True Detective and the Myth of the Intellectual

Matthew McConaughey in True Detective

In 1784 Immanuel Kant answered a question, posed a year earlier by Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner – “What is enlightenment?”

His answer was that enlightenment “was man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”. A state of immaturity is when one allows another’s reason to guide them. Hence enlightenment was using your own rationality to guide your decisions, thoughts and actions.

Kant went on to assert that every individual had the necessary rationality. The reason people did not engage in the process of rational thinking en masse was because they did not develop the courage to do so. But they still maintained the ability to do so. To rely on someone else’s opinion without interrogation was convenient. By contrast, to critically engage with contemporary issues and develop an informed opinion is something quite different, and sometimes required opposing conventional wisdom.

Kant’s idea had an indelible impression upon academia and has been utilised by a number of philosophers since, notably Michel Foucault. However it is the concern of the author that the core idea of Kant’s argument is absent from contemporary takes on rationality in larger society. As Kant put it: “Sapere aude!” (Dare to be wise). Yet a trend has emerged in mainstream interpretations of rationality that holds a message in opposition to Kant’s own. The trend can be termed the “myth of the intellectual”.

The myth of the intellectual refers to the idea that only a select number in society can and should engage in rational thinking. By pigeon-holing what should be a universal process of rationalisation the idea of “the intellectual” emerges. The idea that we all have sufficient rationality to develop our own opinions and critically engage with relevant issues dissolves. In its place is the opposing idea: that only a few can do this – the intellectuals.

This pigeon-holing of rationality is best seen in media, and in particular, television and film. Take for example the HBO series True Detective. The show revolves around two Louisiana state detectives. The first, Martin Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, is a socially acceptable, easy talking but hardworking cop. The second, Rust Cohle, played by Mathew McConaughey, is essentially, the opposite. Hard drinking and substance abuse makes Rust seem run-of-the-mill, however as the series develops, Rust is revealed to be quite the philosopher. His character observes society in a critical manner and identifies the logical fallacies that mark everyday existence. His onscreen discussions of individual’s voluntary decision to commit to god are particularly poignant, as are his references to Nietzsche and Freud.

Rust represents what is outlined above – the Kantian conception of Enlightenment. Rust directs himself and his detective work in a manner that only accepts information that is filtered through his rationalisations. In effect, it is his rationality that governs him. A telling scene is Rust’s reply when questioned on past acts. His questioner gives him leave to mitigate his responsibility through accepting he was drunk and a slave to his passions. Rust replies ‘everybody’s got a choice’ and in doing so effectively admits he acted with rational oversight.

What is lacking in True Detective is the idea that Rust’s ability to engage in rational thinking is not unique. Rather, the complete opposite is communicated. Rust’s character is seen as overtly intelligent, spouting “ten dollar words” that would be difficult to understand for anybody without undergraduate qualifications in a humanities field (even that is arguable). More generally he is represented as an outsider, alien to conventional society and a social pariah at best.

The best way to summarise the handling of Rust’s thinking (within the show’s universe) is to say it disconnects him from his own reality. This is highlighted, in a moment of crisis in the show, when Rust states drily “f*** this world”. The statement indicates how Rust sees himself as substantially disconnected from people and customs around him.

A similar sentiment is expressed in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. The protagonist, Harry Haller, feels alienated from his own reality because of his rationality:

It is a pleasure to me, my dear Harry, to have the privilege of being your host in a small way on this occasion. You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape?

You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. “

It is clear then, that the character of Rust Cohle in True Detective reinforces the idea of the intellectual as a distinctly separate being. Rust is seen as being different from those around him, as result of his rationality, thereby making his ability to rationalise unique to him and not universal, as Kant asserted.

What is missing from this discussion is why the “myth of the intellectual” is a bad thing. The answer is simple. This idea encourages us not to use our rationality on a daily basis. Rather it promotes the idea that we should rely on the rationality of others who are better suited to use it – the intellectuals. The problem emerges when one realises a lot of conventional governance is run on the assumption that a country’s citizenry is engaging in daily rationalisations. The clear example is political elections, where it is assumed that voters are critically engaged with issues affecting the country and choosing their preferred candidate on the basis of their continual engagement.

It is the opinion of the writer that to not use one’s rationality is to invite trouble. Our ability to rationalise allows us choose paths of action that we reasonably believe will assist our goals. Once those goals are established, rationality helps to critique what aspects of that path may not be working and adjust ourselves accordingly. Rationality plays a crucial role in living a fulfilling life.

Whilst this piece may seem to unfairly target True Detective’s anti-hero, the series was chosen for a reason. At its conclusion one can see the tangible benefits of using your own rationality to direct yourself. The fact that the show implicitly limits this benefit (from everyone but “the intellectual”) is wrong. The gift and benefits of rationality are available to all and should be utilised accordingly.