I met someone new recently. As with any new people, you ask him/her questions to get to know the person. So I asked him, “what are you planning to do for a career?” He said that he was aspiring to be a great writer and that writing is an outlet that lets him express himself that other ways can’t. Well, I was captivated by this and I wanted to know who his influences were. Well, I was expecting something that has had a big influence: people like Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Tostoy, Dostoevsky, Camus, or any other of the great authors that we read in high school or college. His answer shocked me: “Stephen King” he said. I was taken aback! Now, I’ve never read any Stephen King so I honestly don’t know how great his writing is. Maybe it is great, who knows? But I felt like I was cheated out of a great reply.
Was this in my head? I tried to figure out why I felt this way. I came up with some analogies:
Suppose that you meet someone and this person says that s/he wants to change the world, let’s say a philosopher. S/he says that these ideas and movements have really changed the way people have seen the world. Now, you might be moved by this or perhaps intrigued, so you might ask this person, who’s your favorite philosopher? What would you do if the reply was “Jon Stewart from the Daily Show.” I would feel that s/he gave the wrong answer. It’s not that I have anything against Jon Stewart. I have deep admiration for him and he is actually a bright guy, but I wouldn’t consider him a philosopher.
Let’s try another example: suppose the same situation happens again and this person says that s/he wants to come up with a theory that explains social behavior and that s/he wants to devote his/her life to sociology and move it towards progress. “Wow,” you think. This might be someone who’s going places. “Who’s your favorite sociologist?” you ask. You’re probably expecting Durkheim, Maslow, Comte, or even Marx. At least they made an influence. What would you do if the reply was “Bill O’Reilly?” Wow. I would honestly say that that was not a good answer. Now Bill O’Reilly does have a view sociology and he does recommend how society and culture ought to do things, but I would not consider him a sociologist by any means. So what gives? Why are these answers considered “wrong answers?”
I thought about this and I could only come up with two thoughts:
1. John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian but he really emphasized on the higher pleasures. In other words, intellectual pleasure was more important than basic pleasure. “It’s better to a dissatisfied Socrates than a pig satisfied” is one of his famous remarks. And by working on an intelletucal character, that will actually make you happier in the end. So Plato his higher pleasure philosophy, whereas Jon Stewart is lower pleasure philosophy. Durkheim is higher pleasure sociology whereas Bill O’Reilly is lower pleasure quality. Aim for the intellectual pleasure is the key. Now it sounds nice, but one problem I have with Mill’s view of utilitarianism is that it sounds so snobbish. I mean, something like Shakespeare is better than bowling, a symphony is better than a rock concert, an art gallery is better than a strip club. Schindler’s List is better than Dumb and Dumber. It sounds so snobbish and somewhat annoying. But there is the second option:
2. What do Durkheim, Comte, Marx, and Maslow have in common? They all have degrees. Well, Bill O’Reilly has a degree, but not in sociology. Jon Stewart has a degree, but not in philosophy. So is it the fact that they must have degrees in the professed subject? Well, that doesn’t work either. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle never got degrees yet they achieved a lot more than current philosophers ever could. I know some people nowadays that don’t have degrees yet they’re extremely smart in what they do. I also know people who do have degrees yet they don’t know shit one some of the stuff they’re talking about. So then why degrees? Maybe it has to do with the idea that it’s their profession. They are considered experts in that field. But then, how do we tell if someone’s an expert? Well, typically it’s because that person has a degree. Uh oh. We’re back to the problem again.
So that’s the dilemma. Maybe I’m missing something but I wouldn’t consider Stephen King one of the “greatest authors” or at least on the same caliber as Shakespeare, Mill, Durkheim, and Plato. But why not? What is considered an expert anyways? Is expertise something just random? Or am I just being a snob?