The Brains is Back April 27, 2008Posted by smiffy in Culture, Media and Journalism.
Like a political nerd’s version of the World Cup, or FHM’s Sexiest Women, Prospect magazine is once again running an online poll to determine the world’s top public intellectuals, from a longlist of 100. Readers will recall the hilarity that ensued in 2005, the last time this exercise was carried out, when Noam Chomsky was determined to be the top intellectual in the world, much to the chagrin of swathes of minor internet egotists.
This year’s longlist has changed substantially, although many of big hitters remain in place. While polls like these shouldn’t be taken too seriously, it will be interesting to see how this years’ results differ from 2005’s, when they are announced in June. I wonder, in particular, if Chomsky will retain his crown, given that the debate about the merits of the Iraq invasion is less heated today than three years ago. Perhaps Dawkins may take the title, following the explosion in arguments about atheism following the publication of his The God Delusion, of which the presence of his fellow ‘horseman’ Daniel Dennett on the longlist is testament.
The poll doesn’t really address, or explain, however, precisely what an intellectual is. I’m not entirely sure of this myself; I first came across the term reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 25 years ago, and am no clearer on the definition today than I was then.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Said have both written about the role of intellectuals in Western society, most famously in their ‘The Responsiblity of Intellectuals‘ and Representations of the Intellectual respectively. While they are not as one on all points, both Chomsky and Said share a number of key ideas relating to how they conceive the intellectual in society, specifically the oppositional attitude to state power (which for Chomsky is a duty of the intellectual, while for Said it is a determining factor) as well as the contrast with ‘experts’ in particular fields. Said writes:
The intellectual’s role generally is to uncover and elucidate the contest, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power, wherever and whenever possible.
While it would be nice if this were the case – that intellectuals, by definition, took up the challenge of the underdog and took an oppositional stance to state power – I think this is far too narrow. It excludes many who might be described as intellectuals but who either work within the apparatus of the state (which doesn’t necessarily prevent an oppositional perspective, but certainly complicates it) or who sincerely hold reactionary political beliefs. While one might think automatically of figures such as Bertrand Russell, George Orwell or Jean-Paul Sartre when asked to name key twentieth century intellectuals, it’s hard to justify a position which would argue that, say, Allan Bloom, Isaiah Berlin or Karl Popper don’t make the grade, other than from pure political partisanship. More recently, surely the likes of Samuel Huntington, Alan Dershowitz or Francis Fukuyama have as much claim to the term as do Chomsky or Antonio Negri, even if their political views can range from the questionable to the repugnant.
Perhaps an intellectual is rather like pornography or terrorism: difficult to define in theory, but one tends to know it when one sees it. However, it may be possible to identify a few key concepts shared by all intellectuals, regardless of political persuasion. This is not to say that everyone who meets the criteria should be considered an intellectual; rather, it would be hard to define as an intellectual anyone who did not.
I would suggest, in the first instance, that an intellectual is someone who makes a living grappling with ideas; a professional thinker or (in most cases) writer. This distinguishes the intellectual from the vast majority of people in society, even those with a keen mind and vast range of knowledge. It makes a distinction between amateurism and professionalism, as well as between full-time intellectuals and others, such as politicians, whose insight and scholarship may be second to none. Gordon Brown, for example, may well be the closest thing the UK has had to an intellectual Prime Minister since Churchill, but as his primary role is not as an intellectual, I don’t think the category applies in his case.
Secondly, an intellectual should be one who, while they may be expert in one or more particular fields of knowledge, should be reasonably familiar with, and literate in, a broad range of areas. That is not to say that an intellectual must resemble the rather implausible Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting, producing Fields Medal quality work one moment and discussing trends in academic history the next. However, an intellectual should be able to say something reasonably intelligent or interesting on most subjects, distinguishing them from the specialist or expert in individual areas. Stephen Hawking may be very clever, but I haven’t seen or read anything from him on any subject other than physics. Not an intellectual, by that standard.
Next, an intellectual must engage with the public, at some level. This may be either professionally – as a full-time journalist, for example – or informally, through public debates or lectures, or occasional articles in newspapers or other periodicals. To use a rather loaded metaphor, an intellectual must participate in the broad marketplace of ideas, rather than working in isolation, writing only from themselves or a small coterie of friends and acolytes.
Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, an intellectual has to be intelligent. Not only intelligent, but also correct, at least part of the time. John Waters, for example, is the kind of figure who might tick all three of the boxes above – professional, broad and engaged – but is so flamboyantly, hysterically wrong so often that it would seem a degradation of the term to even suggest that he might be considered an intellectual.
This is an imperfect list, to be sure. I have no doubt but that a host of examples could be produced negating one or all of the criteria above. It’s simply an attempt to put a little flesh on the bones of a particularly vague concept.
Back to the Prospect poll, then. For what it’s worth, I based my own choice not on who I felt were the cleverest, or most distinguished in a particular field or even the most influential writers. Neither did I seek out those whose views I felt the closest affinity to (although this was a factor in some cases). Rather, I picked the individuals on the list I find the most interesting, the kind of people whose work I’d seek out and who I would read on any topic. These were, in no particular order:
A rather narrow choice, I’d be the first to concede. There are no women included, although I gave some thought to adding Samatha Power or Martha Nussbaum. Similarly, there is only one non-white writer, which is probably a function of my own limited exposure to many of the writers on the list. It’s also rather indicative of my own range of interests – politics, philosophy literature – and short on areas where my knowledge isn’t what it should be. No scientist, for example, unless one was to describe economics as a science.
Finally, unless I’m mistaken, there are no Irish intellectuals included on the longlist (with the possible exception of Samantha Power). Given the relative size of Ireland, this will hardly come as much of a shock. However, it does raise the question of who the Irish intellectuals actually are, if any. Off the top of my head, I find it difficult to come up with much of a list, certainly a list of figures that matches the criteria I’ve already suggested. I think by any standard Conor Cruise O’Brien must stand as one of the towering intellectual figures in the last 50 years, regardless of the political positions he has taken or the fact that he’s produced nothing in recent times of other than novelty interest. I think Fintan O’Toole fits the bill under any fair definition as does Richard Kearney, although he has rather retreated into academia lately.
Can anyone think of any other notable examples, particular from a left-wing perspective? Answers, as usual, in the comment box below.