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The Virtues of Inwardness: Reclaiming the Life of the Mind in a Politicized World

Perhaps our belief that the intellectual is synonymous with the political is less an eternal fact of human existence than a symptom of our own hyper-politicized times.

· 11 min read
The Virtues of Inwardness: Reclaiming the Life of the Mind in a Politicized World

Prior to his seminal work on consciousness which would make him one of the eminent philosophers of the late 20th century, John R. Searle had served as an activist, first as a student, then later as a young professor, during the period of social upheaval to which our current era is often compared — the 1960s. Three decades later, Searle, who had the venerable distinction of participating in student efforts against the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and would later take part in the nascent Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, would make a statement that might ring bizarre to our ears in the year 2016. When asked about his role in the Free Speech Movement, Searle informed his interviewer that, “Given a choice between intellectual life and political life, I’d take intellectual life any time. It’s more fun. In the long run it’s more satisfying.”

To many, Searle’s answer no doubt appears to assert a false dichotomy — isn’t the role of the intellectual, particularly the so-called “public intellectual,” to insert herself into the political discourse, applying her talents for reasoning and writing to the questions of the day? Isn’t the essence of Western thought itself — from Plato to Foucault and beyond — political? Is not the resilient and definitive human question, rephrased over centuries “How might we live, and live well, with our fellow man?”

It is clear, then. Searle is not only wrong, but common-sensically wrong. A less generous observer might even come to the conclusion that Searle is selling the political life short due to either his own disillusionment with the movement he once championed or a change in his own ideals. However, we may consider, before dismissing his distinction outright, whether or not we are not guilty of our own fallacy in assuming that because two spheres — the life of the mind and the political life — often overlap that they are identical, that there is no space at which they are not intertwined. Perhaps our belief that the intellectual is synonymous with the political is less an eternal fact of human existence than a symptom of our own hyper-politicized times.


The late 20th century and early 21st century bore witness to a monumental shift in intellectual and cultural life in the Anglophone world. In the academic realm, the rise of Cultural Studies dramatically changed a large number of humanities departments in terms of their subject matter, their approach, and even their very purpose. While the humanities hardly have a monopoly on the life of the mind, the assumptions, the categories, and the cliches with which we have become so familiar (and tired) in recent years – our talk of “privilege” and “intersectionality” — bare the mark of this transformation.

The scope of criticism expanded from canonical works of art and literature to include popular culture, mass entertainment and media. The emphasis and focus of criticism shifted away from the aesthetic composition of the work, the creative process inherent in artistic creation, and the biographical and psychological makeup of the author herself, toward an understanding of art, as well as everything else, as “cultural production,” with the emphasis being placed upon the “product’s” meaning within a greater cultural and social context, bringing to bear upon it the politically inflected categories that have become second nature to us — race, class, and gender.

Finally, the purpose of criticism was profoundly mutated. No longer did literary and art criticism hold the aim of enlarging the shared body of human knowledge, much less of enriching the inner life of the critic who undertook the task of addressing the ancient questions of beauty, existence, and experience, but instead became understood as possessing an explicitly political end, usually as a sort of unmasking of “power structures” in the production and reproduction of culture, almost always accompanied with the expectation that such a revelation of the exercise of power might bring about its demise through transformative activism from the Left. Speaking admirably of the late Stuart Hall, a particularly influential figure in the field of cultural studies, Suzanne Moore described his work as: “the study of how power operates in the everyday.”

I have written about what I believe to be the shortcomings of this approach — particularly that one who is searching for the malevolent, reactionary forces at work in artistic creation, or “cultural production,” will undoubtedly find them lurking under every line of prose or clip of film. This attitude is largely responsible for the current malaise that has set over both academic and popular criticism — the belief that the the interpretation that is most willing to cast its subject matter in the worst light, that takes upon itself the task of pathologizing its own object of analysis, must be both the most-clear eyed and sophisticated understanding there is. Ideological commitment is confused for insight. As the late Richard Rorty put it, this sort of analysis permits the critic to “exercise a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust.” Despite the work of some truly interesting scholars, Cultural Studies is often the refuge of the politically strident yet intellectually shallow.

