An intellectual is a person who uses his or her intelligence in either a professional or an individual capacity. As a noun and as an adjective, the term Intellectual refers to the intellectual's work, intellectual property, and to the life of the mind, described by the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
- 1 Terminology and endeavours
- 2 Historical perspectives
- 3 The public intellectual
- 4 Intelligentsia
- 5 Criticism
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Terminology and endeavours
The intellectual is a specific variety of the intelligent, which unlike the general property, is strictly associated with reason and thinking. Many everyday roles require the application of intelligence to skills that may have a psychomotor component, for example, in the fields of medicine or the arts, but these do not necessarily involve the practitioner in the "world of ideas". The distinctive quality of the intellectual person is that the mental skills, which he or she demonstrates, are not simply intelligent, but even more, they focus on thinking about the abstract, philosophical and esoteric aspects of human inquiry and the value of their thinking.
Traditionally, the scholarly and the intellectual classes were closely identified; however, while intellectuals need not necessarily be actively involved in scholarship, they often have an academic background and will typically have an association with a profession.
The term "intellectual" can denote three types of people. An intellectual is a person who uses thought and reason, intelligence and critical or analytical reasoning, in either a professional or a personal capacity and is:
- a person involved in, and with, abstract, erudite ideas and theories;
- a person whose profession (e.g., philosophy, literary criticism, mythology, sociology, eastern philosophy, medicine, science, etc.) solely involves the production and dissemination of ideas; or
- a person of notable cultural and artistic expertise whose knowledge grants him or her intellectual authority in public discourse.
In English the term "intellectual" conveys the general notion of a "literate thinker"; its earlier usage, as in the title of The Evolution of an Intellectual (1920) by John Middleton Murry, connotes little in the way of "public" rather than "literary" activity.
Men of letters
The term "man of letters" ("belletrist", from the French belles-lettres), has been used in some Western cultures to denote contemporary intellectual men; the term rarely denotes "scholars", and is not synonymous with "academic". Originally the term implied a distinction between the literate and the illiterate, which carried great weight when literacy was rare. It also denoted the literati (Latin, plural of literatus), the "citizens of the Republic of Letters" in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, where it evolved into the salon, usually run by women.
Nineteenth-century British usage
In the late eighteenth century, when literacy was relatively common in European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the "man of letters" (or littérateur) denotation broadened, to mean "specialised"; a man who earned his living writing intellectually, not creatively, about literature — the essayist, the journalist, the critic, etc. In the twentieth century, such an approach was gradually superseded by the academic method, and "man of letters" fell into disuse, replaced by the generic "intellectual", a term comprehending intellectual men and women. Its first common usage occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, to denote the defenders of the falsely accused Artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus; see below.
Nineteenth-century European modes of the 'Intellectual Class'
In the early nineteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge speculated upon the concept of the clerisy—as an intellectual class, not as a type of man or woman—as the secular equivalent of the (Anglican) clergy, whose societal duty is upholding the (national) culture; likewise, the concept of the intelligentsia also approximately from that time, concretely denotes a status class of "mental" (white-collar) workers. Alister McGrath said that "[t]he emergence of a socially alienated, theologically literate, anti-establishment lay intelligentsia is one of the more significant phenomena of the social history of Germany in the 1830s", and that "...—three or four theological graduates in ten might hope to find employment" in a church post. As such, politically radical thinkers already had participated in the French Revolution (1789–99); Robert Darnton said that they were not societal outsiders, but "respectable, domesticated, and assimilated".
Thenceforth, in Europe and elsewhere, an "intellectual class" variant has proved societally important, especially to self-styled intellectuals, whose degree of participation in their society's art, politics, journalism, education — of either nationalist, internationalist, or ethnic sentiment — constitute the 'vocation of the intellectual'. Moreover, some intellectuals were vehemently anti-academic; although universities and their faculties have been synonymous with intellectualism, in other times, centre of gravity of intellectual life has been the academy.
In France, the Dreyfus affair marked the full emergence of the "intellectual in public life", especially Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, and Anatole France directly addressing the matter of French anti-semitism to the public; thenceforward, "intellectual" became common, yet occasionally derogatory, usage; its French noun usage is attributed to Georges Clemenceau in 1898.
