In 1977, Walter Kaufmann of Princeton University wrote a book entitled
“The Future of the Humanities.” In this book Kaufmann suggested that four
distinct tendencies could be discerned in the human mind. These tendencies
give us four types of intellectual: scholastics, visionaries, critics and
Each of the four types have good and bad aspects. Each type is prone
to errors peculiar to themselves. There is the pedantry and small-mindedness
of the scholastic, the eccentricity of the visionary, the negativism of the
critic and the haste of the journalist.
Kaufmann argued that we need all four types of mind to balance our
intellectual culture. We need the scholar for his accuracy and precision,
the visionary for his insight, the critic for his skepticism and the
journalist for his timeliness.
Taken one by one, the four types are described by Kaufmann in detail:
“Scholastics,” wrote Kaufmann, “travel in schools, take pride in their
rigor … and rely heavily on … consensus or their common ‘know how.’”
Fixed in their viewpoint the scholastics draw sustenance from a visionary who
is dead and who was (most likely) persecuted by the scholastics of his own
time. Despite their faults, scholastics are useful worker-bees. They combat
small errors. But as they reach for precision and accuracy they sometimes
miss the forest for the trees. A good example is when a group of scholastics
rebuked Christopher Columbus at Salamanca, telling the brave explorer that an
expedition across the Atlantic would be foolish.
Why do scholastics distrust visionaries?
“Visionaries are loners,” wrote Kaufmann. They look far afield and
ask big questions. They would like to know why certain walls of thought have
been erected, why certain barriers exist. They challenge the world by
seeking to penetrate barriers to see what is on the other side.
Instead of judging things as they appear, the visionary judges things
by what they are becoming. Therefore, a visionary often distrusts the
judgments of the present. He sees the shallowness of everything that is
contemporary. He knows that the world has been turned upside-down before,
and it will be turned upside-down again.
Kaufmann points out that visionaries without talent, without genuine
insight, are crackpots. As such, second-rate visionaries can be as
narrow-minded as scholastics. Visionaries, Kaufmann wrote, “can be
obsessional or paranoiac and often are both. …” He also pointed out that
“people with distinctive world views are quite common in asylums.”
And what about the critic?
The critic is like the visionary in being a loner. Like the
visionary, he questions the common sense of his time. But the critic stops
short. He is skeptical of visions. According to Kaufmann the archetype of
the critic was Socrates – a man who admitted his own ignorance. When the
Delphic Oracle said that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece the question
was put to him: why are you considered wise? Socrates answered that he
didn’t know much of anything. But Socrates knew that he didn’t know. And
that was what made him wise.
The critic’s game is to attack and not defend. According to Kaufmann,
the critic repeatedly shows how “ignorant, confused, and credulous most
people are – including most famous teachers, politicians, and popular
Critics play a dangerous game, of course, and Socrates was condemned
by his peers. Since politics and society rely on myths of various kinds, the
critic’s game can be destructive. It can endanger the existing order. It
can corrupt the youth and undermine obedience to authority. The philosopher
Nietzsche was not alone in observing that there was something corrosive and
decadent in Socratic criticism. At the same time, civilization owes a debt
of gratitude to critics who have freed mankind from many gross errors.
The fourth intellectual type listed by Kaufmann is the journalist. He
is perhaps least favored of the four. Yet the journalist is the one we meet
with on an everyday basis. He is the one with the greatest currency.
According to Kaufmann: “The ethos of the journalist as a type, alongside the
visionary, scholastic, and Socratic type, is to provide copy that looks
interesting and readable at first blush. …”
Time is the enemy of the journalist in more ways than one. The
journalist is driven by deadlines. He must speak to the needs of the moment.
Consequently, wrote Kaufmann, “He has no time for extensive research and no
taste for the scholastics’ rigor.” Time is also unkind to the journalist.
What he wrote under the pressure of time yesterday is of little interest
tomorrow. Kaufmann noted that the journalist “writes for the day, for instant
consumption, knowing that his wares have to be sold now or never because they
will be stale tomorrow.”
The journalist cannot be a scholastic because he doesn’t have the
time. He cannot be a visionary because he would lose his audience. He may
pose as a critic, but his criticism is often erroneous because it is based on
Of all the four types Kaufmann has little good to say about the
journalistic type. According to Kaufmann, “The journalistic orientation
poses an immense threat to the future of the humanities.” There is danger,
says Kaufmann, in relying on contemporary articles and sources. Books that
have stood the test of time are now neglected in favor of articles of the
moment which later prove to be erroneous.
It is true that we live in a journalistic age. We are dominated by
the “hot” news item of the day. Fashionable people want to be “current.”
There is a desire to be “up to date.” The classics have faded from view.
The philosophers are no longer read.
In nutrition it is important to partake of the “four food groups,”
perhaps in feeding our intellects we should likewise partake of the four
intellectual types. Today it is tempting to stick with newspapers and
magazines. But this is a temptation we must avoid. We must not forget the
classics, as Kaufmann maintains. Let us not forget the careful scholars, the
famous visionaries and the cutting critics of the past.
We should aspire beyond the moment.