Notebooks

Intellectuals

23 Oct 2002 14:17

Intellect is the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence; it is intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning and spurs to emotion --- a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth. Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter in hand.
Intellect is community property and can be handed down. We all know what we mean by an intellectual tradition, localized here or there; but we do not speak of a "tradition of intelligence," for intelligence sprouts where it will.... And though Intellect neither implies nor precludes intelligence, two of its uses are --- to make up for the lack of intelligence and to amplify the force of it by giving it quick recognition and apt embodiment.
For intelligence wherever found is an individual and private possession; it dies with the owner unless he embodies it in more or less lasting form. Intellect is on the contrary a product of social effort and an acquirement.... Intellect is an institution; it stands up as it were by itself, apart from the possessors of intelligence, even though they alone could rebuild it if it should be destroyed....
The distinction becomes unmistakable if one thinks of the alphabet --- a product of successive acts of intelligence which, when completed, turned into one of the indispensable furnishings of the House of Intellect. To learn the alphabet calls for no great intelligence: millions learn it who could never have invented it; just as millions of intelligent people have lived and died without learning it --- for example, Charlemagne.

---Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, pp. 3--5

Very true; but this makes computer programmers into intellectuals. If the word was used sensibly, no one could object; but of course it isn't. If I were forced to say who colloquial educated English does count as an intellectual, I would have to say something like "writers, especially on morals, politics or the arts, whose claim on our attention rests on literary skill or a knowledge of their own literary tradition, including the writings of other intellectuals". I would contrast this with scholars, who are (supposedly) specialized experts in particular disciplines, claiming unusual knowledge and authority in particular areas. Scholars can moonlight as intellectuals in the narrow sense, writing about subjects beyond their expertise; one of the curious features of the intellectual (broad sense) life of our time is the increasing degree to which the only intellectuals (narrow sense) are moonlighting scholars, at least nominally.

I would like to draw attention to a few points. (1) This sense of "intellectual" is clearly descended from pre-modern notions of the kind of education appropriate to the gently-born, specialization being the province of the "mechanical" lower classes. (2) The fact that many intellectuals are forced to pretend they are scholars, when in fact they lack technical expertise in anything, seems to lead to a number of common perversions of thought and writing, mostly having to do with inventing jargons for repackaging received ideas. (3) The idea that intellectuals are commonly or traditionally champions of the oppressed, opponents of accepted dogma, or anything of the sort, is a myth.

I'm going to emphasize that last point, because the myth irritates me. I like to think of myself as a "man of the left" (as the old phrase goes), because the values the left has historically stood for --- freedom, equality, toleration, rationality --- appeal to me very strongly. These days in America self-conscious leftists are disproportionately tied to the academy and related institutions, and this had lead (I think) to a myth that intellectuals "speak truth to power", and similar cant. (The slogan reveals an unfortunate conviction that we will never hold power.) Now, let us think carefully about what intellectuals, in this sense, can actually do. They can take not-too-recondite human events and give them more or less favorable glosses --- they can interpret, and justify or condemn. They have nothing else to talk about. They must either support themselves in some way quite independent of their activity as intellectuals, or receive support for their opinions. Under the first heading, the most important instances are inherited family wealth and teaching. Under the second, people are generally unwilling to pay for opinions with which they disagree, or to which they are indifferent. They are quite willing, however, to support those who justify what they recognize as their interests and ambitions. (An important part of the social life of intellectuals is convincing potential patrons that something is one of their interests or ambitions.) Almost any society which can support intellectuals will contain a multitude of groups which feel themselves to have different interests and values, and so, without active and effective repression, some intellectuals to articulate and justify them. Naturally, those most able to support intellectuals, and perhaps most in need of support, are those with the greatest control over power and resources. Historically, today, and for the foreseeable future, most intellectuals live by legitimating, in whole or in part, the way things are.

None of this need involve anything like deliberate calculation, corruption, or prostitution (though those certainly happen). In particular, I think many intellectuals are sincere in what they say, at least to friendly audiences, and most of their supporters are themselves sincerely convinced that it's right. Of course sometimes supporting intellectuals is an effective way of advancing a certain agenda, and is supported for that reason. But the efficacy generally comes from appealing to beliefs and norms that are shared beyond the group that is immediately behind them. (Thus American feminists appeal to norms of equal rights, and Saudi clerics to the doctrine that the Qur'an is the uncreated word of God.) Whether an idea is right is quite separate from the identity or motives of its originators and adherents. People are willing to support intellectuals whose ideas are, they think, right; it's just that we find it easier to accept ideas which put us in a better light.

I could easily apply this analysis to radical intellectuals in contemporary industrialized societies. It would say that they provide legitimation to certain social groups, reasonably large and reasonably rich, to which they themselves belong, confirming them in their received ideas and attitudes --- they do not speak truth to power, because they do not address power, which in any case would not listen. And they do not challenge old ideas, because they operate within a particular tradition where their own notions are the conventional wisdom --- where "challenging tradition" is traditional. But to do this fairly would require actual work in my part in sociology, and I'm lazy. In any case, while smug, idiotic and pretentious commentators on the left irritate me, smug, idiotic and pretentious commentators on the right actually affect policy, and so do real damage to real people on behalf of abstract, doctrinaire notions. One of the things I need to work on is concentrating more of my ire on them.

In politics; social position; and mass audiences; and mass media; and elites; and educated audiences; and power-worship (as diagnosed by Orwell; by Barzun; by Chomsky; by Russell; by Said); their moral and political duties; and irrationalism; and anti-rationalism; in classical times; in imperial China; in Warring States China; in Islam; in India; in the European middle ages. Anti-intellectualism among intellectuals: its roots, history, content.


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