Great minds and ignoble deeds

It is appalling to read about philosophers sexually harassing/assaulting vulnerable people, but is it surprising? An article in yesterday’s New York Times argues that we should not expect better.

The life of an intellectual, Mr. Ignatieff [Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic-cum-politician] claims, provides a petri dish for the universal human experiment of thinking, being and doing. It’s a lovely idea. The trouble is that intellectuals seem no better at it than anyone else. They often think great thoughts, while being ignoble characters. Maybe Mill and Berlin and John Dewey were noble characters. But Marx was a serial adulterer, Karl Popper was a pompous narcissist, and Heidegger was a fascist. Elite thinkers, maybe: but as amateurish humans as the rest of us.

I’m not so sure, but there are a lot of issues that need clarification before we’re in a good position to accept or reject the article. Still, there are some points we can make. Great achievements typically require concentration and caring. The idea of caring that extends to what one says and not at all to what one does is puzzling. One expects a great scientist to care very much about the truth of his words. But then what does that care look like if it allows lying in letters of reference to reward sexual compliance?

And isn’t philosophy, at least when it is about human life, different? On the other hand, maybe moral behavior requires more than morally apt thinking. For example, perhaps a capacity for empathy. And a love of truth in one area may co-exist with a capacity for self-deception that enables a lot of borrowing from others. E.g., plagarism.

Perhaps, then, we need to recognize that there are many character flaws that can disconnect behavior from thought. I myself would still, at least at this point in time, like to think that at least for some areas really vicious behavior will mean one does not have the capacity for some great intellectual tasks. But is that really true?

What do you think?

A remarkable example of disconnect was explained recently by Bob Dylan. I thought of him as the voice (or a voice) of a generation of protestors. But, as he has said, that’s not at all what he was doing. He was just a musician. So where did those wonderfully apposite lyrics come from? It was, he says, simply magic.

In fact, many people report a similar experience (I think). As Feymann put it, suddenly boom, boom, the answer is there. Ownership may seem tenuous, and connection with character very problematic.

3 thoughts on “Great minds and ignoble deeds

  1. You bring up two interesting examples, since neither Dylan nor Feynman–while both, in their own ways, geniuses–were not admirable people.

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