kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Perspective: Beginning and ending with ideas

IDEAS: Their production and consumption

IN the course of my vocation in the university, I am asked, ad nauseam, what my deliverables are. In recent years, the word “product” is used to describe output, which in conventional parlance, will denote a thing, a gadget, a model, formulae or something tangible, perhaps a peer-reviewed journal paper or a book.

Lately I have noticed peers describing their deliverables as producing modules, guidelines and indexes indicated in their research proposals.

While such deliverables give a measure of an academic’s diligence and perseverance, the “performance” of those who teach in universities and other similar institutions is quite something else.

I have written about academic life and intellectuals (which need not necessarily mean the same thing) in my previous columns. But let me return to the theme. The core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such — not the personal application of ideas, as in engineers or nuclear scientists who apply complex scientific principles to physical structures or mechanisms to build a bridge or rocket.

Despite his insights and talents, Bill Gates is not regarded as an intellectual.
— Picture courtes of

Or consider a policy wonk — obsessed with “social engineering” — doing applied social science, the end product is the formulation and implementation of policy (by other bureaucrats).

The discourse on intellectuals in Malaysia — the producer of ideas — is a rare occurrence. Thomas Sowell, an economist, offered some insights into intellectuals in Intellectuals and Society (2011). An intellectual’s work, he asserted, begins and ends with ideas.

He cited Jonas Salk, the inventor of vaccine, and Bill Gates’ computer operating system. Despite the brainpower, insights and talents involved in those and other achievements, such individuals are not intellectuals.

On the other hand, Adam Smith, who never ran a business (he was a philosopher — not an economist in the modern sense), and Karl Marx, who never administered a Gulag, were intellectuals. Ideas are not only key to their functions, but a criteria of achievements and a source of their occupations.

Intellectuals are occupied in the pursuit of ideas. In a university setting, the quintessential intellectuals of the academic world, for example, are those in fields which are more pervaded by ideas as such, noted Sowell.

We do not go to a school — medical, engineering or business — or a department — sport science or information technology — when we want to find an academic intellectual.

Traditionally, as we have seen in Malaysia and the world over, such consciousness comes from disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, economics, history and literature. The last one is in the guise of Malay Studies. And the first political science study was at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1970.

But the study of politics began much earlier at University of Malaya in the Economics Faculty, under the name of public administration. There was no such thing as an intellectual from the political science department then. They would be seen as dangerously subversive.

And many intellectuals are indeed subversive to the powers that be. Their works may be seldom read, much less understood. But the intricacies of their analyses have inspired vast numbers of intellectuals, and through them, the public.

When we talk of intellectuals (not necessarily public intellectuals), we mean an occupational description, rather than a qualitative label or an honorific title.

Another label is the intelligentsia. Historian W. R. Roff in The Origins of Malay Nationalism (1974) delved into the role of the Malay intelligentsia in early 20th century Malaya. These are also producers of ideas which included mainly teachers, journalists and social activists.

During that period in Malaya (and including Singapore), periodicals were used to disseminate ideas about emancipation, progress, religion, race and identity, colonialism, wealth, labour, power, war and peace. But these ideas did not come from the intelligentsia themselves, but through them from master ideas by intellectuals.

Journalists and teachers, who functioned as columnists and writers, were both producers and consumers of these ideas. These are part of the intelligentsia, which includes, but is not limited to intellectuals.

While Sowell noted ideas are not the exclusive property of intellectuals — engineers, financiers and physicians also work with ideas — certain peculiar attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns come to mind when intellectuals are discussed.

Two features are spelt out — verifiability and accountability. Empiricists will not agree but among intellectuals, non-empirical criteria are much celebrated.

In contrast to engineers and scientists, where empirical success which is manifested and enduring is accepted as proof, the “ultimate test of a deconstructionist’s ideas is whether other deconstructionists find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant or ingenious”.

Intellectuals do not go through external tests, except for the peer-reviewed journal and the currently fashionable Institute of Science Indexed (ISI) publications (and now they are into ISI-indexed books).

The fault line — between those most likely to be considered intellectuals and those who are not — tends to run betweenwhether ideas are ultimately subject to internal or external criteria.

The great social danger, as Sowell described it, with purely internal criteria is that they can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world, their plausibility very much depends on what one already believes. e.g. the circle of conversations surrounding the production of an academic journal; and who already believes in what, which says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world — a Kuhnian paradigm.

But external to the university may be argued as internal among the fraternity of scientists and scholars.

The world has seen how potent ideas are sealed off from the external world. These ideas — of Adam Smith, Lenin, Marx, Shariati, Tolstoy, Machiavelli and Attaturk — impact on that very external world itself. Closer to home, we have Jose Rizal, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Soekarno, Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Another feature is accountability. Intellectuals are ultimately unaccountable to the external world. These are confirmed by such concepts as academic tenure, “academic freedom” and “autonomy”. It has become a matter of a principle that intellectuals be free from social standards, while setting standards for others.

Intellectuals are listened to in deference. Some acquired a reputation for idealism.

And indeed, the impact of Imperial Japan’s Kyoto School of Philosophy in the likes of Nishida Kitaro and Keiji Nishitani and the philosophes of the French Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Condorcet and Jean-Jaques Rosseau can hardly be disputed.

The face and spirit of nations and modern civilisation bear the soul of the production and consumption of these ideas. New Straits Times Learning Curve 08/06/2014 A. Murad Merican

Tags: ideas

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