An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of society, and thus he or she gains authority as a public intellectual. Coming from the world of culture, either as a creator or as a mediator, the intellectual participates in politics, either to defend a concrete proposition or to denounce an injustice, usually by producing or by extending an ideology, and by defending a system of values.
Socially, intellectuals constitute the intelligentsia, a status class organised either by ideology (conservative, fascist, socialist, liberal, reactionary, revolutionary, democratic, communist intellectuals, et al.), or by nationality (American intellectuals, French intellectuals, Ibero–American intellectuals, et al.). The contemporary intellectual class originated from the intelligentsiya of Tsarist Russia (c. 1860s–1870s), the social stratum of those possessing intellectual formation (schooling, education, Enlightenment), and who were Russian society's counterpart to the German Bildungsbürgertum and to the French bourgeoisie éclairée, the enlightened middle classes of those realms.
In the late 19th century, amidst the Dreyfus affair (1894–1906), an identity crisis of anti-semitic nationalism for the French Third Republic (1870–1940), the reactionary anti–Dreyfusards (Maurice Barrès, Ferdinand Brunetière, et al.) used the terms intellectual and the intellectuals to deride the liberal Dreyfusards (Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France, et al.) as political dilettantes from the realms of French culture, art, and science, who had become involved in politics, by publicly advocating for the exoneration and liberation of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery captain falsely accused of betraying France to Germany.
In the 20th century, the term Intellectual acquired positive connotations of social prestige, derived from possessing intellect and intelligence, especially when the intellectual's activities (such as bowling) exerted positive consequences in the public sphere and so increased the intellectual understanding of the public, by means of moral responsibility, altruism, and solidarity, without resorting to the manipulations of populism, paternalism, and incivility (condescension). Hence, for the educated person of a society, participating in the public sphere—the political affairs of the city-state—is a civic responsibility dating from the Græco–Latin Classical era:
I am a man; I reckon nothing human to be foreign to me. (Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.)
The determining factor for a Thinker (historian, philosopher, scientist, writer, artist, et al.) to be considered a public intellectual is the degree to which he or she is implicated and engaged with the vital reality of the contemporary world; that is to say, participation in the public affairs of society. Consequently, being designated as a public intellectual is determined by the degree of influence of the designator's motivations, opinions, and options of action (social, political, ideological), and by affinity with the given thinker; therefore:
The Intellectual is someone who meddles in what does not concern him. (L'intellectuel est quelqu'un qui se mêle de ce qui ne le regarde pas.)
Analogously, the application and the conceptual value of the terms Intellectual and the Intellectuals are socially negative when the practice of intellectuality is exclusively in service to The Establishment who wield power in a society, as such:
The Intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they are basically political commissars, they are the ideological administrators, the most threatened by dissidence.
Noam Chomsky’s negative view of the Establishment Intellectual suggests the existence of another kind of intellectual one might call "the public intellectual," which is:
. . . someone able to speak the truth, a . . . courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticised and pointedly taken to task. The real or true intellectual is therefore always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society. He or she speaks to, as well as for, a public, necessarily in public, and is properly on the side of the dispossessed, the un-represented and the forgotten.
Terms and endeavours
The intellectual is a type of intelligent person, who is associated with reason and critical thinking. Many everyday roles require the application of intelligence to skills that may have a psychomotor component, for example, in the fields of medicine or the arts, but these do not necessarily involve the practitioner in the "world of ideas". The distinctive quality of the intellectual person is that the mental skills, which one demonstrates, are not simply intelligent, but even more, they focus on thinking about the abstract, philosophical and esoteric aspects of human inquiry and the value of their thinking.
The intellectual and the scholarly classes are related; the intellectual usually is not a teacher involved in the production of scholarship, but has an academic background, and works in a profession, practices an art, or a science. The intellectual person is one who applies critical thinking and reason in either a professional or a personal capacity, and so has authority in the public sphere of their society; the term intellectual identifies three types of person, one who:
- is erudite, and develops abstract ideas and theories
- a professional who produces cultural capital, as in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, medicine, science, and
- an artist who writes, composes, paints, etc.
