The Intellectual. Definitions and discontents

Post-script: And so, it seems, the FP list of thinkers for 2014 is also now released. In a new format that FP has tried for a couple of years, the list is not more than an insipid chronicle of achievers in categories – not quite the sort of list that could spur argument or discontent. In that regard, Prospect’s list was far more satisfying. This was written when Prospect released its list a little while back but, it was left to languish in an ever growing pile of drafts. Now, is as good a time as any to post.


The Prospect list of world thinkers for 2014 was released a few months back but, unlike other years, it turned out to be a damp squib despite the presence of four Indians in the top six. Perhaps it was ennui with predictable names claiming their spots every year or perhaps, interest around the subject is waning. Regardless, lists grab our fancy due that they guarantee a fight and on that score at least, this one satisfied. And expectedly, tempers frayed on the negligent exclusion of names considered more deserving. In India, as elsewhere, some of these names provoke strong opinion and, in a heated election year, the crossfire has again brought to fore the subject of intellectuals and their role in society.

Argumentation over who is an intellectual, even if hackneyed, is never boring. Common public perception of the class is as ivory towered pulpit popes out of touch with ordinary realities. It is a reasonable contention that some of the isolation comes with the territory. But, it would be disingenuous to insist that this is often not aided by effort especially when one is actively setting out to be an intellectual. The argument is deeper than disconnected exclusion. It spans troubles that trail from definitions, through ideological recalcitrance, and beyond.

With the democratization of knowledge and information, intellectuals are now being subject to a new kind of scrutiny markedly different from that of the familiar peerage – that of an increasingly curious, questioning and generally lay public. In response, most have treated the shift with haughty disdain but, a few have welcomed opportunity in mass engagement ushering in the entry of a new and more commodious species – the public intellectual.

Much has been written about intellectuals, their characteristics and roles. Even if, across the board, scholarship and representativeness have come to be universally recognized as necessary features, opinion differs on critical specifics.  Thought on the subject has evolved from Emerson – who believed that each individual should aspire to be one by learning from nature, history and the experience of action; through Gramsci – for whom the intellectual was a representative working class man with motivated interests; to Benda and Foucault – who emphasised the role of domain experts rising above professional shackles to truth; to Bauman – who saw the intellectual as interpreter and to Edward Said – who advocated a conscientious dissenting role.

Colloquially, the word ‘intellectual’ is used interchangeably with ‘scholar’. This is a loose interpretation but one that has some basis. It is true that an intellectual has scholarly inclinations; the converse, however, cannot be automatically assumed. Despite this obvious understanding; the conflation happens often enough with consequences that follow an observable pattern that goes something like this: The scholar with the aid of the media stakes a proud (if wanton) claim to the ‘intellectual’ tag. The scrutiny that follows predictably crashes the hype and with the expected denouement of the reactionary take-down.

More appropriately, an intellectual is closer allied with a thinker than with a scholar. He/she not only has learning at command; but is also able to transcend the limits of scholarly prescription and detail the wide-angle view. Scholarship alone will not do. Neither will lofty intent that is not backed by the legitimate argument of penmanship. The seed of intellectualism is sown in the marriage of the two.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of mass media has eroded the legitimacy requirement and allowed talking heads to usurp a critical space. There are ways in which a scholar is recognizable as a thinker: 1. Thought and its analysis stem from reason not from biased preference, 2. There’s a discernible demonstration of interest in understanding and analysing an opposing point of view and, 3. Opinion is offered with humility and without condescension. A thinker’s analysis is informed by the philosophical approach. His opinion exhorts the mean to a greater bar. Ethics and integrity are the cornerstones of conduct and these choate qualities are capped with the courage to speak truth to power. As the voice that holds power accountable, intellectuals need necessarily to be invested with intractable moral authority. This anti-establishment requirement renders them as both, outliers and outsiders.

