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Word for Wednesday: Intellectual (definition)

May 7th, 2003

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.

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  1. May 8th, 2003 at 18:41 | #1

    Looks like normal service has returned, at least for me…

  2. May 9th, 2003 at 14:57 | #2

    Fred’s an intellectual, he brings a book to every meal,
    He likes the deep philosophers like Norman Vincent Peale.
    (Tom Lehrer)

    Like the new look.

  3. Mark S
    May 9th, 2003 at 15:24 | #3

    A girl I once knew called me an intellectual once, I think at the time I was trying to explain some tricky political idea.
    I don’t remember if I was doing a good job with the explanation, but at the time I thought an intellectual didn’t just think and talk about things beyond their own “formal frameworks” but tried to commit themselves (usually in writing) to a point-of view that was arrived at after weighing up the evidence in a particular argument. I think the ‘critical reasoning’ part of your definition is probably the crucial bit.

  4. May 11th, 2003 at 02:55 | #4

    Intellectual is a swear word in Australian idiom, as it tends to the nominee is imply airy-fairy, chattering class or “poof”.
    Dr Knopfelmacher wrote a book on intellectuals and his definition was that an intellectual was a person who spent time fashioning a critique of social institutions relevant to fundamental, but contending, human values – the moral and political destiny of man stuff.
    Everyone is a bit of an intellectual, some are full timers.

    Intellectuals therefore make a living out of social criticism, which tends to make them Left wing or Revolutionary.
    Right wing intellectuals can be social critics in Left wing systems (eg Solyzhenitzyn) or even in Right wing systems, where they do business as critics of Left wingers.

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