Word for Wednesday: Intellectual (definition)
Intellectual is a particularly tricky word. Partly this is because it has no generally accepted definition. To make things even more difficult, almost no-one will admit to being one or even knowing one without some sort of qualifying adjective or caveat. I’m happy to call myself a public intellectual for example, and I know a few people who would admit to being ?literary intellectuals?, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a self-confessed intellectual.
Although there are occasional positive uses like this, the term is far more often used negatively, but again, never in a straightforward way. Negative uses are almost always surrounded by scare quotes, as in ‘intellectuals’, or with some similar qualifier as in so-called intellectual or my personal favorite ?pseudo-intellectual.
You might suppose that a term like this might be used to describe someone who affects the manners and speech patterns of an intellectual but really isn’t one.* In fact, though, people who use terms like ?pseudo-intellectual hardly ever recognise anyone as a real intellectual or use the term intellectual positively. Instead, what we have here is a slippery evasion. People who talk like this usually want to express hostility to intellectuals in general, but aren’t willing to come out and say so.
What then, is an intellectual ? At one timeintellectual could be used in the neutral sense of someone whose work is mental rather than physical, but this was never standard. Besides this characterization would now apply to a majority of the workforce, whereas it’s clear that intellectuals, whoever they are, are a small minority of the population.
Nor can we solve the problem by raising the required standard of intelligence or knowledge. Of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics for example, only a handful (obviously Einstein and Heisenberg, maybe Pauli and Gell-Mann, perhaps, but not in a good way, Shockley) would count as intellectuals. Most of the winners (like most highly educated people in modern societies) have been technical specialists, exceptionally good at what they do, but with no broader intellectual claims. More generally, while a lot of intellectuals are academics, being an academic doesn’t make you an intellectual.
From these negative considerations we can come to a provisional definition. An intellectual is someone who brings critical reasoning and a background of academic or specialist knowledge to discussions that take place outside the formal frameworks of specialist academic disciplines, and without the associated set of agreed rules. Not surprisingly, intellectuals are frequently unpopular with each other and almost always with the general public. All in all, quite a bit like bloggers.
* In the rare cases when a self-confessed intellectual wants to disparage a pretender to intellectual status, the correct qualifier is something like purported or, if you really want to label yourself, soi-disant.