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August 08, 2003

Notes on the Word "Intellectual"

Friedrich --

I was cooking up an elaborate posting on "intellectuals." A little history, some research. What do we mean by the word, where do intellectuals come from, what's the best way to deal with them? The public-intellectual question. The American-anti-intellectualism question. Links to a few key books and sites. Etc., etc. I was stoked, I'm tellin' you. But every time I sat at the keyboard the posting gave way beneath me.

Why? Why? Well, partly because my ambitious postings usually do give way beneath me. Planning too much and getting too excited are, for me, surefire signs that I'll soon abandon something. But what else? ... Finally I realized what was behind my failure, which was that I really only have a couple of disjointed things I want to say on the subject. Why not take the easy way out? Ie., ditch the research and the hard work, and cut directly to the opinionating, musing and wise-assing?

OK, then ...

* It was a pleasant moment -- no, make that "a rare triumphant moment" -- for me when I finally understood that "intellectual" isn't a synonym for "smart." How does that work? I'm not talking about waking up to the fact that eggheads can be loony and impractical; I mean that over and over again I met people who were undoubtedly intellectuals yet who were dumb. Flat out dumb. Mentally underpowered. And over and over again, I also met people who struck me as very smart yet who clearly weren't intellectuals.

What to make of this? Like you and everyone else with the sense and wit to drop by this blog, I'm aware myself of having a few spare mental horsepower lurking around; I know I can pull out into the fast lane when I need to. (At least I've got the self-deluded arrogance to enjoy imagining that I can.) Yet I know damn well I'm no intellectual. I'm glad of this -- in fact, I'd find it displeasing to be mistaken for one.

Hmmmm. (Sound of mind churning away, or attempting to.) Ding!

It's a matter of temperament, not IQ points! That's the solution I finally arrived at, and thanks to it my life has been a little simpler and calmer. Here's how it goes: an intellectual is an intellectual not because she's a smart person but because she's got an intellectual temperament. Ie., she's someone who lives in her brain. An athlete or ballerina lives in her body. A painter really lives in her eyes and hands. A lawyer -- well, who knows where lawyers live? But an intellectual? We call 'em that because they do their real living in their brains. Whether it's a lousy brain or a good brain is irrelevant; it's just the place where an intellectual processes what needs processing. A matter of temperament, in other words.

That's it. Since coming to this conclusion, I've been a slightly more relaxed person. You can be an idiot yet also be an intellectual. You can be really smart and yet not be an intellectual. Knot untied, bottleneck removed. Peace. Calm. Flow. Omm.

How much of an intellectual do you feel you are? You've got a good brain -- but how about temperamentally? Do you think you qualify?

* How do you react to intellectuals generally? And what in god's name are they good for? Me, sometimes I wonder; I'm generally very wary of them. When they're making modest observations and modest suggestions, I can find them useful and entertaining, I guess. But, lordy, doesn't it seem like most of them refuse to be modest, and think that they really ought to be in charge? They know, thus they should rule. I wonder why this is so common. Why are so few of them happy to take a modest place in the midst of life? Any ideas?

The pattern reminds me of modernism. Modest modernism I've got no objection to. It's a neat style, or body of styles -- a nice addition to the menu of options. But so often modernism won't just sit there; there's something about it that seems to want to take over, and that needs to be beaten back. Why this should be so I'm not sure. I'm also unsure how to explain the parallel to the intellectual temperament.

* I've had to learn to be wary of intellectualism, I confess. Back in more rube-ish, foolish, younger days, I found the intellectuality thing very attractive, and even sexy. Imagine my dismay on discovering how bad and dishonest much of what intellectuals preach is, and what miserable people many of them turn out to be. Happy to take responsibility for my gullibility and idiocy in this matter. How to explain my weakness, though? I'd certainly like to believe that it had something to do with my love of beauty and of free thinking. But, but ... Nah. Safer, and probably 'way more accurate, to put it down to an utter lack of character.

