We’re really excited to publish this ambitious essay from the philosopher Samuel Kimbriel on intellectual ambition—where it comes from, where it went, and how we can get it back. It’s not an easy task, but the first step might be to realize we lost it in the first place. Samuel is our newly-minted Editor-at-Large at Wisdom of Crowds. He is also the director of the Aspen Institute’s Philosophy and Society Initiative and the author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation.
We hope you enjoy the piece. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please join us in the comments to continue the conversation.
As the digital landscape undergoes a series of tectonic shifts—Twitter deflating, the rise of Substack, the collapse of Vice and Gawker—I have started to think about what has been missing in our previous round of online media and intellectual culture, and what I’d like to see instead. To put it simply, I think online conversation has been able to produce a great deal of discussion around ideas—some of which has been productive—but that it has also blocked a key trait that is absolutely essential for insight: ambition.
There is an aspect of the Twitter/Facebook/Youtube ancien régime that has looked like an intellectual culture. Twitter has been full of debates on liberalism or democratic theory. Fights unfold in magazines and elsewhere on detailed questions of history. Some of the long-form writing of this era has been brilliant.
Defending the internet’s power for creativity in generalhas recently claimed that: “It’s boom times in culture…a hundred thousand songs are uploaded daily to streaming platforms; in the last year 1.7 million books were self published…2,500 videos are uploaded to Youtube each minute.” On a more academic front, the economist Joel Waldfogel has been compiling evidence for what he calls “A Digital Renaissance.” It’s not just, Waldfogel claims, that the number of products has increased, but that the online culture of creation and competition has increased the quality of our art and thinking as well. The logic is that the internet has provided a kind of supercharged “marketplace of ideas.” As in the economic marketplace, the constant friction, agitation, prodding of social media helps to encourage and refine the quality of ideas. Since the start of the internet, the digital world has been envisioned time and again as a context that can drive both democracy and intellectual vigor. Or so the argument goes.
I am unconvinced. What is needed for genuine creativity and inspiration is more than mere friction and competition. When I compare our age with others that I find inspiring—the Islamic golden age, the actual Renaissance—there are clear differences, and some of them are quite vast: For all of our busyness with ideas, we’re also quite risk averse with them.
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What does ideological ambition actually look like?
I was looking recently at the great work The Cure by the Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina, born in 10th century Uzbekistan.
The book stretches to 22 volumes and includes treatments of chemistry, physics, psychology, logic, astronomy, geometry, music, ethics, politics, metaphysics, to name only a few. But it’s not merely the thematic reach of the work but the specific aspiration that might seem most shocking to modern readers. In the section on the highest science—metaphysics—he says:
You used to hear that there is here at hand philosophy in the real sense…We will now show you that this science we are after is first philosophy and that it is absolute wisdom, and that the three attributes with which wisdom has been described are the attributes of one art.
Whatever this is, it’s most certainly unapologetically and boundlessly ambitious. Ibn Sina is not just reaching for interesting scattered insights but aiming for a unified sense of the world—including human thought and feeling—as a whole.
The Cure is not, furthermore, the work of a kook. Islamic science and philosophy are both widely considered to have been far ahead of anything on offer in Europe in this period, and Ibn Sina’s work in particular would be a principal touchstone for not only Islamic philosophy, but Jewish, and Christian philosophy as well for the next half millennium, at times rivaling the status of Aristotle himself.
So that’s one case study. But the kind of ambition that I’m interested in is not merely found in the far past. In a recent essay on the conductor Leonard Bernstein, Damir pointed out that even the mid-century now feels presumptuous to us. In the lectures that Damir highlights, Bernstein is looking not merely for some scattered insights about the technique of music, but for a universal theory of human language and sense-making as such. This example is more controversial—various scholars have argued that for all of his genius as a conductor, Bernstein’s musical theory is much closer to the side of kookery (though many others disagree).
But it’s not just Bernstein. The mid-century is full of this kind of ambition. We often remember this on the practical front—the New Deal and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But what we often forget is just how intellectually ambitious the mid-century was. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein aims to offer a full account of the relationship between thought, logic and the world in the Tractatus and then, over a decade later, returns to Cambridge and works out an argument that the entirety of philosophy as he had known it—including his own Tractatus—was entirely flawed, giving a completely different account (or really, a different mode of life).
For all of their deep disagreements with each another, the one thing that unites the philosophical movements of this period—the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl or Martin Heidegger or Edith Stein; the logic of Bertrand Russell or Rudolf Carnap; the personalism of Jaques Maritain; the critical theory of Theodor Adorno or Walter Benjamin; the postcolonial theory of Frantz Fanon or Edward Said—is ambition.
The ambition that I’m interested in does not mean merely—or primarily—the ability to write long books. It’s something else. To give one last example, I’ve been looking recently at a lively 30 page essay by the war-period philosopher Simone Weil. In the essay she sets out (and, to my mind, partially succeeds) to show what’s wrong with “person centered” ethics, including human rights. But what hits me is not so much her antagonism against another position, but the range of her curiosity about the fundamental nature of life. She dislikes the abstraction of concepts like rights, looking for something deeper:
It is impossible to define what is meant by respect for human personality. It is not just that it cannot be defined in words…The notion of rights, which was launched into the world in 1789, has proved unable, because of its intrinsic inadequacy, to fulfill the role assigned to it.
