02/05/19: The Challenged Intellectual (BMG)

The Challenged Intellectual. New Struggles for Recognition


From Agenda (2 May 2019), our own Bianca Mazzinghi Gori discusses a hot topic: what happens if populism is interpreted as a disguised demand for a more inclusive honour code?

We offer here a translation of the original article (in Italian).

In Aristophanes’ Clouds, a major theme is represented by the clash between (on the one hand) the common people’s mind-set, depicted as dumb and insular but firmly rooted in common sense, and (on the other) the sophists’ refined and artificial culture. In the version of the play that has been transmitted to us, the final scene contains the rebellion of the boorish farmer Strepsiades against Socrates, taken as a symbol of the whole class of intellectuals. Such a mistrust of ‘experts’ very probably mirrored the actual state of affairs in 5th- and 4th-century Athens, as can be inferred from the fact that orators always took pains to disclaim their professional training in rhetoric.

 A similar lack of trust is not, however, a feature of Antiquity alone. On the contrary, it is gaining more and more attention as one of the paramount features of the current political climate. Many contemporary populist movements exhibit a sharp criticism towards intellectuals and science in general. In the USA, Trump’s populistic personalism rests among the other things on a stark denial of science, with regard especially to climate change. Several European parties have recently embraced the anti-vaccination movement: in Poland, for instance, members of the anti-establishment political association Kukiz’15 have publicly associated themselves with this cause.

The Italian philosopher Fabio Gironi has synthesized the phenomenon in the coinage ‘deflation of epistemic authority’: interviewing other experts in epistemology, his article on the topic usefully elucidates some of its central characteristics. Epistemic authority is currently perceived as the elitist enemy of the increasingly widespread assumption that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’. According in particular to Maria Baghramian, moreover, a short circuit is taking place between epistemology and politics: by replacing knowledge with opinions, we are losing awareness of the ‘normative component’ that balanced knowledge and political power.

Notwithstanding the symptoms of this phenomenon, however, it is necessary to acknowledge how current the opposite tendency of meritocracy still is. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has rightly pointed out how close our society is to the dystopic scenario depicted by the sociologist and politician Michael Young in his novel The Rise of Meritocracy, published in 1958 (a comment on Appiah’s article by Mirko Canevaro can be found in our blog). In the society portrayed by Young, power and wealth are allotted according to merit, determined through the sum of IQ plus effort. Although this principle might sound reasonable at first, the result that Young forecasted was not positive: the ‘deserving’, gaining wealth and power, are well-endowed with all the necessary means to assure their children’s success and make them ‘deserving’ too. Conversely, children born from ‘undeserving’ parents are destined to a social, economic, and cultural disadvantage. Two neatly demarcated classes are thus progressively formed, with a stark inequality in terms of power and wealth.

As Appiah has suggested, it is easy to see the resemblance between Young’s dystopia and our own world, where eight-figure fortunes are represented as signs of an extraordinary competence, with respect especially to potential political abilities. Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi are the textbook examples of entrepreneurs who later enter politics. Personalities like these often elicit admiration and reverence, as if wealth were the proof of excellence in all things. As a matter of fact, if all the implicit links between wealth and merit are mapped, a whole ideological map can be outlined upon which our society is pervasively structured. In Appiah’s words, meritocracy is an essential part of our ‘honour code’. Just as in Young’s scenario, furthermore, meritocracy fosters a reinforcement of the current social boundaries in our society as well, making the rich more and more powerful by virtue of their alleged ‘merit’, and increasing the poor’s powerlessness.

How is it possible to take into account both the meritocratic ideology underlying our socio-economic structure and the crumbling of expert authority? On the common assumptions about meritocracy, there should be not great differences between a successful entrepreneur and an accomplished scientist. However, the two categories are now receiving opposite responses from the public. Their standings are now perceived as belonging to two completely separate dimensions. The issue at stake here is the difference between two different kinds of success, one tied to material commodities and the other rooted in academic study and knowledge.

In order to grasp the core of the current revolt against intellectuals, it is first of all necessary to acknowledge and explain the fact that meritocratic ideology is still very much operative towards those who achieve success in business. A closer look reveals that the clincher here is the perceived attitude towards one’s needs and expectations. The members of the elite who owe their fortunes to trade and enterprise are supposed to look for material well-being, whereas the path undertaken by the intellectual part of the elite seems to go in a different direction, being based in lifelong studying and training. It is obviously the former that most aligns with the prevailing needs and desires of common people, wrestling with increasing socio-economic difficulties.

Vis-à-vis the two halves of the ruling class, people necessarily tend to favour those who apparently comprehend their fundamental needs. Intellectuals usually fail to show any ability to understand them: indeed, they tend to speak very abstractly and often conclude by telling laypeople what to consider right and wrong and what to do.

