The American philosopher Richard Rorty recollected that when he was a teenager he dreamed of being able to read all the great works in his local library and arrive at some grand synthesis of truth from all the wisdom contained therein (for all truth to be circumscribed into one great whole, as it were). and later in his career he (arguably) became something of an apostate from philosophy as he increasingly challenged its ability to do what it claimed to be able to do.
At the risk of being presumptuous, as an undergraduate I fell in love with Rorty in large part because my own journey started tracking his. The big difference, of course, is that as an orthodox Latter-day Saint I do believe in what he would call the “writing in the sky” of absolute truth, but like him I believed that the wisdom of the ages had something to contribute to this grand understanding of capital T Truth, but also like him I later realized that it actually doesn’t do that as much as it claims to. I do intellectual things. I read a lot, I go to a local book club, I enjoy discussions, but as an identity and a structure for life intellectualism is pretty hollow.
During my halcyon undergraduate days my educational philosophy was summed up in the Brigham Young quote (which I still love) “if an Elder shall give us a lecture upon astronomy, chemistry, or geology, our religion embraces it all. … The truth that is in all the arts and sciences forms part of our religion. Faith is no more a part of it than any other true principle of philosophy.” As an undergraduate I spent a significant amount of time taking a variety of classes from different disciplines under the idea that if I read the gospel and synthesized that with great works from other disciplines and eras, then I could really start to draw closer to the mind of God.
Like a lot of faith crises, I can’t pinpoint a moment when I started to “lose my testimony,” as it were, of intellectualism and its ability to respond to my desire for growth and wisdom any more than just living a life structured with basic gospel principles would. Like traditional religion exit narratives, some of the disappointments are from expectations that sophisticated true believers would argue I shouldn’t have had in the first place. Similarly, I can’t say there was one big item that “broke my shelf,” but rather multiple unresolved issues that gradually became more problematic as I became older and more experienced with life.
My gospel testimony shelf is still sturdy. Like Brigham Young, however, I will never say that I will never apostatize, but if I do leave the Church I’m pretty sure that my sense of purpose won’t be based out of anything intellectual or the culture/community of people in the US who identify as intellectual; that shelf collapsed a long time ago for multiple reasons:
1. By their fruits ye shall know them
Like the deacon who sees a failing of his bishop for the first time, a lot of maturing that happens in this life comes down to realizing that everyone is human. Pedestals are useful in certain stages of life, but they all come down eventually, and intellectualism is no exception. As a freshman I thought my ivy-league educated professors were intellectual Gods. Of course, like courting lovers who eventually move in together, as you get closer the cracks in the veneer start to show, and by the time I had my own ivy-league education it was patently obvious that having some fancy letters after your name doesn’t make you an uber-human with wide-ranging wisdom about everything.
Of course, this is one of those expectations that in hindsight was quite silly, and I’m sure my professors, especially my secular ones, would be amused at the idea that I saw them as some kind of high priests and priestesses of capital T Truth (although I noticed among the BYU professors there was a little more of the Dead Poets Society fantasy, probably because of the drive in the Church to connect all truth together; unfortunately, such approaches usually involved professors simply proof-texting restoration scriptures to support the political/social flavor of the month that they picked up in grad school).
However, while both church leaders and academic leaders came off their pedestals, despite their failings I still felt that church leaders had more capital W Wisdom than the average person down the street (in general; I too have the stories when they didn’t…); however, I couldn’t say the same for academics. The English professor made just as many blunders in his personal life as the welder living next to him (if not more). As much as some sectors of the humanities like to extol the idea that reading Shakespeare or the Greek texts in their original language will unlock some deep secret to understanding the human relations or the human condition, I gradually realized I wasn’t seeing much of a correlation between how people were turning out in terms of personal development and whether they knew anything about Kant (and the fact that giants of literature have a tendency to do things like lock themselves in a house for decades at a time doesn’t exactly help the case that they had some special insight into life and meaning).
These are my purely anecdotal observations, so take that as you will, but it affected my belief that intellectualism could be useful for the things that matter in life. Some imply that “great works” studying can serve a similar function as scripture study, but I’ve seen the fruits of scripture study in terms of the spiritual grounding and depth, and while I can only speak for myself, I just didn’t see the same for people who read Foucault, sorry. For every Death of a Salesman real life character showing the hollowness of capitalistic ambition, there’s a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Middlemarch, or Great Divorce real life character that demonstrates the pointlessness of intellectual ambition.
