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Samo Burja and the New Private Intellectual

7 min

I just published a new episode of the podcast. Here I collect some of its best insights, in text for your convenience. From Other Life Episode #129, Samo Burja on Intellectual Legitimacy and His Business Model as a Private Researcher, you'll learn about:

On the dangers of a rebel mentality

I caution the audience to show off less. It's very important to have substance first. Why should we go with the thoughts of an intellectual that straightforwardly hates us? That's why the bitterness of isolation of thought is poison. I think to truly have your ideas flourish, you must love society. You must love the people in it and genuinely try to be kind of benevolent, to be positively oriented. And I think rebellion is a useful thing to start with but it ultimately limits growth. A rebel always assumes that they will be destroyed. I would claim that subconsciously, very quietly, they assume that eventually they're going to get me and I’m going to be this tragic figure like Galileo or Jan Hus or whatever… I’m going to be burned at the stake, and I’m like, okay, so it feels like you've already written your play, why don't you write a better ending to it?

On the similarity between great rulers and great intellectuals

Great Founder Theory proposes that there are particular individuals that could be considered almost inventors of particular civilizations, or worldviews, or what I call social technologies. A social technology being culture, but viewed kind of instrumentally in this functionalist perspective. If we were to try to pigeonhole this into the academic approach, I think a functionalist sociology perspective is about closest to the way that I think about this stuff. I think that for example, Charlemagne is a great founder. Patton is not a great founder, the World War II general. So merely being a great man, a great individual isn't enough to be a great founder. Why does Charlemagne, a successful conqueror king in early medieval Europe, get that title, in my opinion? Well, it's because he does deep and wide-scale social reforms throughout his empire. He reintroduces the study of Latin and reintroduces Roman law to a system that had mostly been relying on tribal law. He creates modern feudalism in the big picture. Medieval feudalism out of a much simpler, previous tribal structure, defining how Europe will do inheritance and political power for 1000 years. He differentiates Western Europe from say, the Byzantine Empire from the Orthodox world, gives the Catholic Church a new lease on life. I could keep on listening things, but you see how, what he's doing is grabbing the big systems of society and reshaping them.

I would argue that Confucius and, arguably, also Aristotle both qualify, where I note that Aristotle is not just a philosopher. He is a tutor to Alexander the Great. So arguably his views about politics, society, the intellectual projects that he valued, deeply affected Alexander... So you could debate maybe the real founder there is Alexander rather than Aristotle. But I think the flourishing of Hellenistic science actually is a piece of evidence towards Aristotle because they build on him...

On the best nootropic

Smart people are the best nootropic, if you can afford the leisure of it, in the sense of the Roman concept of otium, the concept of leisure that improves you. Set aside a day and have six back to back conversations with the smartest people. I guarantee you're going to be full of new, seemingly unrelated ideas a few days later. The best explanation I have for this is that it just does stimulate your brain that much. And especially if you take detailed notes, it's by far the best possible education. It’s the best way to hit the cutting edge of research. One of the things I also do, it's just vital to my intellectual project, is reaching out to top intellectuals of various kinds and just talking to them. That's something that takes up some of my time as well, and I feel it's unskippable.

On intellectual legitimacy and testing the social status of ideas

What feels like impartial natural responses are very much partial responses. We're social creatures primarily. In fact, most of our thinking is outsourced rather than insourced. Most of the ideas we share we got from somewhere else, so in a way if you really want to engage deeply with your own thinking, you have to accept the extent to which perhaps you're not a pure individual. And if you start to do that, interesting phenomena happen. You start to make these observations about… There are things everyone knows but no one says. There are things everyone knows and everyone says when they want to do some vice-signaling. There are things that almost no one knows but if you say them everyone recognizes, this inner logic of ideas explodes into these playful social experiments you can perform. I encourage people in the audience to really consider what does it say about a person to bring up a topic, what's the explicit text, and what's the subtext. Now having said all of these, I still believe that there is such a thing as truth.

On ignoring The Discourse, and what to do instead

I think people's brains are scrambled by the internet but it goes both ways. I said earlier the world's smartest people are the best nootropic. Well, guess what? Some of the world's smartest people are pseudonymous Twitter accounts or anonymous commenters. So people's brains being scrambled by forums 10 years ago or by Twitter right now or maybe clubhouse if you're being a little bit more verbal IQ oriented, it's like a blessing and a curse. The curse is, the algorithm is what decides what you'll talk about next. You'll be focused on the discourse. If you look at like all my public material it kind of ignores the discourse. I don't care where the discourse is going. I know what the next interesting question is. I learned about it in last week's conversation or I came up with this question six months ago, it's what I’ve been like thinking about. I’m not going to be derailed by a small political event though people might ask me about the political event that that you kind of have to distance yourself from that. But having said this, it's very important to maintain the best intellectual relationships you have, like one of the top 10 people that I value, whose input I value the most, when it comes to say topics of political science and industrial policy and economics, is just a pseudonymous Twitter account who I have no idea who they are, which is like have a DM going where I ask him or her or they, I ask, so what do you think about this? I wrote a draft here. What do you think about this draft? And then they anonymously go through it and check it out. Those you maintain. So on the internet, maintained relationships disregard narrative.

On the business model of the private intellectual

I built my business in order to run a successful research program, including for the analysts that work at Bismarck. The priority often there is intellectual growth, accumulation of this type of human capital; basically research progress if it can be achieved, but of course, it's also a for-profit entity. So there is a question of, well, is there research that is close enough to applicable to be something that might be profitable for clients, or at least of supreme interest to them?

So I vaguely classify these two big buckets of stuff. One, research that is on specific organizations, institutions, where the correct answer is useful enough for their ongoing efforts, their ongoing strategy; in that case you actually have to know quite a bit about the client. On the other hand, it is something that you could consider philanthropy but it's almost like fundamental intellectual curiosity, like things that just, in an ideological sense to the person in question, they would want to hear answers. They would want to understand.

You can get all sorts of interesting research funded. You can get research funded on the distant history of mankind, when exactly civilizations arose, the question of in which conditions political violence arose, which kind of straddles the border between this large intellectual curiosity and something very practical. Obviously, you need to think about how stable is a country, how stable are the conditions in a country. You might be especially targeted if you stand out in some way. You might get anything funded from research into the distant history of mankind, research into what are the bottlenecks on technological research in the modern era, which western governments are perhaps the most flexible and are the likeliest to undertake serious reform or stuff that's oriented towards questions of nuclear war or global pandemics or any of that other stuff that starts becoming more conventionally philanthropic over time.

And a lot of these people, they're very alive, especially if they are self-made in some sense like if they created their own fortunes, which in Silicon Valley is often the case; very intelligent, passionate about questions and often they're just really short on time. They're really short on people. So these are the two big buckets. One of them requires you to know a little bit more about the person. The other one requires you to know a little bit more about the world and also make a differential case that you in particular are the correct person to solve this puzzle or at least to contribute to it substantially.

Listen to the whole episode and subscribe to the Other Life podcast.

PS: The IndieThinkers community is hosting three great events in the next few weeks. Study and discuss the literary and philosophical revolution of Romanticism with member Timothy Wilcox (PhD) on May 19. Learn how to teach yourself piano with member Daniel Garner, inventor of the Pattern Method, on May 12. And finally, member Geoff Shullenberger will be teaching an 8-week course on René Girard, starting in mid-June; download the reading list and you'll receive an email when we open enrollment.


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