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An intellectual is a person who uses intelligence (thought and reason) and analytical thinking, either in a professional or a personal capacity.

Terminology and endeavours

‘Intellectual’ can denote three types of persons:

  1. A man or woman involved in, and with, abstract, erudite ideas and theories.
  2. A person whose profession (science, medicine, law, literature) solely involves the production and dissemination of ideas.
  3. A person of notable cultural and artistic expertise whose knowledge grants him or her intellectual authority in public discourse.


Historical perspectives

In English ‘intellectual’ conveys the general notion of a literate thinker; its earlier usage, such as in 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, pl. 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. Yet, in contemporary English usage, literati is a journalist’s term of abuse; and the singular literatus is rare usage, because the usual term is ‘littérateur’ (‘literary person’). Contemporarily, the term ‘Master of Letters’ denotes person who have completed master’s-degree work in theology.

Nineteenth-century British usage

In the late eighteenth century, when literacy was relatively common in European countries, such as the United Kingdommarker, the ‘man of letters’ denotation broadened, to mean ‘specialised’; a man who earned his living writing intellectually, not creatively, about literature — the essayist, the journalist, the critic, et al. In the twentieth century, such an approach was gradually superseded by the academic method, and ‘man of letters’ fell into disuse, replaced by the generic ‘intellectual’, a term comprehending intellectual men and women.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 falsey-accused Artillery Officer Alfred Dreyfusmarker; 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; like-wise, 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, antie-stablishment 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 ‘intellecual 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 the latter nineteenth century, the terms sharpened; just as the term ‘scientist’ evolved to denote ‘professional’, Man of Letters usually presumed ‘professional writer’ as a denotation, a journalist, and essayist, but not someone with the engagement of the intellectual.

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.

Eastern intellectuals

In Chinamarker, literati denotes the scholar-bureaucrats, government officials integral to the ruling class, of more than two thousand years ago. These intellectuals were a status group of educated laymen, whose employment depended upon their commanding knowledge of writing and literature. After 200 BC, Confucianism influenced the candidate selection system, thus establishing its ethic among the literati. In the Peoples' Republic of Chinamarker, during the mid-twentieth century, the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956–57) — ‘Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land’, proved that mobilising the intellectuals did not always have good consequences.

In Joseon Koreamarker (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.

Public intellectual life

The public intellectual handles ideas and knowledge as a participant and communicator in the public debate effected in the mass communications media (print, radio, television, the Internet); occasionally, the public intellectual’s role overlaps the journalist’s purview (though they are not equivalents); therefore: What distinguishes the public intellectual from the private intellectual?

Regardless of the field of expertise, the role of the public intellectual is addressing and responding to the problems of his or her society, as the voice of the people with neither the ability, nor the opportunity, to address said problems in the public fora; hence, they must ‘rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession . . . and engage with the global issues of truth, judgement, and taste of the time’. The purpose of the public intellectual remains debated, especially his or her place in public discourse, thus acceptance or non-acceptance in contemporary society; to wit, Edward Saïd noted that as almost impossible:

[The] . . . real or ‘true’ intellectual is, therefore, always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society’.


The intellectual often is associated with political administrations, e.g. the Third Way centrism of Anthony Giddens in the Labour Government of Tony Blair. Váçlav 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, utopian intellectuals are best be avoided, for offering ‘universal insights’ that might, and have, harmed society, proposing, instead, that 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 they work as independent critics, holding up a much-needed mirror to politics and power, or are directly involved in politics’.

Relationship with academia

In some contexts, especially in journalism, ‘intellectual’ generally denotes academics of the humanities — especially philosophy — who speak about important social and political matters; by definition, the public intellectuals who communicate the theoretic base for resolving public problems; generally, academics remain in their areas of expertise, whereas intellectuals apply academic knowledge and abstraction to public problems.

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 values that they uphold’; they usually arise from the educated élite, although the North American usage of ‘intellectual’ includes them to the ‘academics’. Convergence with, and participation in, open, contemporary public debate separates intellectuals from academics; by venturing from academic specialism to address the public, the academic becomes a public intellectual. Generally, ‘intellectual’ is a label more often applied to public debate-participants from the in fields of culture, the arts, and the social sciences, including the law, than to the men and women working in the natural sciences, the applied sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

Occasionally, the public intellectual takes controversial matters of the day — evolution, religion, global warming, genetic modification — to the fore of public debate, proposing answers to public questions deemed unanswerable, thus acting upon moral imperatives greater than private, professional (career) considerations. Since the Dreyfus Affair (1894), the role of the public intellectual is provoking controversy and conflict with contradiction and polemic, beyond the closed world of academia. Furthermore, the term public masks a presumption or presumptions, especially in academia, and, because most intellectual work occurs privately, he or she must bridge the gap between the the academic and public spheres. Therefore, debate about whether or not academics can, or should, become public intellectuals posits the converse questions of: Is academia is too-self-contained? Are academics too-preoccupied with protecting their work from the public’s scrutiny (beyond peer review), and thus are reluctant to share their work, and expose it to public criticism and contestation?

For example, Thomas Bender said that academics ‘orient themselves, nonetheless, almost exclusively to professional structures and contexts, jealously defending their autonomy’; and would rather debate with, and argue the contestations of fellow academics than with the public. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu restated the argument about the Ivory Tower, proposing that intellectuals only emerge from it when cornered. Contrariwise, he proposed that intellectual autonomy is at risk of co-optation when the intellectual is involved in politics, that said relationship must be viewed in context of the greater conflict, between intellectuals and the quotidian organisational pressures they encounter. Himself ‘labelled’ as ‘an intellectual’, Bourdieu says that politics is a world of censorship, as ‘. . . the efforts of powerful political groups seek to rein in the ideas of intellectuals, and keep them within a circumscribed set of boundaries’; thus, the state’s employment of an intellectual is a negative position, because, as the state acquires influence upon the espousing intellectual, he or she — as if an employee — is prevented from ‘. . . stepping too far outside the limitations considered appropriate, by the dominant classes’.

Furthermore, Furedi said that ‘academic careerism has dealt a serious body blow to the continued vitality of intellectual life’. Academic custom exerts an impact upon the effectiveness of the public intellectual, because each sphere has distinct aims and methods of support; hence, the Florida Atlantic Universitymarker has attempted, via educational programs and initiatives, to render ‘public intellectualism’ as a profession, (cf. Plato).

Public policy debate

The role of a public intellectual may be to connect scholarly research with public policy. Michael Burawoy, an exponent of public sociology, criticises ‘professional sociology’ for failing to give sufficient attention to socially important subject matter, blaming academics for losing sight of important public events and issues. Burawoy supports ‘public sociology’ to give the public access to academic research. This process necessitates a dialogue between those in the academic sphere and the public, meant to bridge the gap which still exists between the more homogeneous world of academia and the diverse public sphere. It has been argued that social scientists who are well aware of the various thresholds crossed in passing from academic to public policy adviser are much more effective. A case study on this passage shows how intellectuals worked to re-establish democracy within the Pinochet regime in Chilemarker. This transition created new professional opportunities for some social scientists, as politicians and consultants, but entailed a shift toward the pragmatic in their politics, and a step away from the neutrality of academia.

C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argued that academics had become ill-equipped for the task and that, more often that not, journalists are ‘more politically alert and knowledgeable than sociologists, economists, and especially [...] political scientists’. He went on to criticize the American university system as privatized and bureaucratic, and for failing to teach ‘how to gauge what is going on in the general struggle for power in modern society’.. Richard Rorty was also critical of the ‘civic irresponsibility of intellect, especially academic intellect’.

Richard Posner concentrates his criticism on "academic public intellectuals"; claiming their declarations to be untidy and biased in ways which would not be tolerated in their academic work. Yet he fears that independent public intellectuals are in decline. Where writing on the academic public intellectual Posner finds that they are only interested in public policy, not with public philosophy, public ethics or public theology, and not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage. Their input has come to be on hard-headed policy questions, rather than values. He also sees a decline in their factual accuracy, linked to a reliance on qualitative and fallible reasoning.

