, “is always praised; the man of intellect is sometimes also praised, especially when it is believed that intellect involves intelligence, but he is also often looked upon with resentment or suspicion. It is he, and not the intelligent man, who may be called unreliable, superfluous, immoral, or subversive” (p. 24).

What, you may wonder, does Romano think of this argument? That’s hard to say because the only references to Hofstadter in the book are on pages 3 and 8. His name is never mentioned again, at least not so far as I could tell, and not according to the index. Conspicuously absent from the index as well are both “intelligence” and “intellect.” Romano has written an entire book of over 600 pages that purports (at least according to the intro) to refute Hofstadter’s argument that Americans are generally anti-intellectual without ever actually addressing the argument.

Now that is clever! It’s much easier to come off looking victorious if you simply proclaim yourself the winner without stooping to actually engage your opponent in a battle. It’s kind of disingenuous though and in that sense is a strategy more suited to a sophist than to a genuine philosopher.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 8-10, 2013 Weekend edition of Counterpunch)

On Race and Intelligence

My fifth grade class photo.

My fifth grade class photo.

One of the readers of this blog, who came to it after having read a piece in the online political magazine CounterPunch, suggested that I should post, after a suitable interval, all my articles from CounterPunch to this blog. I published a piece recently in CounterPunch on racism, so I thought perhaps I should post an earlier piece I did on racism here. I think it is a good piece to follow the post “On Teaching” because it relates to that topic as well. This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.

Race is in the news again. First it was the Jena Six, then Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s assertion, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, and finally, a series of articles two weeks ago in Slate arguing that there was scientific evidence to back Watson’s claim.

The reaction to these recent developments was predictable. There have been a number of heated debates on the internet concerning not only race and intelligence, but also the appropriateness of studying race and intelligence. Two crucial points have yet to be made, however. The first concerns the contentious association of intelligence with  IQ score and the second is the equally contentious assumption that we have anything like a clear scientific conception or race.

Let’s take the first one first. What is intelligence anyway? We have no better grasp of this than we have of the relation of the mind to the brain. Sure, some people can solve certain sorts of puzzles faster than other people, but everyone knows people who are great at Scrabble, or crosswords, or chess, or who can fix almost any mechanical or electrical gadget, but who seem unable to wrap their minds around even the most rudimentary of social or political theories. Then there are the people with great memories who are able to retain all the elements of even the most arcane theories and who can undertake an explanation of them if pressed, but whose inability to express them in novel terms betrays that they have not really grasped them after all. Other people–I’ve known quite a few of this type–have keenly analytical minds. They can break individual claims, or even entire theories, down into their conceptual components, yet they appear to lack any sort of synthetic intelligence in that they are unable to see the myriad implications of these analyses. Still other people are great at grasping the big picture, so to speak, but have difficulty hanging onto the details.

Some people plod slowly and methodically toward whatever insights they achieve and others receive them almost effortlessly, through flashes of inspiration. But the insights of the former group are sometimes more profound than those of the latter group. Then there are people who are mostly mistaken in their beliefs, sometimes quite obviously so, but correct in some one belief the implications of which are so staggering that we tend to forget they are otherwise unreliable.

I’m inclined to put Watson in this last group. Perhaps that’s not fair. After all, I know of only one point on which he is obviously mistaken. That mistake is so glaring, however, that it leads me to think he is probably more like an idiot savant than a genuinely intelligent human being. I.Q. scores represent something. It just isn’t all that clear what. To suggest that they represent intelligence in any significant sense is thus to betray that one has less than the ideally desirable quantity of this quality himself.

Sure the mind, and therefore intelligence, is intimately connected with the brain. Read Oliver Sacks if you want to see just how intimate that connection is. Sacks is one of my favorite authors not simply because the substance of his writings is so fascinating, but also because he is himself so clearly intelligent. Not only does he not go leaping to conclusions on issues that lie outside his area of professional expertise (though I have to say I’d be more interested to hear Sacks’ social and political views than Watson’s), he doesn’t go leaping to conclusions about the implications of what he has observed in his own work in neurology. He’d be one of the first people, I think, to defend the claim that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what intelligence is to be reliably able to quantify it. We don’t even understand it well enough yet to be able to say confidently that it is quantifiable. At this point, all we can say is that it appears so intimately connected with the brain that it can, in some sense, be associated with, or represented by, we-know-not-yet-what neurological activities or tendencies.

