On Exclusionary Intellectualism
Increasing access to the study of the art of living
Philosophy is a studying process of theoretical ideas, seeking to answer the most important questions in life. Often, though, these questions and proposed answers don’t seem to practically function in the nuts-and-bolts of everyday life. As a concept, philosophy calls to mind images of ivory towers, the halls of academia or ancient, far-away cities made of marble—images that are high and lofty, rigid and perhaps a bit out of touch. We see professors or sages working with ideas and concepts, while students write responses and work on their own conceptual problems, hoping one day to become teachers themselves, keeping philosophy in a circular and self-feeding world.
This, however, was not philosophy’s original purpose. Philosophy was intended as something that can and should be applied to regular people dealing with real-world, practical problems. Philosophy’s inaccessibility is, in many ways, the fault of the philosophers and other “intellectuals.” Intellectuals from all eras have ranged from charismatic and pragmatic to arrogant and antisocial— this is nothing new. But the deepening of the divide between the intelligent, thoughtful and self-aware versus the ignorant, impulsive and naïve rests, in large part, with the intellectual class.
There is some human instinct here; there is a natural pull for people to associate with like-minded people. This is why political parties are unavoidable and why most of your friends likely agree with you in your general worldview. But the issue is deeper than this; I have found, in my own experience and in observation of similar spaces, that the intellectual class frequently holds everyone else in contempt, making itself exclusive and inaccessible.
This seems to be especially true when someone manages to cross the divide, joining the ranks of intellectualism from a position outside of the circle. These converts seem even more apt to condemn and close off, appeasing the guilt they feel from their previous ways of thinking by holding any intellectual difference in contempt. In doing so, they become some of the greatest barriers to entry.
There are individuals who subvert this rule, but the overall perception of separation stands firm in American society, and is constantly fed by those same intellectuals. As such, we see the study of philosophy, of the nature of life itself, functionally kept away from ordinary people. But the very nature of philosophy makes it vital to progress, to happiness and to the Good Life.
No skill exists without study. You cannot start being an electrician just by picking up some tools, nor can you be a surgeon by picking up a scalpel. In order to actually do these things, and especially to be successful at them, you need to study and practice. It is the same with life; in order to have a successful life, you need to study and practice the art of living. In essence, you need to study philosophy. But the baggage that comes with the very word can be the first barrier to those who need it most.
I cannot propose a complete solution, but I know where to start: with people. Always with people. Intellectuals, both well-established and newcomers, should take the time to explain their positions without convoluted, inaccessible language— free of judgement. That would be a start. Increasing access points without removing the core truths is both possible and necessary.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry