Our ruling classes hold as much contempt for reality as they do for us.
Brilliance Isn’t Enough
A perfect theory and a buck fifty will get you a ride on the subway.
Truth matters. This, at least, is the official story. Academics, government officials, media personalities, and social media titans have all the dangers of “fake news” and “misinformation.” The proposed solution to this problem is experts, who invoke “the data” and “the science” with a reverent gesture toward the latest charts, graphs, studies, and spreadsheets. At the same time, and from many of the same corners, we are told that science is just a “social construction,” that morbid obesity is healthy, that logic and mathematics are somehow downstream from race and sex, and that all truth is relative, or worse, completely non-existent. All this while the “experts” are regularly caught in shameless lies and falsehoods, deliberately and openly trying to nudge and socially engineer public opinion, and making absurd proposals with ironclad, axiomatic confidence—such as that bug-eating and male pregnancy are self-evident goods, necessities, or even rights. Given such a fast-accruing and obvious set of falsehoods, lies, contradictions, and nonsense, one has to ask: how is it that truth keeps getting its ass kicked so badly?
Most readers will be familiar with the various available origin stories that compete to explain how exactly we got here. Blame it on modernism, postmodernism, the Frankfurt School, UNESCO, birth control, old school Marxism, new school Marxism, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, classical liberalism, nominalism, the World Economic Forum, the internet, smartphones, etc.—you pay your money and you make your choice. The full explanation from the God’s-eye view is likely some combination of all of these factors—which means it’s causally overdetermined many times over.
The more pressing and productive questions to ask are: What type of person is susceptible to believing manifest absurdities when they come trailing the allure of data and studies? And what overall way of being in the world does our modern condition create and reward? The answer to both is that our present conditions elevate and encourage the development of hyper-specialized, radically out of touch technocrats. This is the group that James Burnham called the “professional-managerial class,” composed of the sort of people Thomas Sowell identified simply as “intellectuals.” As Sowell puts it:
[Intellectuals are] people whose end products are ideas…[while] the engineer is judged by the end product which is not simply ideas. If he builds a building that collapses, it doesn’t matter how brilliant his idea was, he’s ruined. Conversely, if an intellectual who is brilliant has an idea for rearranging society, and that ends in disaster, he pays no price at all.
The archetypal member of this set is defined by a few recognizable characteristics: a radical alienation from the physical body, a noticeable disdain for and consequent lack of generalist knowledge and basic “common sense,” deficiency in traditional technical competencies, detachment from the immediate environment as well as from local people and local culture, a noticeable lack of scars, and, most importantly, as Sowell notes, a profound insulation from the immediate stakes and consequences of their idealistic theories.
Increasingly unmoored from the commonsense world, lost in a fog of hypotheticals and abstractions: these are the types of technocratic experts on high who increasingly run both us and our institutions and who increasingly assert themselves as the supreme gatekeepers and guardians of truth, all while hardly ever coming into contact with actual people, actual consequences, or with the sharp and often unforgiving edges and contours of the objective world.
The way to remedy the damage wrought by the detached and abstracted theories of these characters is not to answer them with more theories and abstraction. Good ideas are always helpful, but what’s really called for now is a hard return to the real. Only by re-inhabiting traditional self-reliant practices, embodied physical skills, and ways of being in the world, both individually and collectively, can prospective leaders recover a sense of the immediate stakes as well as real-world physical consequences connected to our words and our actions. Put another way, we need a large-scale return to practical knowledge, or what Aristotle called phronesis.
It is primarily through such embodied practices and real-world skills that people best come into contact with objective reality and with other people, cultivate agency, grit, and resourcefulness, and are routinely humbled by a world outside their head that cares nothing whatsoever about their credentials, hypothetical theories, or latest utopian visions. Only the school of real life can teach the groundedness, confidence, gratitude, and inner tranquility that come from being frequently and routinely humbled. As Matthew B. Crawford notes,
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.
This is the ethic that Americans need to get back to, both individually and collectively, both in our individual practices as well as in our collective institutions, if we stand any chance whatsoever of escaping our present postmodern predicament and re-establishing contact, however imperfectly, with the solidity and certainty of objective reality. The beauty of phronesis is that it leads to praxis: by testing and applying the postulates of the mind, phronesis translates wisdom into action. “If someone gains intellect, his actions will alter accordingly,” writes Aristotle (emphasis added). “The characteristic that he possesses will then be virtue in the authoritative sense” (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13). Perhaps truth is losing ground politically because we’ve been looking for it in the wrong place: it’s in the meeting of iron with iron and flesh with dirt, in the transformation from blueprint to building. What we should demand of ourselves and of any serious contender for elected office is not a better theory of the case, but more demonstrated competency in the world of solid things. That’s how you build—and how truth wins.
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