This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.
Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.
That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.
But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.
So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)
Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”
Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.
It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:
“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”
There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.
It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.
To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.