Right-wing critics

The American 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’. He wanted to ‘to separate the serious technical role of professionals from their responsibility of supplying usable philosophies for the general public’ — the rationale for maintaining the private knowledge–private knowledge dichotomy; Bender differentiates between ‘civic culture’ and ‘professional culture’ in describing the different spheres where academics work. This perspective dates from Socrates, who disliked the Sophist idea of a public ‘market of ideas’, advocating, instead, a knowledge-monopoly; 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’.

Conflicting perspectives about the intellectual established the critical tone about the societal role of the public intellectual. Typically, the right-wing perceives intellectuals as too-theoretical, with shallow roots in real life; whilst, quite generally, in that perspective, the term ‘intellectual’ has negative connotations in the Netherlandsmarker, as having ‘unrealistic visions of the World’; in Hungarymarker, as being ‘too-clever’ and an ‘egg-head’; and in the Czech Republicmarker, as discredited for aloofness from reality; yet Stefan Collini says that this derogatory usage is not fully representative of the term, as in the ‘. . . case of English usage, positive, neutral, and pejorative uses can easily co-exist’, thus Váçlav Havel as the exemplar who, ‘. . . to many outside observers [became] a favoured instance of the intellectual as national icon’ in the post–Communist Czech Republic.

The British historian Norman Stone said that, as a social class, intellectuals got things badly wrong, doomed to error and stupidity. In her memoirs, the politician Margaret Thatcher described the French Revolution (1789–99) as ‘. . . a utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order . . . in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals’; never the less, as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher did call upon academics’ help in resolving Britain’s problems — whilst retaining the popular view of the intellectual as un-British, seconded by newspapers such as The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph.

Intellectuals, liberalism and conservatism

Jean Paul Sartre pronounced intellectuals to be the moral conscience of their age, their task being to observe the political and social situation of the moment, and to speak out—freely—in accordance with their consciences (Scriven 1993: 119).

Like Sartre and Noam Chomsky, many public intellectuals hold knowledge across a vast array of subjects including: "the international world order, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, the institutional and legal frameworks that regulate the lives of ordinary citizens, the educational system, the media networks that control and disseminate information. Sartre systematically refused to keep quiet about what he saw as inequalities and injustices in the world" (Scriven 1999: xii).

This single ideological foreign policy is exemplified by Bernard Ingham (Margaret Thatcher's former press spokesman), who stated: "Bugger the public's right to know. The game is the security of the state - not the public's right to know" (Curtis 2003: 285).

Marxism and intellectuals

Marxists interest themselves in the status of intellectuals for a number of reasons: their class position, the way they form a reservoir of ideas, and in the public sphere their ability to interpret and their potential as leaders. At the same time, intellectuals (from Karl Marx onwards) have taken an interest in Marxism from the most varied angles. A widely held view by Marxists is that intellectuals are alienated and anti-establishment. Although Marx seemed to imply in his reference to intellectuals that they are constantly engaged in an instinctive struggle with established institutions, including the state, 'such a struggle could be carried on within such institutions and in support of established institutions and against change'.

Antonio Gramsci, a theorist on intellectuals, argued many years ago that 'intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class'. He suggests that this conceptualisation originates with intellectuals themselves, not with students of intellectual life'. His standpoint is that every social class needs its own intelligentsia, to shape its ideology, and that intellectuals must choose their social class. The extent to which ideological currents have influenced the twentieth century milieu has caused some observers of intellectual life to make ideology part of the definition of an intellectual. Lewis Feuer expresses this view when he states that 'no scientist or scholar is regarded as an intellectual unless he adheres to or seems to be searching for an ideology'.

