The opening lines of Alexander Pope’s 1709 poem, A Little Learning, masterly address an issue that has come to be known today as the ‘problem of the midwit’:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Some years ago, internet reactionaries discovered the truth contained in Pope’s poem when they discerned that, whilst their opponents were not unclever, nor were they very clever; they were ‘midwits.’ As is now customary, this observation soon became a meme. And like so many memes, its content was not a mere joke. Indeed, according to William M. Briggs, once a professor at Cornell University, there is a “deep truth in the Midwit Meme.”
There is a spectrum of general education and aptitude for insight and understanding. At one end of this spectrum there are those who are educated at the ‘university of life’ or the ‘school of hard knocks,’ as they say. These people can and often do enjoy quite acute insight and understanding of the world, but it is almost wholly implicitly, with little ability to convey their understanding with any complexity or dexterity. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum; these have undertaken extremely rigorous educations, not only through specialisation but via truly humane formation. Such formation provides both breadth and depth of knowledge, allowing its beneficiaries to enjoy profound understanding as well as the ability to precisely communicate their premises, logic, and conclusions, and often anticipate counterarguments to boot.
The Midwit Meme claims that these two groups, at either end of the spectrum, largely agree with one another in most fundamentals. The uneducated and the very educated are, the meme claims, natural allies. The real problem is found with those towards the centre of the spectrum, the slightly educated lot. As Briggs notes, it is here that you find bureaucrats, politicians, propagandists—“those with college degrees and professorships.” It is also the home of those who say “ackchyually,” those who raise the pitch of their voices at the end of propositions so they sound like patronising rhetorical questions, and the “I f****ing LOVE science!” crowd.
Before I was introduced to the term ‘midwit’ and its meme, I came across the idea in an interview with the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein. During the interview, Weinstein illustrated the problem of midwittery with the example of what would happen if you were to ask different people the same question, namely, “Are whales fish?” When asked, a person with a substandard education will generally say yes, since he supposes that a fish is an animal with fins that lives in water, and therefore a whale must be a fish. On asking the same question to a highly educated person, who analyses the question carefully, generally he will also respond with yes, since he judges that the term ‘fish’ is a loose category for animals that share a certain living condition, namely they live an aquatic life—thus scaled fish, unscaled fish, non-skeletal animals like jellyfish, and exoskeletal creatures like shellfish are all justly called fish. Weinstein says only the standard university graduate, the slightly educated person, will tend to answer with “No, they are mammals.” Whilst believing himself to be demonstrating his learning, he in fact mistakenly judges ‘fish’ to denote a genus of animals, rather than a reference to a condition shared by many genera and species. The uneducated person, relying chiefly upon uncriticised assumptions and intuition, and the educated person, possessing enough learning to approach the question cautiously and humbly, arrive at the same conclusion. The slightly educated person, knowing little but having great confidence in his limited learning, gets it wrong.
Interestingly, long before the rise of the Midwit Meme, the counter-revolutionary thinkers, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, made similar observations.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke criticises at length those who are not guided by “respect for the wisdom of others” but also not by “prejudice” and unexamined “habit,” but rather approach complex problems “with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate.”
Burke believed that the mechanistic politics that the half-educated rationalists of his age were advancing would give rise to a social settlement increasingly run, not by true statesmen, but by a class of technocratic managers. This suspicion is voiced in his concern that a democratised age would eventually bring about “a mischievous and ignoble oligarchy” with a purely “geometrical and arithmetical” conception of society. In opposition to the assumption that favours quickly acquired elite technical knowledge over socially developed experience and prudence, Burke wrote the following:
Though you were to join in the commission all the directors of the two academies to the directors of the Caisse d’Escompte [revolutionary France’s central bank], one old experienced peasant is worth them all. I have got more information, upon a curious and interesting branch of husbandry, in one short conversation with a Carthusian monk, than I have derived from all the bank directors that I have ever conversed with.
Here, Burke makes his view clear: the world does not need more ‘experts.’ The world needs people immersed in a culture, who are neighbours to each other, full of real learning—whether learning that comes by worldly experience or by slow and humble formation in the Great Tradition.