But there are implications concerning the influence of this shift in academic life that reach beyond the unfortunate ascendance of superficial analysis in both scholarly and public discourse. In the shift from high culture — literature, art, philosophy, musical composition — to popular or mass culture, we witness a movement away from the object that demands careful contemplation, ascetic meditation, and reflection to the everyday, that which is merely experienced rather than thought. In the change in emphasis in criticism from the aesthetic to the categories of race, class, and gender, we observe a stepping away from the internal structure of the work of art itself and toward “lived” social identities and experiences. And finally, in the vanishing of the belief that the aesthetic, metaphysical, and existential insights that criticism might reap are valuable and worth pursuing in themselves, and its replacement with an approach that holds criticism to be synonymous with the goals of a particular sect of political activism, we see a movement away from the the scholarly virtues of knowledge and erudition, as well as the sensuous pleasure of the aesthete, and toward an all encompassing political and social consciousness.

In its subject matter, its approach, and its purpose we can make out a sort of migration of criticism from the inner world — the world of intimacy, of personal reflection, of abstract thought — to the external, social and political world, where the felt and the experienced takes precedence over the contemplated, where (political) action is privileged over thought. It is due in part to this shift that Searle’s above mentioned distinction between the life of the mind and the intellectual life might appear to many of us as strange, or as the academic parlance might put it, “a false-binary.”

Against the Politicisation of Museums
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Every pathogen needs a means of transmission, and the approach, attitude, and even the jargon of Cultural Studies is particularly suited to our sectarian, social media supported echo-chambers; visceral, adrenaline-laced tweets about “white people” can go viral in away that deep ruminations on the use of voice in Virginia Woolf cannot. No one, especially in America, ever went wanting for attention by talking about race and sexuality. And so both the language and the lens of this academic approach has fanned out across our culture — “the personal is political” becomes the mantra of our time, and everything from the authors we love to who we lust for is extracted from our intimate, inner life and cast into the political realm. Our identities — our race, our gender, our sexual orientation — become more definitive of who we are as individuals. Less of us seems to belong to ourselves and more of us to the outer, social world. “The personal is political” may as well be restated as “there is no personal, only the political” — that is to say, only the external.

We are living through, a sort of outward turn, an anti-Copernican counterrevolution in which the self is increasingly located in its various identities rather than in the internal world of its passions and desires. The self is becoming identical with its vulgar tangle of hyphens — one is a “black queer activist” or a “bi-gender-fluid Italian.” No doubt there are those that welcome this new era, the hyper-politicized age, the hegemony of externality. They may see it as natural, even desirable for our lives to be turned inside out, for our collective political consciousness to be in perpetual state of arousal. Isn’t this the only means through which change will occur, through “a sharpening of the contradictions?”

But the outward turn comes with a cost. As we place more of ourselves in the political arena, investing more and more in our political identities, we find ourselves under greater and greater judgement. In a cultural landscape in which your social identities and your politics are not mere facts about you amongst many others, but constitutive of the very core of who you are, the costs of stepping astray become more pronounced. Political differences estrange loved ones, end friendships, and sometimes even careers. As social life becomes ever more policed, our words more constricted, our tribes more homogenous, political life becomes less thrilling, more staid — a mere exchange of commonly shared platitudes. We take on a way of being that is increasingly one-dimensional.

We often say of someone who is a zealot, either religiously or politically, that they “lack an inner world.” Sometimes the commitment or ideological coherence one demonstrates toward a particular cause is confused for wisdom or intellectual complexity, but as Martin Amis once put it – “something isn’t deep because it’s all that’s there; it’s more like a varnish on a vacuum.” The self-fashioned internet activist is shallow, not in the same sense as the consumer of celebrity gossip, but in that she is completely consumed by the outward, the political. She is all externality — surface without depth, that is to say, without inwardness.

We are also prone to uncritically believe the outer world of political life to be the sphere of freedom, where we might exercise our rights, express our ideas, and encounter the ideas of others. However in a time when the political has attained such an importance that we have in a sense all become politicians, closely guarding our words lest we bring upon ourselves the wrath of the crowd, the political feels less and less like a space of freedom and more like a stage upon which we perform the safely politically orthodox versions of ourselves, assiduously reading out our scripted, prefab cliches.


