September 23, 2003

Dear Paul Turner

The question you raise about the intellectual level has troubled me too. When I answered Dan Glover in Lila's Child, I remember being a little annoyed that anyone should ask what the intellectual level is-as though he were asking me what I mean by the word, "the." Any definition you give is more likely to complicate understanding than simplify it. But since then I have seen the question grow because the answer I have given is inadequate.

First of all, the line that, "Biologically [Lila's] fine, socially she's pretty far down the scale, intellectually she's nowhere. . ." did not mean that Lila was lying on the cabin floor unconscious, although some interpretations of the intellectual level would make it seem so. Like so many words, "intellectual" has different meanings that are confused. The first confusion is between the social title, "Intellectual," and the intellectual level itself. The statement, "Some intellectuals are not intellectual at all," becomes meaningful when one recognizes this difference. I think now that the statement "intellectually she's nowhere," could have been more exactly put: "As an intellectual Lila is nowhere." That would make it clearer that the social title was referred to and the dispute about her intellectuality would not have arisen.

Another subtler confusion exists between the word, "intellect," that can mean thought about anything and the word, "intellectual," where abstract thought itself is of primary importance. Thus, though it may be assumed that the Egyptians who preceded the Greeks had intellect, it can be doubted that theirs was an intellectual culture.

When getting into a definition of the intellectual level much clarity can be gained by recognizing a parallel with the lower levels. Just as every biological pattern is also inorganic, but not all inorganic patterns are biological; and just as every social level is also biological, although not all biological patterns are social; so every intellectual pattern is social although not all social patterns are intellectual. Handshaking, ballroom dancing, raising one's right hand to take an oath, tipping one's hat to the ladies, saying "Gesundheit !" after a sneeze-there are trillions of social customs that have no intellectual component. Intellectuality occurs when these customs as well as biological and inorganic patterns are designated with a sign that stands for them and these signs are manipulated independently of the patterns they stand for. "Intellect" can then be defined very loosely as the level of independently manipulable signs. Grammar, logic and mathematics can be described as the rules of this sign manipulation.

Just when the evolution of the intellectual level from the social level took place in history can only be speculated on. I certainly wasn't there when it happened. Julian Jaynes', "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," has impressed me, but other speculation seems valid. Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, could be the pivotal point. Maybe Solomon. Maybe the early Greek philosophers. Who knows? But if one studies the early books of the Bible or if one studies the sayings of primitive tribes today, the intellectual level is conspicuously absent. The world is ruled by Gods who follow social and biological patterns and nothing else.

There has been a tendency to extend the meaning of "social" down into the biological with the assertion that, for example, ants are social, but I have argued that this extends the meaning to a point where it is useless for classification. I said that even atoms can be called societies of electrons and protons. And since everything is thus social, why even have the word? I think the same happens to the term, "intellectual," when one extends it much before the Ancient Greeks.* If one extends the term intellectual to include primitive cultures just because they are thinking about things, why stop there? How about chimpanzees? Don't they think? How about earthworms? Don't they make conscious decisions? How about bacteria responding to light and darkness? How about chemicals responding to light and darkness? Our intellectual level is broadening to a point where it is losing all its meaning. You have to cut it off somewhere, and it seems to me the greatest meaning can be given to the intellectual level if it is confined to the skilled manipulation of abstract symbols that have no corresponding particular experience and which behave according to rules of their own.

I'm not sure if all of this defines the intellectual level any better than before, or if any such definition is useful. It may be that the intellectual level cannot describe itself any better than an eye can directly see itself, but has to find itself in mirrors of one sort or another. In a scientific materialist mirror there is no such thing as intellect since it has no mass or energy that can be objectively measured. From a philosophic idealist viewpoint there is nothing but intellect. From a Zen viewpoint it is a part of the world of everyday affairs that one leaves behind upon becoming enlightened and then rediscovers from a Buddha’s point of view. But for anyone who really wants to know what intellect is I think definitions are not the place to start. Since definitions are a part of the intellectual level the only person who will understand a definition of intellect is a person who already is intellectual and thus has the answer before he ever asks.

Perhaps you can pass all this along to the Lila Squad with the caveat that this is not a Papal Bull, as some would have it, or just plain bull, as others will see it, but merely another opinion on the subject that it is hoped will help.

* The argument that Oriental cultures would not be classified as intellectual is avoided by pointing out that the Oriental cultures developed an intellectual level independently of the Greeks during the Upanishadic period of India at about 1000 to 600 B.C. (These dates may be off.) The argument that the MOQ is not an intellectual formulation but some kind of other level is not clear to me. There is nothing in the MOQ that I know of that leads to this conclusion.

Best Regards

Robert M Pirsig <signature>