AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

31 January 2017

Incuriosity.


INTERVIEWER
You are one of the world’s most famous public intellectuals. How would you define the term intellectual? Does it still have a particular meaning? 

ECO
If by intellectual you mean somebody who works only with his head and not with his hands, then the bank clerk is an intellectual and Michelangelo is not. And today, with a computer, everybody is an intellectual. So I don’t think it has anything to do with someone’s profession or with someone’s social class. According to me, an intellectual is anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge. A peasant who understands that a new kind of graft can produce a new species of apples has at that moment produced an intellectual activity. Whereas the professor of philosophy who all his life repeats the same lecture on Heidegger doesn’t amount to an intellectual. Critical creativity—criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function.

INTERVIEWER
Are intellectuals today still committed to the notion of political duty, as they were in the days of Sartre and Foucault?

ECO
I don’t believe that in order to be politically committed an intellectual must act as a member of a party or, worse, write exclusively about contemporary social problems. Intellectuals should be as politically engaged as any other citizen. At most, an intellectual can use his reputation to support a given cause. If there is a manifesto on the environmental question, for instance, my signature might help, so I would use my reputation for a single instance of common engagement. The problem is that the intellectual is truly useful only as far as the future is concerned, not the present. If you are in a theater and there is a fire, a poet must not climb up on a seat and recite a poem. He has to call the fireman like everyone else. The function of the intellectual is to say beforehand, Pay attention to that theater because it’s old and dangerous! So his word can have the prophetic function of an appeal. The intellectual’s function is to say, We should do that, not, We must do this now!—that’s the politician’s job. If the utopia of Thomas More were ever realized, I have little doubt it would be a Stalinist society.

INTERVIEWER
What benefits have knowledge and culture afforded you in your lifetime?

ECO
An illiterate person who dies, let us say at my age, has lived one life, whereas I have lived the lives of Napoleon, Caesar, d’Artagnan. So I always encourage young people to read books, because it’s an ideal way to develop a great memory and a ravenous multiple personality. And then at the end of your life you have lived countless lives, which is a fabulous privilege.

INTERVIEWER
But an enormous memory can also be an enormous burden. Like the memory of Funes, one of your favorite Borges characters, in the story “Funes the Memorious.”

ECO
I like the notion of stubborn incuriosity. To cultivate a stubborn incuriosity, you have to limit yourself to certain areas of knowledge. You cannot be totally greedy. You have to oblige yourself not to learn everything. Or else you will learn nothing. Culture in this sense is about knowing how to forget. Otherwise, one indeed becomes like Funes, who remembers all the leaves of the tree he saw thirty years ago. Discriminating what you want to learn and remember is critical from a cognitive standpoint.

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