[Essay] Splendid Uselessness — Alexandre Leskanich

Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Princeton University Press, 2020. 240 pp. £18.99 (Hardback)

The dignity of man consists entirely and uniquely in those moments when he can give to subjects of reflection that have no practical consequences and even no appeal, no future – an attention and a deliberation comparable to those he would give to his very existence.

Paul Valéry, Cahiers

It may be a sign of the times – and not a particularly encouraging sign – that only people who have based their lives and livelihoods on the notion that thinking matters are likely to complain, as Judith Butler did recently in the New Statesman, about living in ‘anti-intellectual times’. One waits in vain for the local landlord to join the chorus of indignation. Behind the complaint lurks the intimation of an existential threat to thinking itself, of an approaching epilogue to the intellectual life as it was once imagined. But it’s difficult to recall any point in human history when intellectuals (excluding their predecessors, the clerics or priests) were ever other than marginalised, their work sidelined. When has the inner life, the life of the mind, ever taken priority or been put first? Still, the intellectual remains, in one enduring sense, part of a larger cognitariat which manages, however ineptly or inadequately, the knowledge human beings generate about themselves and the world; a trader in, or administrator of, ideas; a sort of gourmet or connoisseur of impractical wisdom. The intellectual exudes – or used to – the authority of knowledge; the distinction of knowing more, and understanding better, than those around them. Yet for this reason, they might be derided or mocked precisely because they move and breathe in a world of ideas itself detached – or so it can oftentimes appear – from the world to which they apply, or about which they are intended to illuminate. 

Raymond Williams writes that the noun ‘intellectual’ began to be used from the nineteenth century to denote, sometimes pejoratively, ‘a particular kind of person’, or ‘a person doing a particular kind of work’. Its association with ‘intelligence’ invokes the exercise or application of one’s mental capacities, or intellection. Within universities, Williams notes, ‘the distinction is sometimes made between specialists or professionals, with limited interests, and intellectuals, with wider interests’. Williams’s distinction is echoed in Richard Rorty’s contrast between researchers:

busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge from people trying to expand their own moral imaginations. These latter people read books in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important – either for themselves as individuals or for their society. Call these people the ‘humanistic intellectuals.’ One often finds more such people in the anthropology department than in the classics department, and sometimes more in the law school than in the philosophy department. 

This is a valid distinction, although it ought to be said that often specialists do have wider interests, and that they choose by necessity to specialise because the university is structurally designed to encourage the production of specialised research. Since academia is already stratified into disciplines, themselves divided into obscure areas of specialisation that treat of phenomena according to their respective dispositions, there’s rarely much choice in the matter. 

The increasing marginalisation of, say, certain kinds of philosophical or historical or literary enquiry occurs in proportion to their diminishing scale of social influence as brought about through their focus on specialised problems socially and politically irrelevant to, or disconnected from, everyday concerns of a practical nature. To survive, even in an attenuated and dessicated form, the academic-function is further transmogrified into that of a technical expert, whose knowledge reflects back at the world how it is already arranged, who possesses a toolkit of conceptual strategies for managing its contrariety. As a result, and although they might insist that they exhibit a lofty independence of mind, ‘professional’ academics are overwhelmingly creatures of convention: they display cognitive habits subordinate to the authoritative texts, theories, and methods that orientate specialised research. They deploy already approved categories and preconceptions that when applied to the (predefined) object of study are relied upon to judge its coherence in relation to what is already known about it. 

Knowledge is something social – both the product and basis of our shared and individual intellection, of collaborative insight. At its best it facilitates the realisation of an enduring, indispensable ideal: the emancipation of the human mind from narcissism, conformity, bigotry, intolerance, and hatred. All the more disturbing, then, is the grim spectacle that greets those engaged in its manufacture: the mismatch between the promise of knowledge and what it has produced. As John Gray points out (and this in the mid-1990s), the technical refinement of knowledge has produced a world amenable to its total instrumentalisation: ‘a world ruled by calculation and wilfulness which is humanly unintelligible and destructively purposeless’. Instead of limiting the satisfaction of self-interest or greed, Gray’s summary speaks to today’s alignment of liberalism with predatory, ‘surveillance’ capitalism; to the existence of faceless agglomerations of corporate, financial, and state power marginalising individual agency; and to the calculated frustration of any latent capacity to change course through the distribution of propaganda and misinformation. Hence the consequent instability, the ecological inefficacy, in respect to knowledge today occurs both through its highly specialised modes of production, and its increasingly digitalised forms of dissemination. The interface of the individual with mass forms of digital media, with its constant, concurrent, and thus epistemically incompatible flows of information, amplifies the potential for confusion and disenchantment in the social system (hence, to offset the confusion and disenchantment, there follows a retreat into virtual silos in which one can be sealed from rival conceptions of reality).