Marxists believe intellectuals resemble the proletarian by reason of their social position, making a living by selling their labour and therefore are often exploited by the power of capital. On the other hand, intellectuals perform mental work, often managerial work, and due to their higher income, they live in a manner comparable to that of the bourgeois. Intellectuals have been neutral instruments in the hands of different social forces. However, Marxists believe that ‘all knowledge is existentially based, and that intellectuals who create and preserve knowledge act as spokesmen for different social groups and articulate particular social interests’. Gramsci has a Intellectuals offer their knowledge on the market, Marxists suggest that ‘under modern Western capitalism, the intellectuals make commodities of the ideologies they produce and offer themselves for hire to the real social classes whose ideologies they formulate, whose intelligence they will become’. Marx believed that intellectuals aim to universalise their ideologies ‘then turn about and expose the partiality of those ideologies.’

Yet, for Harding, Marx's theory of the rise of the proletariat was to rely on the intellectuals of that historical period, as stated by Gramsci:

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 conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas."


In this situation, as with other areas of society, it is the intellectuals, not the proletariat, who are to define the emancipation of the workers. According to Harding (1997), for the creation of any mass consciousness of ideals, intellectuals are essential. Alongside Gyorgy Lukacs, he also considers that, as a privileged class, it is they, not the workers who can interpret 'totality', giving them the right to be considered leaders. Lenin also maintained that the ideology of socialism was beyond the comprehension of the working classes. The intellectual level which was necessary for the development of such ideologies was, he maintained, out of the reach of the average worker.

Marxists believe that intellectuals talk and communicate in a certain language that is distinctive to other intellectuals and middle-class populations. Alvin Gouldner labels this language 'critical-reflexive discourse'. By this, Gouldner argues that 'intellectuals universally agree that their positions be defended by rational arguments and that the status of the individual making the argument should have no bearing on the outcome'.

The political views of intellectuals

According to a paper by Robert Nozick at the Cato Institute, it is more common for intellectuals to have leftist political views than right-wing, arguing that intellectuals were bitter that the skills so rewarded in school were less rewarded in the job market, and so turned against capitalism, even though they enjoyed vastly more enjoyable lives under it than under alternative systems. An analysis made by economist Fredrich Hayek states that intellectuals disproportionally support socialism or have socialist tendencies, which is consistent with the fact that many modern intellectuals, such as Albert Einstein, have had socialist beliefs. In general, most intellectuals in the United States have left-wing leaning political viewpoints.

Economic liberal and classical liberal views of intellectuals

The economist Milton Friedman had a negative view of intellectuals, believing they were an enemy to capitalism because a majority of them held socialist beliefs:
The two chief enemies of 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... there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities.


Pseudo-intellectuals

Noam Chomsky said that intellectuals, and their works, might become corrupted by special interest groups, power-seeking politicians, conditional funding, self-censorship, et cetera, and further proposing that intellectuals usually have supported power:

The historic role of intellectuals, if you look, unfortunately, as far back as you go, has been to support power systems and to justify their atrocities.


Background of public intellectuals

Peter. H. Smith said that ‘people from an identifiable social class, for instance, are conditioned by that common experience, and they are inclined to share a set of common assumptions; ninety-four per cent come from the middle or upper class . . . only six per cent come from working class backgrounds’. In The Intellectual (2005), philosopher Steve Fuller said that, because Cultural capital confers power and status, one 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 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’. The importance of Émile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair derived from his already being a ‘leading French thinker, [that] his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair’. Although he was tried for his political participation in the Dreyfus Affair, he escaped the law by fleeing France, because he was rich.

From the public’s perspective, many of the world’s private and public intellectuals were graduated from élite universities, and, therefore, were educated by the preceding generation of intellectuals, e.g. Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologymarker; Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens at Oxford Universitymarker. None the less, the exceptions exist; Harold Pinter, of a ‘low middle-class background’, is a playwright, screenplay writer, actor, theatre director, poet, and political activist, whose activities as such rendered him a public intellectual.

