In this four-part column, Pierre-André Taguieff gives us a philosophical critique of stupidity.
But what is stupidity? It is not easy to define stupidity (or foolishness) or stupidity (or imbecility), because, because of the extreme diversity of their possible illustrations (themselves however clear), it is difficult to pass from perception from certain resemblances (“family resemblances”, as Wittgenstein would say) to the construction of a concept, or more exactly of a conceptual core, based on the common characteristics of the identified cases of stupidity.
Of course, we can stick to simple criteria, such as the inability, observable in some individuals, to analyze data or solve problems (both old and new), which defines the lack of intelligence. .
The use of fallacious arguments in political debates demonstrates cognitive incapacity.
Let’s take a simple example. A French “wokist” activist, faced with opponents defending the principle of free expression, will reply to them by varying on this characteristic sophism: “You defend free expression; however, Édouard Drumont, the pope of anti-Semitism in France, also defended it, since he baptized his newspaper Free Speech ; therefore, you are anti-Semitic and therefore unworthy of participating in public debate. The ideological blindness implied by militant commitment is intimately mixed here with stupidity as the inability to reason correctly. A stupidity inseparable from bad faith, as often.
But stupidity cannot be reduced to lack of intelligence, which is relatively measurable: we lack more or less intelligence, which implies that we can be more or less stupid. This is to recognize that there are degrees in stupidity, as if it were a matter of human aptitude.
We know that in 1928, on the basis of work on the intelligence quotient, the distinction between “idiot”, “imbecile” and “cretin” (from more to less stupid) was the subject of a broad consensus among psychologists, before being replaced by the triad “deep deficient”, “medium deficient” and “mild deficient”, itself replaced by the sub-categories of “mental deficiency”, the “mental deficient” possibly being “severe “, “medium” or “light”.
But, if we can thus measure intelligence, or at least certain forms of intelligence (and their deficient forms), it is not certain that we can measure stupidity, which remains in the field of subjective assessment. It cannot be reduced to a simple lack of intelligence. Admittedly, a convinced scientist could imagine the construction of stupidity tests and hope one day to be able to measure the respective influences of genetic factors and environmental factors, within such and such a culture, in the appearance of the phenomenon. But this scientist carried away by the desire to quantify everything – thus suffering from “quantophrenia”, to use the expression of Pitirim Sorokin – is himself likely to be perceived as carrying a form of stupidity. Unquantifiable nonsense.
Stupidity also manifests itself in want of judgment, and in this respect it seems irremediable, though it may be veiled by instruction.
This is the perspective adopted by Kant in a famous note in the Critique of pure reason :
“Lack of judgment [Mangel an Urteilsktaft] is properly what is called stupidity [Dummheit], and for this vice there is no remedy. A dull or dull head, in which only the proper degree of understanding and concepts which are proper to it lack, may very well rise by instruction to erudition. But as then, more often than not, this defect also accompanies the other, it is not uncommon to find very educated men who incessantly reveal this irremediable defect in the use they make of their knowledge. »
The philosophers Pascal Engel and Kevin Mulligan judiciously approach stupidity as an epistemic vice: “Just as there are epistemic virtues – moderation in judgment, balance, scruple, intelligence – there are epistemic vices – credulity, conformism, stupidity. They thus specify the conditions of the intellectual fight against “epistemic vices”, distinguishing them from the content of beliefs: “We cannot blame or praise an individual for such and such a belief, although we can blame or praise him to be the type of believer he is (a conformist, a gullible, or a fool, all of which are character flaws). »
The stupidity of committed minds is observable in all circles of political militancy, on the right and on the left, among revolutionaries and reactionaries, without forgetting the centrists, moved by the fanaticism of moderation.
The stupidity of the moderates and partisans of the “middle ground” should not be confused, however, with the opportunism or the strategic conformism of the careerists. This moralizing stupidity is found in particular, in the modern world, among members of a particular category of partisans of the Good, namely those who want to “make humanity better” (as Nietzsche said in 1888 in Twilight of the Idols) and realize here below, without delay, or “here and now” – an indestructible sixty-eight slogan – the utopia of the perfect society. The followers of perfectionism want at all costs and without further delay to rebuild social relations on the basis of their ideals of the good life, whether they relate to the classic progress of civilization or the protection of the planet from an anti-progressive or ecosophist perspective. .
This stupidity of “beautiful souls” is inseparable from a moralizing paternalism which, widely disseminated by an associative activism thirsty for media echoes and fueled in particular by neo-feminist and increasingly eco-feminist propaganda, has become an institutional paternalism , which we encounter in a caricatural way in educational establishments.
