Saturday, July 15, 2006


What is an intellectual? In the broadest sense an intellectual is a “symbolic analyst,” a brainworker as distinct from an ordinary white- or blue-collar employee. In everyday parlance, however, an intellectual (more precisely a “public intellectual”) is a thinking person who has acquired a certain celebrity, relying on this status to access a broad audience. The audience need not be large in the media sense, but it must include a significant number of influential individuals.

Oftentimes, the intellectual par excellence is someone who translates well-established expertise in some specific field of endeavor to a more general currency. The archetypal example is the French novelist Emile Zola who, after completing his gigantic Rougon-Macquart (1871-93) series, published his famous article “J’Accuse” in a Parisian daily (1898). The subject was the miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus case. As this instance shows, public intellectuals are often oppositional, seeking to speak truth to power. Cynics would say that this impulse itself stems from power hunger.

An outstanding contemporary example of the Janus type, one who complements his original professional role with a new one of public exhortation, is Albert Einstein, who enjoyed universal respect for his ethical and political insights. More controversial—-indeed infuriating to some--is Noam Chomsky of MIT. After achieving eminence as a linguist, Chomsky began volubly to address political issues during the closing years of the Vietnam War. He still does so.

Still, such a migration from the home field to the new public one is not essential. Francis Fukuyama, a conservative intellectual who is now having second thoughts, has always been a professor in the realm of public policy.

Moreover, some attempts to transfer expertise are not successful. When William Shockley, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the transistor, sought an audience for his Neanderthal views on race, polite opinion rebuffed him. In a different way, Hollywood stars, such as Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn, do not generally command credit for their views about politics.

Indeed, the link between the original expertise and the new one should always be regarded as problematic. This is so because psychological studies have rejected the idea that success in one field equates with proficiency in another. Still, there is a difference between a mere pundit, a journalist (no matter how insightful), and a true public intellectual, especially when the latter can back up credible observations about public policy with demonstrated excellence in his chosen field.

What are the origins of this social type? Two opposed schools stem from France. Michel Winock, who has published widely on the subject, believes that as a type the true intellectual begins only a little over a hundred years ago with Emile Zola. Such individuals addressed contemporary social problems in an incisive manner. Why not then Victor Hugo, who devoted much of his energies for almost twenty years attacking the autocracy of Napoleon III? Or for that matter, one can go back such Enlightenment figures as Diderot and Voltaire.

Another French contribution stems from the distinguished medievalist Jacques Le Goff. A half century ago he published a little book on the Intellectuals in the Middle Ages that has proved to have enduring value. In Le Goff’s perspective it is hard, for example, to deny the label of intellectual to such figures as Abelard and St. Bernard. The tradition of political intervention began with the Libelli de lite, pamphlets created by ecclesiastics to support or counter the revolutionary reforms of Pope Gregory VII (ca. 1020-85). Apparently, Le Goff is unaquainted with this German production. Le Goff is right, however, to stress the role of universities, that characteristic invention of the High Middle Ages. Previously solely birth or wealth governed status. The universities were in principle open to all, introducing the novel idea of classification by examination. For those permitted to teach in them, these institutions provided a safe haven for innovation, some of it openly subversive, though skirting outright heresy. At the same time universities were training grounds for a literate elite who would enforce the norms of the establishment. This tension continues today.

While it is occasionally found earlier, the term “intellectual” became common in English only towards the end of the 19th century. Beginning in 1907, apparently, it was reinforced by the imported Russian term intelligentsia, the intellectuals as a group. Interestingly, this idea had been anticipated by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge a hundred years before in his idea of the “clerisy.” His contemporary P. B. Shelley spoke of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.

A hat tip is due to the creator of the gayspecies blog, whose piece on this subject got me going. Gayspecies cites a book by Paul Johnson, which presents a series of generally negative portraits of such contemporary intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Lively and perceptive as it is, Johnson’s volume has two flaws. The first stems from a characteristic Anglo-Saxon distrust of the pursuit of abstract ideas, thought to hinder the better sort of social knowledge that stems from experience. To be sure many influential intellectuals, even in English-speaking countries have come from abroad. These include such figures as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and many others. Lately, there has been an influx of influential intellectuals from Third World Countries. These include Edward Said and Amartya Sen. Moreover, Johnson implies that intellectuals are mainly on the left. Many prominent figures have had this coloration. However, the list of conservative intellectuals is a long one, including Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Oakeshott. Arguably the most influential body of intellectuals in America today are the conservative Straussians. This is so, despite a convincing case that Leo Strauss was not himself conservative.

