ID:20922 Section: People

Updated:Tuesday 27th January 2015

Intellectual Definition

(Wikipedia) - Intellectual

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought, and reflection about the reality of society, proposes solutions for the normative problems of society, and by such discourse in the public sphere gains authority from public opinion. 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 one or another system of values.

In a society, the intellectuals constitute the intelligentsia, which is a status class organised either by ideology (the conservative, fascist, progressive, reactionary, revolutionary, democratic, communist intellectuals, et al.) or by nationality (the “American intellectuals”, the “French intellectuals”, the “Ibero–American intellectuals”). As a status class, the intellectuals originated from the intelligentsiya of Tsarist Russia (ca. 1860s–70s), the social stratum of men and women who possessed intellectual formation (education or Enlightenment or both), and so were the social counterpart to the German Bildungsbürgertum and to the French bourgeoisie éclairée, the “enlightened middle class” of those countries.

In the late 19th century, during 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, and others) used the terms “intellectual” and “the intellectuals” to deride the liberal Dreyfusards (Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France, and others) as political busy-bodies, from the realms of culture, art, and science, who had become involved in what was none of their business, by their public advocacy for the exoneration and liberation of the Jewish Artillery Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely condemned of betraying France to Germany.

In the 20th century, the term “intellectual” acquired positive connotations of social prestige derived from him or her possessing intellect and superior intelligence, especially when the intellectual''s activities in the public sphere exerted positive consequences upon the common good, by means of moral responsibility, altruism, and solidarity, in effort to elevate the intellectual understanding of the public at large, without resorting to the manipulations of populism, paternalism, and condescension. Hence, for the educated man and woman, participating in politics (the public sphere) is a social function that dates from the Græco–Latin Classical era:

The American intellectual Jacques Barzun was a teacher, a Man of Letters, a scholar, and other things.

I am a man; I reckon nothing human to be foreign to me. (Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.)

— Self-tormentor (163 BC), Terence.

The determining factor for a thinker (historian, philosopher, scientist, writer, artist, et al.) to be considered “an Intellectual” is the degree to which he or she is implicated and engaged with the vital reality of contemporary times; that is to say, participation in the public affairs of society. Consequently, being designated as “an Intellectual” is determined by the degree of influence of the designator’s motivations, opinions, and options of action (social, political, ideological), and by his or her 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.)

— Jean-Paul Sartre.

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.

Hence, Noam Chomky’s negative criticism of the Establishment Intellectual, logically postulates the existence of an intellectual Other, the public intellectual:

. . . 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.

— Edward Saïd.

  • 1 Terms and endeavours
  • 2 Historical background
    • 2.1 Nineteenth-century
    • 2.2 Intellectuals in the East
  • 3 Intelligentsia
  • 4 Public intellectual
    • 4.1 Social background
    • 4.2 Academic background
    • 4.3 Public policy role
  • 5 Criticism
    • 5.1 Conservative perspective
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 Further reading
  • 10 External links

Terms and endeavours
This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay that states the Wikipedia editor''s particular feelings about a topic, rather than the opinions of experts. Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style. (September 2014)

The intellectual is a specific variety of the intelligent, which unlike the general property, is strictly associated with reason and 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 a 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, philosophy, medicine, science or
  • 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.

    Historical background

    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.

    Nineteenth-centuryThe front page of L''Aurore (13 January 1898) featured Émile Zola''s open letter, J''accuse, asking the French President, Félix Faure, to resolve the Dreyfus Affair.Britain

    In the late 19th century, when literacy was relatively uncommon in European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the "Man of Letters" (littérateur)) denotation broadened, to mean "specialised", 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", comprehending intellectual men and women. In the late 19th century, the term intellectual became a common usage to denote the defenders of the falsely accused artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus.

    Continental Europe

    In the early 19th century in 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, anti-establishment 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 (1789–99); 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 the society’s arts, politics, journalism, and education  – of either nationalist, internationalist, or ethnic sentiment – constitute the “vocation of the intellectual”. Morover, 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 anti-semitism to the public; thenceforward, "intellectual" became common, yet occasionally derogatory, usage; its French noun usage is attributed to Georges Clemenceau in 1898.

    Intellectuals in the East

    In India, the hereditary caste of Brahmins have held most intellectual and scholarly occupations, owing to the exclusive caste system, which reserved education only for high-born men and women; however, following India''s independence (1947) and introduction of reservations for scheduled castes, more people from castes other than the Brahmins have been educated and had opportunity to be intellectuals and scholars, such as: Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, et al. In the past, per Atreya smriti, the Brahmin was a person who devoted one''s life to education and scholarship, to the life of the mind; thus, was the word Brahmin synonymous with being an intellectual.

    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 servant earned academic degrees by means imperial examination, and also were skilled calligraphers, and knew Confucian philosophy.

    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 administrated 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 organisation 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.

    Marxist perspective

    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 intelligentisa 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 realising 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 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.