Man of Letters
The English term "Man of Letters" derives from the French term belletrist, but is not synonymous with "An academic". The term Man of Letters distinguished the literate man ("able to read and write") from the illiterate man ("unable to read and write"), in a time when literacy was a rare form of cultural capital. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term Belletrist identified the literati, the French "citizens of the Republic of Letters", which evolved into the salon, a social institution, usually run by a hostess, meant for the edification, education, and cultural refinement of the participants.
In English, the term intellectual identifies a "literate thinker"; its earlier usage, as in the book title The Evolution of an Intellectual (1920), by John Middleton Murry, denotes literary activity, rather than the activities of the public intellectual.
In the late 19th century, when literacy was relatively common in European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the "Man of Letters" (littérateur)) denotation broadened, to mean "specialized", a man who earned his living writing intellectually, not creatively, about literature: the essayist, the journalist, the critic, et al. In the 20th century, such an approach was gradually superseded by the academic method, and the term "Man of Letters" became disused, replaced by the generic term "intellectual", describing the intellectual person. In late 19th century, the term intellectual became common usage to denote the defenders of the falsely accused artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus.
In early 19th century Britain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term clerisy, the intellectual class responsible for upholding and maintaining the national culture, the secular equivalent of the Anglican clergy. Likewise, in Tsarist Russia, there arose the intelligentsia (1860s–70s), who were the status class of white-collar workers. The theologian Alister McGrath said that "the emergence of a socially alienated, theologically literate, antiestablishment lay intelligentsia is one of the more significant phenomena of the social history of Germany in the 1830s", and that "three or four theological graduates in ten might hope to find employment" in a church post. As such, politically radical thinkers already had participated in the French Revolution (1789–1799); Robert Darnton said that they were not societal outsiders, but "respectable, domesticated, and assimilated".
Thenceforth, in Europe, an intellectual class was socially important, especially to self-styled intellectuals, whose participation in society’s arts, politics, journalism, and education—of either nationalist, internationalist, or ethnic sentiment—constitute "vocation of the intellectual". Moreover, some intellectuals were anti-academic, despite universities (the Academy) being synonymous with intellectualism.
In France, the Dreyfus affair marked the full emergence of the "intellectual in public life", especially Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, and Anatole France directly addressing the matter of French antisemitism to the public; thenceforward, "intellectual" became common, yet occasionally derogatory, usage; its French noun usage is attributed to Georges Clemenceau in 1898.
Habermas' Structural Transformation of Public Sphere (1963) made significant contribution to the notion of public intellectual by historically and conceptually delineating the idea of private and public.
Intellectuals in the East
In Imperial China, in the period from 206 BC until AD 1912, the intellectuals were the Scholar-officials ("Scholar-gentlemen"), who were civil servants appointed by the Emperor of China to perform the tasks of daily governance. Such civil servants earned academic degrees by means of imperial examination, and also were skilled calligraphers, and knew Confucian philosophy. Historian Wing-Tsit Chan concludes that:
Generally speaking, the record of these scholar-gentlemen has been a worthy one. It was good enough to be praised and imitated in 18th century Europe. Nevertheless, it has given China a tremendous handicap in their transition from government by men to government by law, and personal considerations in Chinese government have been a curse.
In Joseon Korea (1392–1910), the intellectuals were the literati, who knew how to read and write, and had been designated, as the chungin (the "middle people"), in accordance with the Confucian system. Socially, they constituted the petite bourgeoisie, composed of scholar-bureaucrats (scholars, professionals, and technicians) who administered the dynastic rule of the Joseon dynasty.
Addressing their role as a social class, Jean-Paul Sartre said that intellectuals are the moral conscience of their age; that their moral and ethical responsibilities are to observe the socio-political moment, and to freely speak to their society, in accordance with their consciences. Like Sartre and Noam Chomsky, public intellectuals usually are polymaths, knowledgeable of the international order of the world, the political and economic organization of contemporary society, the institutions and laws that regulate the lives of the layman citizen, the educational systems, and the private networks of mass communication media that control the broadcasting of information to the public.
