Intellectual Hazards

When reading The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman it is clear why the book has been highly praised by people from very different viewpoints. It is a work of great discernment. I don’t need to add anything to what Cardinal Newman says other than to put his toughts in context.

In Discourse IV on University Teaching, he begins by explaining that all men are “philosophical” to some extent:

One of the first acts of the human mind is to take hold of and appropriate what meets the senses…. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause. In a word, it philosophizes; for I suppose Science and Philosophy, in their elementary idea, are nothing else but this habit of viewing, as it may be called, the objects which sense conveys to the mind, of throwing them into system, and uniting and stamping them with one form.

Few people are so brutish and sensual so as to avoid intellectualizing completely. Most of us feel the need to take the material world and put it into some sort of mental order. This is invariably seen as a good thing—a noble “idealism” pursued for its own sake. But Newman notes its drawbacks when conducted without proper training and discipline.

This method is so natural to us, as I have said, as to be almost spontaneous; and we are impatient when we cannot exercise it, and in consequence we do not always wait to have the means of exercising it aright, but we often put up with insufficient or absurd views or interpretations of what we meet with, rather than have none at all…. We cannot do without a view, and we put up with an illusion when we cannot get a truth.

Part of the problem is the tendency of people, who suffer from a limited education or a philosophical bias, of trying fit the world into their own little box. This is the behavior of intellectual cranks and bullies.

Now, observe how this impatience acts in matters of research and speculation… Hence it is that we have the principles of utility, of combination, of progress, of philanthropy, or, in material sciences, comparative anatomy, phrenology, electricity, exalted into leading ideas, and keys, if not of all knowledge, at least of many things more than belong to them,— principles, all of them true to a certain point, yet all degenerating into error and quackery, because they are carried to excess, viz. at the point where they require interpretation and restraint from other quarters, and because they are employed to do what is simply too much for them, inasmuch as a little science is not deep philosophy.

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