In India the hereditary Brahmins have been the majority in intellectual and scholarly occupations owing to the rigid caste system which reserved education and dissemination of knowledge only to those born in the particular castes. However, following India's independence and introduction of reservations for scheduled castes, the proportions have been increasing in favour of other castes and Brahmins have also increasingly taken to non-intellectual professions. It should be noted that before the rigidity of caste system, everyone was entitled for education. Many intellectuals have come out from other caste system also: Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, etc. As per Atreya smriti 141–142: Brahmin is the person who devote his or her whole life for education. In a more correct statement, intellectuals were used to be referred as Brahmin in old traditions.
In China, Scholar-officials, also known as Scholar-gentlemen, were civil servants appointed by the emperor to perform day-to-day governance from the 206 BC to 1912 AD, These officials had earned academic degrees by passing the imperial examinations and were skilled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the government and local life of China for two thousand years.
In Joseon Korea (1392–1910), literati designated the Confucian chungin ("middle people"), a petite bourgeoisie of scholar-bureaucrats (technicians, professionals, scholars) who ensured the Joseon Dynasty's rule of Korea.
The public intellectual
The term "public intellectual" describes the intellectual who participates in the public-affairs discourse of society, in addition to his or her academic and professional affairs. Regardless of the academic or professional field of expertise, the public intellectual addresses and responds to the problems of his or her society, and, as such, is expected to be impartial, and to “rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession . . . and engage with the global issues of truth, judgement, and taste of the time.”
. . . real or “true” intellectual is, therefore, always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society.
An intellectual is often associated with a particular ideology or with a particular philosophy, e.g. the Third Way centrism of Anthony Giddens in the Labour Government of Tony Blair. Václav Havel said that politics and intellectuals can be linked, but that responsibility for their ideas, even when advocated by a politician, remains with the intellectual. “Therefore, it’s best to avoid utopian intellectuals offering ‘universal insights’ that might, and have, harmed society, preferring, instead, that those intellectuals who are mindful of the ties created with their insights, words, and ideas should be . . . listened to with the greatest attention, regardless of whether [or not] they work as independent critics, holding up a much-needed mirror to politics and power, or are directly involved in politics.”
The American academic Peter H. Smith described intellectual men and women of Latin America as being people from an identifiable social class, who have been conditioned by that common experience, and thus are inclined to share a set of common assumptions; that ninety-four per cent come from either the middle class or the upper class, and that only six per cent come from the working class. In The Intellectual (2005), philosopher Steven Fuller said that, because cultural capital confers power and social status, he or she must be autonomous in order to be a credible intellectual: “It is relatively easy to demonstrate autonomy, if you come from a wealthy or [an] aristocratic background. You simply need to disown your status and champion the poor and [the] downtrodden . . . autonomy is much harder to demonstrate if you come from a poor or proletarian background . . . [thus] calls to join the wealthy in common cause appear to betray one’s class origins.” Nonetheless, many public intellectuals, graduated from the élite universities of their societies, such as Noam Chomsky(Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (Oxford University),did not originate from wealth.
The political importance and effective consequence of Émile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906) derived from being a leading French thinker; thus, J'accuse (I Accuse), his open letter to the French government and the nation proved critical to achieving the exoneration of Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the false charges of treason, which were facilitated by institutional anti-Semitism, among other ideological defects of the French Establishment.
In journalism, the term intellectual usually connotes “a university academic” of the humanities — especially philosophy — who addresses the important social and political matters of the day. Hence, such an academic functions as a public intellectual who explains the theoretic bases of said problems and communicates possible answers to the policy makers and executive leaders of society. The sociologist Frank Furedi said that “Intellectuals are not defined according to the jobs they do, but [by] the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the [social and political] values that they uphold. Public intellectuals usually arise from the educated élite of a society; although the North American usage of the term “Intellectual” includes the university academics. The difference between “an Intellectual” and “an Academic” is participation in the realm of public affairs.
In the matters of public policy, the public intellectual connects scholarly research to the practical matters of solving societal problems. The British sociologist Michael Burawoy, an exponent of public sociology, said that professional sociology has failed, by giving insufficient attention to resolving social problems, and that a dialogue between the academic and the layman would bridge the gap. An example is how Chilean intellectuals worked to re-establish democracy within the right-wing, neoliberal governments of the Military dictatorship of Chile (1973–90), the Pinochet régime allowed professional opportunities for some liberal and left-wing social scientists to work as politicians and as consultants in effort to realise the theoretical economics of the Chicago Boys, but their access to power was contingent upon political pragmatism, abandoning the political neutrality of the academic intellectual.
In The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills said that academics had become ill-equipped for participating in public discourse, and that journalists usually are “more politically alert and knowledgeable than sociologists, economists, and especially . . . political scientists”. That, because the universities of the U.S. are bureaucratic, private businesses, they do not teach critical reasoning to the student, who then does not “how to gauge what is going on in the general struggle for power in modern society”. Likewise, Richard Rorty criticised the participation of intellectuals in public discourse as an example of the “civic irresponsibility of intellect, especially academic intellect”.
The American legal scholar Richard Posner said that the participation of academic public intellectuals in the public life of society is characterised by logically untidy and politically biased statements, of the kind that would be unacceptable academic work. That there are few ideologically and politically-independent public intellectuals, and disapproves that public intellectuals limit themselves to practical matters of public policy, and not with values or public philosophy, or public ethics, or public theology, not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage.
Addressing their role as a social class, Jean-Paul Sartre said that intellectuals are the moral conscience of their age; that their moral and ethical responsibilities are to observe the socio-political moment, and to freely speak to their society, in accordance with their consciences. Like Sartre and Noam Chomsky, public intellectuals usually are polymaths, knowledgeable of the international order of the world, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, the institutions and laws that regulate the lives of the layman citizen, the educational systems, and the private networks of mass communication media that control the broadcasting of information to the public.
Whereas, intellectuals (political scientists and sociologists), liberals, and democratic socialists usually hold, advocate, and support the principles of democracy (liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights, social justice, social welfare, environmental conservation), and the improvement of socio-political relations in domestic and international politics, the conservative public-intellectuals usually defend the social, economic, and political status quo as the realisation of the “perfect ideals” of Platonism, and present a static dominant ideology, in which utopias are unattainable and politically destabilizing of society.
In Marxist philosophy, the social-class function of the intellectuals (the intelligentsia) is to be the source of progressive ideas for the transformation of society; to provide advice and counsel to the political leaders; to interpret the country's politics to the mass of the population (urban workers and peasants); and, as required, to provide leaders.
The Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) developed Karl Marx’s conception of the intelligentisa to include political leadership in the public sphere. That, because “all knowledge is existentially-based”, the intellectuals, who create and preserve knowledge, are “spokesmen for different social groups, and articulate particular social interests”. That intellectuals occur in each social class and throughout the right wing, the centre, and the left wing of the political spectrum. That, as a social class, the “intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class” of their society. That, in the course of class struggle meant to achieve political power, every social class requires a native intelligentsia who shape the ideology (world view) particular to the social class from which they originated. Therefore, the leadership of intellectuals is required for effecting and realising social change, because:
A human mass does not “distinguish” itself, does not become independent, in it’s own right, without, in the widest sense, organising itself; and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is, without organisers and leaders, in other words, without . . . a group of people “specialised” in [the] conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.
In the pamphlet What is to be Done? (1902), Lenin (1870–1924) said that vanguard-party revolution required the participation of the intellectuals to explain the complexities of socialist ideology to the uneducated proletariat and the urban industrial workers, in order to integrate them to the revolution; because “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness”, and will settle for the limited, socio-economic gains so achieved. In Russia, as in Continental Europe, Socialist theory was the product of the “educated representatives of the propertied classes”, of “revolutionary socialist intellectuals", such as were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In the formal codification of Leninism, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, György Lukács (1885–1971) identified the intelligentsia as the privileged social class who provide revolutionary leadership. By means of intelligible and accessible interpretation, the intellectuals explain to the workers and peasants the “Who?” the “How?” and the “Why?” of the social, economic, and political status quo — the ideological totality of society — and its practical, revolutionary application to the transformation of their society.
About the place, roles, and functions of intellectuals in American society, the Congregational theologian Edwards A. Park said, “we do wrong to our own minds when we carry out scientific difficulties down to the arena of popular dissension”. That for social stability it is necessary “to separate the serious, technical role of professionals from their responsibility [for] supplying usable philosophies for the general public”; thus the cultural dichotomy of public-knowledge and private-knowledge, of “civic culture” and “professional culture”, which are the social constructs that describe and establish the intellectual sphere of life as separate from the civic sphere of life.