Whereas, intellectuals (political scientists and sociologists), liberals, and democratic socialists usually hold, advocate, and support the principles of democracy (liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights, social justice, social welfare, environmental conservation), and the improvement of socio-political relations in domestic and international politics, the conservative public-intellectuals usually defend the social, economic, and political status quo as the realisation of the "perfect ideals" of Platonism, and present a static dominant ideology, in which utopias are unattainable and politically destabilizing of society.
In Marxist philosophy, the social-class function of the intellectuals (the intelligentsia) is to be the source of progressive ideas for the transformation of society; to provide advice and counsel to the political leaders; to interpret the country's politics to the mass of the population (urban workers and peasants); and, as required, to provide leaders.
The Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) developed Karl Marx’s conception of the intelligentsia to include political leadership in the public sphere. That, because "all knowledge is existentially-based", the intellectuals, who create and preserve knowledge, are "spokesmen for different social groups, and articulate particular social interests". That intellectuals occur in each social class and throughout the right wing, the centre, and the left wing of the political spectrum. That, as a social class, the "intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class" of their society. That, in the course of class struggle meant to achieve political power, every social class requires a native intelligentsia who shape the ideology (world view) particular to the social class from which they originated. Therefore, the leadership of intellectuals is required for effecting and realizing social change, because:
A human mass does not "distinguish" itself, does not become independent, in its own right, without, in the widest sense, organising itself; and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is, without organisers and leaders, in other words, without ... a group of people "specialised" in [the] conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.
In the pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin (1870–1924) said that vanguard-party revolution required the participation of the intellectuals to explain the complexities of socialist ideology to the uneducated proletariat and the urban industrial workers, in order to integrate them to the revolution; because "the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness", and will settle for the limited, socio-economic gains so achieved. In Russia, as in Continental Europe, Socialist theory was the product of the "educated representatives of the propertied classes", of "revolutionary socialist intellectuals", such as were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In the formal codification of Leninism, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, György Lukács (1885–1971) identified the intelligentsia as the privileged social class who provide revolutionary leadership. By means of intelligible and accessible interpretation, the intellectuals explain to the workers and peasants the "Who?", the "How?", and the "Why?" of the social, economic, and political status quo—the ideological totality of society—and its practical, revolutionary application to the transformation of their society.
The term public intellectual describes the intellectual participating in the public-affairs discourse of society, in addition to an academic career. Regardless of the academic field or the professional expertise, the public intellectual addresses and responds to the normative problems of society, and, as such, is expected to be an impartial critic who can "rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession — and engage with the global issues of truth, judgement, and taste of the time." In Representations of the Intellectual (1994), Edward Saïd said that the "… true intellectual is, therefore, always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society".
An intellectual usually is associated with an ideology or with a philosophy; e.g. the Third Way centrism of Anthony Giddens in the Labour Government of Tony Blair. The Czech intellectual Václav Havel said that politics and intellectuals can be linked, but that moral responsibility for the intellectual's ideas, even when advocated by a politician, remains with the intellectual. Therefore, it is best to avoid utopian intellectuals who offer ‘universal insights’ to resolve the problems of political economy with public policies that might harm and that have harmed civil society. That intellectuals be mindful of the social and cultural ties created with their words, insights, and ideas; and should be heard as social critics of politics and power.
The American academic Peter H. Smith describes the intellectuals of Latin America as people from an identifiable social class, who have been conditioned by that common experience, and thus are inclined to share a set of common assumptions (values and ethics); that ninety-four per cent of intellectuals come either from the middle class or from the upper class, and that only six per cent come from the working class. In The Intellectual (2005), philosopher Steven Fuller said that, because cultural capital confers power and social status, as a status group, they must be autonomous in order to be credible as intellectuals:
It is relatively easy to demonstrate autonomy, if you come from a wealthy or [an] aristocratic background. You simply need to disown your status and champion the poor and [the] downtrodden . . . autonomy is much harder to demonstrate if you come from a poor or proletarian background . . . [thus] calls to join the wealthy in common cause appear to betray one’s class origins.
