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What Do Intellectuals Do, Anyway?

SUMMARY: American culture has a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism.  Consequently, few people understand or appreciate the role intellectuals can — and often do — play in a society.  In fact, many intellectuals can be seen as similar to cartographers in that they create ideas that can be used as guides to reality.  When they do so conscientiously and accurately, the whole society can benefit.

(About a 6 minute read)

It is a truism among people who study such things that American culture has, almost since the founding of the Republic, harbored a virulent anti-intellectual streak.  But the founders themselves were anything but anti-intellectual.

Franklin, for instance, was the leading American intellectual of their day, and Washington — possibly the most prominent non-intellectual of the era — often made efforts to improve himself in that department, for he did not think himself an equal to the others unless he could muster at least a passing familiarity with the great ideas of the time.

But almost with the deaths on the same day of Adams and Jefferson, American culture developed a marked anti-intellectual streak.  Some people have attributed that streak to the democratic suspicion of anyone who might appear to be smarter than oneself.  But while that might sustain American anti-intellectualism, anti-intellectualism seems to have gotten its start in religion.

And not just any religion, but a certain kind of Protestantism.  In the Northern states, the predominant strains of Protestantism tended to emphasize learning based on the notion that one must decide for oneself what devotions to make to God, and how best to follow him.  It was thought one could not fully do that without a good education, and so the New England states especially developed an intellectual tradition that carries on to this day.

But elsewhere, particularly in the South, the predominant strain of Protestantism proved to be deeply suspicious of learning.  It was alright that you learned enough written English to read your Bible, but to learn much beyond that risked your soul.

Especially if you took up studying the new German philologists, who — by the 1840s —  had discovered alarming facts and likelihoods about the New Testament in particular.  Such as the likelihood that several of its passages — including key ones — were much later additions to the original texts.  It can be argued that American anti-intellectualism had its deepest roots in a rebellion against German philology.

Today, anti-intellectualism seems to me even more rampant than it has been in the past.  I believe that is partly because of how the sciences seem to routinely arrive at new findings that contradict so many old and cherished beliefs.

It is difficult for anyone to take having their accepted notions challenged by the sciences.  It is especially difficult for people who possess little or no scientific literacy to have them challenged, and far too many Americans today are scientifically illiterate.

Consequently, the role of intellectuals in a society — any society, including America’s — is often poorly understood, much less appreciated and approached with wisdom.

But what is an intellectual in the first place?

In my opinion, an intellectual is not necessarily someone with a degree — that is, with an education in any particular set of subjects.  There are people who I myself would account intellectuals but who never made it past high school.

Nor are intellectuals to be determined by their occupations.  They may tend to cluster in certain occupations, but it is not the occupation that makes them intellectuals.

Instead, I see as an intellectual anyone whose approach to life is primarily through thought.  First, intellectuals can be distinguished from other folks to the degree that intellectuals tend to not only think, but to think about thinking.

They not only think, “The president is a nutcase”, but they also think about precisely how or why that might be true.   That is, they do not merely feel it is true, they explicitly reason it is true — usually with footnotes attached to their thoughts about it.

Second, intellectuals can be distinguished to the degree that their initial approach to any situation is usually to think about it.  That does not mean they are incapable of any other approach — the Elizabethan Age was filled with people, like Raleigh, who were men of action and intellectuals both — but if given a choice, they tend to think before acting or even before feeling.

To me, it seems many intellectuals can be characterized as cartographers.  They are among the map-makers of a society.  That is, they take data and turn it into maps — into guides to reality.

What, after all, is a theory in science or a style of painting than a guide to one reality or another?  A popular love song might or might not have been produced by an intellectual, but if it contains, say, original imagery, or a message about love that is at least off the beaten path, then it probably was produced by someone who thinks a lot about thinking, and who approaches life first and foremost by thinking about it.

Not that all intellectuals are creative though.  But when they are, they are creative with ideas, with concepts.  They might of course, turn those concepts into technologies, such as the smartphone, but they tend to be overwhelmingly the folks in any society who come up with new ideas.

Those ideas often enough become part of the culture, and sometimes even form people’s notions of what reality is.  Indeed, you cannot understand the role of intellectuals until you grasp both that all but the most basic ideas about reality were invented by them, and that none of those ideas were inevitable.  If someone had not invented them, we wouldn’t have them today.

Depending on your social philosophy, you can see intellectuals as having certain obligations to society or not.  I myself believe they primarily owe society intellectual honesty.  I think they should strive to be as honest as is possible for them.  Otherwise, they are no better than a map-maker who falsifies his or her maps, leading to lost people.

Beyond that, I think intellectuals should have some positive vision for society.  I do not think this is as necessary as intellectual honesty, but I see it as a close second.  To merely point out what is wrong — without any vision of what would be right — is a largely destructive task since it tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Today, intellectuals can generally be divided into two groups.  Those who are scientifically well-informed, and those who are not. To be scientifically illiterate in this day and age risks misguiding people almost as much as intellectual dishonesty does.  Ayn Rand is a case in point.  She was an adept logician, but not current even with the science of her day.

In sum, I believe intellectuals as a group are somewhat akin to cartographers in that they tend to create guides to reality for us.  Even an intellectual who cooks up a new technology is in effect doing that.  He or she is positing a new way of doing things, a new approach to reality.

Questions?  Comments?

16 thoughts on “What Do Intellectuals Do, Anyway?”

  1. You said, “Beyond that, I think intellectuals should have some positive vision for society. I do not think this is as necessary as intellectual honesty, but I see it as a close second.” and I totally agree with you. It is so tiresome when people (intellectuals or not) complain about how ” (take your pick- ‘kids these days’ ‘schools’ ‘politics’ ‘the environment’ is going to HELL in a HANDBASKET blah, blah, blah…” with no vision or action to improve the situation.

    1. I think a lot of today’s intellectuals think tearing down things reveals truth, therefore is justified in and of itself. But that strikes me as misguided. Most — but not all — social institutions do serve some beneficial purpose or purposes. They might be corrupt, but they do at least benefit people to some extent. Blindly tearing them down without coming up with something to replace them is so often a mistake.

      I am not, however, talking about things we could wholly without.

  2. Wonderfully thought-provoking article, Paul, and as always, so we’ll-written! Thanks for sharing. I think your connection of the intellectual with cartographer is a brilliant illustration. I am thinking now of the artist – one whom introduces new visions of being/doing in society…the artist might be considered an emotional expression of the intellectual person, as within much of art there are ideas/concepts/perceptions to be discovered.

    1. Thanks Tylor! Much appreciated. I agree with you there. I think many — perhaps most — artists are intellectuals. I’ve known a few that probably were not, but not many. Most are very much engaged in “cartography”, so to speak.

      1. Yeah, it definitely would be. If you check out my blog, plz let me know what you think about it. It would help me and also I’m curious in general to know what other people think about my blog.

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