Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lessons of the masters

The French expression, maître à penser, has no English equivalent. A 'thinking master' is what I have always wanted and never found. Perhaps wisdom is unstable and only exists fleetingly in an action here or a thought there. A strange thing, the desire for discipleship (to be a disciple - not to have them). It may reveal deep psychological flaws, but I think not. In my case it reflects simply a combination of a desire to know and a certain laziness. (Why should I do all the work?)

Some years ago, George Steiner gave a series of lectures (which became a book*) on the topic of masters and disciples. Most of the relationships he describes end badly, by the way, not unlike love affairs.

The lessons I have learned from my hoped-for masters have pretty well all been negative, and the thinkers I have flirted with have all been seriously flawed in one way or another. Arts and humanities-oriented writers and scholars are too often ignorant or (worse) scornful of scientific knowledge. Scientists and mathematicians, on the other hand, are often amazingly uncritical in non-scientific areas, and especially in social and political contexts.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that politics works as it does, catering to the lowest common denominator, that legislators lack vision or that government debt is spiraling out of control in so many jurisdictions.

But I continue to be amazed when intellectuals - as happens all too often - align themselves with religions or discredited ideologies - the desire for discipleship trumping the desire for truth.

* Lessons of the masters (Harvard University Press, 2003).


  1. "Arts and humanities-oriented writers and scholars are too often ignorant or (worse) scornful of scientific knowledge. Scientists and mathematicians, on the other hand, are often amazingly uncritical in non-scientific areas, and especially in social and political contexts."

    This has been my experience as well. Even polymaths like Sagan were unreliable on politics. His view of military spending was (at least at one point in his life) a veritable set piece of wishful thinking.

    I don't know if you can get the American conservative radio talk shows by Michael Medved and Dennis Prager, but they should be available via podcast. Anyway, Medved believes in Bigfoot, Prager in psychic phenomena.

    I adored Bertrand Russell until I learned about his politics (worse than naive). How could someone so wise about so many things be that foolish about others? Later still I found out about his treatment of women. He was a standard cad, for all his philosophy.

    Interestingly, in a speech late in his life, Sagan urged his audience to dispense with heroes: "They're gone!" I like to think it was a species of humility, some sense of his own limitations.

    I am accustomed to thinking of the skeptical conservative's frustration as a matter of having no (or just a very small) tribe. Your point, that there is a dearth of mentors, is a fresh frustration.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Government programs funded by taxpayers for the benefit of all citizens
    Public Education K-12
    State College System
    Community Colleges
    Social Security
    Police Departments
    Fire Departments
    Civil Services Such as Park and Forest
    National Defense System – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard
    National Guard
    The Government Itself on National,
    State and Local Levels Including Federal and State Depts of:
    U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security
    U.S. Mint
    Secret Service
    U.S. Highways System
    International and Municipal Airports
    Municipal Waste Water Removal Systems
    Municipal Garbage Pick Ups
    Science Centers
    The Smithsonian
    Library Of Congress
    National Institutes Of Health
    Animal Control (Police/Sheriff’s Department)
    Patent, Copyright and Trademark Protections
    Other Intellectual Property Protections
    Government Farm Program That Pays
    Me To Not Grow Crops
    Subsidized Water For Big Ag In California
    That Flows Through The State Water
    Project and Federal Central Valley Project
    US Army Corps Of Engineers
    Justice System Including Sheriff’s Department, District Attorneys, Public Defenders, City Attorneys, County Counsels
    Unemployment Insurance
    Workers’ Compensation Insurance
    Disability Insurance
    Minimum Wage
    Eight-Hour Days
    40-Hour Weeks
    Overtime Pay
    Welfare For The Poor
    OSHA -- Workplace Safety Standards
    Workplace Benefits:
    Sick Leave
    Vacation Leave
    Unpaid Family Leave
    Overtime Pay
    Child Labor Laws

    Which would YOU get rid of?

  4. I'd get rid of irrelevant comments.

  5. It might be rather that we have too many mentors. We have so many sources of ideas, and so many new books, not to mention films, the net, and other media -- the problem is to sift through them without going nuts.

    In the ancient world, philosophers learned a craft, and mostly built on the work of their predecessors. This may be still largely true today in the sciences. Outside the sciences there is no agreement on method, so we have to make it all up as we go along. This makes good philosophy more necessary, but it also makes it look more useless, because less successful.

    It's a problem.

  6. Alan, I agree that the proliferation of ideas, information, etc. can be - is, in many respects - a major problem, but I don't know if this means we have too many intellectual mentors. In general the information is fragmented and variously sourced - not taken from a trusted person, a 'thinking master'.

    I know you are using the word 'mentor' loosely ("too many mentors"). And I think we would agree that there is a need for intellectual guides. My point is simply that I have been disappointed in my search for one, and I am asking why this is. Am I expecting too much? Do other people feel this need?

  7. I think we may be at least half in agreement. You didn't say that you had not found any mentors, only that those you had found turned out to be seriously flawed. So perhaps you learned something from them and then moved on, which seems healthy to me. In my experience, we have to think our way through many ideas to find the few that seem to have lasting value, which may or may not be the ones we started from.