Intellectual Movements

It feels like people clumped themselves into intellectual movements more 30 years ago than they do today.

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June 8, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

It feels like people clumped themselves into intellectual movements more 30 years ago than they do today. There were paleoconservatives and neoconservatives. There were modernists and postmodernists; liberals, realists, and neoliberals; communitarians and liberation theologians; Jungians and Freudians; Straussians and deconstructionists; feminists and post-feminists; Marxists and democratic socialists. Maybe there were even some transcendentalists, existentialists, pragmatists, agrarians and Gnostics floating around.

Now people seem less likely to gather in intellectual clumps. Now public thinkers seem to be defined more by their academic discipline (economist or evolutionary biologist) or by their topic (race and gender), than by their philosophic school or a shared vision for transforming society.

The forces of individualism that are sweeping through so much of society are also leading to the atomization of intellectual life. Eighty years ago engaged students at City College in New York sat in the cafeteria hour upon hour, debating. The Trotskyites sat in one alcove and the Leninists sat in another, and since the Trostkyites were smarter and won the debates, the leaders of the Leninist faction eventually forbade their cadres from ever talking to them.

But today we live in a start-up culture. There’s great prestige in being the founder of something, the lone entrepreneur who creates something new. Young people who frequently say they don’t want to work in some large organization are certainly not going to want to subsume themselves in some pre-existing intellectual label.

The Internet has changed things, too. Writers used to cluster around magazines that were the hubs of movements. On the Internet, individual posters and tweeters are more distinct, but collectives of thinkers are less common.

The odd thing is that it was easier to come to maturity when there were more well-defined philosophical groups. When there was a choice of self-conscious social movements, a young person could try them on like clothing at the mall: be an existentialist one year and then join a Frankfurt School clique the next. This was a structured way to find a philosophy of life, a way of looking at the world, an identity.

Eventually you found what fit, made a wager, joined a team and assented to a belief system that was already latent within you. When I joined National Review at age 24 I joined a very self-conscious tradition. I was connected to a history of insight and belief; to Edmund Burke and Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham. I wanted to learn everything I could about that tradition — what I accepted and what I rejected — as a way to figure out what I believed.

When you join a movement — whether it is deconstructionist, feminist or Jungian — you join a community, which can sometimes feel like family in ways good and bad. You have a common way of seeing the world, which you want to share with everyone. When you join, people are always pressing books into your hands.

Believing becomes an activity. People in movements take stands, mobilize for common causes, hold conferences, fight and factionalize and build solidarity. (I remember late night at one conference dancing near four generations of anti-communists.)

There are opportunity structures for young people to rise and contribute. First you set out the chairs for the meetings; later you get to lead the meetings. Young people find that none of the mentors is perfect, so they can’t be completely loyal to any particular leader, but they can be loyal to the enterprise as a whole, because it embodies some real truth and is stumbling toward some real good.

The whole process arouses the passions. Today universities teach “critical thinking” — to be detached, skeptical and analytic. Movements are marked by emotion — division and solidarity, victory and defeat.

There are fervent new converts, and traitors who “break ranks.” There are furious debates over strategy; the future design of society is at stake. There are inevitably love affairs and breakups. People learn ardently, with their hearts.

As in any love, there’s an idealistic early phase, then a period of disillusionment, and then, hopefully, a period of longer and more stable commitment to the ideas. The movement shapes one’s inner landscape. It offers a way to clarify the world; a bunch of books to consult if you need to think through some problem.

Of course there is often rigidity and groupthink, but people can also be smarter when thinking in groups. For example, movements pool imagination. It’s very hard to come up with a vision so compelling that it can provide a unifying purpose to your life. But such visions emerge in a movement collectively, and then get crystallized by a leader like Martin Luther King.

It all depends on taking steps that are less in fashion today: committing to a collective, accepting a label, keeping faith, surrendering self to a tradition that stretches beyond you in time.

Adapted from nytimes

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Jack Westin
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18 Comments


  1. individualism increasing, try out different groups + to find identity, movements = passion, movements = identity

    Reply

  2. author is + on collectivistic intellectual movements.
    gives reasons why collectivism is better over individualism.

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  3. MIP: social movements/collective = less common now + had many benefits (emotion, intellect); tone = +

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  4. IM = wider and more organized before + very beneficial for people. Collectivism > individualism.

