Of Brains and Leaves
Precisely, say the superior minds. The opposite fact is obvious. That intelligence is unequal is evident to everyone. First of all, in nature, no two beings are identical. Look at the leaves falling from the tree. They seem exactly the same to you. Look more closely and disabuse yourself. Among the thousands of leaves, there are no two alike. Individuality is the law of the world. And how could this law that applies to vegetation not apply a fortiori to this being so infinitely more elevated in the vital hierarchy that is human intelligence? Therefore, each intelligence is different. Second, there have always been, there always will be, there are everywhere, beings unequally gifted for intellectual things: scholars and ignorant ones, intelligent people and fools, open minds and closed minds. We know what is said on the subject: the difference in circumstances, social milieu, education . . . Well, let’s do an experiment: let’s take two children who come from the same milieu, raised in the same way. Let’s take two brothers, put them in the same school, make them do the same exercises. And what will we see? One will do better than the other. There is therefore an intrinsic difference. And the difference results from this: one of the two is more intelligent, more gifted; he has more resources than the other. Therefore, you can clearly see that intelligence is unequal.
How to respond to this evidence? Let’s begin at the beginning: with the leaves that superior minds are so fond of. We fully recognize that they are as different as people so minded could desire. We only ask: how does one move from the difference between leaves to the inequality of intelligence? Inequality is only a kind of difference, and it is not the one spoken about in the case of leaves. A leaf is a material thing while a mind is immaterial. How can one infer, without paralogism, the properties of the mind from the properties of matter?
It is true that this terrain is now occupied by some fierce adversaries: physiologists. The properties of the mind, according to the most radical of them, are in fact the properties of the human brain. Difference and inequality hold sway there just as in the configuration and functioning of all the other organs in the human body. The brain weighs this much, so intelligence is worth that much. Phrenologists and cranioscopists are busy with all this: this man, they tell us, has the skull of a genius; this other doesn’t have a head for mathematics. Let’s leave these protubérants to the examination of their protuberances and get down to the serious business. One can imagine a consequent materialism that would be concerned only with brains, and that could apply to them everything that is applied to material beings. And so, effectively, the propositions of intellectual emancipation would be nothing but the dreams of bizarre brains, stricken with a particular form of that old mental malady called melancholia. In this case, superior minds— that is to say, superior brains— would in fact have authority over inferior minds in the same way man has authority over animals. If this were simply the case, nobody would discuss the inequality of intelligence. Superior brains would not go to the unnecessary trouble of proving their superiority over inferior minds— in capable, by definition, of understanding them. They would be content to dominate them. And they wouldn’t run into any obstacles: their intellectual superiority would be demonstrated by the fact of that domination, just like physical superiority. There would be no more need for laws, assemblies, and governments in the political order than there would be for teaching, explications, and academies in the intellectual order.
Such is not the case. We have governments and laws. We have superior minds that try to teach and convince inferior minds. What is even stranger, the apostles of the inequality of intelligence, in their immense majority, don’t believe the physiologists and make fun of the phrenologists. The superiority they boast of can’t be measured, they believe, by instruments. Materialism would be an easy explanation for their superiority, but they make a different case. Their superiority is spiritual. They are spiritualists, above all, because of their own good opinion of themselves. They believe in the immaterial and immortal soul. But how can something immaterial be susceptible to more or less? This is the superior minds’ contradiction. They want an immortal soul, a mind distinct from matter, and they want different degrees of intelligence. But it’s matter that makes differences. If one insists on inequality, one must accept the theory of cerebral loci; if one insists on the spiritual principle, one must say that it is the same intelligence that applies, in different circumstances, to different material objects. But the superior minds want neither a superiority that would be only material nor a spirituality that would make them the equals of their inferiors. They lay claim to the differences of materialists in the midst of the elevation that belongs to immateriality. They paint the cranioscopist’s skulls with the innate gifts of intelligence.
And yet they know very well that the shoe pinches, and they also know they have to concede something to the inferiors, even if only provisionally. Here, then, is how they arrange things: there is in every man, they say, an immaterial soul. This soul permits even the most humble to know the great truths of good and evil, of conscience and duty, of God and judgment. In this we are all equal, and we will even concede that the humble often teach us in these matters. Let them be satisfied with this and not pretend to intellectual capacities that are the privilege— often dearly paid for— of those whose task is to watch over the general interests of society. And don’t come back and tell us that these differences are purely social. Look instead at these two children, who come from the same milieu, taught by the same masters. One succeeds, the other doesn’t. Therefore ...
So be it! Let’s look then at your children and your therefore. One succeeds better than the other, this is a fact. If he succeeds better, you say, this is because he is more intelligent. Here the explanation becomes obscure. Have you shown another fact that would be the cause of the first? If a physiologist found one of the brains to be narrower or lighter than the other, this would be a fact. He could therefore-ize deservedly. But you haven’t shown us another fact. By saying “ He is more intelligent,” you have simply summed up the ideas that tell the story of the fact. You have given it a name. But the name of a fact is not its cause, only, at best, its metaphor. The first time you told the story of the fact by saying, “He succeeds better.” In your retelling of it you used another name: “He is more intelligent.” But there is no more in the second statement than in the first. “This man does better than the other because he is smarter. That means precisely: he does better because he does better. . . . This young man has more resources, they say. ‘What is more resources?’ I ask, and they start to tell me the story of the two children again; so more resources, I say to myself, means in French the set of facts I just heard; but that expression doesn’t explain them at all.”
It’s impossible, therefore, to break out of the circle. One must show the cause of the inequality, at the risk of borrowing it from the protubérants, or be reduced to merely stating a tautology. The inequality of intelligence explains the inequality of intellectual manifestations in the way the virtus dormitiva explains the effects of opium.
Jacques Rancière -The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation)
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