One of the authors which has greatly influenced my present ambivalence toward intellectuals and academia is the sociologist Alvin Gouldner. In this post I would like to briefly summarize his critical perspective on academia and then use this perspective in order to reframe various points and episodes from the scriptures.
Before I proceed, I should clear up (muddle up would probably be more accurate) my use of some terms. I have and will continue to use the terms “academia”, “intellectuals”, “scientists”, “philosophers” and “those with a modern mindset” roughly interchangeably. I consider all of these (sub-)groups to be different manifestations of what Gouldner call the Culture of Critical Discourse (CCD).
In his book The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, Gouldner unpacks a number of interrelated ways in which CCD has come to set itself apart from the common, everyday man. The first difference lies in the centrality of the written/printed word to CCD:
“[P]rinting … spreads writing and reading, and the forms of rationality to which the written, as distinct from an oral tradition, is disposed… [The written tradition tends to exclude] the ephemeral and contingent with a corresponding selective focus on the imputedly enduring – that is, on austere abstraction… removing or constructing a thing apart from the complexity which is its normal context in ordinary language and everyday life… Oral discourse is more tolerant of casual styles of discourse, but writing fosters careful styles of discourse. With the spread of printing, then, the structure of what is regarded as a convincing argument begins to assume a specific character.”
Printing – and before that writing – forces a timeless, generalizable, and therefore abstract character upon words and statements which is utterly foreign to the typical interactions of the ordinary speaker. This would in turn suggest a significant difference in the prerequisites for felicitous speech acts within literate as opposed to illiterate societies. We can therefore expect the illiterate societies described throughout most scripture to have little conception of or concern for the interpretations/truth-values of doctrines/stories as they bear on situations/people outside of their particular social context. Continuing:
“Words [and] ideas … come to be increasingly separated from those producing them as a speech, and from the patterns of social interaction that are its meaning-bestowing context… With the increased decontextualization of communication, and with the spread of depersonalizing print, communication becomes a kind of ghostly, disembodied voice separated from its speaker. Communication as speech produced by a speaker (and hence dependent on and varying in character with the language spoken) becomes less visible. It is therefore now easier to assume that the meaning of a communication (as distinct from its validity) may be understood apart from the intent and occasion of the speech and the speaker.”
As the centrality of the particular and contingent social context of words fade with the dawn of the written word, so dims the centrality of the author and his originally intended audience. As the original authorial context fades behind the timelessness of his words, so too does the authoritative justification for those words recede with him. Rather, the written word comes to require and embody a kind of self-justification by reference to facts, logic and other rules taken to be universal and eternal in scope rather than to mortal men in their particular and contingent social roles:
“The coalesced forces of printing technology, the decline of the old-regime traditionalism and the emergence of the new Enlightenment assumptions … increased the decontextualization of discourse – strengthening the speaker’s orientation to his grammar and focusing attention on discourse as embodied in printed objects [with a] corresponding defocalization of those persons to whom it was addressed and of the speaker making the address.” (40-44, 60-62)
These abstract and universal rules of justification are thus taken by Gouldner to be the defining characteristic of CCD, and consequently serve as the main topic of his book The Future of the Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. In this book, he describes the very core of CCD as a rejection of appeals to authority with a corresponding aspiration to ground all truth claims in impersonal rationality:
“The grammar of critical discourse claims the right to sit in judgment over the actions and claims of any social class and all power elites. From the standpoint of the culture of critical discourse, all claims to truth, however different in social origin, are to be judged in the same way. Truth is democratized and all truth claims are now equal under the scrutiny of CCD. The claims and self-understanding of even the most powerful group are to be judged no differently than the lowliest and most illiterate. Traditional authority is stripped of its ability to define social reality and, with this, to authorize its own legitimacy… There is the obligation to examine what had hitherto been taken for granted, to transform ‘givens’ into ‘problems,’ resources into topics: to examine the life we lead, rather than just enjoy or suffer it.”
