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Collaborative Path to Enlightenment

Collaborative Path to Enlightenment



The current public-intellectual discourse on Tigrai’s interest reminded me of Sowell’s “Intellectual & Society”- just the title (I didn’t enjoy the content). The relation between intellectuals and society is very interesting. Intellectuals change society by creating and transmitting knowledge. Think of Hamurabi’s laws, Euclid’s Geometry, Confucius’ Analetics, the Bible, Bacon’s Organum, Newton’s Principa Mathematica, Luther’s thesis, Smith Wealth of Nations, Darwin’s Origin, Marx’s manifesto, Bayes’ Theorem, Declaration on Rights of Man, Shakespeare’s dramas, the UN Charters, Kennan’s X article, Rawl’s Theory of Justice, etc. Keynes was right to say, every ruler is a slave of some defunct economist. I will explore my perspective on this interesting nexus based on my observation of recent public-intellectual discourses on Tigrai.

The Ethiopian crises has triggered uncertainty in Tigrai. This is an uncomfortable, yet reasonable state to be in. If a butterfly flapping its wing could cause a storm across an ocean, a protracted chaos in a neighborhood could cause more damage. I think Tigrean intellectuals have the duty to lead the public from a disorientation to a state of clarity. They should strive to identify Tigrai’s, to use Rumsfeld’s phrase: “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”. Intellectuals that do this help their people transition from disorientation to maturity. Kant calls the transition to intellectual maturity: Enlightenment.

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Intellectual leadership is a collaborative process. Intellectuals should not see themselves in the Promethean sense. They are not deities obliged to steal fire to deliver men from their original state of ignorance. I think intellectuals should see themselves as Ferrier saw educators. True educators don’t see their student as passive actors to lead, empty vessels to fill, or dry sponges to soak. True educators see their students as Socrates saw his, i.e., active partners in forging ideas. The exchange of ideas between intellectuals and their communities sharpens both participants.

Let me begin with first principle: “Who are the intellectuals and what do they do?” Many said so much on this but J.G. Fichte’s perspective stands out for me. Fichte says our sense perception of reality is often deceptive. We need to make extra effort to excavate reality. This particular mode of analogical reasoning is not new. Plato before him and Rawls after him have used similar analogy to describe our natural ignorance. What stands out in Fichte is his view of intellectuals as a class of society. Like the mythical Procrustes, the intellectual class is involved in the task of fitting perception to reality. Intellectuals fit perception to reality by climbing in three different branches of knowledge. They communicate knowledge by formulating theories, i.e., drawing or replacing models reflecting major aspects of reality. They offer paths to attaining that knowledge, i.e., instruct scientific method. And, they identify where the society stands with regards to attaining that knowledge and point out to the next stage it should ascend in the civilization ladder.

I think Tigrean intellectuals have a duty to enlighten the Tigrean masses by engaging in the three branches of knowledge. First, they should present a model/models explaining Tigrean reality, i.e., the major forces affecting Tigrai. Second, they should explain how anyone can reach their conclusion by disclosing their method. Third, they should identify where Tigrai stands in the world and where it should proceed next. Different intellectuals could address different aspects without losing track of the theory, method, and perspective. They can either adopt, synthesize, or create their own theories, methods, and/or recommendations. But they should not attempt to shirk these requirements if they genuinely hope to contribute something substantive.

Let me dwell on the third branch and apply it to the Tigrean context. For example, Harrari said that human beings underwent cognitive (70,000 years ago), agricultural (12,000 years ago), and scientific (500 years ago) revolutions. Tigrai has achieved the agricultural revolution. It has yet to attain scientific revolution. Further, Klaus Schwab says people who ignited the scientific revolution underwent four stages of industrial revolutions. These were: steam engines/railways (1760-1850), electricity/assembly lines (late 19th-20th Century), computing/internet (1960-90), and mobile internet/artificial intelligence/machine learning (21st Century). What is next in line for Tigrai? Tigrean intellectuals should identify where Tigrai currently stands and where its next step should be. 

