john_j_enright (john_j_enright) wrote,

The end of Intellectuals

I skipped to the end of Paul Johnson's book "Intellectuals."

How the last paragraph starts:

"What conclusions should be drawn? Readers will judge for themselves."

Sure. He says that. Before he tells you what his conclusions are. Because he... is... an intellectual too. My dramatic irony detector is beeping.

Penultimate sentence:

"Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first."

What exactly does this mean? Gravity is a concept. Do people come first? Liberty is a concept. How should people get in front of it exactly? Should they push it out of the way, saying, "Hey, get in the back of the line, Liberty, you're just a concept!"?

It's people that have concepts, so I suppose in that sense they do come first. But what worries me about Johnson's aphorism is that he seems close to saying that even true concepts are somehow second to people. Now this "first" and "second" is merely a metaphor of some kind, since concepts and people aren't really in a queue, waiting for service.

Here is what worries me about his advice. It can be understood as endorsing people-pleasing falsehoods.

I'm in favor of people. I am one. But our heads are loaded with concepts and they are the way we grasp reality and get control of it. Concepts, at least the good and true ones, keep us alive.

As I see it, the real point to be drawn from his cautionary tales of misbehaving intellectuals, is to beware of rationalization, the distortion of your own cognitive processes to justify the unjustifiable. Intellectuals are good at coming up with reasons for things, and when they start making them up to salve the sores on their own souls, they do no one good, least of all themselves.

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