Three Types of General Thinkers

Ours is an era of rising ideological fervor, moving toward something like the Chinese cultural revolution, with elements of both religious revival and witch hunt repression. While good things may come of this, we risk exaggeration races, wherein people try to outdo themselves to show loyalty via ever more extreme and implausible claims, policies, and witch indicators.

One robust check on such exaggeration races could be a healthy community of intellectual generalists. Smart thoughtful people who are widely respected on many topics, who can clearly see the exaggerations, see that others of their calibre also see them, and who crave such associates’ respect enough to then call out those exaggerations. Like the child who said the emperor wore no clothes.

So are our generalists up to this challenge? As such communities matter to us for this and many other reasons, let us consider more who they are and how they are organized. I see three kinds of intellectual generalists: philosophers, polymaths, and public intellectuals.

Public intellectuals seem easiest to analyze. Compared to other intellectuals, these mix with and are selected more by a wider public and a wider world of elites, and thus pander more to such groups. They less use specialized intellectual tools or language, their arguments are shorter and simpler, they impress more via status, eloquent language, and cultural references, and they must speak primarily to the topics currently in public talk fashion.

Professional philosophers, in contrast, focus more on pleasing each other than a wider world. Compared to public intellectuals, they are more willing to use specialized language for particular topics, to develop intricate arguments, and to participate in back and forth debates. As the habits and tools that they learn can be applied to a pretty wide range of topics, philosophers are in that sense generalists.

But philosophers are also very tied to their particular history. More so than in other disciplines, particular historical philosophers are revered as heroes and models. Frequent readings and discussions of their classic texts pushes philosophers to try to retain their words, concepts, positions, arguments, and analysis styles.

As I use the term, polymaths are intellectuals who meet the usual qualifications to be seen as expert in many different intellectual disciplines. For example, they may publish in discipline-specific venues for many disciplines. More points for a wider range of disciplines, and for intellectual projects that combine expertise from multiple disciplines. Learning and integrating many diverse disciplines can force them to generalize from discipline specific insights.

Such polymaths tend less to write off topics as beyond the scope of their expertise. But they also just write less about everything, as our society offers far fewer homes to polymaths than to philosophers or public intellectuals. They must mostly survive on the edge of particular disciplines, or as unusually-expert public intellectuals.

If the disciplines that specialize in thinking about X tend to have the best tools and analysis styles for thinking about X, then we should prefer to support and listen to polymaths, compared to other types of generalist intellectuals. But until we manage to fund them better, they are rarely available to hear from.

Public intellectuals have the big advantage that they can better get the larger world to listen to their advice. And while philosophers suffer their historical baggage, they have the big advantage of stable funding and freedoms to think about non-fashionable topics, to consider complex arguments, and to pander less to the public or elites.

Aside from more support for polymaths, I’d prefer public intellectuals to focus more on impressing each other, instead of wider publics or elites. And I’d rather they tried to impress each other more with arguments, than with their eliteness and culture references. As for philosophers, I’d rather that they paid less homage to their heritage, and instead more adopted the intellectual styles and habits that are now common across most other disciples. The way polymaths do. I don’t want to cut all differences, but some cuts seem wise.

As to whether any of these groups will effectively call out the exaggerations of the coming era of ideological fervor, I alas have grave doubts.

I wrote this post as my Christmas present to Tyler Cowen; this topic was the closest I could manage to the topic he requested.

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