Judge Richard J. Posner made his reputation by applying economic models to social phenomena. He has written some good books, but Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2001) is not among them. Posner provides a seemingly scientific list of 100 ranked individuals. This in turn depends upon a larger gathering of 546 persons, a cohort, which is unfortunately arbitrary. Judge Posner attributes the low standards he perceives among the tribe as due to the absence of quality controls. Paradoxically, this trait derives both from the market and its absence. The media demand that one “must be entertaining” encourages grandstanding and dumbing down. By the same token, tenure in academia guarantees these individuals a livelihood, no matter how they may indulge themselves.

Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, a book I have not seen, has garnered excellent reviews. He addresses the purported absence of intellectuals in Britain, and the reasons for this stereotype. Part of the problem seems to be the conviction that England is definitely not France. Since France is the homeland of the intellectuals they must not flourish across the channel.

Finally, two non-European parallels are relevant. The Ulema is a collective name for religious experts in Islam countries. Jurists are prominent among them, but other professions are represented as well. The Ulema are required to maintain established traditions of orthodoxy.

For centuries the body of Confucian intellectuals sometimes known as the Mandarinate governed imperial China. Successful entry into this privileged class was determined by examination. Generally speaking the Confucians were pillars of the establishment; their wealth and prestige depended on it. Occasionally, as at the beginning of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, Chinese intellectuals became subversive—favoring, as many did in those days, the previous Ming dynasty. Perhaps their tradition survives today in the opponents of the present government of the People’s Republic.


Blogger The Gay Species said...

I'm unclear what the LaGoff point is? That the Sorbonne, Freiberg, et al. were "subscription" centers, where students purchased the theories they found most attractive? Or that "rogue" scholars like Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, et alia, got their start "outside" status-quo institutions? Whatever else is claimed, the university is a medieval creation, initially scaled on the trivium and quadrivium, which for its time, was fairly "empirical" subjects. I still think the drop of rhetoric and logic from "necessary" academic requirements is one of the principal causes of academic devolution. Grammar appears to be approached from a totally-different perspective, e.g., English 101.

To the larger issue: What constitutes an intellectual? If we exclude erudite shamans, then Thomas Aquinas would have to go (bad), but then Plato, too (good). Even if Aristotle is wrong about many things, and he is, his means of achieving his ends has to be paradigmatic of an intellectual. So, coming to wrong conclusions cannot be an exclusionary criterion. Thus, Freud and Marx cannot be excluded because their conclusions are wrong.

Writing in incoherent neologisms would be an exclusionary criterion, except for the Germans, whose language fosters neologisms. Maybe other languages operate like German in this regard, but I haven't found them yet. So, based on my exclusion of excluding German-writers of neologisms like Hegel, all other neologistic writer have a burden of intelligibility to pass first. On that basis, nearly all recent French-writing authors are excluded. Since Foucault, despite his other faults, did not commit this one, he is included. Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Lyotard, etc., are banned solely on this one criterion.

My other approach is the "speculative metaphysician." Now, obviously that appears redundant, but it's not. In many instances, one must resort to metaphysics to connect empirically-validated thought. In this circumstance, metaphysics is merely the intellectual uses to "glue" facts. But two of my nemeses, Marx and Freud, use metaphysics not only to glue, but what they choose to glue is further metaphysics. Plato, of course, is in the same "basket" (metaphysically speaking).

Ironically, Freud's metaphysical observations within philosophy are actually engaging. His metaphysics of psyche's metaphysics is hopelessly speculation on speculation. Marx and Plato do the same thing, while Aristotle, for example, found common-sense experience his "ground," which needed metaphysics to "glue" together. However hopeless the project, having "common-sense" was enough to make his metahysical insights pallatible and enduring. Plato, Freud, and Marx were in cyberspace before it was invented.

Now I will agree that Plato, Freud, and Marx were creative thinkers. In a work of immaginative fiction, creativity of thought counts for a lot. But Plato, Freud, and Marx made substantive claims based on their speculative metaphysics, and then used more metaphysics to tie the two together. Without "some" empirical claims (empiricism being the "glue" that ties fantasy to the world), the questions of Where, How, When are meaningless. Their "what" of "whatness" overrides those other concerns, leaving inquiring minds in a vaccum of Ideas.

I can add many more people to my list of intellectuals, especially people I vehemently disagree with, but I cannot include as an "intellectual" someone whose mind dances between "ideas," "fantasy," "abstraction," "novelty,""metaphysics," etc. "glued" together by more metaphysics.

Rationalism and realism, the two "ideas" these pseudo-intellectuals disavow, leaves the Other (viz., "me") in another dreamland. I'm not averse to "going there" with a mild-altering drug that catapults me out of "reality," but I cannot live every-day life in "their" dreamland, from which "reality" is inaccessible.

