Thinkers' role is to creatively disturb the peace

Sun, Feb 17th 2008, 10:52 Last updated on 17/2/08

Vaclav Havel wrote in 1986: When the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia still had the propensity to make life extremely difficult for those who dared to oppose it, "the intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity".

In other words, one of the chief roles of intellectuals is that of being beneficent 'disturbers of the peace' whose ultimate responsibility is to tell the truth.

This was one of the points made during a well-attended and stimulating seminar on intellectuals' role in Maltese society today, organised on January 29 jointly by JAU (Jesuits at University) and the Philosophy Society. It was led by Fr Louis Caruana SJ, a philosophy lecturer at Heythrop College, London University, and Prof. Frank Ventura, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and MATSEC chairman.

Fr Caruana noted the need for a creative distance between intellectuals and the world. He pointed out that, while intellectuals belong to society, in some way they reach out beyond it.

This reminded me of Alasdair Macintyre's conviction that intellectuals' primary role is to try to find the ideas and values that underlie institutions and practices in our society - its traditions, families, social organisation, politics, and so forth - even if society cannot articulate them fully.

The seminar raised some aspects of the role being asked of our intellectuals in contemporary Malta. One facet given importance was that of creativity.

Our society needs persons who possess the ability to see things from a new perspective, which ability could enable us to see how we can further humanise and democratise the workings of our society.

Intellectuals need to be part of policy-making; even in the sphere of politics, we need idealists. And we need people who can hold up a mirror to those in authority, to make sure that the latter do not use fine words misguidedly. When the critical mirror-holders to our society are highly educated individuals, known in other contexts for personal integrity, their reflections are more likely to be effective.

Such reflections would be even more effective when they are carried out by a group of such intellectuals acting together.

Policy makers sometimes have a hard time understanding this. They see intellectuals as essentially opposed to their task of administration, which mostly involves engaging in nitty-gritty issues that are of immediate, localised and pragmatic concern.

It must be said, however, that intellectuals are uniquely suited to see the society as a whole.

They are often in a unique position to point out inconsistencies, propose new ideas, and show why things that seem trivial are actually crucial to the society, and vice-versa.

Another quality mentioned was that of courage. Certainly, every society needs its whistle-blowers - those who seek to hold up a well-lit, critical mirror in which members of society, particularly the powerful, can see themselves without the illusions nourished by the flattery that surrounds power.

The well-trodden accusation is that intellectuals tend to sit comfortably in their ivory towers, delving into books and research but contributing little to society. And even when they do contribute, it is not unknown for intellectuals to lead people astray in "an illusory search for future universal prosperity".

A less-heard but nevertheless relevant charge in contemporary society is that of 'Philistinism'. A significant number of intellectuals may have abandoned their fearless search for truth for various reasons ranging from a blind acceptance of an instrumentalist view of knowledge, to the fear of being charged with elitism. Such 'Philistinism' is often evident in a 'dumbing down' of complex issues.

Prof. Ventura spoke about the apparent lack of public intellectuals on the local scene. He noted especially that there appears to be a dearth of up-coming intellectuals locally who engage with society, stand for something, and who can "understand society and communicate well".

He observed that the attendant risk is that such a void might well be filled by those who seek to pronounce themselves on anything and everything, leading to a situation akin to the above-mentioned Philistinism.

Such questions become even more pertinent when one considers the increasingly multi-ethnic and pluralistic nature of Maltese society. One important aspect of intellectuals' role in Malta could be to promote a genuine democracy modelled on shared reasoning.

In the wake of the increasingly popular but rather naïve line of thought that one simply thinks things through for oneself, we need intellectuals to remind us of the importance of asking, and replying to critical questions.

The seminar ended with an open-ended call for "the humble and courageous service of truth". Even if the seminar was very short on practical suggestions, it gave plenty of food for thought and reflection, and, indeed, begged for some sort of continuity. Perhaps this is a challenge that JAU could consider taking up.

Fr Sultana is lecturer in philosophical theology at the University of Malta.