Underrated: Instinct

If you are instinctive, you think for yourself, and find chance beautiful

Underrated
Pablo Picasso, Mougins, France (© colaimages / Alamy Stock Photo)

Intellectuals don’t have any guts. Or, at least, they don’t have any gut reactions. There’s been a debate since the Ancients about where in the body is the source of feelings. If not the gut, then head or heart.

There is a tendency to disparage instinctive behaviour as feral rather than learned, but that’s not true. Instinctive responses are acquired only after a process of trial and error. Once bitten, twice shy. Intuitions do not arrive ex nihilo.

Instinctive Man trusts his own responses. He does not want to footnote his feelings nor peer-review his preferences. He is free because he thinks for himself. Great minds do not think alike. Great minds are always singular. As Flaubert advised, when you hear conventional thinking: “Thunder against it!”

It’s this singularity that make instinctive behaviour so much more interesting than intellectual conformism. If I say Instinctive Man is an idiot, I only mean to chase the term back to its original sense: to the Greeks, “idiocy” meant uniqueness, someone who stood apart. This sense is preserved in our own word “idiosyncrasy”.

Instinctive Man has opinions which, the Thesaurus says, are beliefs, convictions, ideas, persuasions, views, feelings, inclinations, sentiments, biases, speculations, suppositions, estimations and judgements. Thus, all that is required to be a fully-functioning human-being, as opposed to paid-up foot-soldier of the intelligentsia.

Intellectuals are not allowed to be imaginative, but Instinctive Man is bound to be. And has more fun the while. Victor Hugo thought “imagination is intelligence with an erection”. And who would not want such a thing? Whereas Picasso (left) believed that if you could imagine something, it was already real.

Instinctive Man will give you an answer promptly. He has opinions. But Intellectuals are cautious about jumping to conclusions, but jumping is very good exercise for the mind. As Henry Kissinger knew, only fools expect ever to have perfect knowledge. And waiting for perfect knowledge to be acquired licenses every form of procrastination. In Flaubert’s posthumously published novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two dim heroes try to assemble all the world’s knowledge. Of course, they fail.

People tend to say dismissively “but that’s just your opinion” as if an individual opinion were of less value than received collective wisdom. By definition, an instinctive pattern of thought avoids the perils of groupthink. The mathematician G.H. Hardy wrote: “It is never worth a first-class man’s time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.” In this reading, the first-class man is an idiot.

And Instinctive Man enjoys risk and accident. Indeed, actively flirts with the former while enjoying the spectacle of the latter. He is always prepared to challenge the lazy orthodoxy whether it be sourced in the Guardian, the Sierra Club, the Politburo or the National Trust.

If you are instinctive, you find chance beautiful. Raymond Aron might well have been a pur sang Sorbonne intello, but he nonetheless conceded: “Intellectuals cannot tolerate the chance event, the unintelligible, they have a nostalgia for the absolute, for a universally comprehensive scheme.”

Talk of absolutes and comprehensive schemes to my ear sounds like totalitarianism. So it is appropriate that Eric Hobsbawm, an intellectual who never abandoned his support for Marx’s “comprehensive scheme” while blithely ignoring Stalin’s gulags, the Katyn Massacre, the Harvest of Sorrow and Holodomor (where perhaps four million people died), wrote: “The intellectual responsibility (is) to help create an intelligent citizenry”. Speaking on behalf of the citizenry, I say: what arrogant, insulting tosh.

Anarchic instinct is so much more interesting than the rigours of the intellect. Put it this way: how excited would you be when told by a host or hostess at dinner: “You’re really going to enjoy X, (s)he’s a real intellectual”? This would mean looking forward to a ball-breaking, patronising, smug, conceited table-mate probably completely lacking in either empathy or humour. Very likely badly dressed as well, since intellectuals with their great superiority rise above the frivolity of superficial things.

How much more fun to hear: “You’re really going to enjoy X, (s)he stole a painting from the National Gallery then cartwheeled naked down The Mall.”

None of this is to disdain the life-of-the-mind. But it is to say that the clique of self-elected, self-defined intellectuals offers only a very limited idea of how wide and deep the mind is or can be. It’s poets who are the true legislators of the world, not the intellectuals. Not for nothing is the value of “intellectual property” almost impossible to determine.

Really, in the contest between intellect and instinct, it’s a matter of whether you prefer the literati or the dilettanti. I’m certain only of one thing: it’s the instinctive, impulsive, whimsical and careless dilettanti who enjoy themselves more.