Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Is Conservative Intellectual an Oxymoron?

This author says that conservatives are naturally repulsed by the idea of a public intellectual. That’s not because they’re dumb, but because there’s something too fancy and citified about the intellectual’s vain concern with status. Intellectuals are those we can trust to have something important and INTERESTING to say. Still, we can’t help but notice that New York and DC do seem to have a good number of well known figures who think conservative and act intellectual. Are their souls torn apart by some inauthentic internal contradiction? Or have they just found a cool niche market as conservative intellectuals? (Thanks to Ivan the K.)

Discussions - 15 Comments

There really is something to looking at this from the perspective of honor--the intellectual links his personal importance to his intellectual achievements and that might at least seem inconsistent with a critique of reason, his primary instrument in claiming honor. The professional intellectual is always tempted by the Platonic argument that the life of contemplation is not just a good life but the best life, and this goes hand in hand with a lionization of reason and a suspicion regarding other claims to honor and moral authority. My experience with northeastern conservative intellectuals often confirms this--it's hard to be an intellectual, especially a successful one, and not play and look the part. It might be the case that the intellectual life is more tempted by vanity and honor than some other lives because of its public character--you have to make your ideas public and they're supposed to be interesting (which at least partially means unique). The public intellectual makes a profession of providing regular and public demonstrations of how interesting and important he is. This makes even feigning modesty difficult--my undergraduate students can see through Socrates' ironic humility

We conservatives hate "intellectuals" because they so often lack wisdom (i.e., they have a poor understanding of human nature and how this determines what is possible). Can intelligence, creativity, and wisdom inhabit the same human being? Of course. Conservative intellectuals are the very best of the breed.

Interesting article but the definition of conservative intellectual (one who opposes the total reordering of society based on pure reason) is both too narrow (it would exclude many libertarians who would want to make much bigger changes to society than anything Obama is suggesting) and too broad (it would include many reformist liberals who think of politics in terms of immediate, attainable goals whatever the ultimate consquences of their theory might be).

No doubt intellectuals have their own distinctive foibles, and conservative -intellectuals or not - are right to not take claims of authority from intellectuals (whether as individuals or as a class) at face value, conservatives do need to engage with the world of ideas in a public way if there is any chance for their ideas to prevail. That means in part going to the agora.

The discussion paints intellectuals as patsies. True
intellectuals push thinking to new heights and places. The greatest minds of each generation are always radical thinkers pushing new ideas, not conservatives seeking a return to old ideas. I almost always know what so-called conservative intellectuals are going to say. So too liberals. The true thinker, on the left or the right, surprises me.

RE: Your header question.


But, Intelligent Liberal certainly is!

Well, Pete is surely right that we have no choice but to compete in the marketplace of ideas but we need to do this better. Too often conservatives allow debates to be framed as a contest between reason and whatever (revelation, tradition, etc) and so end up looking angrily dismissive of rational argument itself. Liberals have done a pretty effective job of exploiting this failing---they like to depict any contrary position as an “assault on reason” (to borrow a phrase from Gore) -- this was the general thrust behind Obama’s promise to “restore science to its proper place” in the Inaugural. The more philosophically defensible position is actually the one that is appropriately skeptical regarding the claims of both reason and tradition (which also means skeptical of any thoroughgoing skepticism itself), rather than one that blithely assumes that an unflinching attachment to rational progress is, in fact, all that reasonable. And it might be worth noting that there is something both oddly un-philosophic and un-empirical about the left’s version of intellectualism---their conception of reason is reduced to its scientific version which manages to exclude the significance of pre-theoretical, lived experience and the import of big, non reductionist ideas.