Okay, so far, so little. But what is a black brain and what is a white brain? Most blacks in the U.S., as opposed to blacks in Africa, have a great deal of white blood, or whatever you want to call it. If whites really were more intelligent than blacks, that would mean African-Americans would be that much more intelligent than Africans. (I’m sure my friend, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would be interested to hear that one.) There may well be people who believe this. I am not aware of any empirical evidence, however, that supports such a conclusion. My own experience does not support it. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended predominantly black schools from fourth grade to college. Since that time I have also met more than a few Africans. I couldn’t detect any difference in intelligence. I’m unaware of even anecdotal evidence that would support the conclusion that there was such a difference. Do you see what I’m saying? We’re not looking at a slippery slope here, but at a meteoric descent down into a pile of deep doo-doo.

From what I’ve read, there is no clear scientific definition of race. “Race” is just a name we give to a collection of physical characteristics such as eye and hair color and degree of pigmentation of the skin. There is no race gene. There are just genes that encode for these individual characteristics. So how many, and what sort, of  characteristics does one have to have to be either black or white. It is some kind of ineffable sum isn’t it? Blacks sometimes have very pale skin, some whites actually have darker skin than some blacks. Blacks even occasionally have blue eyes, or straight hair, just as whites often have brown eyes or tightly curled hair.

In the past, we just arbitrarily determined what made a person black, and, by implication, white. Since, presumably, we have gotten beyond the point where we would say that even one drop of black blood makes a person black, the only reasonable definition of race (even given its circularity) would, therefore, appear to be one based on the statistical representation of the various races in one’s family tree. That would mean people with predominantly white, or perhaps I should say “white-ish” ancestry would be considered white. Have you ever seen a photo of Charles Chestnut or Anatole Broyard?  Not only are these guys clearly white, according to this definition, there are a whole lot of other people walking around this country who call themselves “black” because of the social environment into which they were born, but who ought properly to consider themselves white.

Since when have scientific studies been undertaken on ineffable, or arbitrarily determined, classes of thing? It’s like trying to determine whether people with purportedly good taste are more intelligent than people with purportedly bad taste, or whether people who live in Chicago are more intelligent than people who live in L.A. You might undertake such a thing as a sociological study with some arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what would constitute good and bad taste, or for how far out into the suburbs you want to go before you decide you have left Chicago, as well with some equally arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what constitutes intelligence.

You cannot undertake such a thing though as a scientific study (no matter how convinced you may be in the genetic superiority of people who live in Chicago), and to think that you could betrays that you have a very weak grasp of what constitutes natural science. Given that race, at least from the standpoint of natural science, is nothing more than a collection of certain physical characteristics, the view that white people are more intelligent than black people is not uncomfortably close to view of the Nazis that blue-eyed blonds were inherently superior to everyone else–it is essentially the same thing.

As I said earlier, I spent a huge portion of my life in the almost exclusive company of black people. I’ve been around black people and I’ve been around white people and I haven’t found any general differences in terms of intelligence. My experience has led me to believe that most of what often passes for intelligence is actually intellectual self confidence, confidence in one’s own reasoning powers, confidence in the value of one’s insights. Teachers, of which I am one, will tell you that you can just see some people’s brains seize up when they are confronted with tasks they fear may be beyond them but which sometimes later prove not to have been beyond them. This fear, however, that certain tasks are beyond one, is a substantial obstacle to completing them. One stumbles again and again, fearing his “guess” is just that, a guess, rather than understanding. One fails to pursue an insight for fear that it is not genuine, or from fear that it is so obvious that others have come to it long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are not innate differences in intelligence among human beings. I’m sure there are, but I agree with what I believe Noam Chomsky said somewhere about how these differences, measured relative to the difference in intelligence between human beings and their closes relatives the apes, are simply vanishingly small.

I construe my job as an educator not to impart knowledge, but to nurture intellectual confidence. (Of course this could be partly a defensive mechanism because I am a philosopher, which means I don’t have any knowledge to impart.) I try to teach critical thinking skills, of course, but even more important to me is somehow to get my students to believe in their own intellectual potential because even these skills, I believe, can, at least to a certain extent, be acquired naturally by people who are confident in their ability to acquire them.

I say, teach people to believe in themselves and then see what they are able to do with that faith. But be very careful when you start judging the results because if anything of value has emerged from the recent debates on race and intelligence, it is that many of us in the U.S. are much closer to the edge of idiocy than we would like to admit. Noted intellectuals have failed to grasp even the most basic facts about what constitutes natural scientific research and failed to understand that to parade this ignorance in the way they have before a public still marked by social and economic inequities that cut along racial lines is offensive in the extreme. The whole thing has been very humbling. It has shown, I believe, that racism is still very firmly entrenched in the American psyche.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.)