The Collective Imbecile

An essay from The Collective Imbecile
by Olavo de Carvalho

The success of Richard Rorty in Brazil might seem strange, as local intellectuality is mainly of Marxist extraction and would have every reason to reject pragmatism as a capitalistic ideology. But the stage was already set for the arrival of Rorty in Brazil by three decades of Gramscian hegemony. Gramsci, the most influential Marxist theorist in Brazil, was not a pure-breed Marxist, but a mixture of Marxist and pragmatist, of the lineage of his master Antonio Labriola. Labriola not only agrees with pragmatism in general terms, but in particular, in a significant coincidence, his Philosophy of History is identical to Richard Rorty’s in a point where both are in evident disagreement with Karl Marx: they both deny that History has a “meaning”. This denial is obviously inconsistent with the ideology of “progress” which is intrinsic to Marxism.

The sudden interest shown by progressive intellectuals in philosophies that deny the meaning of History clearly stems from the depressive feeling that followed the failure of international communism. Not capable of restraining themselves to the optimistic vision of communism, they sought refuge in an ideology close at hand, one capable of explaining the apparently absurd course of History without forcing them to a rupture with the atheistic and materialistic basis of Marxism. With this aim, some strove to ransack and recover old materialistic theories that Marxism itself believed to have absorbed and overcome. Others sought to reconcile themselves with “bourgeois” materialistic currents, like the analytical philosophy of Russel and Wittgenstein (who were widely read in Brazil during the 1980’s), and, naturally, with pragmatism. First there was the fashion of Charles Sanders Peirce, a fifth-class philosopher, who was venerated as an icon in some Brazilian university circles. But the best actually came with Rorty, whose similarities with Gramsci make him irresistible to the eyes of local intellectuals.

The most significant of these similarities is the denial of objective knowledge and the consequent reduction of intellectual activity to propaganda and conscience manipulation. Both Gramsci and Rorty deny that human knowledge may describe the real, and both declare that the only objective of our cultural and scientific efforts is to express collective desires. Also, for both of them, there are no universal concepts, nor universally valid judgements. But we can “create” universals through propaganda, making all people share in the same beliefs or, better said, in the same illusions. The function of intellectuality is therefore to create those illusions and, as Rorty says, “gradually inculcate them” in the mind of the people. They disagree only on the identity of the intellectual: for Rorty, he is the academic community, while for Gramsci it is the Party or the “collective intellectual”.

These two ghostly entities, whose task is to direct the consciences of beings without a conscience, are formed by individuals who, by themselves, do not have any conscience at all. They also share the utmost disregard for arguments and proofs and display an exaggerated taste for the psychological action that shapes the feelings of the mass without allowing for any discussion and without being accountable to the requirements of “truth”. In both of them, the shrewdness in manipulating the real substitutes the intelligence of knowing it. Manipulating the real? No. Manipulating its image in the mind of the public.

As much as the academic community of Peirce and Rorty, the “collective intellectual” of Gramsci lacks the real unity of an organism, possessing only the functional and more or less conventional unity of a club or an army. For this very reason, it cannot be intelligent, nor can it have intuitive perceptions. What it is to understand? It is to capture, in an instant, the objective unity of a set of data, arranging them in a framework that is immediately made available to all psychic faculties: to will, to feeling, to imagination, etc. It is this simultaneous availability of information that enables the individual to react as a whole to distinct situations, without the mediation of a long and complex decisional process. It is the “presence of mind”, the alert conscience that enables a full and efficient adaptation to changes, without the loss of biographic continuity or of the meaning of life. How could a collective entity rise to this level of conscience? In order to understand and to decide at the speed that an individual does, the collective entity must place an individual above all others and follow his decisions without discussion. But in order to preserve internal democracy, it must submit the decisions to the approval of all members and wait for the outcome of the discussions, during which time thousands of deviating factors will interfere, such as the mingling of other issues, the competition among vanities in the assemblies, etc. Ultimately, the final decision will be a mechanic arrangement of pressures and concessions and not the immediate answer of a conscience to a perception of reality. The “collective intellectual” must choose between the unity of a tyranny and the multiplication of languages; between explicit or implicit submission to any individual conscience and the dissolution in a collective unconsciousness that, at last, will end up being discretely manipulated by some smart individual. In short, it must choose between declared and dissimulated tyranny.

