This month David Bosworth’s Conscientious Thinking: Making Sense in an Age of Idiot Savants was released by the University of Georgia Press. It is a follow-up to his previous book, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America (Front Porch Republic Books, 2014). Here is a Q&A with Bosworth about Conscientious Thinking:
Although Conscientious Thinking was written before the presidential election and isn’t about politics per se, its thesis that elites are failing us is timely to say the least. The president ran a campaign that capitalized on broad anti-elitist sentiment, and he is by many objective measures the least qualified person ever to assume the office. How do you see our current political moment?
Certainly the self-serving solipsism of the American establishment, intellectual and political, on both the left and the right, as summarized in my book, provided the opening for a demagogue. Taking a longer view, though, I believe the recent election is the most pivotal sign yet of liberal modernity’s likely demise. Recall our experts’ end-zone dancing in the nineties: it was the “end of history” (and the good guys had won); our economists had solved forever the market’s boom-bust cycle; the digital age would soon educate the masses, streaming knowledge and prosperity to everyone. Those giddy boasts should have been the warning, for utopian beliefs, once pursued, inevitably invite dystopian results—in this case, 9/11, two failed wars, the Great Recession, and an Internet rife with cowardly trolls, fake news, cyber-thievery, and ads, ads, ads. And look who learned first to master the political potential of Twitter? We’re about to discover now, in the most excruciating ways, the difference between “reality TV” and reality.
David Bosworth / photo courtesy of the University of Washington
In the introduction you say that “although the failure in commonsense thinking has been widespread, the mistakes of those in power have been far more consequential.” The flip side to this is that elites are usually part of a privileged class, and the price they pay for being wrong is low compared to those who are affected by their bad decisions. On a symbolic level, would a better aligning of the consequences for bad decisions with those who have made them be a good place to start addressing the meltdown of the elite class?
It would be—and, looking back, publicly punishing those most responsible for the housing collapse might have eased some of the legitimate anger of ordinary citizens who were greatly damaged by the Great Recession, preventing it from stewing into the toxic rage so evident during the last election. Yet, as your question suggests, the problem of dispensing justice in our era is a structural as well as an ethical challenge. Despite our libertarian fantasies and the old mythos of the lonesome hero, Americans are living in an increasingly corporate and collective society, even as our post-modern machines are both revealing and enhancing the interactive nature of human decision-making. How guilt should be assessed and merit rewarded, when so many crimes and achievements are, in fact, collaborative or institutionally-based, is one of the great challenges of the post-modern era. One thing is very clear, though: continuing to grant large corporations the rights of citizenship and the powers of government, even while exempting them from the duties and jeopardies that ought to attend them, will destroy our democracy.
“Idiot Savant” is a provocative term given the baggage many readers might bring to it based on usage in popular culture. But you devote a good deal of time in Part I of the book to unpacking the term and exploring its etymology in order to make your case for why it’s apt. Briefly, what is an Idiot Savant and how is our age defined by them?
I use the term to diagnose and not demean. The etymology of idiot supplies a plausible explanation for the failed thinking of so many of today’s experts. As derived from the ancient Greek idios, meaning “private” or “one’s own,” the deeper history of the word links a failure in intelligence (an ignorance or idiocy) to a radical separation of the one from the many. We are at risk of slipping into gross misconceptions when the individual thinker or line of thought becomes too removed from the collective guidance of the social or psychological whole. The modern mode of reasoning that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries and that still informs our scientific-style thinking has been very powerful, but it has always been susceptible to over-specialization, habitually segregating the head from the heart, the self from society, and humanity from Nature. I’m proposing in its place a more conscientious reasoning (from con-scientia—literally, learning with)—a new, as it were, “science-of-togetherness.” This post-modern way of gauging the world would not only adopt all the interactive linking and webbing of our digital devices, but also infuse them with an ethical and emotional awareness.
In Part II of the book you plot out a map for post-modern reasoning that explores alternatives to modernity. Could you name one or two models (person or organization) we might seek to emulate that exemplifies a positive alternative to old ways of thinking?
There are many. Here’s a sampling: the B corporation, whose charter commits a company to social as well as monetary goals; boycotts on both the left and the right that remind corporations of their products’ impact on the wider world; the open source movement in coding; the new websites that share knowledge freely or invite collaboration, such as the Allen Brain Atlas, Newton’s List, and Galaxy Zoo; the potential democratization of both philanthropy and political donations through “crowdfunding”; in general, organizations and digital sites that favor social affiliation over financial accumulation alone, and that, thinking conscientiously, enhance collaboration between individuals and heretofore specialized disciplines.
In chapter 8 you lay out some hopes and fears for the post-modern era. You write:
Shifts in worldview are inherently contentious. The often violent struggle to reform the institutions of the West in ways that could accommodate the new atomization of social thought and practice lasted more than two centuries, finally resulting in an entrepreneurial economy and various forms of democratic rule whose hard-won checks and balances licensed the savvy of the modern mind-set while restraining the idiocy of its potential excesses. These solutions to the problems of human governance, however, didn’t mark “the end,” or even the beginning of the end, “of history.” They were agile adaptations to the cultural conditions of a specific era, and those conditions themselves were bound to change.