Businessmen, by contrast, are perfectly capable of giving comprehensible and direct answers, however brutal and simplistic – especially when they aspire to enter the political arena. The message that intellectuals wittingly or unwittingly convey is ‘you are not like me’; conversely, the typical businessman takes pains to declare in every possible occasion ‘I am just like you’. There cannot be much doubt about which of the two is the winning strategy.

In the eyes of the intellectuals, the people’s behaviour is irrational and condemnable. If this state of affairs is to be fixed, however, a solution will only be found through new general interpretative frameworks. Contrary to a shared perception, the rejection of the moral values promoted by intellectuals, such as solidarity and humanitarianism, does not necessarily entail the absence in the people at large of any equivalent moral values. This would be true if only one paradigm of justice existed, but this is probably not the most sensible or helpful assumption. A new light can be shed on the issue if a different framework is adopted, a model whose key feature is the plurality of ideals of distributive justice.

According to this frame, each different ideal divides the society into two groups, the ‘equal’ vs. the ‘unequal’. The former are entitled to honour, power, and wealth, while the latter are denied any privilege. Aristotle had already relied on this model to analyse social conflicts. In his Politics he wrote: “justice seems to consist in equality, and it is so, not for everyone, however, but only for the equal. Justice seems to consist in differences as well, and it is so; not for everyone, however, but only for the unequal”. In the wake of nationalist souverainisms, the lower classes tend to exclude from the ‘equality-zone’ those who are seeking fortune in their country from a poorer area. Yet it is doubtful whether intellectuals are immune to similar forms of compartmentalisation: are they not especially prone to dividing the world into their own part and the bad part of the ignorant?

As a matter of fact, intellectuals often take it for granted that some people are irredeemably incapable of engaging in rational debate. And so they do not even give them a real opportunity to try. It is important to pinpoint the nature of this ignorance as a moral state. The good but uncultivated man will always elicit the intellectuals’ approval by confirming their moral values with his simple actions. Rather, the label of ‘ignorant’ mainly applies to those who defy the intellectuals’ ethical paradigm. However, by rejecting anyone who does not share exactly the same paradigm, the intelligentsia is eventually bound to fall into a solipsistic echo-chamber.  A vicious circle is thus engendered. People feel less and less listened to and respected, and therefore they lose faith in the elite. The elite increasingly distance themselves from them by hiding out in their ivory tower, in an attempt to stay as close as possible to the pinnacle of moral perfection.

Dismissing the claims of the lower classes as morally deviant, however, neither solves the problem nor has strong theoretical grounds from the perspective of social psychology. Philosopher Axel Honneth’s theses radically undermine this condemnatory attitude. In his Kampf um Anerkennung (1992), Honneth suggests a conception of human identity and of interpersonal relationships as centring on intersubjective recognition. In the light of this premise, the author analyses conflict as an expression of moral demands – in other words, as a struggle for recognition. Distancing himself from the strictly materialist trend of the Frankfurt School, Honneth challenges the notion that social conflicts stem from mere inequalities of wealth and material resources. In such phenomena, a moral problem is often to be acknowledged, even when material claims conceal it and the people involved are themselves not conscious of its role. The intrinsically moral nature of social struggle can be made evident also by considering the situations in which victims are not aware of their victimhood: as in Young’s meritocratic dystopia, the poor will not rebel as long as they are convinced of the meritocratic ‘justice’ of current dispensations.

If the conflict between ordinary people and the intellectual elite is also to be seen as a moral conflict, what does that imply on a descriptive and prescriptive level? The first conclusion to be drawn is that both parties are acting in accordance with a certain moral perspective, though it differs in each case. While intellectuals expressly fight for (their ideas of) justice, as far as the opposite party is concerned this aspect is generally overlooked. Acknowledging it, however, enables us to see that the lower classes’ attitudes imply the principle that they are entitled to be heard by the elite. In other words, they are challenging the distinction drawn by intellectuals of enlightened vs ignorant people.

If intellectual elites want to face this challenge, the prescriptive conclusions that come from this analysis are pretty clear. First of all, elites should reflect critically on their condemnation of the ignorant. Instead, they should strive to offer people what they have failed to give them so far, namely recognition. This is not to say that they should approve of the extreme political and ideological stances to which laypeople subscribe. Rather, it means that those who are in a position to understand the complexity of the circumstances also bear a responsibility to answer others’ needs, lest populism give them its own answers. In conclusion, it is helpful to underscore the gist of Honneth’s theories: realising that our identities and our values are embedded in intersubjectivity might be the key finally to open the door of the ivory tower.


Bianca Mazzinghi Gori

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