During the time when the principle of the “collective intellectual” was in force only within the Communist Party, its cult of unconsciousness affected only those directly engaged in leftist movements, preventing them from seeing the most obvious and blatant facts, like the Trials of Moscow, the economic failure of the USSR, the Gulag, etc.

But with the fall of communist hierarchy, the spirit of the “collective intellectual” leaked from the moribund body of communism to intellectuals in general. Nowadays, particularly in Brazil, intellectual life as a whole imitates, by the uniformity of its issues and values, the internal discussions of the old Communist Party, the collective processing of ideas by a mass of militants to obtain, through the sum of votes, the infallible definition of the “Party line”. This way, individual intelligence loses all capacity to operate alone, not being able, by itself, to understand anything anymore. Thus confirming what the widespread buzzing boasts about the inanity of autonomous conscience, individual intelligence only shows itself capable of acting in an atmosphere of unanimous agreement, of “participation” in the collective feeling. As everyone is immersed in this collective feeling, nobody can look at it from the outside, as fish do not see water. Intellectual life is thereby reduced to the mutual inter-confirmation of beliefs, prejudices, feelings and habits of the members of the literate group. It becomes a tribalism.

One would err by excessive optimism to perceive this involution as a passing phenomenon that only scratches the surface of History. It has an anthropological dimension, it affects the fate of the human species in the cosmos. It only takes a generation of “collective intellectuals” dominating the world for us to lose the individualization of conscience, the prize of a millenarian evolutionary effort.

The idea of the “collective intellectual” has one of the most compromising origins. It was born in the clubs, assemblies and literary salons where the French Revolution was generated, in the “Republic of Letters”. It was there that for the first time modern intellectuality felt the strength of its union and was sacred queen under the title of “public opinion”. As a matter of fact, this term did not designate the opinion of the masses, but the common feeling of the literate elite . What was characteristic of those clubs and differentiated them from scientific societies as we know them today, and also from the centers of debate in Medieval university, was the total absence of rational criteria for the validation of arguments. It was the empire of “opinion”, in the sense of the Greek doxa, or mere belief. In those clubs, the theoretical questions of Gnoseology, Metaphysics, Economics, or even those of the natural sciences were decided by force, according to the preferences of the majority group. The true doctrine was not one which coincided with reality, but rather one which better expressed the collective aspirations in a language flattering to the passions of the moment. Once the winds of Revolution abated, the scientific and academic institutions of the winning bourgeoisie endeavored to organize themselves obviously not according to the example of revolutionary societies, but according to the consecrated canons of Medieval university and of the scientific circles of Renaissance. The “Republic of Letters”, as everybody knew, served only to agitate the masses, but could not generate knowledge. It does not seem strange, therefore, that the model of society of the revolutionary debates would next be seized by those excluded by the new order: the socialist intellectuals.

But it would not remain confined to them for ever. If during the XX century an atmosphere of Jacobinic club slowly and surreptitiously takes over the totality of cultural life, this is due, to a great extent, to the proletarianization of universities which – once centers for the generation of a scientific and governing elite – converted themselves in centers for the professional education of the masses (while transferring the task of forming the elite to more discreet, if not secret institutions).

