David Gelernter and the Life of the Mind

Essay: Joseph Bottum on the politics of intellect

David Gelernter etches patterns in a painted canvas / Still from Yeshiva University Museum
January 20, 2017

I once spent a morning sitting with David Gelernter at Reagan National Airport in Washington—several hours waiting for the fog to lift and the shuttles to start flying again. I had edited him, met him at a few get-togethers, chatted with him over the phone, but never really spent time with him before. The fog seemed to isolate the nearly empty terminal, and so there we sat, talking a little about Shakespeare. A little about abstract art. And, memorably, a little about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who had crippled David's hand and damaged his face with a mail bomb sent to his Yale University office in 1993.

The Unabomber, David said, was beyond his forgiveness—beyond all pardon. To forgive him would be an immoral act. A sin. David would have to ignore not only his personal feelings but the structure of ethics in the universe, were he to let go of the moral certainty of his outrage at Kaczynski's sixteen brutal, cowardly, and vile bombing attacks on those he blamed for the modern changes of technology.

Parts of that fog-bound conversation—the way Macbeth works, the paintings of Makoto Fujimura—were classic examples of what speaking with David Gelernter is like: wide-ranging, opinionated, well informed. Even the discussion of the Unabomber was Gelernteresque, in its way. He was serious and yet contrarian at the same time, willing to violate liberal social pieties—pieties descended from the old Christian culture that liberal society claims to have superseded.

He was also wrong, I think: wrong as a matter of philosophical anthropology (in the deepest understanding of human nature), wrong morally (in the most serious sense of the virtues of justice and mercy), and wrong theologically. But the point is that even on as personal a topic as the sentencing of Ted Kaczynski, he couldn't help but range across academic disciplines in breathtaking display of intellectual fireworks. Or at least that's the point in a day like our own, when the Washington Post runs as a headline: "David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump's science adviser."

We could start by listing all the things wrong with that headline, beginning with its unfortunate use of the verb "to eye" for a man whose sight was injured by a domestic terrorist and ending with the fact that even the most charitable reading won't find enough in the article to justify its headline. Typically the section editor, or maybe just copy editors, produce the hed and subhed above an article; the author, a young writer named Sarah Kaplan, may not be responsible for the headline given her writing.

But that doesn't absolve the author or her work, an entry in the Post's "Speaking of Science" series. Kaplan hangs her column on the hook of a news item, an announcement by press secretary Sean Spicer that Gelernter had met with Donald Trump to discuss the administration's science policy—and possibly to be vetted as the new president's chief science adviser. The position would make sense. Gelernter had taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in October to announce his support for Trump (albeit with admitted reluctance). In so doing, he became one of the few neoconservative intellectuals to endorse the Republican candidate.

Of course, to admit that would require Kaplan to admit that Gelernter is an intellectual, and she attempts throughout the column to prove the Yale professor is simply not an intellectual. "If appointed, he would be the first computer scientist to take the job, and the first adviser who is not a member of the National Academy of Sciences," she writes. "He has expressed doubt about the reality of man-made climate change—something that 97 percent of active researchers agree is a problem. And his anti-intellectualism makes him an outlier among scientists."

The proof she offers for his anti-intellectualism follows in the next sentence: "Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hadn't heard of Gelernter until Tuesday." Kaplan had opened her column by naming Gelernter "a pioneer in the field of parallel computation" for his early work in computer programing. From such a beginning, you'd think she intends to criticize Rosenberg for never having heard of the man.

But no. Rosenberg is the foil by which the Washington Post develops its implicit claim that "intellectual" and even "scientist" identify what is essentially a social class, as though to say: You're one of us, one of our kind, or you're not an intellectual. Not a scientist. Not a thinker. Not a scholar. Not our sort, my dear.

And since politics over the past few decades has become perhaps the key marker of social class for those who see themselves as the intellectual elite, David Gelernter's politics mean that he cannot be an intellectual. Unfortunately, he's undeniably a very smart man, one of the youngest people ever to receive tenure at Yale. A dilemma, yes?

For Kaplan and the Washington Post's headline writers, the way out seems to be to declare that he's actually anti-intellectual. He has, from time to time, used his smarts to argue against the politics held by the class that occupies the key intellectual positions in the culture. He has, for that matter, attacked academics for identifying themselves as a superior social class, notably in his 2012 book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats). A better or more charitable reader might have noticed Gelernter's irony in that book when he suggests that American culture was weakened by "an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges," while Gelernter himself is a major Jewish presence at one of America's top colleges.

Irony, however, doesn't come easy to Kaplan and Rosenberg. They're too sincere, earnest, and convinced of their rightness for any such frivolity. They find the logic too convincing: To support Trump is to be déclassé, and to be inferior socially is to be inferior intellectually. David Gelernter cannot be an intellectual if he has the wrong politics, and the only way he could support or work with Donald Trump is by being anti-intellectual.

If you want to know more about Gelernter and the respect he receives from other thinkers, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a not-bad piece about him in 2009 with the surprisingly charming title "The Images Dancing in David Gelernter's Head." Even his Wikipedia page at least gives enough information that the Washington Post ought to have hesitated to refuse the title of intellectual to the painter, book author, professor of computer science, former board member for the National Endowment for the Arts, and former senior fellow in Jewish thought at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

My favorite of his books is 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, published in 1995. A partially fictionalized history that chronicles the vanished America before the Second World War, the book contains elements of the critique of culture he would later develop. For his thoughts on the technological revolution and his own programming specialty, his 1991 Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox is a provocative primer. But if you're looking for a demonstration of his intellectual talents, his rare combination of artistic and scientific interests, the book to start with is undoubtedly his most recent: The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness.

A rejection of the idea that consciousness is usefully analogized to computer hardware and software, The Tides of Mind is a deeply humanistic book, insisting on the whole person, mind and body, as the origin and motor of our thought processes. Although he draws on psychological and neurological studies, Gelernter rejects any theory of consciousness that does not, or cannot, account for artistic insight. From Jane Austen to Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka to Ernest Hemingway, the book prowls through literary history to assemble what Gelernter calls the "spectrum of consciousness" through which body and mind cycle.

Perhaps you'll disagree, once you finish The Tides of Mind. Perhaps you'll want to argue with him. But it would be hard to imagine a recent book more ambitious and more wide-ranging. A book more genuinely intellectual, in other words, whatever the class approved by the Washington Post might think of its author. We sat through eight years disparaging the intellectuals who joined or supported the Bush administration because they had the wrong politics, and then the next eight years hearing about the superiority of those who joined or supported the Obama administration because they had the right politics. And now we're back to disparagement. It was tiresome sixteen years ago, and it's only more tiresome now in 2017, as politics has become the most defining of class markers.

It was maybe 10:00 in the morning, there in the Washington airport, when I gave up on the fog lifting in time for me to make my meeting in New York and started gathering up my things to catch a taxi back home. The gray fog that wrapped the airport deadened everything outside the terminal's tall bank of windows. Only David seemed sharp and alive as we talked. Sharp and alive as he waved me goodbye and began to mark up the galleys of his latest book.