'What Intellectuals Forget: Ideas Require Application' by Gennady Stolyarov II
The Liberal Institute

What Intellectuals Forget: Ideas Require Application

Pondering the nature of existence and discovering truth are crucially important. The question is why are they important? Too often, intellectuals have answered that we ought to study truth for its own sake and obtain comprehension for the purpose of obtaining comprehension. This answer leads nowhere.

Let us posit an individual who has ventured on the quest to obtain knowledge for its own sake. He follows the prevalent intellectuals’ advice to the letter; he seeks knowledge without regard to any effects other than the acquisition of truth itself. At the end of his quest, he obtains this knowledge but nothing else has changed. The material circumstances of his life remain the same—as do his character, work ethic, values, and relationships. What has he gained by seeking truth solely for its own sake? He has done no more than render truth entirely irrelevant to his life. He holds a vast storehouse of knowledge—potentially useful knowledge—that he has segregated from his body, his habits, his actions, and his interactions. He has implicitly accepted a dichotomy between truth and reality—a dichotomy that simply will not do.

A different answer exists for why an individual ought to seek out truth and knowledge—as much truth and knowledge as his mind can hold. Every individual has objective survival requirements. He lives in reality and interacts with other real entities. In order to continue to survive, he must know the requirements of his own objective nature, the natures of the entities with which he interacts, and the ways to use the natures of other entities to fulfill the requirements of his own objective nature.

Thus, what is commonly called “truth” has three vital components: knowledge of self, knowledge of external reality, and knowledge of how to use external reality to serve oneself. What is the object of truth? The object of truth is life, for without knowing oneself and the external reality, there is no way to make reality serve oneself; there is no way to survive in reality.

When one knows and applies enough truth to simply continue to exist, one accomplishes the goal of survival. Yet more can be done. When an individual continually increases the scope of his control over the external reality, he accomplishes the goal of flourishing. Flourishing is not a stagnant state; it is a process. The individual who flourishes continually expands his mind’s knowledge of itself and of external reality; he furthermore continually uses this knowledge to gain control over ever greater portions of reality. The more a man acts on reality to accomplish his nature’s objective requirements, the more he flourishes; there is no limit to the degree to which he can thrive.

The Enlightenment intellectuals understood that ideas must be applied to alter reality in accord with individuals’ objective, rational interests. This is why Locke served as head of the English Board of Trade and worked to ease commercial restrictions on the American colonies; this is why Voltaire actively championed religious toleration in the courts of France and made himself a fortune from his writings and estate at Fermey; this is why Diderot published a massive Encyclopedia that dramatically altered the thought paradigms of the 18th century; this is why Turgot served as Louis XVI’s finance minister and tried to implement laissez-faire policies in practice; this is why Benjamin Franklin founded libraries and conducted scientific experiments; this is why the American Founding Fathers were ready to stake their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” on building a nation founded on the principle of individual rights. For the Enlightenment thinkers, there was no dichotomy between truth and action, between mind and body. They recognized the absurdity of just sitting around and contemplating existence without any application; Voltaire mocked precisely that mindset in the characters of Pangloss and Martin in Candide.

The majority of today’s intellectuals, however, seem perfectly content in exhaustively fathoming the first component of truth—knowledge of themselves—marginally fathoming the second component—knowledge of external reality—and fathoming the third component—knowledge of how to use external reality to serve themselves—not at all. They look down in contempt on all those “practical people” who actually do things in the real world, despite not having as elaborate a justification for doing them as the intellectuals would like.

In conversing with friends who, like myself, take an immense interest in mathematics, I have often heard disdainful remarks about applied mathematics as the “lowest branch of mathematics.” Yet it is the applied mathematicians who balance the books of businesses, who build our bridges and skyscrapers, whose work was needed to create the houses in which the intellectuals live and the cars which they drive. If the theoretical mathematicians with prevailing attitudes turned their mental energy outward into reality—instead of being contemptuous of real-world applications—they might be able to create wonders on a colossal scale. At present, however, their disdain for external application leaves their immense brainpower to uselessly ferment. The intellectuals who have an astounding capacity for self-improvement are today the least likely to undertake it.

There is another side to this prevalent mind-body dichotomy, of course. Many resolute, productive, action-oriented people today hold the academic disciplines in contempt much like many intellectuals today hold real-world action in contempt. To the “practical people,” the study of rhetoric or literature or history or even highly theoretical mathematics holds little value, because there is little profit to be had in the direct application of these disciplines. At least, so the majority of the “practical people” think. The intellectual who rightly perceives great value in the academic disciplines can choose to be frustrated with this attitude, or he can choose to change his approach in presenting these disciplines.

Let us compare two approaches. Following the first approach, the intellectual presents an idea to the “practical person” such that the latter clearly understands the idea’s value in making money, improving his product, or bringing him a healthier, more fulfilling life. Following the second approach, the intellectual says, “Bah! Those real-world applications are beneath me. You will benefit from this knowledge for its own sake.” Which approach will better convince the “practical person” of the value of academic disciplines?

The “practical people” have spent their entire lives learning how to survive and flourish—though they might not formulate this objective in such abstract terms. They might not have the intellectual’s extensive storehouse of academic knowledge, but they diligently apply what knowledge they have to the task of survival and flourishing. They almost always get ahead of the intellectual who only accumulates knowledge and rarely applies it. Yet if an intellectual chose to make use of his abilities and harness them in service of his flourishing, he would be unstoppable. Furthermore, any who doubted the value of academic knowledge to success would quickly perceive otherwise and follow suit in accumulating this knowledge.

The aim of this essay is not to alter the approach of the “practical people”; they can do quite well for themselves at present. If they choose to obtain and harness academic knowledge to further enhance their flourishing, they will not do so because they were persuaded by a theoretical argument. They will do so because they will perceive real-world uses for abstract ideas. This essay is addressed to all intellectuals, whatever their degrees of practicality—for intellectuals can be persuaded by theory. I urge them to look outward and see how they might use their minds to possess, control, and employ elements of the external reality.

If you are an intellectual and you flourish, you need not wait to present a brilliant theory to convince others of the value of your approach. The others will see this value—concretely represented. They will come to you and ask, “What is your method?” And then—only then—will you be able to effectively convey to them elements of your theory.

Hence, do not acquire truth solely for its own sake. When you study history, ask how you can improve your own life by following history’s lessons. When you study philosophy, make sure that your studies help you create what Ayn Rand termed “a philosophy for living on Earth.” When you pursue mathematics, think of commercial and technical uses for the mathematics you pursue. When you study science, never forget technology. There are three components to the pursuit of truth. You cannot have the third without the first two, but you also cannot have much of a life without the third. Survive and flourish by acting. Act to magnify yourself before you explicitly endeavor to improve the world. Then you will not only improve the world; you will win it.

GENNADY STOLYAROV II is an award-winning poet, published novelist,
and wide-ranging entrepreneur; he is also the editor and publisher
of the liberal journal The Rational Argumentator