The Thinking 

On Intellectual Revolutions

May 5, 2009


Much has been said and written about civilization’s great intellectual revolutions, the breakthroughs in thought that have led to ages of enlightenment and darkness, to waves of technological innovation and new ways of living. History is the story of ideas. It is an ongoing intellectual thriller with the slow and boring pages followed by scenes of fast-paced drama.

The micro-revolutions of history, however, interest me more. These are the intellectual revolutions that occur in a single mind. About these, their general nature and characteristics, much has been said, but not nearly enough. 


Every life is a chronology of ideas. Much of this chronology is unspectacular, as is much of general history. There are periods when we each of us work in the coal mines of our own conceptions. We chip away and chip away at the bituminous seams in the dark, a bare headlamp for light, and never seem to come away with more than a day’s living. These are our dark ages.

These are punctuated, however, by breakthroughs. It is as if one day our pickaxe hits a wall and down comes cascading to our feet enough to live on for many years. We are having an intellectual revolution, an event which is likely followed by a period of enlightenment. Our new fortune enriches all we do.

One of the most important things to know about intellectual revolutions is that you don’t have to be an intellectual to have one. In fact, you’re more likely to have one if you’re not.

A paradoxical fact about the learned and super-smart is that they are often so absorbed in their subjects they never get around to questioning their most basic assumptions. And, intellectual revolutions are all about basic assumptions. They involve the ideas you actually live on, your daily meat.

A great scientist may make some brilliant discovery in nuclear physics. It may profoundly alter his prestige, his income and his ideas of physics, but make little difference in the way he actually lives. That’s not an intellectual revolution. That’s not an event that changes who he is.

Another important thing about intellectual revolutions is that they are not passing enthusiasms. Our new ideas change us for good. Even if we later go on to reject these ideas, they still change us, having been the necessary precursors to later revolutions. We tend to look on our life before our revolution as a form of infancy. And, it’s true. If our lives are chronologies of ideas, they are also stories of unfolding infancy.  There is never a point in  life when we are incapable of an intellectual revolution and therefore there is never a point which might not be later viewed as an early stage in development. Deathbeds are famous for their intellectual revolutions. Revelations come with hot urgency there and the life in retrospect may appear suddenly all embryonic.

Another important thing about intellectual revolutions is that they can be stalled by a failure to act appropriately. The whole thing can be thrown off by fuss or self-congratulation. Ideas, as the British poet Ted Hughes explained in his poem “The Thought-Fox,” are similar to small, stealthy animals. They prefer the cover of bushes and underbrush. Leap out on them and they’ll be gone.

Lots of people are on the verge of intellectual revolutions when they make the mistake of telling others what they are thinking or publicly marveling at their discovery. Their ideas – new to them, but not necessarily new to anyone else – are suddenly exposed. The hunter steps out of his covert. Thoughts flee into the underbrush, not to be seen again perhaps for years.

An intellectual revolution requires patience, tolerance for boredom and cunning. The day in which you are suddenly the captor of new ideas may appear wholly unspectacular from the outside. But, there it is. You are reborn.

As for the content of intellectual revolutions, we couldn’t possibly get into that here. It is inexhaustible. The ideas you acquire either change who you are or they provide an important elaboration on what you previously thought about an essential aspect of life. On the Richter scale of the mind, they are quakes in the range of 7 to 8.

Intellectual revolutions, by the way, can’t be forced. Go with your hat in hand to the world’s great thinkers for a quick revolution and you’re probably out of luck. There’s no use cramming. On the other hand, a very serious revolution can be brought about by a single sentence. That’s almost frightening. Within the space of a few words, years in the coal mine fall away. This is very rare.

There’s a whole other issue regarding intellectual revolutions that is complex and never-ending. And, that is the issue of where our ideas come from. Are they acquired by our selves purely in interaction with the world at large and with other minds? Or is there also an “intellective light,” as Aquinas put it, that pervades the universe and falls on each of us now and then?

There are times when a person may be in the midst of some tedious dark age. It seems it will never end. Suddenly, there is some small sense of progress, almost imperceptible but it is there. It is just at that moment that the intellectual miner happens to pick up a book, open it at some random point, and see the very subject he is struggling with addressed. It is as if the author had tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Look here, will ya? I worked on that for years.” 

This type of event argues for the ‘intellective light.’ Possibly, we each have an invisible intellectual guardian, a vastly superior being who is aware of our every twist and turn. He stands at our side judging when we are ready to know something and when we are not. These purely intellectual creatures may shine their light on us as we deserve.

The reason why intellectual revolutions are so little talked about is that they are so singular. There’s no way around it. The ideas themselves may be universal, but the experience is singular. You are in your part of the coal mine and I am in mine. We tap at the same seams, but tap at them alone we must.

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