But her objection to rights is not the one that Damir would have—that they fail to deal with the hard realities of power. Her claim is in the opposite direction, that rights are too abstract and insensitive to the full reality of humanity:
At the bottom of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him…In those who have suffered too many blows, in slaves for example, that place in the heart from which the infliction of evil evokes a cry of surprise may seem to be dead. But it is never quite dead; it is simply unable to cry out any more. It has sunk into a state of dumb and ceaseless lamentation.
One reads on to realize that this is, for Weil, an argument for a specific kind of society as a whole. What is needed, she writes “is a regime in which the public freedom of expression is characterized not so much by freedom as by an attentive silence in which this faint and inept cry can make itself heard.”
I hope to write more about this aspect of Weil’s thought in the future, but for now the point I want to make is simply how promiscuous this philosophy is—in a few pages she moves from anthropology to a very intimate analysis of the experience of pain to political theory—expecting her reader to be up for the task.
What it means to risk
I think that what ties all of these sources together—and what distinguishes them from the writing of our present moment—is risk. It’s not that Bernstein or Adorno or Said or Weil are necessarily right in either the specifics of what they argue or their large ambitious schemes as a whole, but they are willing to take on the full weight of the question before themselves. Reading these works is startling specifically because they are so unguarded. They seem to be saying, of course I may be wrong if I press on questions of such difficulty but how dare we not try?
The reason we value periods of renaissance is not merely because of intellectual curiosity, but practicality. These periods of vision are very often also the periods of institutional rejuvenation as well. The Italian Renaissance gave us everything from high art to remarkable scientific discovery to modern statecraft.
Whatever else may be the case, it is clear that our age is not one that takes risks in this fuller and deepest sense. What it might take to develop actual intellectual ambition again is a large topic that I want to take up in the future, including here at Wisdom of Crowds. For now, let me offer up three points about what I think has gone wrong.
First, relative to ambitious mid-century writers, contemporary academia filters for specialization; recent articles from the two top philosophy journals include “Weyl and Two Kinds of Potential Domains”; “A Risky Challenge for Intransitive Preferences” and “Accuracy and Probabilism in Infinite Domains.” It isn’t that this kind of specificity doesn’t have merit; it’s that it feels like something is being lost somewhere if that is all we do.
On the more public side, in the glare of social media, the issue is not over-specialization but there too our eyes have turned downward. Twitter is full of articles with apparently big concepts—fights over the use of the word fascism, or the future of democracy—but it feels small in a different way. Sure, an article or an event may set off a series of arguments and counterarguments which get published that week, but reading these pieces is nothing like the experience of encountering the writing I have been citing above. In the case of the older works, one is always startled. One is thrown into a way of being in or seeing the world that feels completely confusing, alien. These works violate boundaries—mixing up fields we prefer to keep separate. For Weil, any talk of specific policies or legislation, important as that is, becomes empty without also being able to speak very intimately about the full human experience of pain.
The model I think of for our age of digital chaos is not Renaissance Florence, but Versailles. Louis XIV, becoming paranoid, decides to lock nearly his entire aristocracy in his country estate of Versailles. It was a sound strategy—it not only made monitoring of the nobility easier; it also created an infinite occupation for their pettiness. Consolidated in one place, the French court turned their attention not to broader ambitions in the world, but to gossip and endless obsession with social hierarchy. Whatever else one can say of the decadence of the period, this was not a time of great intellectual insight.
So thirdly, I want to suggest that the first two points—specialization and social pettiness—are effect rather than cause. The reason that we get bogged down in conceptual minutiae or find the Twitter gladiatorial games amusing is that we somehow stand on the other side of an opaque wall from the thinkers noted above—whether Ibn Sina or Heidegger or Weil—and their ambition.
It is an obvious point, but what is necessary in order to risk being wrong in the ways that they did is a confidence that one may also end up being right. Or, to put it another way, to explore the world with the kind of naked aspiration that they display requires having real confidence that there is a world there to explore and that it is worth exploring it.
How that confidence has flagged is not always easy to discern, but I’m not content with accepting that loss as the price of living in the world as it is. It is hard for me to remember the last time that I picked up a recent work of philosophy or literature and was made uneasy by the strangeness of the world it was opening.
Strangeness, to be sure, is uncomfortable. It means disorientation. It means losing a sense of what reality is and where one belongs. It also means being vulnerable to attack from peers who have much more settled certainties. Nor does ambition of this kind does guarantee that the world will actually cohere in the end (just ask the philosopher who drove himself mad with such ambition, Friedrich Nietzsche). The answer to “does reality hold together” could always be “no.”
But the reason for such ambition—the reason to follow Weil or Wittgenstein in violating every tidy boundary—is that these questions about the coherence of the world and humanity’s place in it are the only ones that are genuinely consequential. Without some aspiration to insight in this full sense, one is back to Versailles—the frantic busyness of social posturing, with far too little to show for it.
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“of course I may be wrong if I press on questions of such difficulty but how dare we not try?”
1. This was the sort of motivating thought that enabled me to publish a systematic review of the concept of “harmony” over the past 2500 years — with reviews covering modern psychology and social theory. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S240587262200003X
2. I’ll be sharing an online lecture June 1 on the role of ancient wisdom and artificial intelligence: https://embassyofthefreemind.com/en/plan-your-visit/agenda#Dereklomas
Here’s a risky thought about whether AI can access Plato’s world of forms.