In a tragic twist, the production of more and more knowledge is aimed at compensating, as Ernest Gellner says, for the ‘justified sense of chaos, of cognitive breakdown’ endemic to modernity, but which was itself induced, paradoxically, by ‘the simultaneous collapse and the unprecedented growth of knowledge. The collapse meant that we quite literally ceased to know just which world we lived in.’ Therefore, here and now, claims Gellner, ‘a real historical situation has imposed a certain task on thought. We do not know just which world we inhabit. Diverse faiths and visions claim to tell us. Their confidence, motives, and logic are suspect.’ As a result of the growth in knowledge itself, it has become ever harder to identify, as Martin L. Davies puts it, ‘the relationship of knowledge to the reality it is meant to explain.’ Rather than clarifying this relationship, specialised knowledge further occludes it, merely reflecting back to the specialist reality as it has been technically conceived, via the conceptualisations already superimposed upon it. Consequently, as Davies points out, ‘specialization reinforces the knowledge already known by enforcing – e.g. through conventional methodologies – normative forms of behaviour. Specialization is the essence of disciplinarity. It is a technical and technocratic form of knowledge-production, a mode of intellectual conformity.’ 

So: disciplinarity requires specialisation; specialisation requires methodological conformity; methodological conformity results in knowledge of vanishingly marginal – and hence marginalised – significance. Refashioning the intellectual ecosystem to suit narrower and narrower interests, it encourages insights on a scale of outwards significance so small as to be virtually inscrutable. Further compounding its irrelevance, hyper-specialised, hyper-professionalised university workers produce a volume of research so vast that it has become as ephemeral and insubstantial as a passing breeze. What – if any – difference such quantities of research make is difficult to discern. In a cynical mood, one could say that most specialised research might as well not exist, given how rarely it is read. Perversely, the incentive to keep on publishing in order to stay afloat in the system itself decreases the significance, or value, of the publications themselves, except insofar as they raise the research ‘profile’, and therefore ‘reputation’, of the university in which they are produced. Knowledge is in any case compromised, and not simply because its crisis of abundance (perhaps the defining feature of modernity in its ever accelerating dimension) seals its obsolescence. In ecological terms, it betrays its inadequacy as the gap between the urgencies of now and the capacity to address them grows wider. As it stands, the triumph of technical expertise is suffused with a remarkable complacency: the loss of sense in the natural and intellectual ecology barely registers as evidence of its own redundancy. Publish, and perish anyway.

***

Universities, following their policy-driven transformation into transactional businesses equipping their student-clients with marketable credentials, less and less resemble, for those who work in them, a fragile refuge from the world and its multiple pressures; a space for thought to flourish unburdened by the demand that it be useful. Now, as befits its subornment to incentives established by incurious administrators, intellectual activity is evaluated according to the economic standards against which all human life is measured in necrotic, late-capitalistic societies, whose defining symptoms include coveting, grasping, striving, and sharp-elbowing others out of the way. Universities are under constant pressure to demonstrate the value of the learning they provide according to external standards of instrumental value. In the so-called ‘knowledge economy’, knowledge is valuable insofar as it can be instrumentalised or put to some practical purpose. Knowing or learning which cannot be used to fulfill financial purposes is deemed superfluous, lacking in the only sort of value that matters. 

Learning for the sake of something more than immediate, tangible gain, Zena Hitz suggests in Lost in Thought (2020), is a ‘natural need’, but is today seen, sadly, as ‘a useless luxury.’ The intellectual life has been, she contends, ‘distorted by notions of economic and civic usefulness [in which the] exercise of the love of learning for its own sake… is pushed to the margins and swept into corners’:

We do not see intellectual life clearly, because of our devotion to lifestyles rich in material comfort and social superiority. We want the splendour of Socratic thinking without his poverty. We want the thrill of his speaking truth to power without the full absorption in the life of the mind that made it possible. We want the profits of Thales’ stargazing without the ridicule. We want Einstein’s brilliant insights without the humiliation of joblessness followed by years of obscurity working in a patent office.   

