In the following I am going to discuss Pseudo-Intellectuals. There is a danger and a delicacy in talking about this topic. The danger is of course that it becomes a type of name calling. Any person someone disagrees with in the academic world can be labeled a pseudo-intellectual. As a kind of ad hominem it becomes a pseudo-argument like all other forms of that fallacy. It has the appearance of an argument but not the reality. Because of this it is a good example for us as we continue in the study of the “pseudo.” There is also the danger of becoming a pseudo-intellectual while trying to identify them. This leads us to the delicacy. In writing about pseudo-intellectuals the readers can easily wonder if you are speaking about them. This is the wrong approach of course. What we will do in the following is raise our consciousness so that we can better do the work of self-examination. It is taken for granted that no one wants to be a pseudo-intellectual. While we are going to work on identifying what it is to be one, it is up to each of us individually to do the work of self-examination. But enough of dangers and delicacies; we can now get to the subject.
There are already books on the anti-intellectual. But what is the pseudo-intellectual? Pseudo simply means false. So a false intellectual. But what is an intellectual? How can we tell a real or genuine intellectual from a false intellectual? We will need the real thing to make a comparison. The term denotes one who understands. An intellectual is a person who particularly works in the area of understanding. Now, any field of human work requires understanding. One couldn’t build a house or fly an airplane without understanding. But the intellectual is one whose work is in understanding itself. The field is the intellect. For some this might be a temptation toward abstract ideas with little application to the world, and we will look at this as a particular sign of the pseudo-intellectual. The purview of the intellectual is human existence itself. The meaning and purpose of human life. An intellectual might study the non-human, might study physics, chemistry, natural history, but in doing this the intellectual as a human is looking for the meaning to be found in these fields. So the pursuit of the intellectual is understanding and to understand is to find the meaning in the world.
If the intellectual works to uncover the meaning that is in the world then we know that the pseudo-intellectual is someone who only appears to seek and have meaning. We can’t say that the pseudo-intellectual is someone who is merely mistaken about meaning. The pseudo is doing more than making a mistake. The person making a mistake i) can be corrected, and ii) may have various shortcomings or motives that explain the mistake. But in this case the person is still using the intellect in order to make the mistake. By contrast, the pseudo only appears to be using the intellect. And so only appears to have meaning. It is the difference between a mistaken view about what a thing is and the mere appearance, not the reality of a thing.
What is the appearance of meaning without the reality? And who would not know the difference? There is a loss of meaning that comes from the failure to use reason. But there is also a deep need for meaning. One option with the loss of meaning is to recognize one’s failure to use reason and repent or change direction. But the other option is to continue without reason, and therefore without meaning, and to attempt to put something else in its place. There is no comparison between meaning and the mere appearance of meaning so that when the former is presented the latter cannot continue.
I’ve used this term reason and said that it is necessary for understanding and meaning. Reason is defined as the power of the mind to understand. In itself reason is the laws of thought. These laws are necessary to understand anything because they are that by which we make the distinctions necessary for understanding. These laws are identity (a is a), non-contradiction (not both a and non-a), and excluded middle (either a or non-a). Consider how these are each intertwined (they come as a package that reaffirm each other) and revolve around affirming a thing is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t.
If we cannot make any distinctions then we cannot understand. We wouldn’t know how what we are claiming to understand is different from anything else. Or if all distinctions are arbitrary or cultural then they are not getting to something real. They might have been other than they are. Or, perhaps including all of these, if there are no clear distinctions then this includes anything we think or say. It is a kind of self-referential absurdity. If we have abandoned reason then we may not care about contradicting ourselves but it does mean no one else needs to interact with us. This is the lack of integrity and we need to return to that in a moment.
Let us consider some examples of distinctions we make to illustrate our use of reason. We distinguish God from not God. And we distinguish human from not human. And we distinguish good from not good. We may argue about each of these topics but in any such argument we are presupposing reason and the ability to make distinctions. We may disagree about what it is to be a human but this disagreement presupposes that there is something called a human that is distinct from non-humans. The life of the intellectual presupposes reason. And this is an indication for us about what the pseudo-intellectual is doing. To attempt the life of the mind apart from the use of reason is a key feature of the pseudo-intellectual.
