Elitism, Egalitarianism, Passionate Attraction

An interesting article in the Guardian discusses the paradoxical way the discoveries of ultra-elitist Newton were found by Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, Jefferson and Adams and Franklin, Saint-Simon and Fourier, to be full of progressive implications. Gravity affects all people everywhere, which made Newton the supreme philosopher of equality during the French Revolution. Fourier connected the gravitational principle of “passionate attraction” with the free love of his Utopian communities. And oddest of all, “in the debate between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin over a unicameral or bicameral legislature, it was an appeal to Newton that resolved the dispute. Adams argued that only a system with both a House of Representatives and a Senate conformed to Newton’s third law of motion: that to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A fascinating detail, that. One thinks wistfully of the is-ought gap and wonders if Franklin (the friend of Hume, after all) thought to mention it.

But even more one wonders, not for the first time, what it is that people mean by “elitism”. It’s a handy term of abuse that gets thrown around a lot but seldom defined. In some circles it is quite popular, even mandatory, to call scientists elitist. But what does it mean? Does it just mean knowing something? Does it mean exclusion and exclusiveness? A belief that an elite (of whatever kind) should be in power and run things? Do we mean a Platonic belief in Guardians and Philosopher Kings? Or a belief that leadership in various kinds of organisations (hospitals and clinics, schools and universities, learned societies and businesses) should be allocated on the basis of merit or proven ability (however defined and tested and measured) rather than at random or by a popularity or beauty contest? Is it a belief that good things are better than bad things? That there are such things (however defined and chosen) as good books, ideas, paintings, theories, arguments, inventions, products, and also bad ones, and that it makes sense to prefer the good ones? Is it the belief that good books and ideas are better than bad ones but not (for instance) the belief that good athletes or rock stars or models or film stars or sitcom actors are better than bad ones? Or the belief that good books and ideas matter more than good film stars or sitcom actors? Is it the belief that a thing can be popular, even very popular, even almost universally popular, and still not be very good? Is it a sense of superiority to people who don’t share one’s elevated tastes? Is it some of these and not others? Is it all of them but at different times? Or is it all of them at all times. It is a word that could do with some defining, it seems to me.

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