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Life of the Mind (Hofstadter) 22 February 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary, Philosophy & Social Theory.

I’ve just begun reading Richard Hofstadter’s seminal work from 1964, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Needless to say, he was a brilliant thinker and writer, who died far too young, as did many of the best public intellectuals of the mid-20th century. I’ll be posting more about the book in the near future. Here’s a witty example of Hofstadter’s sly, understated style:

“But in a world full of dangers, the danger that American society as a whole will overesteem intellect or assign it such a transcendant value as to displace other legitimate values is one that hardly need trouble us.”

And here is a part of Hofstadter’s discussion of what makes one an “intellectual”:

“[The intellectual] may live for ideas … but something must prevent him from living for one idea, from becoming obsessive and grotesque. … When one’s concerns for ideas, no matter how dedicated and sincere, reduces them to the service of some central limited preconception or some wholly external end, intellect gets swallowed by fanatacism. If there is anything more dangerous to the life of the mind than having no independent commitment to ideas, it is having an excess of commitment to some special or constricting idea. … [So] we speak of the play of the mind; and certainly the intellectual relishes the play of the mind for its own sake … The curiosity of the playful mind is inordinately restless and active … [which] gives a distinctive cast to its view of truth and its discontent with dogmas. … Whatever the intellectual is too certain of, if he is healthily playful, he begins to find unsatisfactory. The meaning of the intellectual life lies not in the possession of the truth but in the quest for new uncertainties.”



1. Christopher - 26 February 2007

Hey, Todd. You taught me the phrase “mutually constitutive” years ago. I’ve gotten lots of puzzled stares ever since, whenever I’ve tried out that concept on other historians.

There’s nothing anti-intellectual about being puzzled. But I have censored myself a little by dropping that phrase as being outside the standard, conceptual vocabulary of the discipline of history.

I just came across the phrase in print for the first time. It’s on p. 1 of a book on the reading list for my MA exam. (Peter Fritzsche’s _Reading Berlin: 1900_. “In an age of urban mass literacy, the city as place and the city as text defined each other in mutually constitutive ways,” from admonitory street signs to ephemeral billboard ads to conflicting, civic-minded newspaper editorials.) –So I’ll start introducing “mutually constitutive” into conversations again, and stop wondering if I’m enjoying concepts too much.

I wouldn’t hold Mary Daly up as a scholar who’s always “healthily playful” about her own ideas. But she did coin a phrase I love–“ludic cerebration.”

I like Hofstadter’s suggestion that a love of ideas for their own sake leads you into a play of ideas that’s inherently dynamic. Intellectual life should include a self-activating, built-in safeguard against narrow mindedness.

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