There are reasons that the pseudo-intellectual might not use reason. One is that the goal has become persuasion. We find this problem very early on in Greek philosophy with the Sophists. That is almost like naming them the Intellectuals, or those who teach wisdom (sophia). But this art was totally reduced to the skill of persuasion. How do you convince an audience to agree with your opinion? Socrates asked if the truth of the opinion mattered and the Sophists didn’t seem to think so. You could have a false opinion but the thing to do is to convince others to believe it. The two possibilities there are that you know it is false and that you do not know it is false. One is malicious and the other is culpably ignorant. Much could be said about those but for our purposes we will continue with this problem of persuasion.
The goal of mere persuasion lends itself to the use of informal fallacies. These are pseudo-arguments. Just like the pseudo-intellectual may appear to be an intellectual so too these may appear to be arguments. They can have all the outward trappings of an argument. However, they appeal to something besides reason and a sound argument to support their conclusion. Two of the most commonly used are appeal to pity and appeal to fear. One can appeal to pity to abuse the disposition to compassion in the audience and so work on their empathy to get what you want. Or one can appeal to fear either through a threat (this doesn’t work well if you are the one talking to the audience) or through appealing to a threat that everyone is supposed to be afraid of and so getting the audience to do what you want.
The contrast to the use of informal fallacies is the use of reason and argument. There are already good resources about these and I will not be spending time here teaching of their use (see Philosophical Foundations by Surrendra Gangadean). What I do want to highlight here is the role of integrity in distinguishing between the intellectual and the pseudo-intellectual. Integrity is a concern for consistency in what we think, say, and do. The intellectual is one who is saying they are working in the area of the intellect and the goal of that is to understand. Integrity requires being consistent. If what you have is only an opinion then you do not yet understand. Keep working. But do not present yourself as an intellectual who understands when that is not the case. Or, tell your audience this. Say to your audience that you do not understand but you want them to be persuaded of your view in the absence of understanding.
When someone tells us they understand then we expect them to show that they do indeed understand. This is true in any field. You would expect your accountant to not just claim to know how to do your taxes but to show this as well. Your auto mechanic same thing. So we also expect this of someone who claims to have used their intellect to come to truths about God, human nature, and the good. Show it. And it is in the showing it that they either use reason and argument or they rely on an informal fallacy and reveal themselves to us as pseudo-intellectuals.
What role does reason play in the Academy? The reforms that Socrates introduces which made it possible for his student Plato to found the Academy were certainly in response to the psedo-intellectuals called Sophists. They taught things like “man is the measure of all things” or “the just person is the one who has power.” In one way they were denying reason as ontological (applying to being as well as thought). And they were rejecting reason as transcendental (the highest authority). And they didn’t consider reason to be fundamental (not replacing emotions, but fundamental to other aspects of the human personality like emotions and the will). But even if we simply take man as the measure, or power as justice, we can apply reason to these as well to see if meaning has been retained in our opinions. Socrates does this with Thrasymacus in The Republic about justice and power.
But the Academy was not built on a solid foundation. Within a few generations it had adopted what has come to be called Academic Skepticism. Because of Platonic assumptions about the forms and knowledge, Academic Skepticism says that knowledge is not possible. We can work back to those assumptions and rethink them to see where the foundation was not in place. But we still have a kind of Academic Skepticism with us today. Knowledge is not possible only probable or plausible . Or, knowledge is possible about pragmatic matters because they work but not about things like God, human nature, and the good. How did we end up here again?
One way is by switching from the cognitive to the non-cognitive. This can happen subtly. The intellect has to do with the cognitive and with understanding. When you understand a topic you can show that you understand. This is usually done through questions and answer (a dialogue, the Socratic dialogues being one example). When someone objects to the connection between understanding and showing they will usually give non-cognitive examples and you see the switch has been made. The non-cognitive involves the emotions/intuitions and the will/practice. These cannot always be put into propositional form. Art and technology are their own unique domains and cannot be reduced to propositions. But because humans need meaning they also cannot avoid the need for interpretation. As soon as we ask “what does this mean” we are now in the cognitive. The intellect operates with beliefs and these have the form of “God is real” or “God is not real.” We then support such beliefs with premises that also have that kind of form. But the informal fallacies rely on impressions and feelings. Fear, pity, insults, what is popular, authority. This is the switch to the non-cognitive. The pseudo-intellectual is operating in this non-cognitive realm, denying that we can have knowledge in the cognitive realm, and looking to persuade their audience of their opinion.