The democratization of education opened to millions of people the access to intellectual and scientific professions. What was an elite, a bunch of geniuses who exchanged ideas through private mail and through half a dozen academic publications, became an innumerable multitude. This quantitative expansion, accompanied by a lowering of requirements, resulted in a formidable downgrading. The intellectual proletariat, scattered in thousands of institutions and busy with its daily professional tasks, does not even strive to keep up with the march of ideas in the world. Each professional has resigned himself to not being able to follow the succession of discoveries in his own area of expertise. Each one follows his own tunnel, without knowing where the others lead. To make up for the unbalance caused by specialization, a prosthesis called “general culture” is then applied to the expert, and soon universities have to flood the market with a regiment of “experts in general culture”. Mainly comprised of those who were not able to specialize in anything else, this new profession endeavors alternately to trim the cake of professional knowledge with a cherry of culture, leisurely disconnected from all reference to practical life, and to sketch a synthesis between culture and praxis through ideological indoctrination.

Thereby, the very nature of university professions came to be perverted: the university professional does not have to be able to form a personal reasonable opinion anymore. He is a worker, an employee who follows the collective fashion, as formerly did middle class employees and manual workers. Thus, as the amount of scientific information increases, the capacity, the necessity, and the simple willingness to absorb it diminishes.

Then, with the advent of the services economy, whose dominant industry is that of “cultural goods”, the intellectual proletariat expanded to encompass the majority of the population of rich countries and almost the whole middle class of poor countries. As a result, superior cultural production had to meet a massive demand for cheap thrills, now honored by “intellectual” prestige. The gossip of old show-business magazines, for example, invaded historical research, acquiring the status of a respectable academic activity. Moved by the necessity of flattering the most vulgar passions, superior culture ends up modeling itself by sheer marketing criteria, with which the collective imbecile confirms, circularly, that there is no truth above the taste of the majority.

In this atmosphere, rational discussion becomes impossible. Consensus is formed by waves of feelings that confusedly agitate themselves in the air, producing brief epidermic shivers. Beliefs are molded and dissolved in an impressionistic atmosphere, as moving ink-spots in a wet paper. It is the time of Rhetoric, of psychological persuasion, of a vague and disguised blackmailing which replaces argumentation. And finally, the actual state of things claims to be elevated to the status of rule and law: the Böhms, Feyerabends, Kuhns, Rortys, come to the scene, advocating the legitimacy of the rhetorical argument, of the emotive appeal, and even of the subliminal influence as a means of scientific proof. The notion of “truthfulness” – which the first generation of proletarian intellectuals had already reduced to a conventional formalism, voiding it of its ontological substance – goes up in smoke and is at last ostensibly denied. Ideas win followers by affective contagion, and once they become dominant they do not even need to display a pretension for truthfulness. They possess a better argument: the force of numbers that spreads the fear of isolation (vaguely identified with misery and madness) in the souls of the recalcitrant ones. Underneath the festive adherence to the new intellectual fashions, the persuasive machinery of psychological terror gloomily creaks on.

These are, in summary, the dominant tendencies in the scientific and philosophical debate of today’s world. In older countries, which preserve the values inherited from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these tendencies may at times be compensated by some critical and organizing reaction. But the new countries, which entered into History after the French Revolution and absorbed little from the legacy of the preceding centuries, do not have the least defense against the spirit of the “collective intellectual”, which in these countries tends to be identified, by an unconscious dogmatism, with the only possible incarnation of the idea of superior culture. There, to become an “intellectual” is not to acquire a certain knowledge and to demonstrate capacity in a certain class of investigation or creation. It is rather to be accepted in some circles, to speak in a specific tone, to adopt some ways of behavior in which the identity of the caste may be recognized. For this reason, a great philosopher who lives a secluded life ends up being excluded from the cultural history of the country, as occurred with Mário Ferreira dos Santos, while the worldly man, popular in certain groups, will become a renowned intellectual even if he doesn’t leave a work worth reading and even if he discovers nothing worth knowing.

Brazil is the promised land of the “collective intellectual”.

A Note on Charles S. Peirce

A chapter from “The Collective Imbecile”

by Olavo de Carvalho

And Charles Sanders Peirce generated William James, who generated John Dewey, who generated Richard Rorty, who, upon his arrival in Brazil, generated great frisson and mental confusion among the natives. Let us go back to the origins.