Hitz – self-described in this book as a ‘professional intellectual’ who holds an academic post in philosophy in the United States – offers in this book an extended meditation on why the value of learning ought to be unconnected from practical or political outcomes. As she points out, ‘our colleges are overrun with attempts to obscure the difference between the value of the exercise of the love of learning and things that are valuable for different reasons. Hence our think tanks and special degrees for thinking-as-entrepreneurship, thinking-as-fighting-for-justice. Making money is useful, and fighting for justice is necessary, but neither is valuable in the same way that exercising the love of learning is valuable.’ Indeed, justifying intellectual life by primary appeal to its utility, or its capacity to achieve justice, reveals the ‘corruption of learning by politics and political goals’, the commodification of intellectual life for humanly unedifying ends. 

So, ‘to describe intellectual life as useful in politics or in business is to argue against a prior and much more common point of view’, in which learning serves ultimate ends connected to our intrinsic value as human beings. ‘Properly understood’, the intellectual life ‘cultivates a space of retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place.’ Socially, it helps us ‘aspire to ways of being: to be wise, or kind; to be vast in understanding, steadfast in truth, humble in success’, and must ultimately ‘be left to lead us where it leads us’:

The intellect provides an intrinsically unpredictable guide to life, one with its own integrity and independence. If it is wholly subjected to economic interests, whether personal or public, it will rationalize pre-existing agendas rather than reshape them. If it is subjugated to the pursuit of justice, the agendas may be more appealing to some, but the result will be the same… The subjugation of the intellect will establish a hierarchy of moral experts who instruct others in partial truths. This is why the intellectual life resists subservience to lesser goals such as wealth, ambition, politics, or pleasure. If intellectual life is not left to rest in its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit.

In addition to these valuable insights, Lost in Thought weaves a time-honoured tale of personal redemption in which eventually, after an ‘existential crisis’ of meaning, Hitz turns, rather predictably, to religion. She describes with disturbing candour her existence as a graduate student beginning a desperate ascent up the academic pecking-order. Unexceptionally, she is seized with uncertainty and self-doubt: will she ever be good enough? Is she really clever enough to succeed (if only that were enough, these days!)? Has she truly mastered to the satisfaction of her peers the niceties, the insincerities, the little signs of mutual belonging? Beset with fears, she threw herself, apparently, into a ‘brutal competition for status and prestige’. (Do people who use the word ‘brutal’ in this sort of context really understand what the word means, or is this just hyperbole designed to heighten the author’s own sense of self-importance?). But Hitz was swiftly – presumably after being sufficiently ‘brutal’ to her colleagues – ‘swimming like a fish in water’. Like her equally self-centred sounding peers, she sought status and approval, even at the expense of others: ‘our embrace of public acts of competitive humiliation’, she writes, not in the slightest bit endearingly, ‘mixed in a sickly way with our perception of the loftiness of learning’. But she weathers the storm, and makes it eventually. A humble-brag is, naturally, inserted. Hitz ‘ended up through a series of lucky breaks in the world of elite academia, where – after some initial struggle – I too was very successful.’ 

In her description of her early career as an academic, Hitz portrays herself as little more than an ambitious social climber, a highly narcissistic, even borderline sociopathic, keeper-upper of appearances with a ‘basic interest in social superiority.’ A less likeable self-portrait could hardly have been drawn. Much of this, far from feeling authentic, seems either contrived or embellished to make her experiences sound worse than they actually were. This is a particularly ludicrous piece of prose that feels to me false, if not entirely fabricated:

[T]he shallowness of my academic life became gradually more obvious. Either I sought approval or status by performing well at the expense of others, or in small groups my fellow academics and I explained to one another our own superiority – our difference from the dumb, the wrong, the bad, and the ugly. I remember going to one academic dinner party among many and suddenly feeling queasy as we suggested that the central values in our lives were fine wines and trips to Europe.

