Sophomoronology, John C. Wright’s Pathology of Intellectuals

The article by John Wright was suggested by reader Nate Winchester.

The tenured intellectual is the only known creature that denies its own existence. They are, therefore, dangerous animals.

Rather, it is not themselves who are of immediate danger, but it is those who come into contact with them and are infected by their philosophical pathogens who are a menace. The tenured intellectual is only a carrier; their disease only debilitates others.

Not all who are exposed are infected. Only those with sufficiently weakened reasoning centers—caused by excessive exposure to the New York Times, “organic” foods, Seth MacFarlane creations, and the like—are at risk.

Some symptoms of the infection are: an urge to attend G8 meetings and throw rocks indiscriminately, a tendency to find meaning in performance “art”, excessive use of the word “racist”, a professed enjoyment of abusively loud music, and a profound disgust or distrust in convention, custom, and culture.

If left untreated, the disease is fatal to self. When you hear phrases such as:

  • “There is no truth,”
  • “People should not judge,”
  • “There is nothing to believe in,”

the end is no longer nigh, it has arrived.

Be sure to distinguish the difference between agreement to and the professing of these statements. Each infected person will agree to these phrases, but only terminal cases will espouse them.

The cure is obvious: if the infected person can be brought to realize that each of these (and other similar) statements are self-contradictory, supremely idiotic, and childish then there is hope. If not, then all the only option remaining is quarantine in a hospice or university.

Terminal cases should placed into a padded room in which a television streams Comedy Central or MSNBC continuously. The self-reinforcement provided to the infected by this mechanism has been found to be soothing. Contact with the outside world should be limited.

End stages of the disease are manifested by utterances of pseudo profundity. Most will make the outrageous claim that because they are “meat machines”, they have no free will, thus no real existence. Their minds, they say, are slaves to “memes” and random chemical manifestations.

They will evince a phantom-limb syndrome of their brains’ workings, and actually claim not to have consciousness. Asked how this can be so since they can obviously communicate will result in either a sullen silence, or outright hostility, depending on the patient. A minority of patients will take up pen to write about their non-existence. These odds scribblings always win awards from others who are infected.

Interested readers should consult John C. Wright, a recovering lawyer and now science fiction novelist, who has given the name “Sophomoronology” to the study of the diseases of the tenured intellectual.

To start, Wright provides a much-needed classification of symptoms. For example, in “Ontology, the Intellectual does not actually believe in the real world, or that objects exist. He often doubts whether he himself exists. The Intellectual is prone to Gnosticism.” And in metaphysics,

[T]he Intellectual mouths self-contradictory statements, paradox, gibberish, and nonsense. An Intellectual indeed can be defined as someone pretending to be a philosopher, but who cannot understand or follow a metaphysical argument.

He also classifies the Intellectual’s vagaries in epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, semantics, theology, politics, among others. Wright, a former atheist, is particularly interesting on his discussion of the Intellectual’s dismissal and despisal of the Christian religion.

Wright’s nosology contains examples from both the political right and left. He quotes from an article by so-called conservative John Derbyshire, in which Derbyshire asks himself, “Can we live without comforting falsehoods, though? Or rather: How many of us can? There is a line of thought…which argues that life is insupportable without self-deception.”

Pictures of diseases are never pleasant to look at, but the act of doing so is a necessity for those who would seek cures. Thus, we must examine Derbyshire’s “comforting falsehood”, which he defines as belief in his own consciousness. That he never asks how “he” can believe in a falsehood (supposing it were one) which says there is no “he” to believe is what makes this disease so horrific to witness.

If we had to pick one phrase with which to categorize the symptomatology of this disease, it would be inability to recognize self-contradiction. Wright delves into this in some detail.

He also explores the related sense of oppositeness found strongly in Intellectuals. This includes the need for the Intellectual to claim that the non-infected suffer from the maladies clearly infecting himself (hence the overuse of the word “racist”).

Wright’s attempt must be read by any serious student of philosophical disease.

Update I originally wrote “Wright, an atheist…” but should have written “Wright, a former atheist…”


  1. Correction:

    Wright, an atheist, is particularly interesting on his discussion of the Intellectual’s dismissal and despisal of the Christian religion.

