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The Idea of Ideas

Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan/Getty
Sandra Bullock holding her Oscar in 2010 as a research topic by Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh who "found that, on average, Oscar winners live nearly four years longer than nominees that don’t win.”
Michael Kinsley stole the idea of The New Republic’s back page, “The Diarist,” from the London Spectator. Each week, the staff took turns writing short first-person essays that seemingly caromed from subject to subject, except that they were far more coherent than they appeared. It was a chance to flash a little bit of personality and to write on topics that would have never otherwise found their way into the magazine. In 2006, Leon Wieseltier became the magazine’s full-time diarist. It was a perfect form for him—allowing him to be at once casual and metaphysical, both funny and aggressive.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

“Ideas were, are, and always will be the next big thing,” Richard Stengel wrote pantingly in his editor’s letter in Time’s “third annual 10 Ideas issue,” published last month. (What a damning admission, to announce an annual special ideas issue.) His assumption that the next big thing is what we most desperately need to know is itself an idea to which some analytical pressure must be applied, but it nicely captures the spirit of the love of ideas in contemporary America. “Conceptual scoops,” Stengel calls the ideas in his issue. Most of them are just pop futurology, fantasies about this and that generated by bits of data about this and that: “TV will save the world,” or “The twilight of the elites,” or “The future of work looks a lot like unemployment.” Bracing stuff. The latter scoop was articulated in one of the most imbecilic articles I have ever read: “Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles.” That is not an idea, it is an invitation to child protective services. Also, “The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials.” This “idea,” the bastard child of Philip K. Dick and Mark Penn, is not only obscure, it is also a fine illustration of the way in which ideas these days are frequently little more than a pundit’s hot mix of slogans and stereotypes. In this circus of ideas, as in every circus, what counts most is novelty. In our fresh thinking, the fresh is more important than the thinking.

The New York Times Magazine also has an “annual year in ideas” issue, which appeared last winter. Some of its ideas were just news of the weird, such as “music for monkeys” or “cows with names make more milk”; but most of them were cute little inventions or discoveries—ethical robots (“Imagine robots that obey injunctions like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative”), and bicycle highways, and lithium in the water supply, and the kitchen sink that puts out fires. Whatever all this is, it is not the life of the mind. Or more precisely, it is the life of the mind conceived pragmatically. These are indeed the archetypal ideas for a society in which the most important question to be asked about a proposition is not whether it is true or false, or good or bad, or right or wrong, but whether it will work—a society in which a checklist can be mistaken for a manifesto. Pragmatism is also an idea, of course: the big idea of small ideas, of ideas as directions and instructions, like the arrowed drawings in Ikea boxes.

This impoverishment of our idea of ideas—our satisfaction with what Owen Barfield witheringly described as “dashboard knowledge”—may be attributed to the new prestige, even the new tyranny, of the social sciences. You may have noticed that the digital age is the golden age of data; and intellectuals everywhere seem to have fallen under the spell of e-positivism. In American journalism, the most comic representative of the cult of “new research” and “recent studies” is David Brooks and his tiny empirical sentences. My recent favorite was his freakonomical discussion of Sandra Bullock’s predicament, in which he comfortingly noted that “research by Donald A. Redelmeier and Sheldon M. Singh has found that, on average, Oscar winners live nearly four years longer than nominees that don’t win.” The Redelmeier-Singh hypothesis! This “science” is related to the rise of behavioral economics, which looks to me like an unfortunate expansion of utilitarianism. Bentham was at least dead to questions of sensibility; but the behavioral economists are confident that they can quantify those questions, and thereby disguise an old and narrow interest in the outcomes of decisions by consumers and investors with a new and broad interest in the mysteries of the human psyche. But you do not honor those mysteries with econometric expressions. Here, from a recent paper in the catchfire field of “happiness studies,” is an example:

I do not pretend to be able to read such notation. I confess to a certain philistinism about all this. But my conscience is less troubled when I consider the philistinism of the equation-makers in their treatment of realms of human experience in which their methods have no place, their contempt for the deep and hard-won distinction between explanation and understanding in the analysis of human affairs. I find their regressions regressive. They owe their ascendancy to the reduced intellectual aspirations of their society. I do not mean to say that the only ideas are philosophical ones; but I half-mean to say so. I miss the days when our public disputations were torn between Marx and Burke; when people believed in as much as they believed that; when we had battles of ideas and not festivals of ideas. And I worry that it is only the liberals who have moved into the natty minimalist and instrumentalist universe. The Tea Party is thinking big.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.