Obviously a reformation wouldn’t be necessary if our institutions were running smoothly and our faith in them was strong (plus, you would’ve written a different book!), but you make a pretty clear case that that’s not the world we are living in. Fundamental change is afoot, and we need—to borrow a phrase—to think conscientiously about managing the change to avoid the worst. Are we up to the task?
We better be. The old liberal-modern order is withering all around us, and neither China’s authoritarian capitalists, nor ISIL’s terrorists (much less Mexico’s immigrants) are primarily to blame. Modernity’s key institutions and beliefs are being undermined instead by the new patterns of perception and interaction set loose by our own high-tech machines. Those machines are “empowering,” yes, but unless their powers can be domesticated in democratic ways, they are only likely to undo our long experiment in peaceful self-governance. There can be no “get[ting] back to where we once belonged.” Today’s reactionary nostalgia is as dangerous as the utopian thinking that deluded us before. To “make America great again” will require instead an astute and self-disciplined reformulation of our beliefs and institutions. The historical record is clear: in transitional eras such as ours, those crises that the moral imagination fails to redress will eventually be suffered in the flesh. Civil and sectarian war are the last and least attractive ways for societies to reform.
–adapted from News from the University of Georgia Press
Here are the editorial reviews:
David Bosworth’s Conscientious Thinking is the most exhilarating cultural critique I have read in a very long time. Bosworth develops his idea of the Idiot Savant into a delightfully frightening analysis of how and why our leaders in all fields are smart but seldom wise. Bosworth is one of those rare, erudite thinkers who writes beautiful, shimmering prose. His project is nothing less than to show us the limits of scientific thinking and to suggest how we might re-ethicize science and revitalize it with artistic insights and humanistic concerns. (Kent Meyers, author of Twisted Tree)
David Bosworth is a first-rate cultural critic who brings to vivid life the full range of issues confronting us at the present moment. To read him on what has lately happened in American society is to become suddenly alert to the interpenetration of political, economic, and cultural forces and to the fact that the most important questions we face are not primarily political in nature, however they may seem in a media-saturated age. Though Bosworth operates comfortably within the discourse of the academic left, he is by no means the prisoner of an ideological constituency. In fact he writes with extraordinary grace and lucidity and calls to mind the work of earlier practitioners like Christopher Lasch, Jacques Ellul, and David Riesman, each of them notable for their cogency and for combining a devotion to understanding the past with a passion for confronting the present. (Robert Boyers, editor, Salmagundi)
Conscientious Thinking extends and deepens the important criticism undertaken in The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. Together these books firmly establish David Bosworth as one of our most insightful social critics. The analysis provided here is both timely and necessary. Not only does it appear on the heels of the manifest failures wrought by a highly rationalized economic orthodoxy; it also walks straight into the farce of our current political dysfunction. And the speech it delivers is crucial to the action playing out before us. Bosworth’s critique of specialization and the dangers of its obfuscating language is as good as any I have encountered. In prose at once elegant and precise―and oftentimes amusing―he tells us that we are paying a very high price for our willingness to be wowed by clever fools. It is our good luck that Bosworth doesn’t suffer them gladly. This book is a real contribution; it is a helpful advisor and a kindly guide in confused times. (Jason Peters, editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work)
Refusing to divorce questions of ethics from those of economics and aesthetics, Bosworth models a fearless and passionate transcendentalism for the twenty-first century. Conscientious Thinking is an intellectual tonic, keen and bracing, that yokes the arts and sciences as few books have done. (Anne Goldman, author of Continental Divides: Revisioning American Literature)
David Bosworth has a scary-smart way of writing pithy-but-gracious paragraphs covering entire arrays of knowledge and facts. His piece on Henry Ford, for example, stuns in part because it catches the deep-seated reasons why so many Americans thought of Ford as a sort of lesser god―reasons that still annoy educated readers who cannot even begin to figure out Fordism, or Ford himself. (John R. Stilgoe, author of What Is Landscape?)
Bosworth’s panoramic sweep―from Henry Ford to Andy Warhol to Richard Dawkins―argues for how much intellectual history the essay can contain. Driven by a passionate mind, this work digs through the ruins of what he terms our ‘Idiot Savant’ cultural moment seeking a path toward ‘reintegration of the self with society and nature,’ a cry in the wilderness for wisdom. (Alison Hawthorne Deming author of Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit)
David Bosworth is not only one of the sharpest, most perceptive cultural critics around, he has even come up with a way we might think our way out of the mess we are in. His argument is powerful and worth pondering. No one who cares about the condition of our culture can afford to ignore Conscientious Thinking. (Jackson Lears, editor, Raritan)