Interpersonally, my beloved and I disagreed over "science fiction." He insisted it raised possibilities, and I countered about the probabilities. But I admit "fiction" is a place to examine the possibilities, but politics, economics, and ethics are not. Fiction may introduce novel problems in an improbable context, but the problems raised must "move" outside fiction (not outside possibility) to find a feasible fit. But once one is suspended in intellectual masturbation (fantasy opposing fantasy), whatever "relief" is ephemeral, and ultimately elusive.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

On reflection I think that the definition of "intellectual" should reflect a Wittgensteinian principle of family resemblance. Oppositionality is one quality, but it is not essential. The Ulema and most of the Confucians were not contestatory.

Reaching a fair number of people seems to be an important criterion, but some intellectuals like Leon Bloy had a very limited readership. Perhaps it is the a s p i r a t i o n to be influential that is significant.

As regards medieval universities. there were two models. The original Italian one (Salerno, Padua, etc.) stressed professional training, especially in law and medicine. The northern universities privileged the liberal arts. Even here, it was not the basics of the trivium and quadrivium that ultimately counted. Crucial was, in the first, instance the reformulation of Biblical material by Abelard, Petrus Comestor and others that provided the matrix onto which Aristotle could later be soldered. As regards oppositionality, the fact that Averroism and Wyclif could flourish in this setting (however termporarily) shows that the benefit of clergy was real.

I do not regard clarity as an important criterion for achieving status as an intellectual. Moving people politically requires a good deal of deliberate unclarity--Janus statements that one person can take one way and another another.

Having lived in England for four years I came to endorse the principle "clarity is not enough." That is why, I suspect, Gilbert Ryle is not much read these days.

I do not consider the German language fertile territory for creating neologisms. Linguistic purism limits it. What does occur is the creation of compounds, like my favorite Schlimmbesserung. Are such compounds really neologisms? It doesn't seem so, because they are relatively transparent. True neologisms words like limerance and DVD.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Sean Penn's aside about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has stood up better than many a pronouncement of many a professor. I don't think that I'd want him to be president, but it would be preferable to the accession of Dick Cheney, to pick a name at random (not).

5:11 PM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

LeGoff (vs. LaGoff) is just one of those consequences of non-hand-head
coordination, not a desire to change genders. I certainly do not know
of every academic incarnation in the Middle Ages, but the trivuum-quadrivuum disposition is documented in David Wagner's "The
Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages" (Univ. Indiana Press, 1986) a
theme found in Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, and reincarnated in
St. John's (Annapolis, Santa Fe) and Thomas Aquinas (Santa Paula)
Colleges. Ernst R. Curtius's "European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages" restates the same in Chap. 3: Literature and Education, and both Aquinas and Dante mention it. But the Sorbonne paradigm, widely copied, surely isn't exhaustive.

LeGoff's theories found in "Medieval Imagination," "Birth of Purgatory," "Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages," strike me as
plagiarism of Emile Male's "The Gothic Image," and minimally
"controversial" and "speculative" in light of Peter Brown's, Pierre
Bourdieu's, and Roger Chartier's criticism. John Huizinga's late
medieval "portrait of a life," and R. W. Southern's "Making of the
Middle Ages," opposite as they are, refute the common mistake of a
single medieval mindset. But the "sacramental universe" I would argue
permeates the period, even if Chaucer failed to capture it (see, J. A. Burrows "Ages of Man," anon. "Song of Roland," and Auerbach's
"Literary Language and Its Public"). Not the first time medieval England marched to its own drummer. The Gothic cathedrals' inexplicable features (that can only be observed from a "bird's eye" view) and building as an allegory are further examples. It's not merely that the medievals thought in allegories, the world itself was an allegory, e.g., Dante's "Comedia."

We obviously live and move in different universes. Gilbert Ryle,
behaviorist inclinations aside, is not only widely read, but widely
cited in philosophy and psychology. Wittgenstein asserted Ryle was
only one of two individuals who understood him (whether or not that is true or important is beside the point; we think E. Anscombe or Norman Malcom is the "other"). Both "Concept of Mind" and "Dilemmas" remain in print, so someone is still reading him. His "category mistake" and "ghost in the machine" are ubiquitous in philosophical literature, and "Dilemmas" illustrates the Wittgensteinian project par excellence. But he is most remembered for his assault on the Cartesian "Ghost in a Machine," which effectively buried Descrates' dualism for good.

Ryle may not endure, but his two infamous phrases will endure beyond our imagination.

10:02 PM  

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