The Pretender, the Philosopher, and the Anti-Intellectual
What is pretension, and why is it so often a cover for a contemptuous anti-intellectualism?
Let us begin answering these questions with a series of arguments about the nature of pretension(1).
Argument 1. Pretension is essentially outward-focused. One is pretentious at people, whether the target is a particular person, a particular group, or an undefined mass. One cannot be pretentious at oneself, or at a part of oneself.
Argument 2. Specifically, pretension is aimed at positively affecting one’s image in the minds of others. It is not necessary for it to succeed in this goal in order to be pretension. An act is pretentious to the extent that it has this as its goal.
Argument 3. To amend the previous argument: if the goal is to positively affect one’s image in the minds of others, the act is ostentatious. If and only if the goal is specifically to improve one’s image in relation to taste and/or intellect, the act is pretentious (as well as ostentatious).
Argument 4. A person is pretentious if and only if he commits pretentious acts often, or has a tendency to commit pretentious acts.
Example 1. A pretentious man carries a copy of Proust around in his jacket pocket (mostly) not because he wants to read it, but (mostly) because he wants to be seen carrying it, so that others will think he is smart and well cultured.
Example 2. A bodybuilder who lifts weights so that people will admire his muscles, rather than so that he can lift heavy objects or stay healthy, is not therefore pretentious, although he is ostentatious.
If you disagree with any of these arguments (or examples), please comment to say which ones and why.
It follows from these arguments that no act is necessarily pretentious unless the actor has as his goal the intellectual or cultural impression he may make. If someone wanted to prove, for example, that everyone who reads Proust must be pretentious, they would first have to prove that the only reason to read Proust would be to seem intellectual or cultured to others. This is an extremely difficult claim to make.
In practice, how can we say with any degree of certainty that a person or action is pretentious? Two main ways, which I will illustrate by examples. First, from circumstantial evidence: if someone carries Proust in his jacket pocket only when he plans to be around people he wants to impress, and not at other times. And second, from knowledge of someone’s character, which requires no further explanation.
So what can we say about someone (let us call him the Pretender) who carries the same volume of Proust around for months, with a bookmark that never seems to advance? Someone who mentions the names of authors and works far more often than he mentions their ideas? Someone who assumes a stance of condescension to those who can’t keep up with his specialized knowledge? We can say with some (though by no means total) certainty that he is pretentious.
But what can we say about someone (let us call him the Philosopher) who carries Proust in his jacket pocket and does not hesitate to discuss its content? Someone who makes no attempt to bludgeon others into admiration with his specialized knowledge, but does not shy from introducing it into a conversation when appropriate? Someone who views a less informed or less intelligent interlocutor as either unremarkable or an opportunity for enlightenment? We can say nothing. But will he be called pretentious by some regardless? Probably.
Why would anyone level such a charge at the Philosopher without justification? Perhaps they have become oversensitive through exasperation with the truly pretentious. Perhaps they are tone-deaf to human motives. Or perhaps they are intimidated when the Philosopher discusses books they have not read, films they have not seen, music they have not heard, food they have not tasted, etc., and for whatever reason assume that their intimidation was his intent. If this mistake does not stem from one of the above misunderstandings or something similar, it must stem from a dishonest anti-intellectualism.
The anti-intellectual does not want to hear a discussion of ideas at a party. Similarly I may not want to hear a discussion of, for example, fashion at a party, but if the subject arises I have little choice but to keep silent or find another conversation. If the anti-intellectual overhears a discussion of ideas, though, he is free to draw the conclusion that the speakers are being pretentious, a conclusion he can then report to others; since talking about philosophy at a party is something the Pretender might do, people may believe the imputation of the Pretender’s motives to the Philosopher. This unfounded accusation may have the effect of stifling future discussions of philosophy where just anyone can overhear, a result that the anti-intellectual may applaud but the rest of us cannot. Furthermore, it punishes people for thinking, a habit we all have an interest in encouraging.
I know there are those who will disagree with parts of this post. I am curious to hear which parts, so please post comments. And if you do not disagree with my arguments on pretention and anti-intellectualism, I hope you will be careful and judicious in your future accusations.
(1) In the sense of “pretentiousness”; there are others.