The public- and private- knowledge dichotomy originated in Ancient Greece, from Socrates's rejection of the Sophist concept that the pursuit of knowledge (Truth) is a “public market of ideas”, open to all men of the city, not only to philosophers. In contradiction, Socrates proposed a knowledge monopoly for and by the philosophers; thus, “those who sought a more penetrating and rigorous intellectual life rejected, and withdrew from, the general culture of the city, in order to embrace a new model of professionalism”; the private market of ideas.
From the Socratic division of knowledge arose criticism about the place, role, and function of the intellectuals of and in a society. In the Netherlands, the word “intellectual” negatively connotes he or she with “unrealistic visions of the World”. In post–Communist Hungary, the intellectual is an “egg-head” who is “too-clever” for the good of society. In the Czech Republic, the intellectual is person aloof from reality. Yet, Stefan Collini said that derogatory connotations of “Intellectual” are not definitive, because, in the “case of English usage, positive, neutral, and pejorative uses can easily co-exist”; the example is Václav Havel who, “to many outside observers, [became] a favoured instance of ‘the intellectual as national icon’ ” in the early history of the post–Communist Czech Republic.
The British historian Norman Stone said that, as a social class, intellectuals misunderstood the reality of society, and so were doomed to error and stupidity, poor planning hampered by ideology. In her memoirs, the Tory politician Margaret Thatcher said that the anti-monarchical French Revolution (1789–99) was “a utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order . . . in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals”. Yet, as Prime Minister, Thatcher asked Britain's academics to help her government resolve the social problems of British society — whilst she retained the populist opinion of “The Intellectual” as being a man of un-British character; Thatcher's opinion was shared by the conservative newspapers The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, whose reportage on the subject documented a “lack of intellectuals” in Britain.
In the essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? (1998), the Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, of the Cato Institute, said that intellectuals become embittered leftists because their academic skills — much rewarded at school and at university — are under-valued and under-paid in the market economy; so, the intellectuals turned against capitalism, despite enjoying a more financially comfortable life in a capitalist society, than they would in either a socialist or a communist society. The economist Fredrich Hayek said that intellectuals disproportionately support socialism; in the article “Why Socialism?”(1949), Albert Einstein said that the economy is not private property, that it is a “planetary community of production and consumption”. In the U.S., as a demographic group, intellectuals usually hold liberal-to-leftist perspectives about guns-or-butter fiscal policy.
In the Reason magazine article “An Interview with Milton Friedman” (December 1974), the neoliberal American economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) said that intellectuals are enemies of capitalism, because, as intellectuals, most of them held socialist beliefs:
The two, chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals, on the one hand, and businessmen, on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others. . . . He thinks . . . [that] there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities. . . . The businessmen are just the opposite — every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but, when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always “the special case”. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing. . . .
It is not the formulation of ideas, however misguided, but the desire to impose them on others that is the deadly sin of the intellectuals. That is why they so incline, by temperament, to the Left. For capitalism merely occurs; if no-one does anything to stop it. It is socialism that has to be constructed, and, as a rule, forcibly imposed, thus providing a far bigger role for intellectuals in its genesis. The progressive intellectual habitually entertains Walter Mitty visions of exercising power.
In The University of Chicago Law Review article "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (Spring 1949), the British economist Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992), who is identified with neoliberalism, said that “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists” as the intellectual social-class who communicate the specialized ideas of the scientist to the general population. About their anti-capitalism, Hayek said that, in the twentieth century, intellectuals were attracted to Socialism and to Social democracy, because the Socialists offered “broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order, as a whole, which a planned system promises" and so “succeeded in inspiring the imagination of the intellectuals” to change and improve their societies.
- For example, patents are only granted if a work is original and useful, so one could argue that they necessarily involve intellectual work (leaving aside debates on whether patent offices apply these criteria meaningfully). For a counter example, geographic indications such as "Champagne" (when used for the sparkling wine from that French wine region) are also a form of intellectual property and involve no intellectual work at all. Copyright is another counter example: all writings, intellectual or rubbish, get copyright.
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- The Responsibility of Intellectuals By Noam Chomsky, February 23, 1967
- PDF (105 KB) classified by such variables as sex, professional and disciplinary affiliation, political leaning, media affiliation, Web hits, and scholarly citations.
- "Interview with Richard Posner", Booknotes, on Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, June 2, 2002.
- Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds By Charlotte Allen, February 16, 2005.
- "Here's a Few You Missed", by Laura Barton, The Guardian, July 2, 2004.
- "The Optimist's Book Club", The New Haven Advocate - discussion of public intellectuals in the 21st century.