Ideas are not always good Habits

Filed under: thinking, philosophy, ideas

But ideas may lose their intellectual quality as they are habitually used. When a child was first learning to recognize, in some hesitating suspense, cats, dogs, houses, marbles, trees, shoes, and other objects, ideas—conscious and tentative meanings—intervened as methods of identification. Now, as a rule, the thing and the meaning are so completely fused that there is no judgment and no idea proper, but only automatic recognition.
   — John Dewey

I read this bit by John Dewey and it connected me with an interesting exchange between the philosopher Adorno and his boss Lazarsfeld who hired him as a sociologist. Lazarsfeld had Adorno do a survey to try to quantify music listener's taste so he could schedule the kind of music that would increase his profit (basic analytics in any business now). Adorno, being the model employee he was (I say this sarcastically), worked for a while and quit after he realized that this capitalist work was everything he stood against. Adorno also published 4 essays bashing his former boss for using the 'respectable, high' work of sociology for capitalism.

Basically, the anger of Adorno was simple: Music has became a commodity or ‘a means of encouraging the purchase of other commodities’ and he felt this was not finding out the 'truth' behind music taste and art form but superficial work to push people towards trashy culture.

But the interesting response comes from Adorno's Boss:

Lazarsfeld, when he read this 160-page paper, furiously annotated it with marginal comments like 'idiotic', 'you never know what he's talking about' and - in words that might have struck a chord with Sidney Hook - 'Dialectics as excuse not to have to think in a disciplined way'. Lazarsfeld also wrote directly to Adorno, damning his essay: "You pride yourself in attacking other people because they're neurotic and fetishists, but it doesn't occur to you how open you are yourself to such attacks... Don't you think it is a perfect fetishism the way you used Latin words all through your text?"
   — Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss

One might think Lazarsfeld is simply raging when he accuses an intellectual like Adorno of 'a lack of discipline in his thinking', but I think he was on to something. The accusation here is strong because 'Dialectics' is a loaded term for the Marxists - Lazarsfeld is not just saying 'you're contradicting for the sake of contradicting', he's saying "you're relying on a general pre-established recognition such that you don't have to re-recognize the current situation" - essentially, he's accusing Adorno of thinking out of 'habit'.

It's not so much about if Adorno is right or wrong (though of course, Lazarsfeld's intent is to discredit him), it's about Lazarsfeld, an academic as well, seeing a lack of 'judgement' or 'idea proper' in Adorno's recognition.

While habitual application in craft builds skills, in regards to ideas - habitual application degrades? I think about this often because it's a little disturbing - the more I use a concept, I become more familiar with it, I begin to like it, I fall in love with it - and though its usage increases in quality in my perception, is its usage losing quality out there? It seems like we get stuck in a tragic paradox, where even when we trust and love an idea, we must almost mistrust it in its public application.

I also think about the thinkers I like most, of course they have ideas that they've become accustomed to using for interpreting the world - does that make their thinking necessarily undisciplined? Not at all, but there is always that suspicion... with every new work, I think it becomes more incumbent on them to provide reassurance that they've not lost their thinking to 'habit'. It's a responsibility, yes, but it's also a chance for the long-standing thinkers to further prove their dominance.

And the same follows for us lay-thinkers, it's not a bad idea to go back and reassess every now and then our thinking habits lest we become worthy of Lazarsfeld's complaint: 'you never know what he/she is talking about'.

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