Notebooks

Intellectuals

26 May 2022 23:04

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 or accountants 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 widely-received ideas. (3) The idea that intellectuals are commonly or historically 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 (or can be brought to feel that they have, etc.). Thus, without active and effective repression, those groups will raise up some intellectuals to articulate and justify those interests and values. 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, plus arguing that the existing state of affair should be further slanted somehow in favor of one group or another.

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 comparatively 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 a traditional and even ritualized act. 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.

A fragment on the social role of intellectuals

What follows, down to the horizontal line, is from a draft for a thorough revision which has been sitting around, uncompleted, since 2010 or so. So I might as well, now (2022), make it public, even if it seems unlikely that I will ever finish it. It's mostly rehashed Gellner, with bits of Marshall Hodgson, Dan Sperber, Elizabeth Eisenstein and a few others mixed in.

What can intellectuals of this sort actually do? They can take not-too-recondite human events and gloss them more or less favorably --- they can interpret, and justify or condemn. They have nothing else to talk about. They must either support themselves in some way independent of their activity as intellectuals, or receive support for their opinions.

The most important sources of independent support have traditionally been inherited family wealth, clerking, the learned professions, and teaching. Much of our intellectual heritage has been built by the idle sons of gentlemen, time-serving dynastic bureaucrats, and schoolmasters. Family money isn't very important as a way of supporting intellectuals any more. Neither is clerking, because on the one hand sheer literacy is very common, and on the other modern organizations demand more administrative knowledge and effort than did the Antonines or the Tang. (Perhaps the last great writer sustained by a "clerkly" day-job was Wallace Stevens, vice-president of an insurance company.) Teaching is still very important, though in some ways merged with the professions --- it is rare, now, to find a writer who works as an ordinary practicing doctor, lawyer or engineer, though common to find them among professors of medicine, law and engineering.

How, though, might intellectuals persuade other people to support them for the sake of their opinions? Historically, the most successful means has been to say something like this: "We have in our possession certain books which contain information of the greatest importance to everyone; they describe the nature and purpose of the universe, the place of human beings within it, and the proper way of conducting human affairs. The contents of these books come to us with the highest possible authority. To order one's life in accordance with them is certain to bring all good things; flouting them leads to the worst possible misery." If you believe that, it becomes imperative to have accurate copies of the books around, and somebody who can interpret them and apply them their lessons to the events of the day. (No lesson can be self-applying, and anyway, the books often at least appear irrelevant or mutually contradictory.) You need, in a word, intellectuals, many of which thus lived for several thousand years as Interpreters of the Written Authorities.

What qualities make for succcess in an Interpreter of Written Authorities? First, of course, literacy. Second, knowledge of the accepted canon of authoritative texts. Third, knowledge of the tradition of commentary on the canon. (There is a tendency for successful commentaries to become canonical; you don't just have to know Scripture, you have to know Augustine on Scripture.) Fourth, skill in interpreting writing, particularly knowledge of the exact meanings of words, and sensitivity to their associations, connontations, and subtle shades of import. Fifth, eloquence in all its forms, skill in rhetoric and the arts of argumentation. Sixth, aptitude in applying interpretations to events and situations put before them, and arguing for the correctness of the application. Seventh, belief: to persuade others, it helps to first persuade yourself. Deep knowledge of particular sciences or arts, supposing the society has any, is not required. The important thing was mastery of moral rules and principles, not positive factual knowledge. Specialized skill was generally the provinces of the "mechanical" lower classes, not the gently born.

Such Interpreters naturally tended to organize into more or less formal clerical establishments, each linked to a social group accepting a particular collection of Written Authorities. One finds this pattern throughout the Old World civilizations, at least from the classical eras, about -600 to -200, onwards. Sometimes multiple canons could coexist within a single polity; some canons, while never capturing a substantial societal base, nonetheless propagated themselves with great tenacity. A nice example is medieval Andalusia, where all three "Peoples of the Book" --- Jews, Christians and Muslims --- had active intellectual lives centered on their Books, as well as competition from "philosophy," i.e., an alternative canon drawn from classical Greek writers, whose partisans discreetly claimed for it the same universal application the Books were supposed to enjoy. (The philosophers, in Andalusia, seem to have come disproportionately from the learned professions and the aristocracy, but I don't think we know whether that was true generally.)

(Incidentally, why a canon of Written Authorities? That is, a fairly-agreed-upon, and fairly limited, collection of texts? There are, I think, three reasons. The first is the inherent implausibility of many books containing the Answers. The second is the limitations of manual book reproduction in a literature but pre-print society. [On this, see Eisenstein.] Thirdly, there is a kind of network externality: once some books become widely accepted by many other intellectuals as touchstones, there are advantages to making your arguments in terms of them, and not other works, so young clerks will be taught from those books. Even if other works are not actively proscribed as Bad and Wrong, then,there will be a tendency to lock in a canon, when intellectuals argue with each other.)

This venerable pattern has fallen, comparatively speaking, on hard times. While acceptance of various Written Authorities remains strong, in much of the world it is no longer compulsory. Moreover, even when people still retain their belief in the authority of a canon, they are less apt to look to it, and so to its interpreters, for advice on how to order their life, and respond to the dilemmas of the day. In a word, modern societies are highly secularized; so far as I can see, nobody really understands why and how this came about, though I'm very glad it did. Clearly, any clerisy which survives secularization has got to do so on different terms than before. (In two of the countries which have clerisies on something like the old pattern, namely China and Iran, some of the intellectuals actually seized power.) Which brings us back to being supported because of one's opinions.

People are generally unwilling to pay for opinions on things they don't care about. They generally care a great deal about their interests and ambitions, and about realizing them effectively. People are also generally unwilling to pay for opinions they think are wrong. We are more likely to agree with views which seem well-founded, or which legitimate our present interests and ambitions, or both. Opinions which make plausible appeals to widely-accepted principles will tend to seem well-founded; so, too, one way to legitimate something is to show how it follows from accepted principles. Note that these tendencies need not line up: you can believe that X is not in your interests, but be persuaded that Y, which you believe in, demands X. Actually, you can even be persuaded that X is in your interests, rightly understood, and a lot of intellectual life is like that. We have the makings here of a very complicated situation, which might be caricatured as follows. On one side, we have a pool of intellectuals selling opinions on what they take to be the topic of the day. On the other side, we have a pool of non-intellectuals looking for opinions and interpretations. (Are they looking? Good question. Let's come back to it.)

It is, naturally, exactly here that I ran out of steam, and have never re-captured it. I believe that where I was going with it was to assert that (i) every culture always has somebody offering some version of almost any idea you could want, but (ii) not every culture has demand for every idea, and (iii) different groups of non-intellectuals systematically differ in the quantity and quality of intellectual activity they are willing and able to support, which will shape what the culture produces.

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.

See also: Economists in Politics; Intellectual standards and competence; Psychoceramics;


Main text drafted 23 Oct 2002 14:17


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