* Some readers complain that Paul Johnson's history Intellectuals (buyable here) is biased and unfair. Well, duh. It's an avowedly partisan and opinionated -- as well as entertaining and informative -- look at what horrible people many intellectual heroes, especially leftist ones, in fact were. OK, perhaps Johnson would have done better to entitle his book "Some Awful Leftist Intellectuals." Happy now, whiners?

* I'm still on my Vedanta kick, you'll be thrilled to learn. Here are a few passages on the subject of the intellect from Vedanta legend Vivekananda:

First, it is absolutely necessary to clear the intellectual portion, although we know that intellectuality is almost nothing; for it is the heart that is of most importance. It is through the heart that the Lord is seen, and not through the intellect. The intellect is only the street-clearner, cleansing the path for us, a secondary worker, the policeman; but the policeman is not a positive necessity for the workings of society. He is only to stop disturbances, to check wrong-doing, and that is all the work required of the intellect ...

Intellect is necessary for without it we fall into crude errors and make all sorts of mistakes. Intellect checks these; but beyond that, do not try to build anything upon it. It is an inactive, secondary help; the real help is feeling, love. Do you feel for others? If you do, you are growing in oneness. If you do not feel for others, you may be the most intellectual giant ever born, but you will be nothing; you are but dry intellect, and you will remain so.

Words and attitudes I can live with. Well, let me not be so cautious. I read this passage thinking, "Huzzah! This is what I've always really thought and never managed to put into words! Rock on, Vivekananda!" How do you react to this passage?

* Did I mention that the Wife and I visited New York's Museum of Sex (here)? An overpriced, overintellectual drag -- like being trapped in a theme issue of ArtForum. (The hardhitting website conveys the flavor of the museum very effectively.) Confrontational, bold, deconstructed, and theoretical. A pessary here, a whorehouse there, a multiple murder in Times Square ... all of it displayed in a zigzaggy installation that might have been designed by Zaha Hadid. An edgy, out-there, aggressive, academic take on the subject, in other words. I felt as though I was walking around with a cage of intellectualism over my head, and that I was being forced to interact with the world through it. Nothing erotic about the experience.

Misery-making, in fact. Which got me thinking: no wonder intellectuals are forever theorizing about S&M and fantasizing about revolution -- who'd want the kind of inner lives they apparently have? My guess is that what their revolution fantasies really represent are their desires to overthrow, and escape from, their own intellectuality.

* After failing to be stirred -- bodily or mentally -- by the Museum of Sex, the Wife and I trooped off to a chic nearby restaurant, where we treated ourselves to the house specialty: overpriced burgers with truffles. Burgers with truffles! Genius! We chowed down happily, and together approached Oneness -- a bliss that had nothing to do with the intellect, let me tell you. Instead: Funky and heavenly, like sex at its best.



UPDATE: Don't miss the comments on this posting. Good stuff -- pro, con and otherwise.

posted by Michael at August 8, 2003


dear michael,
i enjoyed your piece on intellectuals and the definition you hit upon makes a lot of sense to me. i've collected quotes on "intellectuals" (among other topics) for years and thought you might be interested in what others have to say on the subject. thanks for your insightful piece.
william sauer


Like most intellectuals, he is immensely stupid.
Marquise de Merteuil

An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.
Spiro Agnew

Intellectuals are the most intolerant of all people.
Paul Duncun

The difference between western and eastern intellectuals is that the former have not been
kicked in the ass enough.
Witold Gombrowicz

Intellectuals can tell themselves anything, sell themselves any bill of goods, which is why they were so often patsies for the ruling classes…
Lillian Hellman

Intellectuals are people who believe that ideas are of more importance than values. That is to say, their own ideas and other people’s values.
Gerald Brenan

What is a highbrow? It is a man who has found something more interesting than women.
Edgar Wallace

Intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong.
David Fasold

It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.
Stephen Hawking

An “egghead” is one who stands firmly on both feet in mid-air on both sides of an issue.
Homer Ferguson

An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.
Albert Camus

It is always the task of the intellectual to “think otherwise.” This is not just a perverse idiosyncrasy. It is an absolutely essential feature of a society.
Harvey Cox

Intellectualism, though by no means confined to doubters, is often the sole piety of the skeptic.
Richard Hofstadter

I hate intellectuals. They are from the top down. I am from the bottom up.
Frank Lloyd Wright

Posted by: william sauer on August 8, 2003 02:18 PM

William -- Wow, so that's the way the pro's do it. Many thanks -- and that's quite a collection of quotes you've got there. Some publisher ought to get in touch.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 8, 2003 03:10 PM

The Musuem of Sex is a downer indeed. Aside from being slapshot and poorly organized (Arranged more or less chronologically, kinda...with no overarching theme or purpose) it has harsh, unsexy white boxes and lighting. The peroid artifacts are interesting...a Book of Bordello Reviews, Calling cards of Ladies of the Night, Burlesque posters....but the presentation is so drab, so overtalkly..

And its 13 bucks to get in! Go to the Met for free and see more sex in the European Painting rooms then in the whole Musuem of Sex.


Posted by: JLeavitt on August 8, 2003 03:19 PM

I think I like Camus' quote the best. Makes me laugh.

Posted by: annette on August 8, 2003 04:05 PM

I must cop to having always been rather interested in ideas. I think you share this interest. If you object to the label intellectual, how would you describe our tendency to make observations on the passing scene? Should we style ourselves flâneurs? I could go for that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 8, 2003 06:54 PM

Michael, I think you're right on the mark that being an intellectual is not a matter of intelligence or education, but of temperament. Most of the people that we think of as intellectual tend to respond to experience in a different way than those we don't so label.

The so-called intellectual is likely to process an experience by analyzing it and relating it to other known facts or beliefs. He or she just naturally asks, What does this mean? What are its implications? How does it fit in with such-and-such? Another kind of personality will focus on the pure sense experience; still another kind will respond intuitively or emotionally. To the person we call an intellectual, an experience or a fact is mentally digested and comes out an idea.

Society needs such persons, of course. Scientific research depends a great deal on the ability to synthesize data into ideas, which become testable hypotheses; and it also needs the intellectual mind to analyze the results of experimentation and create new ideas as a result. (But it's likely that the greatest scientists couple analytical ability with intuition or imagination, which enables them to make "inspired" hypotheses that pure reason couldn't account for.)

Not only in science, but in most fields of knowledge, we value people whose mentality encourages them to see the "big picture" by applying a reasoning process to phenomena that have no obvious meaning or connection to one another.

Intellectuals, in this sense of the word, also have some serious problems when they look the world in the eye.

Some of their problems are relatively benign, if unfortunate for them. One common drawback for people with this temperament is the relative inability to appreciate sense experience in itself. I have known people who were more intelligent than I who cannot enjoy movies that are primarily visual, that don't make a lot of rational sense -- Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits is one that comes to mind. Or people who can't look at a painting in a museum without a recorded guide to explain it.

Those quirks don't harm anyone else, but other habits of mind of intellectuals do have that potential. In one way or another, intellectuals intensely need to build -- or at least accept -- conceptual systems that account for everything. So no input can be taken on board just on its own terms. The system, the -ism, the ideology immediately imprints itself on the fact or experience.

Such a response to the variety and complexity of the world is most obvious in the political realm, but there is no field of human endeavor where intellectuals haven't shaped the world of ideas according to their need to define and systematize.

We see the unhappy results in the scientist who won't consider the evidence from psychical research (because it doesn't fit in with his concept of the laws of nature), the "art lover" whose tastes are based on ideas of what's "in" or "out," the clergyman or theologian whose connection with the world of spirit is cut off by walls of dogma.

