The OF Blog: An amusing little late-night thought

Monday, June 29, 2009

An amusing little late-night thought

This is based off of a few comments and discussions that I'm following in a few places (again, this isn't from a single course, got it?), and I'm about to zonk out from the sleeping pills (which I take only on Sundays these days, since I seem to sleep 12 hours each weekend night/morning), so this might be a bit out there:

What the hell is an "intellectual?" Is it a self-appointed position, or is it something thrust upon another? Can one be a conscientious intellectual? If one were to be self-doubting and tended to think unusual thoughts that might be larger than one's appetite to fuck, would that make a person an intellectual? Is such a term a meliorative or a pejorative?

And why did I have more than one question? It's just past 2 AM here and my alarm is set to go off in just over 5 hours! Gah!


Chad Hull said...

I remember reading a series of essays on the word "sophistication" that were asking similar questions. Such topics can make interesting debate, but I would be wary anyone who can offer an absolute answer.

Anonymous said...

Who's to say that an 'intellectual' is anything? There is no meaning is abstractly asking what a word means - to WHOM does it mean it?

If you mean its general use in the general language by the general public... I don't think it means anything, or at least not a coherent, describable thing. Different people use the word differently in different contexts, and I think it's misleading to look under that morass of family resemblances for some account of what it 'really' means.

We can of course debate what it means in a particular context, but only if you specify a context. For a lot of people it just means 'out of touch person', 'arrogant person' or 'homosexual person'. For other people it means 'respectable person', 'civilised person', 'interesting person' or the like.

More important, I think, is what YOU choose to use the word to mean. There, I can't really help - as it's not a word I really ever use myself.

- vacuouswastrel

emphryio said...

Surely no person dare call themselves an intellectual and sadly it is mainly a pejorative.

Of all the things to envy a person for, of all the reasons to feel intimidated by someone, intelligence is the quality which has had the most propaganda created against it.

Listen to rightwing radio for 5 minutes or FOX news for ten. To be intelligent is the worst sin. Feel sorry for the person who is intelligent, but not intelligent enough to know to constantly put themselves down. Because they're going down.

Paul Kincaid said...

Stefan Collini wrote a fascinating book, Absent Minds on the intellectual. He concluded that 'intellectual' actually means different things in Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the USA, the five countries he concentrated on. In other words, intellectual is whatever you want it to be.

Hal Duncan said...

According to some online dictionary or other, splicing together some of the varied conventional senses, it's a "person of superior intellect" and/or "an extremely rational person... who relies on intellect rather than on emotions or feelings" (or physical advantages I'd add).

There's a distinction between ability and attitude obscured there though. Being smart doesn't necessarily mean you rely on it as the bestest tool in your box. You might be just as ready to apply poetry or pugilism. Conversely, you can have the attitude without the ability. Some "intellectuals" are self-describing (even though ability may not measure up to attitude). Others are described as such by others for their ability (even though that's not their attitude). Personally, I dislike it as a noun because it sort of translates to "intellectualist" and buys into the old Reason/Passion dichotomy, to which I say, bollocks! Don't know about "conscientious intellectual", but I'd probably characterise myself as a "conscientious objector" when it comes to intellectualism.

Seems to me this conflict is where you'd get "intellectual" used as a meliorative or pejorative according to whether the user is for or against that -ism. The latter comes in when people reckon that intellect without emotional intelligence is wit without wisdom, or when they simply devalue it relative to emotional imperatives and/or physical prowess. You could use it as value-neutral, I suppose, but the ascription of attitudinal -ism muddles the discourse, to my mind.

There's a third aspect. It's also, conventionally, a person "who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect" which suggests two dimensions of measurement: the more committed you are, as when "professionally engaged in mental labor, as a writer or teacher", the more of an "intellectual" you are; and the more those things are only of interest to the intellect, the more you're dealing with "the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, esp. on an abstract and general level", again the more of an "intellectual" you are.

This, to me, is to mark someone out by what may be only one aspect of their life. I'm a writer, and a lot of my writings are on abstract literary theory. But that's not all I am or all I'm interested in. And having that area of interest doesn't mean I ascribe myself either attitude or ability.

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