Peirce says that the only meaning of an idea lies in the practical consequences that may be inferred from it. This thesis, the core of Peircean philosophy, is what originated its denomination as pragmatism: pragma, in Greek, are the matters of practical life. Ironically, this thesis is not applicable in practice, because there is a significant difference – and frequently an abysmal separation – between the practical consequences that may be inferred from an idea, through logical conjecture, and the practical consequences that an idea actually brings forth in time.

For example, the proletarian revolution and the classless state may be logically inferred from Marxism, as its intended consequences. But in practice, its actual consequences were a military coup and the establishment of a dictatorship of a new class. Which of these two orders of consequences represents the “true meaning” of Marxism? Peirce says that the meaning lies in the “sum” of the consequences. But in the present case the sum equals zero, because the two orders of consequences – the intended one and the actual one – logically exclude each other. This way, it would only be left for us to say that, from the pragmatical point of view, Marxism has no meaning. But this would contradict the fact that it had actual practical consequences indeed.

On the other hand, how are we to distinguish between the practical consequences that an idea brings forth by itself from those that stem from its accidental mixture with other distinct, heterogenous and contradictory ideas?. Or from the unpredictable troubles that follow its dissemination in human society? In order to be able to make this distinction, we would have to recognize that the idea has some meaning independently from and before any practical consequences it may bring forth. But this would be a confession that it does have a meaning as a mere representative scheme, as an image of the real, what would amount to a denial of all pragmatism. The alternative then would be to admit that accidental consequences constitute a part of the meaning of ideas, what in turn would lead us to conclude that any idea can mean anything , depending on what accidents come to do with it along the way of its dissemination. Reasoning along this line, we would reach the conclusion that African-Brazilian religions such as umbanda constitute part of the original meaning of the Christian idea, for accidents in Brazilian history have produced a fusion of that idea with African rites. Or we would come to believe that AIDS is an intrinsic part of the meaning of love, as love has led some people to contract AIDS. In the same way, nothing would prevent us from interpreting pragmatism as an idealism, since Royce, a disciple of Peirce, became by chance an absolute idealist.

In a blatant contradiction with himself, Peirce asserts, moreover, that the scientific method must seek only the truth, without regard for its practical consequences. What is so special about the idea of the sicentific method that it can be endowed with a meaning without any regard for its practical consequences if these, according to the same Peirce, are the only possible meaning of an idea?

Even more curious is the Perceian denial of all intuitive evidence. For Peirce, we do not have any intuitive faculty, and all our knowledge consists of thought made up with signs, on the basis of knowledge of external facts. But are these external facts known intuitively or are they also just signs? And how can something that has not been perceived intuitively be a sign of anything else? How can we reconcile the denial of intuitive evidence with the concept of “sign”? A sign, says Peirce, “is anything that, for someone, corresponds to something from a certain aspect”. Then how could there be any sign without the intuive evidence of this “anything”, or of the identity or difference between the “anything” and the “somehting”? If this blessed “something” is also only a sign – and not an effective presence that is intuitively perceived – then we are confronted with signs of signs of signs, and so on endlessly. This will simply liquidate any possibility of a practical use for signs, be it even as simple conventional lies.

Even worse, I do not see how to reconcile the denial of evidence with the trust that Peirce has in the power of logic. Logic is nothing without the priciple of identity, which is either an intuitive evidence or a simple convention accepted by the scintific community. If it is a simple convention, its validity depends on a numeric consensus, what would reduce it to a mere “tenacious reaffirmation of an authority” (sic), a method of validation that Peirce himself considers anti-scientific.

