Intellectual Jousting

In my recent post on intelligence vs. wisdom, I used the phrase “intellectual jousting” to describe the modern practice of doing philosophy. Here’s a bit of psychological speculation about how that activity comes to be valued.

Let’s say you were the smartest kid in your elementary school class. It feels great to be lauded by the teacher, to ace the tests, and so on. Then you advance to a middle school that’s fed by several elementary schools and you’re still the smartest kid in the class. Yay! Then you go to a high school that’d fed by several middle schools. It might be less than fully clear who’s the smartest now because people start to diverge by subject matter (math whizzes, physics geeks, etc.), but you discover a way to prove your superiority: arguments! After picking up some rhetorical tricks, you can easily best the other kids in your school. Wonderful, you’re still the best!

Then you head off to college. If you’re especially intelligent (which of course you are), you go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Oxford or Cambridge or some such exclusive venue. Now you are surrounded by really smart people – future Nobel Prize winners, Supreme Court justices, and the like. You need to up your argumentative game, at least among those who have self-selected into the most difficult major that doesn’t require calculus: philosophy. It’s time to learn advanced polemical skills, master formal and informal logic, and hone your argumentative strategies. Once you’ve done that, you still come out on top.

So it’s off to one of the highest-rated Ph.D. programs. Here the competitive atmosphere thickens: you need to prove yourself ever more sharp, clever, quick, brilliant, and resourceful. You become ever more adept at lobbing fatal objections, making cutting remarks, identifying your opponents’ logical lapses, and all that. To further prove your intellectual superiority, above all you do these things really fast. Taking time to think things through is for dullards: those with the highest philosophical IQ demonstrate immediate insight. They are, as Colin McGinn puts it, outrageously brilliant. (Do recall the two meanings of “outrageous”!)

Upon completing years of rigorous training and practice in argumentation, you have achieved that exalted status: champion jouster of the intellect. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a job teaching philosophy to unsuspecting undergraduates for a few years before being denied tenure. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll revel in your intellectual superiority for decades while looking down on graduate students and adjunct faculty from your high perch as a tenured professor.

You can have it.

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