Paul Valéry

Remarks on Intelligence


It happens that someone has been asked whether there is a crisis in intelligence, whether the world is becoming stupid, whether there is a distaste for culture, whether the liberal professions are suffering, perhaps dying their strength declining, their ranks thinning, their prestige gradually diminishing, their existence more and more thankless, precarious, and near its end…

But this same someone is taken aback by such questions – he was far from thinking about them. He has to get hold of himself, turn around, and face them; he must rouse himself from other thoughts and rub the eyes of his mind, which are words.

“Crisis?” he says first of all, “what exactly is a crisis? Let’s take a look at this term!” A crisis is the passage from one particular mode of functioning to another; a passage made perceptible by signs or symptoms. During a crisis, time seems to change its nature, duration no longer gives the same impression as in the normal state of things. Instead of measuring permanence it measures change. Every crisis involves the intervention of new “causes” that disturb the existing equilibrium, whether mobile or immobile.

How can we fit the idea of crisis, which we have now briefly reviewed, with the notion of intelligence?

We live on very vague, very crude notions, and, moreover, they live on us. What we know, we know from the operation of what we do not know.

Necessary and even sufficient though they are for quick exchanges of thought, there is not one of these incomplete and indispensable notions that can bear close inspection. Once our attention settles on one of them, we find in it a confusion of widely differing usages and examples that can never be reconciled. What was clear in passing, and readily understood, becomes obscure when we fix on it; what was whole breaks down into parts; what was with us is against us. A slight turn of some mysterious screw shifts the microscope of consciousness, adds the element of time to increase the magnifying power of our attention, and finally brings our inner confusion into focus for us.

Dwell, for example, however slightly, on words like time, universe, race, form, nature, poetry, etc., and you see how they divide to infinity, becoming incomprehensible. A few moments ago we were using them for understanding each other; now they change into means of confounding us. They took part, without our knowing it, in our plans and actions, like limbs so tractable that we forget them, until reflection sets them against us, transforms them into obstacles and difficulties. It seems, in fact, that words in movement and in combination are quite different things from the same words inert and isolated!

This general and indeed remarkable character of our instruments of thought is what engenders nearly all philosophical, moral, literary, and political life – all that activity which is as useless as can be, but also as helpful as can be in developing the subtlety, profundity, and proper action of the mind. Our enthusiasms and aversions depend directly on the vices of our language; its ambiguities promote differences, distinctions, and objections, all the sparring of intellectual adversaries. And fortunately they also prevent minds from ever coming to rest… We can observe, as we turn the pages of history, that a dispute which is not irreconcilable is a dispute of no importance.

Intelligence is one of those notions that derive all their value from the other terms coupled with them, by affinity or contrast, in some discourse. It is contrasted at various times with sensibility, with memory, with instinct, with stupidity. Sometimes it is a faculty, at other times a degree of that faculty; occasionally it is taken to be the whole of the mind itself, and is given the whole vague lot of the mind’s properties.

During the last few years this word, already encumbered with several quite different meanings, has, by a kind of contagion frequent in language, contracted a new and entirely foreign sense. I hardly think we are to be congratulated on extending the word intelligence to refer to a whole class of persons in society, and to translate in this way the Russian intelligentsia.

The phrase crisis in intelligence, then, may be understood to mean the deterioration of a certain faculty in all men; or only in those most gifted in that faculty, or who should be; or again, as a crisis in all the faculties of the average mind; or further, a crisis in the value and prestige of intelligence in our society, present or to come. And finally, it may also be seen, if we include the new meaning borrowed from the Russians, as a crisis affecting a class of persons with respect to the quality, the number, or the living conditions of its members. It remains to be seen which of all these differently defined sorts of “intelligence” is the one supposed to be in jeopardy.

The someone being questioned sees at once five or six possibilities. He senses that the slightest further inquiry would bring out others. He wanders from one point of view to another, from crisis to crisis, from a crisis in one’s faculties, to a crisis in values, to a class crisis.

Posted: December 2018
Category: Essays