If this seems like a high bar to define an intellectual; it is. It is also the reason why their place is most haloed in society. Such positions can neither be devalued nor can the criteria for admission to their ranks be diluted. And so, while the democratization of the intellect  is an excellent development for society; it is important that the terms of definition are not confused and that the distinctions between an academic scholar and a public intellectual are clearly drawn.

Akin to the exceptionalism mentality in the US; the prevailing socialist and selective secularist mentality in India has, for a long while, been the pivot around which institutions, interests and intellectuals have swirled, brooking no challenge from alternate points of view. From the perspective of the intellectual, existing institutional and think-tank cultures reduce them to agents of ideology with few avenues of independent expression.

But, the view from the other bank, where opinion flies fast and furious, is one of discontent targeted most at the breed aptly named by Milosz as, the ‘servile intellectual’. Happily, this disaffection has found an outlet – it is now channelled through new voices from the liberating platform of the internet. In a curiously concentric movement, a form of Gramscian intellectualism has taken root. Educated youth from the working classes through internet platforms, blogs and social media are challenging the hegemony of power of both the mass media and the ruling cognoscenti. Even if the nature of this new medium tilts toward a truth shorn of nuance, it is increasingly recognized as a necessary and dynamic development.

It is at this juncture, that we, the enlightened public, must pay heed to our own abilities to be both the mirror and the voice. The process of honing an intellectual depends as much on the audience as it does on his or her own proficiencies. It is a good intersection that we find ourselves in. One wherein the interactions of organic lay intellectuals with public professional intellectuals, shape and mould each other and society.

And so, if I was to make a list of public intellectuals, inspiring representatives of the enumerated ideals, that list would include:

Every poet-philosopher (Shakespeare leads the group by some miles), the Tamil poet-activist Subramania Bharati, Edward Said, the saint-philosopher Shri Chandrashekara Saraswathi of Kanchi, Mahatma Gandhi, Jean Paul Sartre, Rabindranath Tagore, Naguib Mahfouz, Alexander Pope, WEB Du Bois and countless more.

From our times, Arun Shourie, Peter Singer, Roger Scruton, Thomas Nagel and EO Wilson would make my list.

Who would find place on yours?


2 thoughts on “The Intellectual. Definitions and discontents”

  1. Your essay improves upon the FP list, and then some! And got me thinking . . . how . . . IMO . . .

    Unfortunately, hyper-specialized, institutionalized scholarship, and government and industry’s ‘big science’ often (almost purposively) serve as vaccines against intellectual development, and explain why official voices grow ever sterile. In my opinion it’s independent writers who carry out most intellectual work. This is organic to our best publishing traditions. And the Internet has connected writers to readers, and readers to readers, in some valuable ways that we can only hope will expand.

    Because–in the big picture, our species needs intellectual understanding, above all, and soon, as an essential illumination of our evolutionary path. Global culture needs robust and humble intellectual foundations. (Not likely to happen, but without intellectual foundations, we’re in trouble.)

    Of course we don’t hear much intellectual coherence in everyday conversation. Political talk, small talk, business talk, educational talk–professional jargon and quotidian televised blather–dominate. As we live moment to moment, we are what the Ehrlichs call dominant animals, but animals all the same, none too wise, applying little in the way of intellectual effort. Kahneman calls our thinking ‘fast and slow’, but he says it’s almost all fast, and fast thinking isn’t thinking in the intellectual sense at all.

    We can only hope we’re collectively up to the intellectual leap, and will support each other in a common culture that helps us achieve and share necessary and possible knowledge–a kind of humane knowing–that we can all build on. We need the delightful possibilities of Thomas Nagel’s insights alongside the necessary knowledge of what it means to be a restrained, humble part of life on this earth.

    It’s our Thanksgiving weekend here, so I’ll place some pebbles on Emerson’s and Thoreau’s grave sites tomorrow at Sleepy Hollow, trying to stay in the loop, so to speak.

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