Now, it is obvious there are hardly any finished scholars in Tigrai (or in the developing world) for Tigrai is a poor region. But it is better to be a progressive scholar (one who strives to learn) than what Fichte calls a bungler. Per Fichte, a bungler is someone “without having firmness enough to refuse all respect to Truth, seeks to chaffer her and cheapen something from her, in order by a favorable bargain to obtain some consideration of himself”. In short, the bungler is not interested in exerting the enormous intellectual effort needed to extract the truth. He is only interested in prize, praise, and power. An intellectual who genuinely loves the truth and his society takes care to trim his idea/s to an extent humanly possible before sharing it.  How he/she shares knowledge depends on his/her temperament.

Intellectuals have different temperaments. Temperament dictates how intellectuals engage the public. If the intellectual knows something about a lot of things, she is a public intellectual. If the intellectual knows a lot about one thing, he is a thought leader. The public intellectual is most effective in criticizing the dominant idea. Her temperament renders her skeptical towards intellectuals formulating one big solution to solve all problems. She is, therefore, most effective in showing the emperor is naked. By contrast, the thought leader is most effective in offering solution/solving big problem. He does not tolerate the blissful ignorance which intellectual ambiguity perpetuates. He is, therefore, most effective at clothing up the naked emperor.

Tigrai has its small share of thought leaders and public intellectuals. The thought leaders argue developmental state, the baito-system, and independence will deliver Tigrai. The public intellectuals criticize these big ideas on many fronts. They eagerly point out to alleged loopholes in the big ideas. When pressed to offer alternative course, they cry: “pragmatism!”. They think in terms of complex systems, scenario making, and probabilistic forecast.

Tigrai stands to benefit from the two breeds of intellectuals. The thought leaders inspire them to envision and pursue what they allege is a bigger and better end. The public intellectuals urge them to mind the hard facts. The thought leaders point out the path to an ideal destination; the public intellectuals survey the hills and valleys (the terrain) that lies in between. That is why Tigreans should not dismiss big visions because they overlook obstacles. Nor should they discard sharp criticisms because they fail to offer alternative solutions. James Madison would argue our political system should reflect our divisions. Madison thought we can’t eliminate our differences, but we can contain its harmful impact by representing factions in the government. I think the same logic applies in Tigrai’s intellectual landscape. The intellectual landscape should reflect the innate factionalism embedded in our nature. So far, I have argued why the public should tolerate, learn from, and support all its intellectuals. Now, I shall proceed to outline some recommendations on how Tigrean intellectuals should reciprocate.

I derive most of my recommendations from the oldest and most productive intellectual association ever created on the face of the earth: The Royal Society. The Royal Society was home to eminent scholars like Newton, Darwin, and Hawking formed in 1660. Inscribed beneath in its logo is a Latin phrase saying: “NILLIUN IN VERBA” meaning “on the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it”. As Bryson put it, founders of the society stressed on “the clarity of expression in place of high-flown rhetoric”. They insisted all claims to truth be stated in clear writing, not in hyperbole speeches. By doing this, they introduced scientific writing and peer review. The founders dropped Latin which was the traditional language of scientific discourse at that time and adopted English-which was their mother tongue. They also urged their members to investigate the truth by combining abstract reasoning with empirical evidence. By doing so, they pioneered modern science (the scientific method). Further, founders of the Royal Society called forth intellectuals to form friendships in service of truth and society. They called inductees fellows. The fellows form, exchange, debate ideas with civility. By doing so, they forged a formidable intellectual class. What it the biggest take away for Tigrean intellectuals?          

Tigrean intellectuals should pick the habit of writing their ideas. Tigrean public intellectuals like Gebrehiwot Baikedagn and thought leaders Meles Zenawi demonstrated this could be done. Their works outlived them in the dripping stream of Tigrean intellectual contribution. One of the contemporary thought leaders in Tigrai, Mehari Yohannes, already offered his big idea in a written treatise. Those who claim to be thought leaders (including leaders of political parties) in Tigrai should “publish their big ideas” in a clear language. Arkebe and Bereket didn’t stop writing after Meles died. One can’t test the validity and reliability of a proposed model by watching some pep talk/sales pitch delivered over an interview or a presentation. It won’t be fair to the public intellectuals. They can’t rebut the theoretical framework and empirical evidence that created the big idea. An intellectual that criticizes a big idea based on heresy (without studying it) is a bungler. He is only out there to serve power, money, or fame. I think Tigrean intellectuals should talk less and write more.   