Again, I don’t get the sense that in their in-group discussions humanities academics (or any academic) claim to be providing Wisdom, Truth, or guidance about how to live the good life, but they hint at being able to provide these things whenever they have to defend the value of a humanities degree (now that it’s clear that it is almost useless in terms of financial value beyond its role as a generic “I have a college degree” credential).
2. Intellectualism does not make you generically competent
Gradually I came to realize that specializing in an area just means that you are really knowledgeable in that area. The research on “transfer of learning” is highly debatable, but my reading is that learning a skill in one area does not help your generic abilities as much as one might think. I gradually realized that the mathematics genius doesn’t necessarily have more sophisticated political opinions. (As can be seen in the interesting history of very smart people with very cooky ideas).
Of course, it is wonderful that we have specialists, but being an intellectual in one area doesn’t tap you into a generalizable divine-like wisdom for multiple areas. If you want to be an “intellectual,” that does not give you a right to speak authoritatively on anything that you haven’t actually studied, whether it’s politics, ethics, or social issues; it doesn’t make you some wise uber-human.
3. Intellectualism does not respond to the Big Questions
Saul Bellow famously wrote that “what this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis.” Religion is metaphysically comfortable because we have a five-cent synthesis; for Latter-day Saints the reason for it all can be written on a 3 x 5 card, and I gradually realized that, while libraries are filled with tomes presuming to get us closer to the resolution of the Big Questions and the grand synthesis, that there’s a pretty significant dropoff once you get beyond that 3 x 5 card.
Additionally, it was only as I got into the nitty gritty of academic research that I realized that more often than not the problems at the cutting edge were atomistic, and had been almost completely severed from the foundational Big Questions. As the bumbling intellectual oncologist in the excellent play/movie Wit recognizes, “the problem takes over,” As I interacted with more and more researchers it gradually dawned on me that for many their investigations were essentially Rubik’s cubes. They enjoyed doing the research and solving the problem, but they couldn’t articulate why they enjoyed it, they just got a personal buzz out of solving the puzzle. Rubick’s cubes are fine, but they don’t have any more inherent worth than, say, Tetris or a first-person shooter, and your mastery of that skillset should not give you any more of a sense of superiority than any other innocent game that gives you temporary enjoyment.
Practically specialization is quite useful, and whether they are aware of the why or not researchers (in some fields), are doing society a great service. However, I don’t get the sense that those on the cutting edge of research tend to associate their research with a higher, grand purpose. The latter group are usually quite measured and careful about what their research does and does not speak to; it’s the difference between an actual historian of religion and the exmormon Reddit version of what historians of religion do. Ultimately, the Big Questions about life, meaning, and purpose are for the most part not amenable to scientific (or, as Rorty and I would agree, philosophical) investigations; intellectuals should not claim to be experts in these domains, and for the most part taking upon one’s self the trappings of intellectualism will not get you any closer to higher, transcendent truth.
Even the few scholars who have tried to approach God through the intellectual often eventually put their eggs in the revelation basket. Thomas Aquinas famously quit writing once he had received a very personal numinous experience about God, proclaiming that his attempts to intellectualize theology “was all straw” compared to the vision he had. (Joseph Smith stated that “could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject,” I’d like to think that after spending decades searching for God through the intellect God gave Aquinas his five minutes).
Similarly, after discovering the aptly named “transcendent” numbers, (numbers larger than infinity), religious German mathematician Georg Cantor threw himself into a particular problem only to eventually state that God revealed the answer to him. (Although he also went insane, so I’m not necessarily bearing my testimony of the continuum hypothesis here).
Finally and perhaps most prominently, a mathematician in the running for smartest human ever, Srinivasa Ramanujan, would befuddle his positivist, classically atheist British colleagues by mentioning that he received his ideas through his hometown’s local Hindu Goddess, stating that an equation “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”
These examples do show that at least some aspects of the intellectual venture can move beyond the Rubik’s cube or didactic squabbles and tap into the divine and transcendent. While in this life that is quite rare, my undergraduate fantasy still exists in a way, but now it is set in the hereafter.
Mathematician Paul Erdos, probably the most productive mathematician of all time, would often refer to “The Book,” a book kept by God that had all the most elegant mathematical proofs. I’ve often fantasized of a grand celestial library containing all the great works of all the worlds and all the children of God (along with “The Book”), and wondered what it would be like to read all of them. Joseph Smith wrote that “it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned [the principles of exaltation]. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave”; I can’t help but think that in some corner of the vast celestial library is Rorty, Aquinas, Ramanujan, Cantor, and Erdos are picking up where they left off.