Under these conditions, the inner world — the world of reflection and imagination, comprised of (but not limited to) literature, art, and philosophy — becomes the space of a different kind of freedom, one in which new ideas, can be encountered and appraised. Unburdened by the heavy costs that having the “wrong” political opinions might inflict upon us, we find liberation in the life of the mind. Knowing that we are unlikely to lose our friendships and reputations over whether or not we believe in free will or prefer the prose of Nabokov to Faulkner, our questions flow freer, our knowledge of the subject matter deeper.

In our fire-fights over race or gender, our imputations and bad faith are jettisoned liberally in debates submerged in bile and rage. In contrast, when we live a more inward life, we often find our arguments in metaphysical or existential matters to be steel-manned rather than straw-manned, resulting in more fruitful outcomes. If our aim is political victory, then the ends justify the means, no matter how ugly they may be. But if our goal is knowledge, we may accept that it might be found elsewhere rather than ourselves, fallacies and insults being counterproductive to our ultimate goal. In this freedom to not only engage in the use of the intellect, but also in the play of its unbridled creativity, it’s not difficult to decipher how one might hold a preference, as Searle expressed, for the life of the mind over the political life. It is where intellectual ability can be most fully actualized. Every argument can be taken to its conclusion, where the boundaries of reason itself, of what can and cannot be known, are tested.

However, there are even greater virtues to the inner world of contemplation in contrast to the outward world of politics. Our discourse is dominated by the here and now. In many academic departments, there has been an embrace of work that is “situated” in a particular culture, place, and the contemporary time, with the hope that such work might bring about progressive change. Sometimes even knowledge itself is thought to be “embodied” (that is existing within an individual’s perspective in accordance to their position in a social or cultural totality).

But obviously, to be “situated” is to exist in one place and not another, to be “embodied,” that is to inhabit a body, is to be bounded in space and time. To be “situated” or “embodied” is, by definition, to be limited. This becomes apparent in the work of our current stable of scholars and those that have followed their lead in new media who can barely extend themselves beyond the subject matter and categories of the early 21st century Anglophone world — race, gender, and sexuality. Academics and cultural critics will sometimes refer to their work as “identity-centered,” an act of condemning whatever insights they might make to the contemporary moment. As (some of them) never tire in reminding us, our identities and their relevance are in a perpetual state of change, themselves the products of historical circumstances. The identities that mean so much to us now might be alien to us within generations, and the work “centered” upon them looked back on as mere period pieces.

To be “situated,” to be “embodied” is to have one’s relevance constantly lagging behind the advance of time. Similarly, the works they produce concerning “Lil Wayne and the Politics of Cunnilingus” or “Martha Stewart and Whiteness” are not so much destined for the Dustbin of History as they were conceived and born there. Their sin not merely the abject stupidity of their subject matter, but the alacrity into which they vanish into irrelevance – their insights possessing a shelf-life that expires the moment the figure in question fades into the cultural abyss.

To some extent, the political world is the world of the present, the finite world, calling us to action in our time, our place, our polity. What it can never attain is a glimpse of the timeless, the infinite. Constrained by their “embodiedness” in their time and place, our parochial residents of the present can only ask the questions applicable to their tiny worlds — whether a tv program is sufficiently racially sensitive, whether a music video is objectifying women or not. It is in the inner life, the life of thought, the “disembodied” life of the mind — in the most “detached” pursuits such as metaphysics, logic, phenomenology, aesthetics, art and literary criticism (as opposed to mere of the “cultural product”) that the eternal questions reveal themselves. What is the relationship between the mind and the body? What does it mean to “be”? To “love”? How might we live in a world with a god, or without one? It is in the question, many times answered, but perpetually unanswered, that we escape from the insularity of the here and now, the pettiness and limitations of our own identities, and create a bond, of both knowing and unknowing across the generations of humanity. It is in this sense that the internal world is the eternal world. Only by turning inward can we escape our own external boundaries.

And this is perhaps the most salient offering the life of the mind bequeaths to us – an answer to our perverted understanding of time. In much of the Western tradition, the mind (or the soul) is considered the infinite, the everlasting in contradiction to the finitude of the body (or the embodied). It’s a philosophical position few of us today (including myself) would be willing to accept. But if we understand the soul in a metaphorical sense, as the side of humankind that conceives of, and takes part in, the infinite, that exceeds its present moment, then perhaps we might conclude that in our world of attention span fraying technology and du jour political outrage, we would all be suited by turning inward; we could all use a little more soul.

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