I used to worry about whether I was "really" an intellectual, since my professional writing has so rarely had anything to do with what is traditionally considered the realm of the mind. There is evidence that I'm not -- for example, although I often read books that add to my knowledge about things, I have to admit that I'm more interested in the writer's style: how it's said is more important to me than the content of what's said. Still, provided ideas are expressed in a lively, colorful way, I can get a kick out of them as well.

But even if I were a certified intellectual, so what? Like you, I've had ample opportunities to observe that intellectual qualities imply no superiority of wisdom or virtue; they are just a mode of behavior, or a talent if you prefer. And, as Dwight Macdonald wrote, talent is not unusual: character is.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 8, 2003 07:06 PM

What a depressing post. But I'm afraid you're right. You have described well what "intellectual" has come to mean. I feel that "intellectual" is one of those words that has been hijacked but I could be wrong about that. Maybe I never have understood what the word means. Anyway, here are a couple of my favorite "definitions":

"An intellectual is a person who has been educated beyond his intelligence."
-- Arthur C. Clarke

An intellectual is a person who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.
(I don't know where this one came from. I've heard it repeated a lot)

Posted by: Lynn S on August 8, 2003 09:48 PM

Based on Test #2 from Lynn S.---I totally flunk the "intellectual" test. But...I bet that doesn't come as any big surprise, right?? (Don't answer...)

Posted by: annette on August 8, 2003 09:56 PM

Gosh, you mean the Lone Ranger theme song has another name! Like, cool!!!

Posted by: Deb on August 8, 2003 10:33 PM

Aren't you folks yielding the term "intellectual" just a little too easily to the stereotype of the ivory-tower ignoramus so lovingly repeated by the no-nothing right for lo these many years? Not that there aren't such people -- and the argument that people become that way as a matter of temperament rather than native intelligence is good enough -- but the general conclusion seems based on the assumption that a thinking person who has fun or is fun -- or who is even effective -- is by definition not an intellectual. Ben Franklin wasn't an intellectual, but the "I know everything because nothing is knowable" postmodernist grad student is. (So is a blowhard like Bill Bennett, I suppose, if we're to be consistent.)

But of what use is such a definition?

So...Ben Franklin's not an intellectual; he's too much fun. James Madison isn't; his practical grasp of human nature is far too acute. Edward Said is an intellectual, I suppose, but T.E. Lawrence is not. I grew up with respect for the term "intellectual" -- and I'd like to think I have as healthy a skepticism towards intellectuals' claims as towards others' -- but this scheme of classification just feels wrong to me.

It's one thing to grasp an overworked cliche; but I'd rather not surrender to this one just yet.

Posted by: Marvin on August 9, 2003 02:02 AM

The intellectual's days may be numbered. Asked in a recent interview whether he considered himself an intellectual, the French writer on 17th century art and literature Marc Fumaroli gave this reply: "That [intellectual] is a word I detest. Because it puts the emphasis on the intellect. I have nothing against the intellect, I am rather partial to reason, but for me the philosopher, the poet, the historian, the scientist are only complete beings if they are emotional and imaginative too. Perhaps, to take it to an extreme, even visionaries or prophets. Now the word 'intellectual' seems to reduce anyone who accepts that label to a simple virtuoso capacity for analysis. Look at the history of Greece, of Rome, of ancient Egypt, of almost all civilizations. Ethnologists will tell you they have numerous types of superior men to offer, but no intellectuals. Again, in the 19th century you have Chateaubriand, Michelet, Hugo, Flaubert, Marx, but these minds are far too rich, their facets far too contradictory to be reduced to the category of intellectuals. I detest these positivist categories from the end of the 19th century which stick people in boxes: "homosexuals", "proletarians", "intellectuals". I think it's a considerable loss in comparison with the power ['magistere'] exercised by shamans, sages, poets and artists. They didn't sign manifestos, they weren't taken out of their boxes when people wanted to hear them shout. A gentleman philosopher like Montaigne has had an incalculable beneficial influence on all aspects of French and European life. Currently, we rightly talk of the twilight of the intellectuals because their role has become so ridiculous, so tiresome that their nakedness has ended up showing through." If the French are giving up on intellectuals, then I think the species is doomed.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller on August 9, 2003 02:58 PM

I think everyone is way off and being far too picky. The two quotes (I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the exact reference on me) that I've always lived by are:

Richard Hofstater: "The intellectual is someone whose mind is at play with ideas."

