Rigor Mortis of the Intellect?

Hello all!

I hope this missive finds you well. Today i’d like to ruminate on the term ‘rigour’ or ‘rigor’ (depending on whether you are a disciple of the Queen’s English or the President’s English). This is an odd term, because like the word erudite (which I have previously discussed), it is often imagined as a positive trait within scholars and intellectuals. Especially within the Philosophy and History disciplines, I notice a certain roseate aura around the term. ‘Geee, so-and-so is really rigorous’ is a common thing to hear as a description of a thinker known for their meticulous work, and for their consistency. This strikes me as odd and somewhat absurd, because by default the word denotes harshness, strictness and severity. This strikes me as an anachronistic trait to admit, translated as ‘consistency’ within the intellectual sphere.

Surely rigor isn’t something that we should aspire to? After all, the dead are rigorous, their limbs locked in a form of ‘consistency’ by rigor mortis. Surely the flexibility of the living, with our soft warm flesh and easily moveable limbs, is a better goal for living intellectuals? Rigor of the intellect, for me, calls to mind the beetled brow of a Nietzsche, or the miserable scowl of a Goethe. This strikes me as a trait belonging to a bygone era, in which flexibility was dissolution and creativity was fancy. Yet within the Arts, we still seem to assume that rigor is, if you will excuse the pun, De Rigueur.

I don’t know about you, but when people talk about my work, i’d rather that they describe it as interesting, creative or, dare I hope, useful. Consistency is of course a very useful trait for a writer of any description (since we are telling a story), but I dislike its association with rigor. I’d rather be collaborative, flexible, friendly, enthusiastic, playful or inspirational. I don’t want to walk around all day with an upper lip so stiff with self-restraint and serious-mindedness that I take on the visage of a male baboon baring its fangs just before it flashes its large purple posterior at you.

Feel free to disagree with me. I 100% agree with placing great store in competent, well researched and plausible research, but not if it turns the author into a no fun, no flexibility, bah-humbug corner sitting grouch. All of the best academic authors that I have ever seen have (to me) represented a golden mean between creativity and meticulousness.

I’d also like to add that, like other predilections of the intellect, I think excessive rigor benefits the human race. If you are the rigorous type, feel free to keep being rigorous. We have benefited from the rigorous and endless questioning of our Nietzsches and Schopenhauers, but I believe that one ought to remember that the side effect of this attitude is being what we in the business like to call a ‘miserable git’.

Food for thought, try not to choke :p

With best wishes and a tongue firmly in cheek,



2 thoughts on “Rigor Mortis of the Intellect?

  1. Surely rigor is a practice rather than an outcome? For me ‘rigorous’ implies ‘uncompromising’ or ‘thorough’, and refers to the attitude of the researcher rather than the nature of the research – and here I mean attitude in the sense of setting high standards for one’s own work, rather than grumbling about “that’s not how you’re supposed to do history”…

    1. That is true, but I’d rather separate the good stuff (high standards, consistency etc) from the bad, at least for myself. It’s just a foible that I’ve been turning over in my head of late.

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