It is valuable to note the role of love in philosophy. The love of wisdom. Did the Sophists love wisdom? They loved persuasion. But wisdom was not something to be sought if man is the measure of all things. You seek out what you love. I mention this because there are those who might say love is non-cognitive. They may identify it with a feeling or passion. The Greeks famously had different words for different kinds of love. Some Christian authors have picked up on this. What unites them under the term love is its focus on what is good. If love is an intense desire for something (“I love it”) true love is an intense desire for the good. Or true love of another is an intense desire for the good of that other. So we see a good example of how the cognitive and non-cognitive work together and how the cognitive gives direction and interpretation to the non-cognitive. Do you love the good? Do you seek the good? I can imagine someone saying “yes of course.” But the follow up question is: “then show me what is good.” And here we have the true test. Do you understand the good?
There are two possible directions a person will go in their answer. Yes and no. If they say “yes” then this is simply a matter of having them demonstrate what they claim to understand and we can see if they have been presumptuous or not. If they say “no” then again there are two ways this works out. One is to take personal responsibility and confess “I should understand the good but I do not and it is my fault.” With this come consequences especially if the person has put themselves in the place of a public teacher or authority. They will have to confess this to their audience and peers and step back until they understand what they should about the good.
More common is to not take personal responsibility. More common is to blame the good for being too hard to know or even unknowable. Once again this is the Academic Skepticism mentioned above. “I’ve tried to know the good but it is unclear.” This denial of clarity, at the root of the pseudo-intellectual life, trickles all the way down to the foundation. What is good for a thing is based on the nature of that thing. So what is good for a human depends on what it is to be a human. Therefore, to say it is not clear what is good is to say it is not clear what is a human. If we know what it is to be a human then we know what it is good for a human. And it gets worse. Human nature is determined by the Creator of human nature. The claim that it is unclear what is a human is to say that the origin of human nature is unclear. Consider how various theories of origins end up with different views of human nature to make the point (evolutionary, reincarnation, Theistic). To defend the claim that it is unclear what is good the pseudo must then defend the claim that it is unclear what has existed from eternity and is the origin of human nature. Indeed, the pseudo must defend the belief that nothing is clear. We are right back to the idea that all is a matter of opinion and persuasion. Any rally of a defense by saying “but we have statistics, and probabilities, and plausibilities” still falls down on the point that nothing is clear so neither are these.
What does the Pseudo love? Can the Pseudo argue that love is different from non-love? This requires the use of reason. We have the pseudo in focus now. The pseudo has opinions The pseudo might think these are true or might not think that matters. The pseudo attempts to persuade others to agree with those opinions through the use of pseudo arguments. One more thing to add to distinguish the pseudo from someone who simply has opinion is that they claim to be working in the field of the intellect. Theirs is the world of the intellectual. They derive significance from operating and living in that world. Philosophy, literature, history, the arts. This is why the pseudo initially can fool others because they give the appearance of knowing about the field we call the humanities. They have many facts ready at hand. One thinks of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” but applied to the humanities. “I am the very model of a modern university professor.” Or the Apostle Paul in Athens described in Acts 17. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” The appearance of being an intellectual is attained by being able to talk about the latest intellectual fads and being “in the know.”
We spoke above about seeking what we love. This also implies fear. We fear to lose what we love. The love of philosophy comes with the fear of not being wise. And this is because there are consequences either way. There are consequences to being a pseudo intellectual. It might be that the pseudo intellectual denies that there are consequences at least in deed. This is like the Biblical Atheist. This is the one described in Psalm 14; the fool who says there is no god. And the idea isn’t simply a materialist who rejects theism. It is the person who denies God as Creator and Redeemer. It is the person who denies that God acts in the world. And this was there from the beginning in the first Biblical Atheist who said to our first parents “you will not surely die.” In other words “wages of sin is not death.” Or, “there are no consequences, do what you want.”
Fear involves recognizing the consequences. This is why the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. There is awe of God and His works and a sober realization of the consequences in breaking God’s law that are summarized under fear. We are now linking the pseudo and the fool. I know that both of these are pejorative terms and I discussed the danger and delicacy of using them at the beginning. They are not to be used lightly or as insults. They are descriptions of real conditions. Unless someone wants to go so far as to deny these ever exist at all then we need to be able to describe them. The arguments may mostly center around who they denote. But that isn’t our purpose here and it can mainly be avoided if the primary focus is self-examination and repentance as needed.