Hofstater again: "An intellectual is someone who strives to turn lived experiences into conscious thought".

So, guys? I think being an intellectual is most of all having FUN with ideas and secondly just making the EFFORT to "live delibrately" in a sense by actually bothering to process and consider your own life.

And as for the lone ranger barb, that's NONSENSE. One of the most intellectual journals I know of is Gary Groth's Comics Journal -- yes, friends, it takes what is usually considered one of the "low brow" arts, comic books, and intellectualizes it simply by 1) Taking it seriously and 2) Having fun with the ideas presenented in the medium.

One last observation: my intellecutal friends and I all have this in common -- we can't spell and have troble remembering small details.


Posted by: Bob Holzbach on August 10, 2003 04:22 PM

Close, M. Blowhard, but I'm not giving you a cigar. Many of the intellectuals I know - and this list includes people who are tenured at lousy ivy universities - merely ape the patter of living a life in the mind. Sometimes I wonder if they ever cared about anything.

The big problem, really, is that half the conversations in the world aren't about what is truly at stake. (i.e., people might pretend to be talking about health care, but really they're arguing about how great Clinton was and isn't it to bad he was hamstrung by the Republicans, or how corporate America won't let us live like the happy, happy Canadians.)

Interesting, Bob, most of the badge-wearing eggheads I know are ridiculously pedantic about spelling and irrelevant details.

Posted by: j.c. on August 10, 2003 06:01 PM

An intellectual lives in the mind, to be sure, but not exclusively there. It is rewarding to consider and reconsider one's experiences and notions, and to try to inegrate the understanding. Eventually one finds one has a point of view, a framework for more experience, which can be enjoyed the better for having a prepared context. The frame does not have to be a static thing; it gets modified as it comes under challenge from new experience, and from other intellectuals. I'm more suspicious of people who avoid doing this than I am of those who overdo it.

Notice that intellectualism does not exclude experience, whether that be religious, scientific, aesthetic, or what have you. Pursue your own favorite mode of experience to your heart's content; then use the mind to integrate it.


Another thing "intellectual" means is that certain tone of voice which convinces the hearer immediately, without warrant, that he is hearing the voice of authority: pear shaped tones, usually with a northeastern accent. It is the sound by which a certain class of people recognize their own kind, and the rest of us recognize our betters.

Hearing it, our choice is to identify with it or rebel. Take the first, and we serve the interests of that class, which are not necessarily our own. Take the second, and we will be considered "know-nothings" (thank you very much, Marvin).

This kind of presumptive authority, which doesn't even need to make its claims explicit, seems to this student to be one of the chief dangers to our political discourse. Ironically, it is almost exclusively heard in the mouths of people who claim to be questioning authority. It is not integrative, it is not even respectful; its purpose is to reduce the freedoms of the hearers to predictable responses.

The market, including the "market of ideas," makes freedom more difficult, not less. As one patient described the effects of thorazine, it disrupts continuous thoughts before they reach coherence.

In a madman, this may be safer than otherwise, but for the rest of us? to be consumers, distracted every few seconds by a new purchasing suggestion, in a barrage that has only the coherence of the sellers' needs? Wiser to find one's own mind, and seek out teachers and ideas according to own's own curiosity, with a modicum of serendipity thrown in for the challenge of it.