On the left and on the extreme left in particular, those whom Nietzsche described as “vulgar philistines” and “cultivated philistines” – the latter, mediocre, semi-cultivated minds, imagining themselves highly cultured because they are graduates, today without effort particular – get together, show off, crowd the media, march and petition. It happens to them, after having learned the art of demagogy, to reach the enviable rank of elected officials of the Republic. The most intellectualized philistines easily obtain positions in higher education, a premium for “revolutionary” conformism without risk. These troops of indignant and disciplined rebels actually have many interchangeable copies of the pitiful “little satisfied gentleman” painted by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1929), the ” senorito satisfied” being a being at the same time selfish, narcissistic, gregarious and conformist, but likely to fly into terrible anger when his interests are or appear to be threatened. He can therefore, temporarily, take on the appearance of a fierce revolutionary in search of a “better world”. In power or in opposition, he embodies triumphant mediocrity. In this respect, he remains a “bourgeois”, from above or below the social ladder. Because, as Flaubert noted, “the whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity of the bourgeois”.
Along the same lines, the author of this war machine against stupidity that is Exegesis of commonplaces (1901), the fiery Léon Bloy, defined “the Bourgeois”, namely “the man who makes no use of the faculty of thinking”, as a human type that could be encountered in all social classes: stupid, sentimental, hypocritical, petty, interested, devoid of spirituality. This is what made him say that “contemporary souls are padded with a thick fleece of impenetrable stupidity”. This is why they feed on commonplaces, these fixed formulas which constitute “the language of the Bourgeois”, and whose patient but pitiless exegesis must always be repeated, with the necessary irony. Because we are dealing with “materials of indestructible stupidity” on which thought feeds by clichés. In Crowd psychology, in 1895, Gustave Le Bon pointed out the concentration of stupidity in crowds: “In crowds, it is stupidity and not wit that accumulates. The rallies bring to the surface the intellectual mediocrity of individuals and their baseness of thought, reflected in the slogans repeated in chorus. But who would dare to evoke today, at a time of demolition, the noisy stupidity of the unthinking masses? Since the 1980s, the left has dreamed quite the contrary of this “collective intellectual” supposed to succeed happily to the “classical intellectual” thrown, for sin of individualism, in the dustbins of history. But the “collective intellectual” remains in the clouds, with the angels.
There are committed intellectuals who have a taste for “goat-deer”, positions or entities supposed to embody reconciled opposites or amalgamated contradictories.
They dream of impossible syntheses which they present as the solutions of problems which they have badly posed, without being the least aware of it. They thus advance incoherent or self-contradictory categories by presenting them as subtle and virtuous conceptualizations (because signs of openness, tolerance and “inclusiveness”): “plural universalism” (and not “abstract”), ” plural secularism” (and not “fundamentalist”), “postcolonial universalism” (and not “eurocentric”), etc. To be “concrete,” respectful of differences and thus escape Merleau-Ponty’s so-called “overhang” position, they argue, the universal must be “relative” or “contextual.” Some of them want to drive out the universal and replace it with the “pluriversal”, or, to be ever more radical, with the “decolonial pluriversal”, the promise of a “world made up of a multitude of worlds”.
Hollow formulas work like magic formulas, which feed the thought-slogan. This is how intellectualized stupidity reproduces and spreads.
There are committed intellectuals (always on the left) who want to put multiculturalism or multi-community into the Republic to make it acceptable, racialism or racial identityism into anti-racism to make the latter conform to the reality of multi-ethnic societies in which we are supposed to live, etc.
By advocating a multi-community republicanism, a secularism that also respects all collective differences or a racialist or ethnic anti-racism, they testify to the existence either of the stupidity of the “golden mean”, this neutral position whose value would depend on what it would be situated equidistant from the extremes, that is from the stupidity of synthesis at all costs in the world of concepts, without taking into account distinctions or oppositions.
By barely forcing the line, one could imagine, concerning political regimes, mixed or hybrid forms of the “liberal authoritarianism” or “pluralistic totalitarianism” type, celebrated as responding to contradictory demands magically transformed into complementary requirements. Hence the identification of another trait of stupidity: believing that, in the world of thought, everything is possible or that nothing is impossible. The “why not? is likely to have a fruitful scientific use, as Bachelard suggested, but it can also express a turn of mind that is an indication of stupidity.
© Pierre-Andre Taguieff
Philosopher, Political Scientist and Historian of Ideas, Research Director at the CNRS
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Can we fight stupidity? 2/4 Pierre-André Taguieff – Jewish Tribune
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