My second recommendation pertains to the use of native language. Mehari’s treatise may or may not have the intellectual rigor reflected in Gebrehiwot or Meles. However, he outwitted both by writing his big idea in his mother tongue. He has contributed to making Tigrigna as the language of political discourse. Many public intellectuals preach Tigrigna should become a science and technology language. But not enough have written or, at least, translated a major-treaties affecting the faculties, needs, and aspirations of Tigreans. Any Tigrean intellectual who comes across an enlightening book should strive to translate it into her mother-tongue. Some books may be too big for one person to translate. Others may be too technical. In this case, Tigrean intellectuals from one discipline should form ad-hoc committee to select critical books that should be translated and divide the burden among them. This process may involve Tigrean intellectuals of English and Tigrigna to collaborate in translating an authoritative Oxford or Webster English definition dictionary first. Perhaps Tigrean programmers could digitize the English-Tigrigna dictionary and make a software that can automatically translate text to Tigrigna. If this is done, there can be an assembly line process where any English treatise may be translated with minimal human editing.  

My third recommendation pertains to fellowships. The formation of the Global Society of Tigrean Scholars (GSTS) is a big deal. It has the critical mass required to ignite a scientific and institutional revolution in Tigrai. This society should learn from successful scientific communities. These communities publish high quality peer reviewed journals in pertinent fields several times during a year in their native language. GSTS may not publish high-quality articles rivaling Nature or The Economist. A review of Vogel’s work on how Japanese post WWII think-tanks started shows not everyone starts perfect. Even the great Newton is said to have meddled with alchemy, astrology, and the occult. So, quality should not be an immediate concern. Nonetheless, GSTS could start by addressing issues that nobody outside Tigrai cares about. Ricardo would call this competitive advantage. All intellectual communities distinguish between classified and unclassified contributions. GSTS should counsel Tigrai’s leaders. But it should enlighten the Tigrean masses as well. Its works should be accessible to budding Tigrean intellectuals enrolled in higher education. By doing this, GSTS could puncture the Euro/Asia-centric intellectual balloon suffocating poor people. It could recognize Tigrean intellectuals that erect or dismantle dominant intellectual edifices with scientific rigor. It could give them prestigious awards/medals picked from Tigrean past glory. It could award authors who publish high-quality fiction and non-fiction books in the manner of National Book Prize, Pulitzer Prize, etc.

In conclusion, Tigrean intellectuals could lead the masses from disorientation to enlightenment. I think they should lead the public in a collaborative rather than instructive fashion. They can do this by dropping the habit of high-flying rhetoric and adopt the habit of writing big ideas their rebuttal clearly. Anyone seeking to influence people without bothering to pen down his ideas is most likely to be a bungler seeking fame, money, or power. No matter how many degrees he has, anyone who spends time tweets gossip and insults is not an intellectual. He does not love the truth for he has not labored to get her. Tigrean intellectual should write more than they talk. If they must talk action, they should focus on facts and collaborate source. If they must talk idea, they should focus on models and collaborate source. If they must disagree, it should be against reasoning and/or evidence, not the person or party. If they must interview someone, they should disclose their source- not just say: “Most Tigreans/ most people think/say such and such, what do you say?”. Above all, Tigreans should upgrade Tigrigna from the social mileu to the scientific arena. They should award Tigrean intellectuals who erected or dismantled dominant paradigms in their discipline. They should recognize Tigrean authors that demonstrate creative and intellectual rigor. For me the end game is this: Tigrean intellectuals should strive to shape a generation that emulates Newtons, not Napoleons.

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