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Beyond Thought

One of Harvard’s greatest strengths is its anti-intellectualism

By Jessica A. Sequeira

Last November, a study was published by a group of Harvard psychologists attempting to explain why some people are happier than others. The secret, according to the study’s authors, was that one should not think too much; a wandering mind was linked with unhappiness. “Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” the study’s authors concluded.

On similar lines, “All Things Shining,” co-written by Herbert Dreyfus and Harvard philosophy professor Sean Kelly and published in February, argued that meaning in a secular world could be achieved by shaking off the burden of self-consciousness. Whether by losing oneself in the crowd at a political or sporting event, or by losing oneself in a ritual such as brewing the perfect cup of coffee, “the first step is to recognize moments in your existence when you’re absolutely taken over by the utter thrill and wonder and awesomeness of something going on in the moment,” as Kelly put it.

Reading these results, it initially struck me as odd that these Harvard professors—working in a consummately intellectual environment—concluded by highlighting the inadequacies of the intellect. Joy and meaning were to be found in repetitive activity, in boredom, in slowed-down perception—in deliberate activity without thought. I was reminded of a picture I was sent a few months ago: a painting, by a German expressionist, of two people holding hands. Though a portrait of intimacy, each of their heads was surrounded by a thick-bordered cloud filled in with floating clovers and dots. Facing one another, each person stayed sealed off by his own ideas; physically touching, they remained unable to connect. The moral seemed to be that pure intellect could be responsible for unhappiness; at any rate it was not enough on its own.

On further reflection, the professors’ findings seem to point to a larger tendency. Though it is set up to facilitate pure thought and academic study, so much work at Harvard seems to encourage just the opposite—a life lived simply, prioritizing action over inward activity. Burdened with not only self-consciousness but also a consciousness of their own self-consciousness, acutely aware of their location in a particular time and place in history, professors working here often start from the assumption that seeking eternal abstractions is futile, and that one must actually create some impact in the world. In an environment in which everything one does has the potential to seem only an interpretation or clarification of other people’s activities and works, the idea that one must create meaning for oneself still applies.

This ability to transcend mere intellect—it is right to call it anti-intellectualism—is one of Harvard’s greatest qualities. Students can take away the lesson that there is more to life than paper-writing: an appealing vision, even to those who aren’t academically exhausted and on the verge of graduation. Harvard doesn’t only want us to think grand overarching thoughts; it also wants us to pay attention to the concrete—what one can see and hold—and to leave an impression on what actually exists. Calling attention to the limits of “pure” thought can produce a greater appreciation for noticing details, and an ability to find a deep pleasure in small things. That noticing has an ethical angle too: By seeing more, we can be more discriminating and more efficacious in our care, with a greater idea of what will work or won’t in practice.

There is, of course, a certain danger in Kelly and Dreyfus’ argument. They don’t give adequate attention to the idea that anti-intellectualism is a two-step process: One can only really lose self-consciousness after having had it. Their emphasis on ritual seems to imply a loss of thought entirely, which may not be possible or desirable—while the kind of anti-intellectualism Harvard encourages in the best of cases simply gives rank to a certain kind of action, and a certain emphasis on application rooted in pure philosophy yet encouraging behavior beyond it.

From where I’m sitting now, on the highest floor of Lamont, you can see out past the roof’s edge the tops of the trees: they’re glowing now, in the late afternoon light, a sort of luminescent yellow-green like that of mustard flowers. Beside the trees are the red bricks of the buildings, the spire of Memorial Church, a wash of white clouds on a gradient of blue. All of it is lovely, really so lovely. And all the readings I have done here have made me appreciate the scene, and my own appreciation of it. But they have also made me ask—is mere appreciation enough? And how can I make something of this beyond mere thoughts?

Jessica A. Sequeira ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. This is her last column.

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