I agree with ren on this. I think you have to have a better definition of intellectual if you really want to argue this. Is someone an intellectual if they do all the required reading, get the degree, and then contribute absolutely nothing new? Can there be an outsider, who has none of the above, but has origional ideas. I think we are defining intellectual in terms of social economics and not in terms of what they have contributed to society. The philosopher writes and the king rules, most of the time I beleive that the man of politics does not understand the philosophy and only uses the self serving aspects anyhow. Brutal dictators carry around the The republic. I shudder to think that the group thinking right and left establishment are the true intellecutal class and the best we have. "conservative" intellectuals suppor the same ends as liberals now anyways so what is the sense of this debate. It really sounds like the sort of thing mean gene oakerland would mediate, right vs. left debates are so ficticious that I think two shirtless guys debating the next WWE pay per view is more credible.

the greatest minds of each generation are always radical thinkers pushing new ideas, not conservatives seeking a return to old ideas.

Yup. Marx, Engels, Hitler, Stalin, ..... they all dared to think new ideas.

the definition of conservative intellectual (one who opposes the total reordering of society based on pure reason) is both too narrow (it would exclude many libertarians who would want to make much bigger changes to society than anything Obama is suggesting)

Since libertarians are not conservatives, intellectual or otherwise, objection dismissed.

A philosopher is not an intellectual so why describe them as such? Philosophy assumes at it's core to not know-- intellectual is one who knows. In relationship to politics the philosopher would not be so dogmatic as to assert being a conservative or intellectual.

If the question is "Can a conservative be smart and offer reasons for his or her beliefs?" then yes. If the question is "Can a conservative also be a person who makes his or her living from ideas?" Then I'm on the fence.

Apparently William Voegeli has penned these words: Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major.

The liberal-art major...hmm isn't that what intellectuals are? Liberal-arts PH.D's? Perhaps Voegeli is at least indicating that it is rare that an intellectual does not take refuge in liberalism.

It goes without saying that conservative intellectuals are just as snobbish as liberal ones. In fact, they sometimes believe that their conservatism comes from being philosophers, or being raised by their Socratic enlightenment above the realm of mere intellectuals.

The issues of the day are way to simple to be convoluted by all of this. One does not need a liberal arts education to know right from wrong. People with 6th grade educations have more sense at times. Look at the people falling for the ponzi schemes. In the convolution I think the people loose track of the basics. We are at a time where we need decent men, not smart or creative. I mean, we have the model to follow, its literaly right there on display all we need are a few people willing to say no to coruption and stand up for what is right. Is executing high political office about any more than saying yes or no when it comes down to it? We just need people who have the courage to against the grain, take the longer road and a hundred more cliches that used to mean something. At this point who cares what this person wants to call himself. He could call himself a neonazi communist, who cares. A bunch of hand wringing about a philosophy that no one even wants to attempt to define is a waste of time. What is modern conservatism? It's nothing but a word and has the same sort of draw that rooting for the Cowboys has. Pick a side and root, just don't expect any sort of principles other than the pursuit of increased power.

All these inescapably intellectual points...but Clint couldn't an intellectual also be a chemist, a physicists, a other words applied ideas, a man who makes a living out of applying his ideas, one who thinks and acts? Or perhaps only a thinker in Theoretical Physics? Or a proffesor?

Maybe intellectuals are snobbish because they use terms and combinations thereof particular to the field in which they have expertise, we think them snobbish because they know things and talk about those things in a language above us. Intellectuals are guildmasters, assholes who protect the status and livelihood they have by being "technical"...

Of course Clint is right that Intellectuals are generally liberal arts Phd's...I once heard an intellectual(continental philosopher) argue that this Categorization is an example of ontological structuring that traces back to Aristotle and the idea that there is a science or art that governs and comprehends all others. So intellectuals are master scientists...Those who claim to understand everything, or like Socrates claim to understand is rather amazing how technical one can get about understanding nothing.

Some folks think Intellectuals snobbish in part because so much time is devoted to questions and very little to clear the spirit of clear answers: The chicken came first, a woodchuck could chuck 2 and a half cords of wood, a tree makes a noise!

You see it is impossible not to be cute around them...but if I could ammend ren-"dention"'s definition of an intellectual I think it would involve the capacity to strike in others by virtue of a new(or old idea well watered) a disposition such that leaving snide comments and off the cuff replies would be impossible.

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