The fool is one who thinks he knows and does not know. He makes a statement that is both untrue and significant. “There is no god,” or “you will not surely die.” These are significant because of they’re consequences. These are significant because they are demonstrably false. These are significant because we should know they are false. The original temptation was supported by the claim that they could know good and evil as God does. This is an example of denying reason. By reason we know that humans are not God. We know that what has a beginning (a creature) cannot be what is without beginning (the eternal Creator). So the temptation asked them to deny reason and what is clear about God and man.
This is why I mention it here. This has the appearance of knowledge but not the reality and brings the most dire consequences. Although someone may be deceived by a tempter they do not lose their own responsibility because this is an example of culpable ignorance. Anyone can think and know that the creature cannot be or become the Creator. What had a beginning cannot be what had no beginning. So there is the appearance of knowledge (“there is no god”) but not the reality. Any basic use of the intellect could have seen this.
The temptation offers a counterfeit. And really the whole subject of a pseudo-intellectual is about counterfeits. In making a counterfeit one wants to make it appear as real as possible without the expense of being real. A counterfeit has failed if it is so accurate it simply is the real thing. That isn’t a counterfeit. Instead, something of less value is used to appear to be the same as something of more value. In this case we are talking about a counterfeit intellectual. But because understanding requires showing there is test for counterfeits. This is like the marker used to test dollar bills. It is better than that because it cannot be faked. Well aimed questions expose that this counterfeit cannot explain what they supposedly understand.
Here we might introduce the anti-intellectual. These come in various forms. But there are two I want to bring into this current discussion. These are persons who do not themselves want to do the work of the intellect. These can be called the simple. And one way the simple can respond to the pseudo-intellectual is with awe and respect. This is the exact audience that the pseudo wants and can easily persuade and influence. To this type of simple person the pseudo appears like the height of human intellectual work. And this popularity and respect go a far way in the mind of other pseudos to give honor that provides the basis for accepting each other.
The other type of anti-intellectual is less impressed with the pseudo. In fact, this one forms a kind of antinomy with the pseudo and they reinforce each other in their disdain. This anti-intellectual can see through the counterfeit nature of the pseudo but makes the mistake of turning away from all of the intellect. The pseudo is successful in persuading this anti that this is the work of the intellect but this anti has seen through to its valuelessness. The consequence is in reinforcing the anti-intellectual’s rejection of the work of the intellect. This rejection of the intellect is seen by the pseudo used to inflate the pseudo’s own sense of being intellectual.
Some examples will help us illustrate how the pseudo operates. It won’t help for us to name specific beliefs as if they are always held by pseudo-intellectuals. This would give the wrong impression and it would tempt us to stop thinking and instead just look for these beliefs and make the assignation. Rather, the way to proceed here is to show the manner in which a pseudo-intellectual attempts to appear to know while not really knowing. We find this in the use of the informal fallacies as examples of pseudo-arguments. They appear to be arguments in one sense but are not and instead shift to non-cognitive categories like fear or pity. And it is especially this second one that is used by the pseudo-intellectual to advocate for action of some kind.
It often finds its most visible expression in assertions about how to live, what is of value, and causes for activism that are meant to give life significance. And this appearance of significance is what is coupled with the appearance of knowing. The projects of the pseudo-intellectual are put in the language of purpose, dignity, and rights. Perhaps most cherished is love. The goal is to make the world a better place than how you found it. Of course, “better” is precisely what is in contention and in many cases these causes are highly political. But the idea is that the pseudo-intellectual can lecture the rest of humanity on how they ought to live and the causes that count as just.
This is a useful example to begin with because this is the more visible and existential point of contact with the pseudo-intellectual. The pseudo-intellectual relies on the sense of empathy. Empathy involves connecting with the feelings of others. As such it is susceptible to the fallacy of the appeal to pity. Empathy can be misdirected. Empathy is not sufficient to know and do what is just. Empathy is not necessary to know and do what is just. Empathy gives the appearance but not the reality. It is true that there are just causes that should be worked toward. Which ones are they and how should they be worked toward?