Posted by: Thomas Drew on August 10, 2003 09:48 PM

An intellectual is a person who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.
(I don't know where this one came from. I've heard it repeated a lot)

First spied by me own self in that bastion of intellectualism, Mad Magazine. Kid hears the quote enunciated by classical music radio program host, squeezes eyes shut as tune then plays, Dad (unshaven, wearing undershirt, beer in hand) shambles in the room and shouts "Hi-yo, Silver! Away!"

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on August 11, 2003 08:44 AM

Seems to me Michael that you must be an intellectual, like it or not, because; otherwise, as my decidedly and determindly non-intellectual friends point out, who cares?

Posted by: Michael S on August 12, 2003 12:40 PM

I found this post of particular interest as a friend and I were recently discussing exactly what constituted an intellectual: was it someone who has mastered one particular subject, several, has a broad knowledge across the board? Isn't it a bit of a subjective term? Turning to the Encarta dictionary for help yields these results for the adjective form: "relating to thinking, intelligent and knowledgeable, and appealing to or intended for knowledgeable people." Encarta also offers the following definition for the noun form: "intelligent person: somebody with a highly developed ability to reason and understand, especially if also well educated and interested in the arts or sciences or enjoying activities involving serious mental effort."

Obviously, as this post clearly demonstrates, there can be a significant difference between the denotative and connotative forms of a word. Some of the readers here obviously equate intellectual with "impervious egghead," others see it as being a positive thing. Personally, I think the name has gotten a bad rap precisely--to steal the term used jestingly for this site title--because of blowhards: there is tremendous difference between knowing and being a "know-it-all." I think, however, that a true intellectual is not automatically equated with someone who suffers from a debilitating limitation in other areas. In fact, empirical studies do not support this notion; if we are to use Encarta's definition as our guide--"somebody with a highly developed ability to reason and understand, especially if also well educated and interested in the arts or sciences"--we will see that research indicates quite the opposite of the stereotype. In studies conducted in 1949 by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on World War II soldiers, he shatters a popular stereotype that "better-educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than did less-educated soldiers. (Intellectuals were less prepared for battle stresses than street-smart people)" (Social Psychology, Myers, David G., p. 14). The reality, by rate of comparison, was that "less educated soldiers adapted more poorly" (Ibid.).

This same phenomenon has consistently been proven to be true, that, as a general rule, people with "book smarts" outperform their merely "street-smart" peers in nearly every way. In my opinion, this should not be surprising, for a liberal arts education is designed to enrich and impact the total person, the intellect the point impacted, for the mind is the control tower of the entire body. It is through the mind and all its aspects that anything is effected, from the instinctual command to move my arm to the thoughts that shape my worldview and inform the actions performed by my will. By transforming the mind, the total person--mind, body, soul (or whatever such system of division you prefer)--is also transformed. And the transformation of the total person, via the conduit of the mind, is precisely what a liberal arts education is designed to impact.

Perhaps the name intellectual has been given a bad name by those who feel the need to "intellectualize" things in a psychological effort to make themselves appear more knowledgeable. If we are speaking of a true intellectual, there is no need to prove superiority, at least based on its own merits and not those of a needy personality that might happen to accompany the same. The need to prove superiority is always indicative of a glaring insecurity: the same is true of arrogance of any sort: we care what others think of us and care deeply. In sum, perhaps we could say that jealousy and pride are what give the term "intellectual" a bad name: we either bristle at the self-proclaimed expert and/or we feel a threatened sense of jealously that they have something we fear we don't. Beyond this observation, balance can be a difficult thing to achieve, and the intellectual, like all other persons, must seek to maintain a healthy balance or else he, no less than anyone else, can veer into unstable and unhealthy waters where he lives in a realm of unreality, out of touch with himself, his feelings, and others around him. Still, this factor may have less to do with being an intellectual and more to do with his own life circumstances and coping methods.

Posted by: Eric on December 13, 2003 01:14 PM

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