Alan Jacobs and Anthony Daniels independently encounter and consider a strange species of academic/intellectual conceit: the ideal of open-ended inquiry, which in practice seems more like a pathological fear of commitment. Daniels finds an architect who thinks that being “rigorous in the questions that I ask” is more important than the answers he comes up with, as if buildings are just abstract experiments in self-expression rather than physical structures for people to inhabit. Jacobs notes a Harvard history professor claiming that philosophy “at its best” is about encouraging a critical posture rather than anything as trite as providing answers to pressing questions of how to live (I would hardly consider Theodor Adorno an example of philosophy at even its second-best, but I’m not a professional thinker and no one asked me). The juxtaposition of these two examples makes me realize how accustomed I’ve been to this conceit without ever accepting it; seeing it exposed, naked and shriveled under the light, makes me realize what a scrawny, contemptible thing it is.
Giacomo Leopardi wrote that suicide motivated by existential despair was reason’s one final attempt to assert itself at any price. Self-destruction in protest against a cruel, unjust world is an example of a contradictory, inconsistent human being sacrificed on the altar of logic. The ideal of a “critical posture,” of existing indefinitely in suspended judgment without ever being forced to choose one imperfect stance over another, seems like an intellectual’s attempt to seat himself upon the vacant throne of the God he banished — observing, contemplating, and occasionally prodding lesser mortals from his cerebral redoubt beyond space and time.