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.


9 Responses to “The Pretender, the Philosopher, and the Anti-Intellectual”

  1. “Someone who assumes a stance of condescension to those who can’t keep up with his specialized knowledge?”

    I don’t see how this follows from the previous definitions of pretension. It’s that he flaunts his specialized knowledge or his stance of condescension (mostly) in order to give others a favorable impression of his taste/knowledge. Assuming a stance of condescension, alone, doesn’t seem related by necessity to your definition, but only to other (paranoid and anti-intellectual) definitions. Somebody could easily be condescending for other reasons; for example, by accident; for example, out of frustration; for example, as a sublimation of aggressive impulses. And moreover, anti-intellectuals like to confuse philosophy, pretension, and condescension all together–the second defames and slanders the first, and the third is the source of their righteous fury. I mean, it’s because anti-intellectuals are afraid they’re being condescended to that they take an aggressive stance towards thought, which they take their revenge on by shouting “Pretension!”

    — Wilfredo

  2. I suppose you said more or less that later on. So I’ll leave the post as “violent aggreement.”

    I rather like the bit about other people discuss fashion at parties, but I can’t do nothin bout it. What is the relation to Nimbyism, here?

    – Wilfredo

  3. I think I will wait for a future post to investigate “ethical NIMBYism,” a subject Wilfredo and I have discussed. Suffice it to say that I think anti-intellectual accusations of pretension would be an example of “intellectual NIMBYism.”

  4. christine Says:

    I don’t see why somebody is pretentious only if it relates to intellect or style. The bodybuilder example is what I want you to use to clarify this. Isn’t physique a part of style? And what if the bodybuilder uses his body as proof to his superior knowledge of physiology and proper training, and makes it be known through his very physique?

    Also, pretension is in the definition of ostentatious, what is the difference you’re trying to articulate between these two things?

    Also, and more importantly (or less pettily, anyway), it does matter how the philosopher delivers his knowledge in conversation. It is unintelligent for the philosopher to assume their interlocutor should not have a certain personal reaction to how the subject is being spoken about – take your example of somebody (it could be a philosopher, pretender, or anti-intellectual) feeling intimidated. It is wise for the philosopher to take this into account and to discuss in a way that positively engages both people, rather than making a lopsided conversation where the philosopher is essentially making progress in his thoughts only in so far as he can have a conversation with himself – a disengaged interlocutor is almost as bad as having no external dialogue at all.
    The point of this is that perhaps the best way to trump the notion of thinking being a punishable act, is for the philosopher to engage the pretender and the anti-intellectual in a dialogue that is non-aggressive, but that is also a trap, so that they somehow must engage in thinking. Just as in writing one must know his audience in order to successfully engage them, in a dialogue one must know their interlocutor (not personally necessarily, but what language they use to think) to successfully engage in conversation. I would venture to say that the philosopher who fails to do this is also pretentious in so far as he is unwilling to engage on a level plane with his interlocutor because he must maintain the image he has harvested of his own intellectualism (perhaps in an aggressive contrast to the anti-intellectual), even if his true motivation is the pursuit of knowledge. There is much knowledge to be gained through communication on different planes of speech.

    So to sum that up: the philosopher can be pretentious in his use of language, which is often what causes others to become defensive towards him in the first place.

  5. Christine,
    Physique may be part of style, but I didn’t use the word “style”—I used “taste and/or intellect,” because style means a lot of things, some of which I didn’t intend. I don’t think it’s a realistic scenario that someone would become a bodybuilder to demonstrate their intellectual knowledge of physiology and physical training. Someone whose concern was specifically to impress people with their intellect would be unlikely to choose such an ineffective way of doing so, I think. If they did choose bodybuilding as their means of pretension, they might be pretentious, but also delusional.

    Pretension is not in the definition of ostentatious. The definition of ostentatious I gave above is: “if the goal is to positively affect one’s image in the minds of others, the act is ostentatious.” I go on to give the definition of pretentious, which I could restate as follows: an ostentatious act whose intended positive effect is to appear intelligent or tasteful is pretentious. So pretentious acts are a subset of ostentatious acts.

    On to your most important point, I have several responses:
    1) It is not a contradiction for the philosopher to do something that is unwise or unhelpful. I can imagine a philosopher talking to someone who would feel intimidated, but just because the philosopher did not realize his effect would not invalidate anything I said, I don’t think. You said a philosopher who fails to successfully engage his interlocutor is pretentious, but I could easily see him being just unobservant or a poor conversationalist. Or perhaps the interlocutor might feign interest and understanding. There’s a multitude of reasons why two people might fail to connect in addition to one of them not trying.
    2) It’s not necessarily true that talking to someone who doesn’t fully understand what you’re saying is unhelpful. I have found such a thing helpful at times, and I think I’ve served in that capacity for others as well.
    3) I certainly agree that it can be wise and helpful to engage in non-aggressive speech that can trap people into thinking. I just don’t think this is the only recourse available to the philosopher. Just as I wander away when people at parties talk about fashion, so the philosopher can talk to whoever will listen about whatever he wants—and there won’t be anything wrong with it.
    4) As I defined it, pretension depends on intent. It is impossible to be pretentious by accident or through negligence.

    Your thoughts?

  6. hmm, well you’ve cleared some things up for me, but I’m still not sure about your fourth point. If somebody perceives another as pretentious, does it matter at all if their intent was to be pretentious or not? The perception of pretentiousness is there, regardless, in the observing party. Whether or not they are correct in their perception matters very little, if the effects are induced.

    So therefore we should introduce a new category, unintentional pretention, which can include such symptoms as being unobservant or a poor conversationalist.

    what say you?

  7. Your emphasis on effect rather than intent reminds me of Wilfredo. All of my arguments above were focused on pretension from an interior point of view. If we are going to examine it from the exterior, I am forced to agree that the intent may not matter if there is the appearance of pretension. If we accept your new category, unintentional pretension is clearly a bad thing, not just because it makes conversations worse but also because it provides fodder for anti-intellectualism.

  8. Before reading the entire post, I’d like to point to a much briefer reflection of mine on the same subject from a while back:

    Some time later I’ll comment again to look at how much of the same ground we in fact cover.

    As yet without pseudonym,

  9. Vicente,
    I think it seems most important to consider the external point of view, considering the likelihood that the pretender and the anti-intellectual alike are most probably truly behaving out of something like self-consciousness. The internal reasoning will likely be not a single pure intent, and also is probably not entirely lucid to that person. Though intent is given some value, for example, in our penal system, it is not as important as the effect of the action. There’s some more reasons for this too, but I’m not sure it’s necessary to outline them here??
    Anyway… perhaps we are already in agreement.

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