Life of the Mind (Hofstadter) 22 February 2007Posted 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.”