Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What is an Intellectual?

A word that is thrown around freely by anyone who thinks, suspects or wishes that someone else should be taken seriously. Most people seem to use it of those who appear on TV and give their opinions without swearing or stabbing their finger in anyone’s eye. A more robust characteristic is that they are people who can introduce into debate ideas that have not been prominent in the popular press in the previous 48 hours. When used carefully, the term is applied to people employed in non-technical areas of academia, and to those who work in the arts in almost any capacity.

Those who analyse these things more closely tend to describe an intellectual as someone who deals with ideas as such, rather than with the practical consequences of ideas. Mathematicians, engineers and so on, whose intellectual formation and the concepts they use in their work involve a higher level of understanding and rigour than most TV pundits have, are not generally considered intellectuals. Philosophers (itself a very broad concept), high-brow critics, and the more analytic members of the arts fraternity, on the other hand, do not get their hands dirty, are not concerned with the reality derived from the ideas whose existence they affirm, turning them over in their fingers and pronouncing authoritatively, dogmatically even, on what they should mean.

Fair enough, I’m not going to claim that the word must only be used to mean what I think it should mean. The problem comes from the fact that the greatest intellects in the world today, those whose enquiries, in many different fields, have made, or could make, the greatest difference to human understanding, including of itself and its society, are unknown to the general public (in which I include the popular press) and their contributions to thought and knowledge are neither known nor understood.

It may be said, quite fairly, that it requires no explanation to understand that an engine works or a bridge stays up, while to appreciate the purpose of an abstract idea requires more than observation. On the other hand, mathematicians don’t seem to count as intellectuals, although there are few disciplines more abstract than mathematics. (In the interests of full disclosure, I used to be a mathematician).

At the most basic level of selling advertising, the press requires ‘intellectuals’ to give some impression of seriousness to their own opinions, but they need something that is easy to understand and that will resonate with the readership, or they will lose them. Thus, real intellectuals are not a lot of use. Or rather, those who are not able to speak so that normal people can understand and be interested by them are not a lot of use.

Why then do we expect the kind of people who are thought of as intellectuals to explain practical things about politics? Or do we want them only to tell us how to feel good about ourselves because we believe the right things and others don’t, and then everything will come right by magic?

Of course, what I’m looking for is a definition of intellectual which will clearly include me, but, even when I make the rules, I’m having trouble doing it.


James Higham said...

As a thicko, I can't help you out there as to what an intellectual is.

Sackerson said...

One who, for fame or respect, thinks in general terms rather than to solve a practical, quotidian problem.

CIngram said...


My problem exactly.


That sounds like a good summary. But I'm not sure I want to be one of those. Which solves my other problem, too. Result!