For Peirce, intuitive evidence has a mere subjective validity since it varies from one individual to the other. Here he mistakes evidence, in the logical-ideal sense, for the psychological act of intuition – naturally subjective and fallible – and then this latter one for the mere feeling of certitude that not only accompanies intuitions but also beliefs, wishes and hallucinations. In short, he confounds the logic and the psychologic, confusion that is the trademark of psychologism, of which pragmatism is but a version (and against which it is not necessary to argue. It suffices to refer to the “Introduction” of Husserl’s Logical Investigations ).

Peirce asks: if intuition is a direct perception, how can we know that we have intuitions? Can we, by intuition, know that we have intuitions? He considers this a fulminating argument against intuition. But the the answer to this last question is simply “yes”. If I cannot have an intuition that I have an intuition, I cannot have any intuition at all. Intuition is necessarily accompanied by self-consciousness. If not, it would confound itself with a pure and simple corporal sensation. If I see, but I do not have the intuition that I see, I cannot speak of a visible intuition but only of an optical sensation, unaccompanied by a cognitive conscience, as it is obvious. A man who, as Peirce, does not recognize that he has an intuition, is either lying or is in a state of schizofrenic dissociation, by denying his very self-conscience. But Peirce is a bit more pretentious than the common schizofrenic in that he demands that we too deny our self-conscience.

If the intuitive evidence has no value, the individual alone cannot know anything and therefore Peirce says “it is necessary a whole community of researchers to objectively test the truthfullness of any idea”. But if each of these researchers is not capable of individually recognizing an intuitive evidence or a personal certitude that is universaly valid, who will add up their points of view to synthesize them in an “objective truth”? Peirce seems to believe that the academic community exists by itself,as an Aristotelian substantia prima, displaying a unitarian self-conscience capable of certitude, even though such self-conscience is absent in the individuals that make up the community. The academic community is thus a being endowed with a conscience, formed by the sum of various unconscious individuals. Peirce is a sociological transcendentalist.

Furthermore, from this viewpoint, if the only meaning of an idea lies in its practical consequences, what practical consequences may be inferred from the denial of individual intuition? It is inferred that each human individual, not being able to trust his own self-conscience, will deny all the intuitive evidences that might come to him. For not ever being able to rely on himself, he will have to surrender to the authority of the all-powerful academic community. The practical result of this idea is to reduce humanity to a herd of docile animals, incapable of personal understanding and always in need of the endorsement of the “scientific” authority.

In a still deeper level, Peirce affirms that no truth constitutes an evidence in itself. It must be corroborated by some independent proof. But he forgets to say that this independent proof is also worth nothing in itself and that it needs other independent proofs, and so on endlesslly. This culminates by neutralizing any possible meaning of the statement that no truth is evident in itself.

The truths that are evident by themselves, he adds, mean nothing in science and must be corroborated by a scientific, “objective and public” criterion. Now, the validity of any proof rests ultimately on logical principles, which are either evident by themselves or arbitrary conventions. Peirce does not accept that there are self-evident truths, neither that arbitrary conventions have any value. Thus, there are simply no logical principles that may support any proof whatsoever. The only alternative left to Peirce is to resort to the authority of the scientific “public”, that is, to the authority of the larger number, to which, on the other hand, he denies any scientific validity. It all comes to a dead end, and perhaps for that very reason this “philosophy” exerts such a fascination in an age that displays such a fancy pleasure in letting itself be the prey of all kinds of psychologic labirints.

According to Peirce, the doctrine of intuition, when it affirms that thoughts may directly incarnate its objects, is based on the confusion between sign and what is signified. This is nonsense. Intuition is not a thought or a representation, but rather a direct presence, like this page before the eyes of the reader, a presence that imposes itself to his conscience, without signs and without “thought”. If something is perceived through signs, there is no intuition in this act of perception.. It seems that Peirce mistakes the act of intuition for the mere remembrance of something that has just been the objetc of that intuition, which is certainly a sign. Anyone knows the difference between having the intuition of a presence and remembering an absence. Only Peirce does not know it, or pretends not to know it .

Thus, Peirce’s apology of practice notwithstanding, pragmatism is refractory to any practical application because it is intrinsicaly contradictory.