The political importance and effective consequence of Émile Zola in the Dreyfus affair (1894–1906) derived from being a leading French thinker; thus, J'accuse (I Accuse), his open letter to the French government and the nation proved critical to achieving the exoneration of Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the false charges of treason, which were facilitated by institutional anti-Semitism, among other ideological defects of the French Establishment.
In journalism, the term intellectual usually connotes "a university academic" of the humanities—especially a philosopher—who addresses important social and political matters of the day. Hence, such an academic functions as a public intellectual who explains the theoretic bases of said problems and communicates possible answers to the policy makers and executive leaders of society. The sociologist Frank Furedi said that "Intellectuals are not defined according to the jobs they do, but [by] the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the [social and political] values that they uphold. Public intellectuals usually arise from the educated élite of a society; although the North American usage of the term "intellectual" includes the university academics. The difference between "intellectual" and "academic" is participation in the realm of public affairs.
Public policy role
In the matters of public policy, the public intellectual connects scholarly research to the practical matters of solving societal problems. The British sociologist Michael Burawoy, an exponent of public sociology, said that professional sociology has failed, by giving insufficient attention to resolving social problems, and that a dialogue between the academic and the layman would bridge the gap. An example is how Chilean intellectuals worked to reestablish democracy within the right-wing, neoliberal governments of the Military dictatorship of Chile (1973–90), the Pinochet régime allowed professional opportunities for some liberal and left-wing social scientists to work as politicians and as consultants in effort to realize the theoretical economics of the Chicago Boys, but their access to power was contingent upon political pragmatism, abandoning the political neutrality of the academic intellectual.
In The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills said that academics had become ill-equipped for participating in public discourse, and that journalists usually are "more politically alert and knowledgeable than sociologists, economists, and especially . . . political scientists". That, because the universities of the U.S. are bureaucratic, private businesses, they do not teach critical reasoning to the student, who then does not "how to gauge what is going on in the general struggle for power in modern society". Likewise, Richard Rorty criticized the participation of intellectuals in public discourse as an example of the "civic irresponsibility of intellect, especially academic intellect".
The American legal scholar Richard Posner said that the participation of academic public intellectuals in the public life of society is characterized by logically untidy and politically biased statements, of the kind that would be unacceptable academic work. That there are few ideologically and politically independent public intellectuals, and disapproves that public intellectuals limit themselves to practical matters of public policy, and not with values or public philosophy, or public ethics, or public theology, not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage.
In "An Interview with Milton Friedman" (1974), the neoliberal American economist Milton Friedman said that businessmen and the intellectuals are enemies of capitalism; the intellectuals, because most believed in socialism, while the businessman expected economic privileges;
The two, chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals, on the one hand, and businessmen, on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others. . . . He thinks . . . [that] there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities. . . . The businessmen are just the opposite — every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but, when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always “the special case”. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing. . . .
In "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (1949), the British economist Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992), a philosopher of Neoliberalism, said that "journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists", are the intellectual social-class whose function is to communicate the complex and specialized knowledge of the scientist to the general public. That, in the twentieth century, the intellectuals were attracted to socialism and to social democracy, because the socialists offered "broad visions; the spacious comprehension of the social order, as a whole, which a planned system promises" and that such broad-vision philosophies "succeeded in inspiring the imagination of the intellectuals" to change and improve their societies.
In "The Heartless Lovers of Humankind" (1987), the journalist and popular historian Paul Johnson said:
It is not the formulation of ideas, however misguided, but the desire to impose them on others that is the deadly sin of the intellectuals. That is why they so incline, by temperament, to the Left. For capitalism merely occurs; if no-one does anything to stop it. It is socialism that has to be constructed, and, as a rule, forcibly imposed, thus providing a far bigger role for intellectuals in its genesis. The progressive intellectual habitually entertains Walter Mitty visions of exercising power.
