Intellectual work

It is interesting to think about the work that intellectuals do. Basically, they take on thought problems — what is justice? How does a market economy work? Why do used cars sell for less than their real value? They gather the theories and hypotheses that they have encountered and studied. They look for a new avenue of approach to the problem. They make use of styles of analysis and reasoning they have acquired during their development and education. And they formulate and develop their own attempts at a solution to a problem.
There are some intellectuals — Descartes, for example — who present themselves as starting de novo; framing a problem in purely abstract, logical terms, and addressing it through first principles alone.  Possibly the philosopher mathematician Gottlob Frege falls in this category as well.  He asked, “What are the foundations of arithmetic?” And he presented a constructive logical account of how the truths of arithmetic can be derived from a small set of axioms.  So these thinkers pretend to a “pure thought” approach to intellectual work.  But in fact, this claim doesn’t hold up even in these cases.  Both Descartes and Frege existed within traditions of thought; the questions they posed had historical roots, and the methods they use were historically conditioned as well.

The diagram above represents a stylized description of intellectual work: influences, an embodied cognitive framework (“skill”), important elements of originality, and a product.  The diagram also provides, at the bottom, a highly incomplete inventory of some of the ways in which intellectuals proceed in their work: extending and transforming existing frameworks, introducing novel elements, crossing intellectual domains, and bringing ideas into the public arena.

This puts intellectual work into a certain kind of frame: tradition and influences; problem formulations; invention and creativity; and a new intellectual product — a theory of justice, a theory of general equilibrium, a market for lemons.  It is “work” in the Marxian sense: it begins with certain materials; the materials are shaped and transformed according to the skills and plans of the worker; the worker’s skills are themselves an historical product; and the results reflect both tradition and creativity.

This analysis doesn’t cover every kind of intellectual work; it doesn’t fit the creation of literature, for example. But it seems to fit philosophy, social theory, the early parts of the natural sciences, and even theology.

To the extent this scheme fits an area of thought, we can then address the question of a particular thinker’s contributions from several angles: looking for influences, looking for specific modes of thinking, looking for flashes of genuine originality, and looking at finished theories. In other words, we can think of the task of intellectual biography through the lens of this analysis of the mature thinker’s work, and the arc of development that can be perceived in his/her lifetime corpus.

So, for the individual intellectual, we can ask questions at various points of entry.  First, can we say what some of this thinker’s fundamental cognitive assumptions are.  Can we identify the modes of investigation, analysis, and reasoning that he/she pursued?  Second, can we trace backwards to some of the difference-making influences that shaped the intellectual’s agenda?  What was the tradition of thought into which he/she was introduced through early reading and education?  Who were some of the charismatic individuals who helped this intellectual to establish a perspective and an intellectual framework?  Third, what can we discover internally to the corpus?  Is there a visible evolution of thought over time?  Are there ideas and assumptions that give the corpus coherence from beginning to end?  Can the corpus be reformulated into a consistent and innovative approach to a large set of problems?

Several books recently discussed in other postings are relevant to this question of the development of an intellectual.  One is Clifford Geertz’s autobiographical essay in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics.  Another is the biographical essay of John Rawls provided by Tom Pogge in John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice.  Geertz highlights many of the categories mentioned here: exposure to a few influential figures in his undergraduate years, the experience of World War II, his exposure to Indonesia as a graduate student, …  Geertz’s work is highly original; nonetheless, we can go some ways towards teasing out some of the ways that his mature perspectives were influenced by his educational and personal experiences.  And likewise, Pogge’s essay on Rawls’s development as a child, youth, and adult sheds a very interesting light on Rawls’s intellectual style as a mature philosopher.


One response

  1. If we compare those thinkers thousands of years ago with the contemporary scientists, we might have another understanding of originality of knowledge. Laws of society is similar to laws of nature in terms of its complexity. Nobody knows the percentage of laws we have discovered of nature, nor of society. But something more and more astonishing to me is that many laws of society and solutions to social conflicts that are concluded by ancient Chinese thinkers still work today, although at that time their research method is probably observation only. Before scientific research studies, their conclusions are opinions. But if you take what happened in human history as a series of experiments. Their conclusions have been supported by the results of those experiments for several thousand years. The only advantage we have now is that we have much more delicate research tools than they had. So we should be able to enlarge their scope and depth of findings on laws of society.

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