Thursday, April 27, 2006

In search of the intellectual...

I've avoided blogging the developing multi-Minister pile-up that's the Labour government and picked up on an interesting piece about intellectuals in Britain. Comment is Free is the independent State of Sanity in the People's Republic of Grauniad - the temptation to tack towards the shores of sensible argument must become overwhelming if there's going to be an inviting-looking comments box on the bottom of your rant about how much you love Soviet-esque dictatorships.

I've always seen 'an intellectual' as being someone who displays intellectual curiousity. This makes it an equal opportunities label; the best arguments don't necessarily come from the people with the most bits of paper. Intellectual curiousity causes people to stumble upon injustices and creates a lively civil society. It's this mindset that oppressive governments are afraid of - if we taught critical thinking at GCSE and not at university then the world would be a better place.

The intellectual has an image problem because a fair bit of 'intellectual' social science and political writing is not about communicating but about self-defining as part of an elite group. To be part of this elite group, you need to write very turgid prose using words like hermeneutics and dialectics. This has become associated in the public mind with intellectuals along with black polo-necked jumpers, bad cardigans and appreciating the underlying meaning of two bricks stuck in a corner in the Tate Modern. If you don't tick any of these boxes then the public doesn't regard you as an intellectual unless you're terrifically clever, probably absent-minded and write popular science books like Stephen Hawking. Since most people don't fall into either category (me included... except for the scatter-brained bit) then they'd never dream of defining themselves as an intellectual. And this is why Timothy Garton Ash misses the point when he writes:

British empiricism's dislike of various continental forms of more abstract theorising... part of what Orwell was getting at when, in a private letter, he described Jean-Paul Sartre as "a bag of wind"...British communists talked quite happily of "Communist party intellectuals" (which helps explain Orwell's hostility to the tag)

Abstract theorising isn't a problem. Using 2000 letter words and long paragraphs whilst conveying a simple concept like "oppression is bad" is a problem. It is not part of abstract theorising; it is part of being a pretentious windbag who tries to make them and their colleagues feel cleverer by deliberating obscuring the blindingly obvious.


  • At 12:19 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    When defining intellectual as you do, I can't disagree with the tag being positive.
    It is also to the great detrement of society that education now means cramming full of information to be regurgitated rather than encouraging critical thinking and a love of learning (which is what education should be about).

    I have a problem with the term intellectual however, largely due to the superiority which some self-declared intellectuals view themselves. People like Polly Toynbee like to view themselves as superior and knowing the solution to all our ills. As such, totalitarian forms of government appeal to such people as they can give themselves an important place in that society.

    Its like when Hayek was asked why he wasn't a socialist when as an economist he'd be one of the most important people in society. Intellectuals are all too often defined in such a sense.

    I think its pretty much a matter of definition though, your definition is much more preferable, but there are those who use the term more to mean what may also be called a pundit.


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