If Hitz and her colleagues ever actually sat around talking of their own supremacy in relation to other people, or in all seriousness declared that the central values to which they cleaved in life were ‘fine wines and trips to Europe’, I’ll nibble a hat. If it happened – which is, I suppose, possible – Hitz might have done better to clarify that this is by no means a habit universal to academics, and to condemn in no uncertain terms this infantile, arrogant behaviour. I could only cringe to imagine someone gaining an impression of the many vagaries of academic life through this silly caricature, the disgusted grimace that such passages would surely elicit. But there is no clarification. Instead, she segues to an irksome lament about her benighted, bourgeois existence: ‘I had by this point grown accustomed to being rewarded for my intellectual work with money, status, and privileges’; ‘my colleagues and I went to exotic destinations as often as possible, seeking out prestigious experiences and high-end consumer goods as a serendipitous perk of participating in an international community of scholars. I visited Lisbon, London, and Berlin; operas, museums, and cabaret shows; and gobbled local delicacies.’ Oh the humanity! But behind the glamour, all was not well: ‘in exchange for my comfortable salary, excellent benefits, and ample control over my work schedule, I delivered preprocessed nuggets of knowledge in front of a crowd and doled out above-average grades upon their absorption.’ She also perceived a diminishment in the value of her own cogitations: ‘my focus had shifted’, she writes, ‘to the outcomes of my work rather than the work itself.’

Eventually, Hitz experiences a righteous epiphany in order to overcome the decadent erroneousness of it all. And in this respect, it would be fair to say that I found the confessional zeal of the book tedious. It’s inflected with a typically religious sensibility in which the world is the source and seat of spiritual corruption, and from which we must endeavour to save ourselves. But to be blunt, comforting ourselves with tales of the love of learning for its own sake will probably save neither ourselves nor the world. Learning is almost never done for its own sake; mostly, it is done for our own. It is always vulnerable to external pressures, subject to changing socio-economic incentives. Moreover, learning for its own sake (assuming such a thing exists) and learning for the sake of the world are hardly mutually exclusive. For what sake other than the world and its well-being do we learn, if we and our thinking are inextricably part of it, utterly dependent upon it?  

All the same, Hitz’s descriptions tally somewhat with cringeworthy characters I have encountered in academia, some of whom would be better described as ideologues rather than intellectuals. You might have met them: those eager to hector and correct those who seem insufficiently enlightened; those incapable of answering simple questions without feeling self-righteously indignant at the possibility they might be wrong; those who are careful to dismiss or distain certain thinkers they haven’t even read to signal to others they possess right-minded opinions; those who police with trenchant vigour the boundary of what they consider intellectually acceptable, and malign out-group members beyond it. It’s certainly simple to identity those ‘professors’, as Hobbes witheringly described them centuries ago, who care little for truth, and use the privilege of their academic position as a prop for their own ego; which is to say, ‘as a Trade to maintain themselves or gain Preferment; and some for Fashion, and to make themselves fit for ingenious company… and to Acquiescence in the Authority of those authors whom they have heard commended.’ 

Class-based snobbery and elitism may be rampant in the higher-education sector of the United States – Hitz is certainly evidence of that – but the UK is hardly better. Educationally, as elsewhere, it’s a hierarchy-obsessed society, with a revered handful of institutions at the top, attendance at which signals, supposedly, a degree of cleverness exceeding that of the attendees of a wide assortment of ‘middling’ institutions. Happy to perpetuate myths of institutional superiority (in reality, universities are remarkably alike in almost all respects) in order to bolster their own egos, academics are often quite petty, unhealthily preoccupied with ‘prestige’ and status. They love to talk about ‘elite’ institutions, and are as a consequence very concerned with where each other studied, as though this indicated anything remotely reliable about the quality of their thought. Hitz, happy to play along, doesn’t question any of this. But she might have mentioned the tedious way in which academics form hierarchies of significance in which institutional identity (where one studied, or where one works) is correlated with intellectual ability. Surely these reflexes contribute to the general ‘shallowness’ about which she complains? As so often, academics otherwise quick to correct the presuppositions of others are less enthusiastic when it comes to scrutinising their own. But if it must be pointed out, prestige depends on perception: it’s rarely rooted in any actual superiority, unless one defines as superior what is already preconceived as prestigious. And should anyone need reminding, what ultimately determines the depth or quality of one’s intellect is not where one studies, but what one learns, and – even more importantly – how and to what ends one thinks. 

