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Are They Smart or Just Smart Asses?

Two ways to tell the difference between intellectuals and know-it-alls.

Key points

  • Intellectuals are curious curators shopping broadly for better interpretations of reality.
  • One can be a novice intellectual but if they've curated long, they'll know many interpretations.
  • To test curiosity, ask what they're still actively wondering about and to describe mistakes they've made.
  • People who assume that anyone who knows a lot is a know-it-all are not intellectuals.

An intellectual is a persistently curious curator of their interpretation of reality. They are willing to swap out interpretations for better ones should they come along.

They are not open-minded in the sense of being equally open to all possibilities. They are confident that some possibilities are more likely than others. They reject some possibilities for others. Still, their minds are ajar. They listen for possibilities that they may not have noticed, overlooked, or even rejected. When they find a more likely interpretation, they swap out the less likely for the more likely, which is not easy.

It’s not flattering to admit you’re wrong. Still, an intellectual identifies as learning, not learned. As such, they can take some credit for standing corrected, dignity intact.

Since being an intellectual is being a curious curator of one’s interpretations, you can be a novice intellectual with hardly any accumulation of interpretations. The longer you’ve been an intellectual, the more perspectives you’re likely to have tried on. You’ll have considered and rejected lots of interpretations, which can make you seem a know-it-all when you’re just a know-lots.

How can you tell whether someone is an intellectual? I have two ways.

If I’m talking to someone who is enjoying beyond my patience the delights of tunnel-vision monologing, I’ll ask two questions, both of which reject one kind of answer.
One is, “What are your doubts? What remain live questions for you?” The answer that’s ruled out is “How can I get more people to believe what I believe?” It’s a perfectly fine question but it isn’t evidence of live curiosity.

The other is, “What have you been wrong about? The answer ruled out is any that implies “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” like you’ve seen the light, sealed up like you’ve had the last epiphany you’ll ever need. Again no evidence of live curiosity.

I chalk my many mistakes up to hope overriding realism. Note to self: Hope and hoax springs eternal. And I should be clear about hope: I mean hope that I’m right, which I think is the overlooked meaning of hope usually, not just hope for a better future but a better future by one’s standards.

Despite better recording technology and video of all pundit pronouncements, pundits aren’t forced to keep track of their bad predictions. Climate deniers or trickle-downers, for example. They haven’t shed a drop of confidence even though the evidence is clear.

That’s the trouble with failed abstract ideological interpretations. If your business fails, you have to face it. If your abstract ideological interpretation fails, you can pretend that it’s “but a scratch”, like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Jesus, MAGA, and the South will rise again despite all the failed predictions from the prophets, My Pillow guy, and the KKK. And maybe they’re right. They’ve proven more realistic than I have about how unrealistic people are.

We all know Plato’s allegory of the cave, if only through the Matrix’s red-pill, blue-pill distinction. In the original, people are chained in a cave where false impressions are projected on a wall. One person escapes into reality, sees the light, and becomes the red-pill Philosopher King.

By far, the most popular interpretation of this story is that the philosopher king sees the light, becomes absolutely realistic, and is, therefore, duty-bound to rescue his fellow cave dwellers from delusion.

The more accurate interpretation is that the guy escapes, sees that he was deluded, and reluctantly admits he is deludable.

Plato recognizes that humans prefer self-flattering affirmation over realism. That’s a central theme in his work. Plato hoped that philosopher kings would feel secure enough that they wouldn’t need self-flattering delusion.

He was wrong about that. Security can make one brave enough to withstand reality’s disappointments, but it is more likely to make one addicted to ever more security, especially because with security, one can afford as much comforting delusion as one wants, giving one the sense of having proven right about everything.

A rich cocaine addict is at more risk of delusion than a poor one. Philosopher kings are more likely to end up deluded despots who act like they can do no wrong because they can get away with it. Indeed, delusion becomes a status symbol like “f**k-you money.” When secure, you don’t have to care about anything you don’t want to. Reality becomes a dismissible inconvenience.

It’s a rare person secure enough to be able to override self-affirmation with realism. That’s the intellectual ideal. None of us ever fully achieve it. I’m sure I still harbor hopeful self-affirmations that will be proven wrong, whether I’m willing to concede it or not.

What, then, is the difference between people who care about the difference between intellectuals vs. know-it-alls and people who assume that anyone who disagrees with them is a know-it-all?

People who don’t care about the difference assume that intellectuals are know-it-alls because they disagree with you. To assume that anyone who disagrees with you is a know-it-all intellectual is to pretend you’ve seen the light everlasting, had the last epiphany you’ll ever need, become enlightened, or at least found the one true path to enlightenment. Anti-intellectualism is the claim that what you know is already enough and that anyone who thinks harder than you is on a fruitless or counter-productive mission.

It’s to claim to have awoken once and for all, unlike everyday wakefulness, which leaves us drowsy and dull by evening. It’s “I once was lost, but now I’m blind.” It’s to claim to have taken the red pill, which is a sure sign one has taken the blue pill, deluded by the delusion that one’s delusional days are over.

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