[ Question ]

Is intellectual work better construed as exploration or performance?

byMilan_Griffes25d25th Jan 20195 comments

11


Cross-posted to LessWrong.

I notice I rely on two metaphors of intellectual work:

1. intellectual work as exploration – intellectual work is an expedition through unknown territory (a la Meru, a la Amundsen & the South Pole). It's unclear whether the expedition will be successful; the explorers band together to function as one unit & support each other; the value of the work is largely "in the moment" / "because it's there", the success of the exploration is mostly determined by objective criteria.

Examples: Andrew Wiles spending six years in secrecy to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, Distill's essays on machine learning, Robert Caro's books, Donne Martin's data science portfolio (clearly a labor of love)

2. intellectual work as performance – intellectual work is a performative act with an audience (a la Black Swan, a la Super Bowl halftime shows). It's not clear that any given performance will succeed, but there will always be a "best performance"; performers tend to compete & form factions; the value of the work accrues afterward / the work itself is instrumental; the success of the performance is mostly determined by subjective criteria.

Examples: journal impact factors, any social science result that's published but fails to replicate, academic dogfights on Twitter, TED talks


Clearly both metaphors do work – I'm wondering which is better to cultivate on the margin.

My intuition is that it's better to lean on the image of intellectual work as exploration; curious what folks here think.

2 Answers

anonymous_ea

Jan 28, 2019

4
Clearly both metaphors do work – I'm wondering which is better to cultivate on the margin.
My intuition is that it's better to lean on the image of intellectual work as exploration; curious what folks here think.

I'm a bit unclear on the question exactly. You ask which metaphor is better to cultivate on the margin, but I'm not sure for whom or for what purpose. Both metaphors seem clearly true to some extent to me, and which metaphor it fits more depends a lot on individuals and fields IMO.


aarongertler

Jan 28, 2019

2

From the examples you've given, you show a pretty heavy bias toward "intellectual work as exploration" providing us with things that are more true and useful, and I suppose I don't doubt you, in that it is "better" to take the approach more likely to give us something true and useful at the end (for which exploration, if not fully optimized, seems better-suited than performance).

That said, if I understand you correctly, it seems as though much exploration involves looking at the "performance" of others, and that performance exists only a as a layer on top of someone's prior exploration (however distant). Peter Singer sitting and reading and thinking for a long time is important, but Peter Singer giving a TED talk is also important, if we think of "intellectual work" as "have the idea, and make sure others also come to have the idea".