    Public intellectual

    The term "public intellectual" describes the intellectual who participates in the public-affairs discourse of society, in addition to their academic and professional affairs. Regardless of the academic or professional field of expertise, the public intellectual addresses and responds to the problems of their society, and, as such, is expected to be impartial, and to “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 is often associated with a particular ideology or with a particular philosophy, e.g. the Third Way centrism of Anthony Giddens in the Labour Government of Tony Blair. Václav Havel said that politics and intellectuals can be linked, but that responsibility for their ideas, even when advocated by a politician, remains with the intellectual. “Therefore, it’s best to avoid utopian intellectuals offering ‘universal insights’ that might, and have, harmed society, preferring, instead, that those intellectuals who are mindful of the ties created with their insights, words, and ideas should be ... listened to with the greatest attention, regardless of whether they work as independent critics, holding up a much-needed mirror to politics and power, or are directly involved in politics.”

    Social background

    The American academic Peter H. Smith described intellectual men and women of Latin America as being 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; that ninety-four per cent come from either the middle class or 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, they must be autonomous in order to be a credible intellectual: “It is relatively easy to demonstrate autonomy, if you come from a wealthy or aristocratic background. You simply need to disown your status and champion the poor and downtrodden . . . autonomy is much harder to demonstrate if you come from a poor or proletarian background . . . 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.

    Academic background

    In journalism, the term intellectual usually connotes “a university academic” of the humanities — especially a philosopher — who addresses the 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 the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the 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 “an Intellectual” and “an 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 re-establish 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 realise 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 criticised 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 characterised 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.


    About the 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 social stability it is necessary “to separate the serious, technical role of professionals from their responsibility supplying usable philosophies for the general public”; thus the cultural dichotomy of public-knowledge and private-knowledge, of “civic culture” and “professional culture”, which are the social constructs that describe and establish the intellectual sphere of life as separate from the civic sphere of life.

    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, 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.

    From the Socratic division of knowledge arose criticism about the place, role, and function of the intellectuals of and in a society. In the Netherlands, the word “intellectual” negatively connotes them with “unrealistic visions of the World”. In post–Communist Hungary, the intellectual is an “egg-head” who is “too-clever” for the good of society. In the Czech Republic, the intellectual is person aloof from reality. Yet, Stefan Collini said that derogatory connotations of “Intellectual” are not definitive, because, in the “case of English usage, positive, neutral, and pejorative uses can easily co-exist”; the example is Václav Havel who, “to many outside observers, a favoured instance of ‘the intellectual as national icon’ ” in the early history of the post–Communist Czech Republic.

    The British historian Norman Stone said that, as a social class, intellectuals misunderstood the reality of society, and so were doomed to error and stupidity; poor planning hampered by ideology. In her memoirs, the Tory politician Margaret Thatcher said that the anti-monarchical French Revolution (1789–99) 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; Thatcher''s opinion was shared by the conservative newspapers The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, whose reportage on the subject documented a “lack of intellectuals” in Britain.

    In the essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? (1998), the Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, of the Cato Institute, said that intellectuals become embittered leftists because their academic skills — much rewarded at school and at university — are under-valued and under-paid in the market economy; so, the intellectuals turned against capitalism, despite enjoying a more financially comfortable life in a capitalist society, than they would in either a socialist or a communist society. The economist Fredrich Hayek said that intellectuals disproportionately support socialism; in the article “Why Socialism?”(1949), Albert Einstein said that the economy is not private property, that it is a “planetary community of production and consumption”. In the U.S., as a demographic group, intellectuals usually hold liberal-to-leftist perspectives about guns-or-butter fiscal policy.

    Conservative perspective

    In the Reason magazine article “An Interview with Milton Friedman” (December 1974), the neoliberal American economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) said that businessmen and the intellectuals are enemies of capitalism, because, as intellectuals, most held socialist beliefs, while the businessman expected economic privilege:

    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 . . . 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 Wall Street Journal newspaper article “The Heartless Lovers of Humankind” (January 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.

    In The University of Chicago Law Review article "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (Spring 1949), the British economist Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992), who is identified with neoliberalism, said that “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists” as the intellectual social-class who communicate the specialized ideas of the scientist to the general population. About their anti-capitalism, Hayek said that, in the twentieth century, 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 so “succeeded in inspiring the imagination of the intellectuals” to change and improve their societies.

    Tags:Academic, Albert Einstein, American, Britain, British, Chicago, Chile, China, Classical, Communist, Czech, Einstein, Europe, France, French, French Revolution, German, Germany, Greece, Hungarian, Hungary, India, Intellectual, Italian, Jewish, Korea, Latin America, Lenin, Margaret Thatcher, Marx, Marxist, Netherlands, Noam Chomsky, President, Prime Minister, Revolution, Russia, Semitic, The Wall Street Journal, Tony Blair, United Kingdom, Wall Street, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia

    Intellectual Media

    Intellectual Terms

    Intellectual Articles

    Intellectual Your Feedback

    Prepared statement needs to be re-prepared