Naturally, this strong emphasis and insistence upon universal rather than contextually dependent justifications brings with it a certain degree of inflexibility:
“There is, therefore, a structured inflexibility when facing changing situations; there is a certain disregard of the differences in situations, and an insistence on hewing to the required rule. This inflexibility and insensitivity to the force of differing contexts, this inclination to impose one set of rules on different cases also goes by the ancient name of ‘dogmatism’. Set in the context of human relationships, the vulnerability of the [CCD] to dogmatism along with its very task-centeredness, imply a certain insensitivity to persons, to their feelings and reactions, and open the way to the disruption of human solidarity.” (59, 84)
By this point, the intellectuals described by Gouldner should sound very familiar as they are ubiquitous throughout our society. From secondary school onward “critical thinking” is very nearly taken to be the raison d’etre of education. The internet swarms with articles, posts and comments criticizing others’ failure to live up to the standards of CCD. One would be hard pressed to deny that there is a tendency within intellectual circles to “begin by monopolizing truth and by making itself its guardians… [CCD] sets itself above others, holding that its speech is better than theirs; that the examined life (their examination) is better than the unexamined life which, it says, is sleep and no better than death.” (85)
But this culture and its tendencies are by no means a recent development. While Gouldner’s account focuses on the modern rise of intellectuals as a legitimate social and political force to be reckoned with, CCD has been around almost as long as the written word. Beyond any doubt, ancient Greece had a strong CCD which continued in the West with varying levels of prevalence and influence all the way through the Christian theologians up to the Enlightenment.
I now want to place the CCD within a religious context which should be familiar to Mormons. In particular, I want to suggest that the practices of theology and scriptural exegesis are the direct products of CCD rather than of revelation and as such stand in contrast to prophecy. It was CCD, I submit, that originally caused the great apostasy and was later responsible for the tumult of words and opinions in which the young Joseph was raised. It was the CCD that repeatedly divided the Nephites regarding various points of doctrine and it was the CCD that the resurrected Lord expressly forbad from being applied to his teachings. It was CCD that prevented the Scribes and Pharisees from seeing the Son of God for who he was and it is the CCD that currently leads so many bright young people out of the church today.
Finally, I want to suggest that CCD has not only been a substitute for, but an actual roadblock to prophecy and revelation. It is my contention that the everyday mode of thinking and speaking – the mode of thought which is intentionally and systematically weaned from us in our institutions of “higher” learning – is much more conducive to communication with the heavens. Just to be clear, neither Gouldner nor I are entirely anti-CCD (although Gouldner has less reservations than I do): we simply want to point out that the CCD is not a benefit without significant costs.
— Edit —
1) Written and oral traditions have different forms of rationality and standards for felicitous speech.
2) Written – as opposed to oral – communication has a kind of endurance across space and time which de-emphasizes the original context of the communication.
3) As written communication becomes non-contextual, the original author, audience and their native traditions and institutions lose significance and authority.
4) This, in turn, forces written communication to be justified in terms of something other than author(ity) or tradition, something more universal, timeless and abstract (grammar, logic, empirical evidence, etc.).
5) This promotion of universal and abstract modes of justification at the expense of appeals to authority and tradition serve to democratize the adjudication of speech acts.
6) As the role of judging speech acts is universalized to all people regardless of social standing, economic class, gender, religious tradition, etc., so too all claims come to be de-sacralized and called into question.
7) The tendency to inflexibly criticize and justify all claims in terms of abstract and universal rules regardless of person, situation or context is a form of dogmatism.
I then threw out a couple of suggestions as to how this might be applied to our religious tradition:
8) Jesus relied primarily upon oral communication and was strongly opposed by the religious leaders who were grounded in written communication and thus rejected his appeal to authority.
9) The resurrected Jesus told his disciples that criticizing and defending his doctrine in terms of universal, abstract rules was off-limits.
10) Overall, the transition from oral communication to written communication with their corresponding forms of rationality correlate well with transition from a prophetic/revelatory religious tradition to a scriptural/theological one. This latter transition is what Mormons call “apostasy”.