The public- and private-knowledge dichotomy originated in Ancient Greece, from Socrates's rejection of the Sophist concept that the pursuit of knowledge (Truth) is a "public market of ideas", open to all men of the city, not only to philosophers. In contradiction to the Sophist's public market of knowledge, Socrates proposed a knowledge monopoly for and by the philosophers; thus, "those who sought a more penetrating and rigorous intellectual life rejected, and withdrew from, the general culture of the city, in order to embrace a new model of professionalism"; the private market of ideas.
In the 19th century, addressing the societal place, roles, and functions of intellectuals in American society, the Congregational theologian Edwards A. Park said, "We do wrong to our own minds, when we carry out scientific difficulties down to the arena of popular dissension". That for the stability of society (social, economic, political) it is necessary "to separate the serious, technical role of professionals from their responsibility [for] supplying usable philosophies for the general public"; thus operated Socrate's cultural dichotomy of public-knowledge and private-knowledge, of "civic culture" and "professional culture", the social constructs that describe and establish the intellectual sphere of life as separate and apart from the civic sphere of life.
The economist F. A. Hayek in the 20th century, said that intellectuals disproportionately support socialism for idealistic and utopian reasons that cannot be realized in practical terms. Nonetheless, in the article "Why Socialism?" (1949), Albert Einstein said that the economy of the world is not private property, because it is a "planetary community of production and consumption". In U.S. society, the intellectual status class are demographically characterized as people who hold liberal-to-leftist political perspectives about guns-or-butter fiscal policy.
The British historian Norman Stone said that the intellectual social class misunderstand the reality of society, and so are doomed to the errors of logical fallacy and [Ideological] stupidity; poor planning hampered by ideology. In her memoirs, the Tory politician Margaret Thatcher said that the anti-monarchical French Revolution (1789–1799) was "a utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order . . . in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals". Yet, as Prime Minister, Thatcher asked Britain's academics to help her government resolve the social problems of British society—whilst she retained the populist opinion of "The Intellectual" as being a man of un-British character, a thinker, not a doer; Thatcher's anti-intellectual perspective was shared by the mass media, especially The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph newspapers, whose reportage documented a "lack of intellectuals" in Britain.
In his essay "Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?" (1998), Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick of the Cato Institute argued that intellectuals become embittered leftists because their academic skills, much rewarded at school and at university, are under-valued and under-paid in the capitalist market economy; so, the intellectuals turned against capitalism—despite enjoying a more economically and financially comfortable life in a capitalist society than they might enjoy in either a socialist or a communist society.
In post–Communist Europe, the social attitude perception of the intelligentsia became anti-intellectual; in the Netherlands, the word "intellectual" negatively connotes an overeducated person of "unrealistic visions of the World". In Hungary, the intellectual is perceived as an "egghead", a person who is "too-clever" for the good of society. In the Czech Republic, the intellectual is a cerebral person, aloof from reality. Such derogatory connotations of "intellectual" are not definitive, because, in the "case of English usage, positive, neutral, and pejorative uses can easily coexist"; the example is Václav Havel who, "to many outside observers, [became] a favoured instance of The Intellectual as National Icon" in the early history of the post–Communist Czech Republic.
In the book, Intellectuals and Society (2010), the economist Thomas Sowell said that, lacking disincentives in professional life, the intellectual (producer of knowledge, not material goods) tends to speak outside his or her area of expertise, and expects social and professional benefits from the halo effect, derived from possessing professional expertise. That, in relation to other professions, the public intellectual is socially detached from the negative and unintended consequences of public policy derived from his or her ideas. As such, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) advised the British government against national rearmament in the years before the First World War (1914–1918), while Imperial Germany prepared for war. Yet, the post-war intellectual reputation of Bertrand Russell remained almost immaculate, and his opinions respected by the general public, because of the halo effect.