November 28, 2008

The Dumbest Generation?

Ashok always manages to provoke and challenge me- and a recent post on whether we are the dumbest generation ever has managed to do exactly that. You see in one sense when he describes what it is to be truly interested in intellectual subjects he is entirely right- it is the challenge of realising that you are ignorant and attempting to do something about that ignorance that is at the centre of any proper intellectual life. When I look at history and see the amount of subjects that Hobbes, Newton, Aristotle, Plato, Marie Curie and the rest got wrong, that does not put me in a position to exalt myself above them but rather humbles me: they all thought they were right, so do I but have I any more warrent to say I am than they did? The quest for understanding is a never ending one- and it is one that we all follow to the best of our abilities and with reference to our own interests. The key thing though is that that journey is one that we may never succeed in finishing. I remember once being told the story of a historian interviewed for a post at an English university who was asked 'you have always said your life is a pilgrimage where are you going?', to which the wise don replied 'Pilgrimage comes from peregrinatio (Latin: to go about), the point is not to arrive, the point is to travel'. I agree with him.

So where do I disagree with Ashok. Well its this. It is far too easy to go from the realisation that noone in the modern world knows everything- to the discovery that there are some who are not concerned with knowledge- to the idea that things have never been this bad. I'm not sure that is true. Simply empirically, there are more people who are literate today than there ever were in the past. There are more people with degrees than there ever were in the past. Ashok may reply- ah but are they thinking. The problem with that is that it is a highly subjective judgement- I do not know about the comparative rate of deep thought today and in the 17th Century (and if I don't know, I suspect Ashok doesn't either!) What I do know is that as I travel to work on the London tube every morning I see the normal awful tabloids and multicoloured books- but I also see people reading Henry James (Tuesday morning), Umberto Eco (Wednesday) and Jose Saramango (today). I can't tell you how they are reading those texts but I can tell you they are- and I can tell you that more people are reading those kind of things than they did in the comparatively recent past (just go back 200 years and think about what the average person read then!)

So whilst I agree with Ashok's high aspirations about the intellectual life- I do not agree that the world today is less intellectual than it was in the past. Indeed I think it may be as much or more intellectual. There are more people who have access to this stuff- there are more people going to read, to the theatre, to the cinema and those people travel and meet other people more. This is not a utopian vision- obviously there are ways in which our society is not and maybe should not be a society of philosopher citizens- but its far from the dumbest society ever.


Georg said...

First I have to find out who Ashok is. Nothing to do with Ashoka, I suppose.


Ashok said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the link! It is very much appreciated.

Gracchi said...

Ashok is another blogger- good guy and writes mostly about philosophy and poetry. I don't always agree with him but he is the kind of person whose views are always intelligent and provocative.

Ashok not a problem!