It is also disastrous the result to which we arrrive by applying to pragmatism the pragmatic method of defining an idea by its practical consequences. The fundamental practical consequence of pragmatism is to absorb the voided individual consciences in an onipotent “scientific community” endowed with extra-human powers and incapable, in turn, of obtaining the proof of its beliefs by any means other than a majority vote in academic sessions. This is its logical consequence, deductible from its concept alone, as it was also its actual, historically verified, consequence. It is what we see from the fact that Richard Rorty – the latest offspring of the Peircean family – already explicitly recognizes the law of the larger number as the only valid criterion of knowledge, thereby showing to the world the true face of pragmatism, a face that not even its founder had the courage to look in the eye.

Money and power


Translated by Marcelo De Polli

Whenever I hear a left-wing politician condemn the capitalist greed in prophetic voice, I wonder if he really fancies the craving for power to be a passion which is morally superior to the wish for money, or if he simply pretends to believe in that in order to play innocent. There is evidently no third alternative. No left-wing activist would make a revolution to just go home afterwards, living as an obscure common citizen of the socialist republic — each one of them is, by definition, the virtual holder of a share of power in the upcoming State. This is, among the members of a party, the only difference between an activist and a plain voter. When taking up the revolutionary fight, one expects no less than a position as commissioner of the people. After all, there would not be much sense in giving less from oneself than what was given when taking up the responsibility of active leader in the destruction of capitalism. (The same, of course, can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the activists of fascism or any other proposal of radical change of society. If I stress socialism, it is for the simple reason that today in Brazil there is not a fascist-inspired mass movement.)

All revolutionary activism is therefore inseparable from the craving for power, and it takes either a brutal shamelessness or a pathological unconsciousness to prevent someone from realizing that such a passion is infinitely more destructive than the wish for wealth. Wealth, no matter how relative the abstractions of financiers may try to make it, always has a residual materiality — houses, food, clothes, implements — that makes it something concrete, a visible good worthy in itself, independently from the surrounding opulence or misery. Power, on the other hand, as Nietzsche well saw it, is nothing if it cannot be more power. This is the most obvious thing in the world: mediated by social relationships as it may be, wealth is ultimately domain over things. Power is domain over men. A rich man does not become poor when his neighbours also get rich. On the other hand, a power that eventually gets equalled by other powers is automatically cancelled out. Wealth is developed by the adding up of goods whereas power, essentially, does not increase so much by the expansion of its means than by the suppression of other men’s means of action. In order to establish a police State, it is not necessary to provide the police with additional guns — it is enough to take them from the citizens. A dictator does not become a dictator because he grants himself new rights, but because he suppresses the old rights from the people.

The human intelligence would have to sink down to almost infranatural levels before a philosophy — or something similar to that — could come to invert such an evident equation, seeing in misery the foundation of wealth and in political power the creative instrument of equality.

The most characteristic phenomenon of the 20th century – totalitarianism – was not a detour or a bump on the road to the democratic dream. It was the inescapable consequence of a suicidal wager on the moral superiority of political power and its equalitarian social mission. The outcome of this wager is before everyone’s eyes. The promised economic equality failed to come about. However, the difference in terms of means of action between those who govern and those who are governed has increased to a point of which the most ambitious tyrants of Antiquity did not even dare to dream. Julius Caesar, Attila or Genghis Khan would shun in horror if they were offered the means to listen to every private conversation or to disarm every adult man. Today, governments already study how to program the conduct of future generations by genetic means. They are not satisfied with the destructive power of demons: they want the creative power of gods.

It is one of the most atrocious perversities of our time that a man imbued with the simple desire to get rich is considered a morally harmful person and almost a criminal, while an aspiring political leader is seen as a beautiful example of idealism, kindness and love to one’s neighbour. A century who thinks that way is crying to heaven for a Hitler or a Stalin to be sent down.

Veja todos os arquivos por ano