What is an intellectual?

By | June 6, 2013

In some cultures the activities of academics and intellectuals are regarded as mutually exclusive. To enjoy the comfort and security of a university position is tantamount to throwing in the intellectual towel. It sets parameters, binds and tames: the interests of the individual over time become reconciled to, or at least commensurate with, the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial interests of the institution. Sartre professed to feel this in his bones and eschewed assimilation into French higher education the better to accommodate his intellectual activism. Gerassi notes first-hand the contempt this ‘novelist-playwright-philosopher-activist’ held for ‘academicians’ who spend their lives ‘dissecting the work of others’.  In this blog I ask a very non-Anglo-Saxon question: ‘What is an intellectual’?

Academics typically occupy formal institutional roles. They may be full-time dons or operate on the fringes as part-timers, freelancers or peripatetic teachers of researchers. But they can also gain academic credentials by more circuitous means. From quite other occupational fields they might acquire arcane or specialist expertise that makes them sources of routine citation in those high-impact peer-review journals so coveted by academics. Surprisingly often they straddle institutions and functions. Runciman, for example, has continued by lectures and publications to build an academic reputation while retaining a College Fellowship (ok, there’s a clue there), chairing committees of ‘the great and the good’ and eking out a living from a day job as a high-powered CEO.

In terms of a Weberian ideal type, what distinguishes academics, I suggest, is: (1) their focus on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the worlds they explore; (2) their willingness to adopt, or at least not to interrogate too harshly, the paradigms, research programmes or discourses underwritten by their mentors; (3) their readiness to sign up to academia’s prevailing symbolic criteria of success and failure; and (4) their adjustment to the demands of their institutional employers. Of course, as Weber made explicit, ‘really existing academics’ can and do vary in their accommodations to (1)-(4).

Intellectuals, I contend, differ from academics the more discernibly as one moves from (1)-(4). The overlap with (1) may be complete, that with (2) considerable. But any overlap with (3) is fortuitous, and with (4) an astonishing and likely conditional and temporary piece of good fortune. Most sociological accounts of the intellectual stress impact in the public domain. I regard this as a necessary but not a sufficient condition: increasingly an academic can acquire, and attract an institutional dividend for, minor celebrity status within the public arena without standing for anything (Bauman: ‘interpreters’ have displaced ‘legislators’). At the core of the ideal typical profile of the intellectual developed here is an insistence that s/he not only enters the public sphere on a regular and sustained basis but stands for, but represents and mobilizes other around an identifiable moral or political vision. The intellectual is a committed and engaged thinker.

Practicing academics can be intellectuals only if they enjoy the requisite institutional space and freedom. Giddens became an intellectual ‘guru’ for Blair’s New Labour, providing rationale and blueprint under the rubric of a Clintoneque ‘third way’. Intellectuals are not dilettantes or columnists but campaigners. Their campaigns may or may not be effective. Academics may be influential as government policy advisers without becoming intellectuals. There is evidence that a number of British sociologists have become influential in this respect, despite ‘difficult times’ since their discipline’s institutional consolidation phase in the 1960s. What I have called the ‘location paradox’ states that ‘insiders’ are in the best position to influence policy but run the risk of co-option by stronger vested interests, while ‘outsiders’ remain immune from the contamination of co-option but are in a poor position to influence policy. Academics tend to be insiders, intellectuals outsiders. On occasions intellectuals cam materialize out of the ether, a single best-seller capturing and mobilizing a rippling network of converts and advocates. Marcuse ‘caught the student moment’ in the 1960s.

In the language of ideal types, intellectuals, I would maintain, are distinguished by: (1) their possession of an academically credible vision and pathway to a better state of affairs; (2) their promulgation of this programme in public fora; (3) their willingness to compromise in the face of pressures other than what Habermas describes as ‘the force of the better argument’; and (4) their rejection of sophistry and demagoguery as means to their ends.

So academics can be but are generally not intellectuals. Drawing on a series of talks I have given, I will now revisit and suggest a way of extending Burawoy’s analysis of the ‘four sociologies’: ideal types again of course. So here is my version:

(1) professional sociology (the ‘scholar’);

(2) policy sociology (the ‘reformer’);

(3) critical sociology (the ‘radical’);

(4) public sociology (the ‘democrat’); and, taking us beyond Burawoy:

(5) action sociology (the ‘activist’).

My definition of the intellectual clearly cuts across this typology, although it strikes a chord most obviously with (4) and (5). There are, as Burawoy laments, as yet precious few ‘democrats’ and even fewer ‘activists’ from our discipline’s transnational community.

2 thoughts on “What is an intellectual?

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