useful thinkers in three kinds

Useful thinkers come in three varieties. The Explainer knows stuff I don’t know and can present it clearly and vividly. This does not require great creativity or originality, though Explainers of the highest order will possess those traits too. The Illuminator is definitionally original: someone who shines a clear strong light on some element of history or human experience that I never knew existed. (Though sometimes after reading something by an Illuminator I will think, Why didn’t I realize that before?) The Provoker is original perhaps to a fault: Ambitious, wide-ranging, risk-taking, Provokers claim to know a lot more than they actually do but can be exceptionally useful in forcing readers to think about new things or think in new ways.

Some 20th-century thinkers who have been vital for me over the years:  

  • Explainers: Charles Taylor, Mary Midgely, Freeman Dyson  
  • Illuminators: Mikhail Bakhtin, Iris Murdoch, Michael Oakeshott 
  • Provokers: Gregory Bateson, Kenneth Burke, Simone Weil 

It’s especially important not to allow the Provokers to convince you that they’re Explainers or Illuminators. This is I think the great error of Girardians: If you take Girard as an Explainer, as they do, then his influence is likely to be disastrous; but if you were to see him as a Provoker, then he could be quite helpful to you. 

Kierkegaard once wrote in his journal, “If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” That is, Hegel could have been the greatest of the Provokers, but, alas, he thought he was an Illuminator. (One of the ironies here is that Kierkegaard himself sought largely to be a Provoker in his pseudonymous writings, but that work has consistently been taken as illumination. The works Kierkegaard signed with his own name, the ones in which he genuinely tried to illuminate, have been largely ignored.) Much the same could be said of Rousseau: marvelous and wonderful as a Provoker, but God help the reader who takes his purported illuminations seriously. 

Obviously one shouldn’t be too legalistic here: Some great thinkers might fulfill one role in one book, a different role in another book (Francis Bacon is the first example that comes to mind). And some of the greatest books serve to explain, illuminate, and provoke all at once — though this is quite rare, and probably no book has an equal distribution of the three virtues. (I may say more about this later, in a post on humanistic scholarship.) But I find these categories useful in helping me to know what I can reasonably expect to get out of the books I read. 

Possible topic for another post: Whether novelists and poets can be fit into these categories as well.