The tyranny of the topical
Lives of the Mind: the use and abuse of intelligence, from Hegel to Wodehouse
Roger Kimball Iv
If there is a right-wing equivalent to the disease of political correctness, it might be called political incorrectness. This consists in asserting the opposite of whatever happens to be fashionable on the left. The politically incorrect like to present themselves as intellectually independent, but they are in fact no closer to genuine independence than the correct. An inverted convention is still a convention. You achieve real independence neither by following nor by bucking fashion, but by ignoring it altogether.
Political incorrectness blights Lives of the Mind, a collection of essays on literary and philosophical figures by the American journalist Roger Kimball. This is a shame, because when Kimball manages to "leave off" he can be a sensitive and perceptive critic. But he never leaves off for long. Kimball is the managing editor of the New Criterion and the author of numerous conservative tracts with titles such as Tenured Radicals: how politics has corrupted our higher education. The depressing atmosphere of the American "culture wars" permeates this book, too. It makes no difference whether the topic is Plutarch, Kierkegaard or Trollope; everything yields to the tyranny of the topical. Tocqueville is pressed into service as a critic of the nanny state; Charles Peguy is used to strike a blow at "the divagations of contemporary literary criticism". Kimball treats his subjects as cannon-fodder; they are conscripted into battles not of their choosing.
Most of the essays collected here are reprints from the New Criterion. This might explain the confidence with which Kimball assumes the agreement of his readers. This confidence is particularly irksome if you happen not to agree. There is a recurrent, presumptuous use of the first person plural. "We are likely to reason," Kimball writes in reference to the famous last sentence of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "[that] if something cannot be put into words, it is probably not worth much attention." Who is the "we" here? It doesn't include this reviewer.
This assumption of a favourable hearing is particularly striking in the essay on Hegel. The no-nonsense strain in Anglo-Saxon thought has always taken it more or less for granted that Hegel was a charlatan. Kimball thus feels himself released from any obligation to discuss his ideas, and instead rehearses a series of cheap jibes. He quotes passages of Hegel followed by exclamations such as: "Gee . . . 'Science' eh? . . . Which leaves us - where? . . . All of which means - what?" This is an easy game to play. Any passage of difficult early 19th-century philosophy, translated from another language and quoted out of context, may well appear gobbledegook to an uninformed, early 21st-century reader. But that doesn't mean it is gobbledegook. Kimball knows this; he is simply playing to the gallery. He knows that the intellectual vanity of his readers will be wounded by a piece of writing they don't understand, and that they will accept with gratitude an explanation to the effect that there is nothing there to be understood. There ought to be a name for this rhetorical strategy. It is an old stock-in-trade of right-wing populism.
Kimball is "perfectly happy to acknowledge that Hegel was a genius". This is at first sight surprising. But in Kimball's lexicon, "genius" is by no means a term of praise. He quotes Bagehot: "In the faculty of writing nonsense, stupidity is no match for genius." Lives of the Mind shares the anti-intellectualism characteristic not so much of American as of English conservatism. Its aim is, as the blurb puts it, to show "what happens when intellect trumps common sense, and how an affirmation of shared values and ordinary reality can rescue us from the temptations of the higher stupidity".
The notion of common sense - a pre-theoretical understanding of the world, invariant throughout time and space - here plays a central role. It functions, as it were, as the touchstone against which the speculations of intellectuals must be tested. But I remain unconvinced that common sense is anything more than the unconscious residue of doctrines whose origin has been forgotten. If it is held today as a matter of "common sense" that women should have the same rights as men and that there is no such substance as the soul, this is only because we are the beneficiaries of 400 years of highly intellectual debate on precisely these questions. All intellectual progress, not least in science, has sprung from a revolt against the common sense of the age. Galileo's law of inertia, according to which moving bodies continue in movement for ever unless they encounter resistance, is not a deliverance of common sense but an achievement of pure intellectual speculation. The "use of intelligence", according to Kimball, is limited to the registration of what is already there. He misses there-by its real achievement, which is the opening up of regions of reality never previously dreamt of.
Edward Skidelsky is an NS lead reviewer