Two Kinds of Intellectuals

I think it wouldn’t be too controversial to divide the world into intellectuals and non-intellectuals. Sure, it’s a bit of an inexact distinction, with a fuzzy boundary, and it can be too easy to read it as carrying with it some sort of normative weight, as though non-intellectuals are less good or less admirable than intellectuals. I certainly don’t mean to set up any sort of a hierarchy of value like that, and I can concede without any difficulty the existence of liminal cases. I think it’s still a helpful and meaningful distinction.

The “intellectuals” group, I think, can likewise be divided in two. This is probably less uncontroversial, but here we go.

Among intellectuals, there are the puzzle-solvers, and there are what we might call world-solvers. The latter group is very rare, though it is worthwhile to note that a great many who belong to the former group believe they reside in the latter — still, it shouldn’t generally be difficult to spot the difference between the fakes and the genuine article, with a little digging.

(Once again, this is overgeneral and inexact as a division, and yet still perhaps helpful.)

Puzzle-solvers do great good. They derive intellectual pleasure from the activity of coming to understand some perplexing problem better than they ever have before, perhaps better than anyone ever has before. They often yearn for the recognition and celebration that comes with success in such a venture. They find joy when their discoveries make the world a better place in some particular, practical way, even if only for a very few people.

Most intellectuals are problem-solvers of that sort. The world-solvers are more rare, and most of those who aim at world-solving never complete the necessary training, either giving up or passing away before they are close to being able to engage competently in their chosen field.

To be a world-solver is to have understood the causes and mechanisms and outcomes of the world we live in, and to be able to compare this world against the best world and the better worlds. The first step to becoming a world-solver is finding the right vantage point. Every field thinks it gives access to the ultimate truth (or as close as we can get), but each is also deficient if it can’t learn from the others, and so there is an element of interdisciplinarity that’s necessary for this vantage point. Once having reached this point and spanned the relevant disciplines, there is the need to secure sufficient breadth and depth of understanding in all of them. This is a long and slow and lonely path. At some point, though, it begins to be possible to understand the world in a way that few people, even few intellectuals, ever can.

I am certainly not yet at (or close to) such a point myself, but it seems like a worthy dream to strive toward.

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