Bioethics and public intellectualism

Bioethics has intense public interest, despite the fact that it is an academic specialisation. It provokes debate on an array of socially important issues involving medicine, technology, genetic research etc. Examples of scientists who have occupied a unique role in public intellectualism are Richard Dawkins with his work on evolution, and Charles Darwin.

It has been suggested that public intellectuals bridge the gap between the academic elite and the educated public, particularly when concerning issues in the natural sciences like genetics and bioethics. There are distinct differences between academics in the traditional sense and public intellectuals. Academics are typically confined to their academy or university and tend to concentrate on their chosen academic discipline. This is usually specific to western academia, following large scale investment into higher education after the Cold War and growth in the number of academic institutions. This in turn has led to hyperspecialisation within academic life- the specialization of particular disciplines and confining it to the classroom. This has become known as "the academisation of intellectual life". A public intellectual, although often starting out in academia, is not confined to a specific discipline or to traditional boundaries. Public intellectuals should not be confused with experts, who are people who have mastery over one specific field of interest. This development has encouraged a gap between academics and the public. Public intellectuals convey information through multiple mediums, often appearing on television, radio and in popular literature. As Richard Posner states, "a public intellectual expresses himself in a way that is accessible to the public". They synthesize academic ideas and relate them to wider socio- political issues.

There has been a general call for natural scientists and bioethicists to play more of a role in public intellectualism as their disciplines have such relevance to civil society. Scientists and bioethicists already play major roles in review boards, government commissions and ethics committees, it is easy to see how their research can have public relevance. Since academia is hidden away, it has been argued that scientists, and bioethicists in particular should realise their duty to society by assuming the role of a public intellectual. This would mean taking their relevant research and communicating it through mass media to the wider concerns of the public. Increased public interest in bioethics has increased the responsibility for bio ethicists to become more engaged in the public domain- not in an expert role, but as instigators of public discourse.

See also



References

  1. Collini p. 31.
  2. The Oxford English Reference Dictionary Second Edition (1996), p. 130.
  3. The New Cassel’s French–English, English–French Dictionary (1962) p.88.
  4. Gross (1969); see also Pierson (2006).
  5. The Twilight of Atheism (2004), p.53.
  6. From “The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature”, in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982).
  7. Bauman, 1987: 2.
  8. Furedi, 2004: 32.
  9. Jennings and Kemp Welch, 1997: 1-2.
  10. McLennan, 2004.
  11. Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997.
  12. Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997: 13.
  13. Furedi (2004)
  14. McKee (2001).
  15. Bourdieu 1989.
  16. Clarke, 2003.
  17. Bender, 1993: 141-142.
  18. Gattone, 2006.
  19. Gattone, 2006: 112.
  20. Furedi, 2004: 38.
  21. Gattone 2007
  22. Sorkin (2007)
  23. Mills, 1959: 99.
  24. Bender, T, 1993: 142.
  25. Bender, T, 1993: 12.
  26. Bender, T, 1993: 3.
  27. Collini, 2006: 205.
  28. Jennings and Kemp Welch, 1997.
  29. Thatcher, 1993: 753.
  30. In Jennings and Kemp-Welch 1997.
  31. Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997:210.
  32. In Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997.
  33. Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick
  34. http://mises.org/etexts/hayekintellectuals.pdf
  35. http://www.monthlyreview.org/598einstein.php
  36. http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1549
  37. Reason Magazine, An Interview with Milton Friedman. December 1974
  38. http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20061025.htm “The problem lies in the unwillingness to recognize that your own terrorism is terrorism” — Noam Chomsky interviewed by Saad Sayeed, Excalibur Online, 25 October 2006, The Noam Chomsky Website
  39. Fuller, 2005: 113.
  40. Fuller, 2005: 114.
  41. [1]
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  • Piereson, James, 2006 The rise & fall of the intellectual The New Criterion, September 2006
  • Posner, Richard A., 2002, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-00633-X.
  • Showalter, Elaine (2001) "Inventing Herself: Claiming A Feminist Intellectual Heritage", London: Picador
  • Thatcher, Margaret (1993), The Downing Street Years, London: HarperCollins.


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