    Wright is a FORMER atheist. He converted to Catholicism some time ago.

  2. Well, I guess it’s fair to call these straw men characterizations “sophomoric,” since the claims often come from people that flunked out in their freshman year.

  3. For a history of 20th Century intellectualism and some of its pathologies, I recommend The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed by Amir D. Aczel

  4. The ability to self contradiction is indeed not only fascinating but it is a defining feature of a certain category of people .
    For example the flagship of Green … peace was called the Rainbow … Warrior .

    I can vividly imagine a brainstorming of the eggheads in an air conditionned office of some steel and glass skyscraper .
    “OK so what name to choose to best convey the idea of brotherhood , peace and humanity ?”
    ” Errrr … Killer ? Apocalypse ? Disemboweler ?”
    “Too complicated John . We need to stay simple . What about … warrior ?”
    “Yeah ! You are a genius Jim ! Let’s add some impressive color too – bloody warrior ? Blackdeath warrior ? No , I have it , rainbow has it all so Rainbow Warrior ! …
    Well and then they were surprised when real warriors having an unassuming name of Marines sunk them 🙂

    Another example that can be reproduced everyday on TV .
    Select a talkshow having for topic peace or humanitarian help .
    You will always find this mix of : a famous movie actor with an IQ of an oyster , a philosophy professor at a famous university , a rap “artist” (?) .
    And the one odd guy who may be an engineer or an economist who would say things of common sense like “We can only spend money we have .” or “People should help themselves first before expecting that we’ll bother .”
    And the interesting thing is that you will ALWAYS see the people of the first group yelling with foam at their mouths , exorbitated eyes and shaking fists at the latter guy : “We hate you ! We LOVE peace above everything and we should explode your head for not feeling this love for one’s brother .”
    The rap “artist” ususally raising the stakes “Yeah we’re all brudders ! To have peace let’s kill them all . Solidarity ! One man , one bullet ! Lets’ all feel humanitarian .”

    Onne thing is sure , one is really overwhelmed by the brotherly and humanitarian feeling they irradiate …

  5. Those who say “We cannot know truth”, believe most fervently in their favorite myths. I like this about them–they are easy to parody.

  6. John C. Wright makes the following statement at his website (via the link provided in the blog):

    “I do not propose merely a psychological study of why some folks believe, or say they believe, so many ideas that are so manifestly lacking in reason, common sense, and logic. Psychology is not our province here. Our province here is to identify the incentives which make it advantageous for a person to adopt and defend a certain philosophy. It is a study of the economics behind the growth and failure of philosophical schools, or, to use an older and clearer term, it is a study of temptations.”

    That’s the second paragraph of a lenghty discourse (arguably the first real paragraph if the into is discounted).

    Its shows why is approach is flawed–totally flawed.

    Human beings are emotional creatures. This is even recognized in the same economics he references — incentives measured by “utility” etc. NEVER really explained any complex (“real world”) behavior.

    Psychology, of the individual or group — and in his case he orients to a very particular group, which could be representative of an individual — is mandatory.

    But he rejects that outright.

    Making his entire little treatise a philosophical approach of the very sort he is railing against.

  7. Tom Vonk,

    The University of Hawaii were “Rainbow Warriors” long before Greenpeace ever existed.

    Don’t mess with the French when they are testing nukes. They still may be “cheese eating surrender monkeys” but that day the went up a level in BAD ASS.

  8. jack,

    That quote isn’t original with Herbert; it was old when he retold it. And it isn’t true: believing in something you know to be false is self deception, not faith.

  9. Thanks Matt: I read it in one of the Dune books. I have felt that people who follow “blind faith” are deceiving themselves so you are correct.

  10. Jack what is blind faith?
    Do you mean that someone who does not have faith is blessed with a vision that the faithful lack?

  11. Joy: From the dictionary: Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence

  12. Jack,

    Faith is the source of courage. The best of all human virtues for it is the quality that ensures all the others”
    Think about this next time you put your foot out of bed in the morning. How do you know there is not a screature waiting to bite you on the toe?

    Faith is intrinsic to your day, however trivial. Atheists like to call this assumption.

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