What makes this the beginning of examples of the pseudo-intellectual is that it is only the appearance. To have the reality of a just cause one would need to know what is just or what is good. What does it mean to love another? What does it mean to love oneself? Answering these requires showing what is good. Love is seeking the good for another or for oneself. To give the appearance of loving another without showing what is good is not real love.
Answering questions like this is the real use of the intellect. But we will see that when their assertions about what is a just cause are pressed the pseudo quickly turns to skepticism. To know what is just we need to know what is real. Sometimes the pseudo will avoid this by claiming that we don’t need to know what is real to help other people. So again, there is an underlying skepticism about knowledge that quickly comes to the surface. The problem is in knowing if we are actually helping or we only think we are helping.
In wanting to know what is real we are asking what is permanent. When something changes we ask what causes it to change. And when we identify what causes it to change if that also changes we continue our line of questioning. We are looking for what is unchanging, permanent, real. What is real has existed from eternity without beginning. And this is a good example for us as we identify the pseudo-intellectual. Our use of the intellect should get us to what is real. If it does not then we are only at the level of appearances. And this is the level of the pseudo-intellectual. Sometimes the pseudo even states that all is change and nothing is permanent. Undaunted by the self-referentially absurd nature of such a belief the pseudo-intellectual makes it foundation on which the rest of the edifice is built. About what is eternal, this pseudo-intellectual says that nothing has existed from eternity. This can be taken in two ways: one, there was once only nothing and then something came into existence or two, there is an eternal line of temporal beings which itself did not have a beginning. The first one is quickly abandoned as it asserts that something came from nothing or that being came from non-being or existence came from non-existence. The second one is simply the belief that all is change and there has always been change. Change is eternal. Only change is real.
Someone could use the intellect to try and defend this position. The pseudo-intellectual comes into our picture when we analyze that defense. To defend this view with the intellect requires the use of reason. By reason we know that a is a. Being is being and being is not non-being. Being does not come from non-being. This is the use of the intellect to begin to know what is real and what is eternal. The pseudo-intellectual denies that we can use reason to do this. Of course this is not a merely anti-intellectual denial of reason but is given the appearance of intellectualism. Reason is denied to be ontological; reason does not apply to being as well as thought. And reason is denied to be transcendental; reason is not the highest authority instead some other intuition of the pseudo is a higher authority.
This retreat into skepticism under the denial of reason gets us to the essence of the pseudo-intellectual. The denial of reason is the death of the intellect. If one has integrity one would simply acknowledge this. Some have indeed been consistent in this way and made the move to silence. But the pseudo-intellectual wants to both deny reason and still give the appearance of being an intellectual. This is the counterfeit identified above. Without integrity discussion is impossible.
Integrity can be tested. If we have integrity we would know what is clear. We would have actually used our intellect to know rather than only appearing to do so. And if we know then we understand. And if we understand then we can reply to questions and show we understand. We expect anyone who claims to understand to be able to show us that they do really understand. And this applies for the intellectual beginning with the first and most basic things.
We are now at the place where we can distinguish between the reality and only the appearance. If someone is using the intellect then they would know basic things. Even if some were to say they only use the intellect on the very hardest problems, this would mean they are able to very easily use their intellect on these basic matters. To be an intellectual means you use your intellect to know things. To be a pseudo-intellectual means you only give the appearance of using your intellect while not having the reality. And we can take these observations and make this application: if someone is an intellectual, or in the role of a professor or intellectual, then that person should have integrity and be able to show the truth of basic things. These include reason, what is real, and the just life. It is fair to ask people who want us to listen to them these questions; it is our responsibility to do so. In lacking integrity the pseudo-intellectual will not be able to continue discussion but it is a great benefit for all to have this absence of knowledge exposed.
We can now face what is otherwise delicate to raise. Have you been an anti-intellectual? Have you claimed to know when you don’t know? Have you offered yourself as someone who is wise and apologize without the reality of those being present? If so, you can note it, apologize to those you have affected, and begin the work of knowing what is clear about God and the good.
Sometimes this is the explanation of how life makes sense in light of death as the final end of the individual. Or, that this makes sense in light of the absence of God. We can call this first one the “when you’re dead you’re dead” solution and the second one a kind of atheism that might give a nod to God’s existence but denies the power of God to act in this life. The pseudo-intellectual cannot defend these views but says that we do not need to do so we just need to work to help make life better