*

I wanted to read this book for two reasons. First, having been immersed – if not professionally installed – for some years in various universities, and having been, I presume, institutionalised into the habits of mind the university as an intellectual ecosystem inculcates, I’ve been for some time interested in how academic work is justified; how academics and those generally engaged in thinking and writing explain (and, these days, increasingly have to rationalise) to themselves and others why they do what they do. Second, having received my doctorate this summer, and hoping to embark on further research projects, I find it increasingly necessary to explain to myself why I read, why I think, why I write, and why, ultimately, I would rather do this than something else.

So I write this at a time that feels to me like something of a turning point, a fork in the road. Belatedly, as the need to decide what to try and do next imposes itself, my thoughts often drift to a cluster of associated questions: e.g. what on earth is it all for? Why have I spent nine years of my life at four different universities, across four different subjects, constantly reading, thinking, and writing? That in itself speaks to a certain – if I can deign to use the word – intellectual restlessness (Hitz applies it to herself with the breezy self-confidence of someone employed full-time at a university). I have a perhaps excessive suspicion of specialisation: I’m wary of the self-satisfaction it might induce, the ever-receding horizon of the academic ‘discipline’, the inevitable estrangement from what matters most. But this resistance to becoming a specialist has in all probability put paid to my hope of ever landing an academic job, especially given that, well, there aren’t any. So now I find it more necessary than ever to wonder: why?

For myself, the answer is straightforward, if unsatisfyingly ambiguous. The intellectual life, so far as I can tell, is not about gaining recognition, or acquiring a reputation, or winning accolades. Rather, it’s about, with modesty, learning more about what matters. It’s about trying to think better, more clearly, and, as Hitz rightly emphasises, to some higher, more meaningful purpose. It depends on to what extent one exercises what one learns independently; the extent to which one engages with the knowledge already known in such a way as to question it; and the extent to which one can accept with humility the limitations of what one can know, without being tempted to disparage on that basis attempts to go beyond what is known. True, attempting to attain what can be an overly romanticised ideal of the life of the mind imposes an exacting psychological, social, and (let’s face it) financial toll. In view of the brilliance of previous thinkers, the attempt seems fruitless: who can possibly live up to previous standards, or achieve those heights of originality? There’s also a general aura of discontent, of constantly unsatisfied yearning, of unrequited understanding, at the heart of the intellectual life, which is I suppose a factor which ensures its endurance from generation to generation: the constant repossession, if never the total fulfillment, of its promise.

More generally, intellectual reflection could not exist without an initial desire to explore and better understand the precarious reality of which it hopes to be an informed expression. It thus constitutes an attempt to establish – however imprecisely – the circumstances the subject confronts, and to examine the existing means of comprehension created in response to those circumstances in order to see of what use they may or may not serve in illuminating it. The realisation of the intellectual life therefore depends, in the most fundamental sense, upon Kant’s maxim to use one’s own understanding to the fullest possible extent: to ‘dare to know’, regardless of personal inconvenience, and no matter the likelihood of failure. 

What continues to personally sustain me is remembering what a former supervisor of mine wisely wrote to me several years ago: ‘I think that [the] reality of ideas, of their existential value, is the foundation of the intellectual as a way of life and as a social critical function. I think the intellectual has to be a student, in the sense that s/he is always aware there is always something else to know about, to discover – even if it might cause a re-think of one’s own ideas – that one can, therefore, never be cognitively complacent.’ To me this sentiment expresses the mysterious and wonderful magic to which the intellectual life can sometimes give fruit, in which its constant potential to reconstitute not just our perception of present reality, but also reality itself, is manifest. Here, the reality of ideas, their real and extraordinary purchase on the world, ensures that even the most modest exploration of them is never without value. I remain convinced that the world, and ourselves, are never richer and more alive than when the ideas according to which we conceive of both are examined anew.

Finally, I am comforted, too, by the words of Montesquieu, in his introduction to his Spirit of Laws:

Often have I begun, and as often have I laid aside this undertaking. I have a thousand times given the leaves I had written to the winds: I every day felt my paternal hands fall. I have followed my object without any fixed plan: I have known neither rules nor exceptions; I have found the truth, only to lose it again. But when I once discovered my first principles, everything I sought for appeared; and in the course of twenty years, I have seen my work begun, growing up, advancing to maturity, and finished.

*

Alexandre Leskanich received his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2020. His first book, The Anthropocene and the Sense of History: Reflections from Precarious Life, is under contract with Routledge. His work can be found at: https://royalholloway.academia.edu/AlexandreLeskanich.