I have always been suspicious of the title ‘expert,’ indeed as much as ‘intellectual.’ These terms have a gnostic character to them, as if having one of these predicated of you raises you to a special class of perfecti, suspended over the rest of society. These terms connote something very different to the truly ‘educated person’ or to the ‘gentleman’ of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman—a typical Burkean—presented the gentleman as someone who does not stand over society whilst never truly belonging to it. Rather, he is educated for society. The Newmanian gentleman seeks in education the transformation of himself as a whole and integrated person, so as to make the most generous contribution he can to his fellow countrymen, with whom he stands shoulder to shoulder in the public square. What is perhaps most interesting about the midwit is that he sees himself as an intellectual standing in a position of judgement.
Maistre, too, highlights the problem of the midwit. In The Saint Petersburg Dialogues, there is an interesting discussion on language. Language, Maistre notes, is not imposed by a particular section of any given society, but a prerequisite for belonging to that society, ever shaping its culture and historical direction. Maistre holds that there is something deeply mysterious about language: the conveying of intelligible truth—the ideas in the human mind—by the spoken word, bringing forth truth into time. Indeed, for Maistre, all human language is a fragmented possession of the perfect unified language which is the Word in the divine life of God. Every distinct language is, then, a national possession of the Eternal Logos. All who possess something of language have made their own a portion of the wisdom of God.
Maistre despised the view of the philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac that most social problems could be remedied by subjecting all language to philosophic correction (a notion reintroduced by some analytic philosophers in the 20th century). Condillac was essentially transposing Enlightenment assumptions in political thought to the realm of language, namely that ‘Reason,’ independent of context, history, shared cultural commitments, and so forth, could purify and bring to perfection something historically conditioned, contextual, and particular. In opposition to this view, Maistre asserted that “language could not be created a priori or perfected by the wit of man or philosopher.” Maistre trusted the language of the ordinary man and rejected the idea that only language purified by a ‘rational’ class, who could philosophically scrutinise and cleanse it, was true language.
Maistre, contrary to Condillac, argued that it is precisely because of the common and unexamined nature of language, that the moral intuitions of the uneducated are largely to be trusted. The uneducated person’s unexamined language expresses moral prejudices and uncriticised assumptions which, Maistre argues, are generally trustworthy, for such prejudices and assumptions comprise the general moral deposit that has shaped a cohesive society. So too, the truly and profoundly educated person is someone who has learned enough to know that his knowledge is in fact very limited, and hugely dependent on the knowledge of others, and therefore he is also largely to be trusted.
The dangerous person, for Maistre, is the person situated between these two: the slightly educated person—or, if you like, the midwit. This person has learned enough to convince himself that he knows something, but not enough to see that this something is very little and part of a larger context. Such a person, with a very truncated conception of the span of reality, is quickly driven to stand in judgement over his society, which he does not understand, but believes himself to have comprehended in its entirety. The slightly educated person believes that he knows reality, and therefore that he can judge it. He does not, however, really know much at all. This is what Maistre means by his relentless criticisms of ‘individual reason.’ The slightly educated person understands little besides his ideas about the reality that he does not well understand. He does not return from those ideas back to the reality of which they are abstractions, abstractions to which he anxiously and unsuccessfully seeks to conform the world. The slightly educated person, in other words, is a natural rationalist, prone to unite himself to revolutionary causes.
In Maistre’s view, the uneducated person and the truly educated person see themselves as members of the same community; the slightly educated person sees himself as belonging to what Maistre sarcastically calls “the Elect.” As Enlightenment scholar Jack Lively presents Maistre’s position: “it was not the Elect who could hear this inner voice of conscience, but the unsophisticated, all those unstained by excessive rationalism—and this was a state within all man’s capacities.”
It is noteworthy, then, that in conservative and reactionary circles the problem of the midwit has emerged as a major theme for classifying those who would have little or no sympathy for right-wing arguments and objections. By identifying the epistemic problem of midwittery, these online conservatives stand in a long tradition of counter-revolutionary thinkers going back to those two great men, Burke and Maistre, who exhausted themselves attempting to slam the brakes on the French Revolution and its poisonous fruit, the Terror.