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  5. MI: Joining a collective is beneficial to an individual and is rarely seen in modern society.

    Reply

  6. MI: Today, people are more inclined to generate their own ideas, and are wary of identifying with or accepting those of a pre-existing group. Author’s tone seems to convey there is something to be lost in the way people are no longer allying themselves with intellectual movements anymore. Despite their drawbacks, author focuses on positives and seems nostalgic, feeling groups have more momentum and that people grow more trying out different philosophies like different flavors.

    Reply

  7. Social movements are not as common as before now. This may be due to a variety of reasons including technological advances in recent years and a variety of pathways for people to follow now which prevents united organizations.

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  8. MIP: new vs old = individualism vs existing schools; old is better.

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  9. MI: The standards for labeling/associating one’s self as a member of a particular intellectual group has changed over the years. A rise in individualism, has resulted in the loss of the traditional process to gain intellectual maturity via association with traditional intellectual group.

    Reply

  10. This passage compares traditional and historical intellectual clumps to the modern individualistic view. Before, people would have constantly changing views and beliefs toward certain ideas until one fit the person. However, now people go by there academic discipline or topic. People now admire the individualist who was able to start something on his own.
    The author however seems to support the old traditional view, and give reasons on why the old intellectual clumps were prominent in providig change in society.

    Reply

  11. Theme: Author talks about how different intellectuals behave today as opposed to 30 years ago. Intellectuals used to aggregate and form movements versus today’s intellectuals who are isolated (detached) and skeptical (less trusting). Author belongs to the older generation and is reminiscing about the past. He hopes that the young people today will heed his advice and return to the days where intellectual movements were the norm (central).

    Intellectuals have more defined specialized roles (atomization of intellectual life) and are recognized for their academic disciplines unlike the past where intellectuals subscribed to schools of thought and collectively had a shared vision for transforming society. Intellectuals today want to pioneer some innovation and they don’t want to be hidden in large organizations and pigeonhole themselves.

    Magazines used to be the nucleus of intellectual movements before the internet age. Today, opinions and perspectives of individuals are more pervasive and collective thinking is less common. (Association)

    Author acknowledges that it is easier for ideals to mature in groups since people could move in and out of groups and find some beliefs that will eventually resonate with them. Author gives personal testimony (know what appeals to him and what doesn’t).

    He feels that movements build solidarity and camaraderie within the group (feel like a family….want to share with everyone….pressing books in your hand…..rise and contribute) and one joins them because they subscribe to certain truths. People who join collectives are part of something bigger than themselves as opposed to being isolated and individualistic (analogy).

    He feels that today’s intellectuals are a product of the current universities that make people individualistic, overly critical and are less driven by emotions. Intellectuals in the past are more fervent in their beliefs and they commit emotionally to their beliefs (fervent new converts….inevitably love affairs and breakups….learn ardently , with their hearts) and allows them to eventually find purpose and meaning (shapes one’s inner landscape…clarify the world….very hard to find a vision so compelling…visions emerge in a movement….crystallized by a leader). Intellectuals in the past were more driven and characterized by emotions.

    Author advises his readers to be different by 1) committing to a collective 2) committing to a collective 3) accept labels 4) keep faith 5) surrender to a cause greater than yourself to transform the society for the better.

    Tone: Nostalgia, encouraging, group identity (fraternity) vs self-identity

    Reply

  12. decrease intellectual clumps BUT they allow for easier maturity, people to rise, and people are better in groups

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  13. MIP: Identifying with a movement leads to benefits like maturity and clarity in life.

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  14. MIP: today there is less intellectual clumping of people into specific intellectual movements/groups. Back then, more intellectual movements lead to easier transition to maturity and finding of self identity, but today that is more difficult.

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  15. Intellectual movements = thing of past; today = start-up culture + lone entrepreneurs EX (internet = change + individualism); movements = group + shapes; process = passions + critical thinking

    Reply

  16. MP: there is a growth toward the development of individual idea (rather than people joining already created ideas groups) and this is good because this is how orgs develop.
    Tone: (+)

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  17. MIP: Joining a movement (beneficial) less common today over today’s unattached, critical thinking society by author

    Reply

  18. IM=less clumped+different based on discipline+more atomized+start-up culture+Internet influence
    IM=easy to switch+community+young to contribute+passion+shape inner landscape
    IM=rigid+group thinking

    Reply

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