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The Brains is Back April 27, 2008

Posted 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:

Peter Singer
Michael Ignatieff
Christopher Hitchens
Slavov Zizek
Amartya Sen

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.



1. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

I’m not sure I’d say that to be an intellectual one has to make a living grappling with ideas. Where does this leave the working class intellectual (such as navvies who wrote autobiographies) or indeed the person who works say as a chemist or engineer or whatever, and writes on the side? Such as for example your good self, and the other people who write on a blog such as this one? Are you not intellectuals by virtue of your engagement with ideas? This is admittedly different than a public intellectual.

As for Irish intellectuals. Where do academics fit? Joe Lee, Roy Foster or Paul Bew say. Roddy Doyle or others whose novels contain historical or social commentary? Vincent Browne might well regard himself as one. Eamonn McCann? I think there are more Irish intellectuals than it might seem at first glance, but naturally much will depend on definition.


2. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

I meant to add Martin Mansergh and Seamus Deane too.


3. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2008

Kearney? Kiberd? Lee, definitely, Bew (ish). Doyle, not (but I have a bone to pick with him…).


4. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

Dunno who you mean by Doyle!

Kiberd I should think so. What about political philosophers like ideologue in chief Desi O’Hagan?


5. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

Bew I think more than the rest given the scope of his involvement


6. bill - April 28, 2008

I’m afriad if Desi’s in we would have to accept Harris too and that could be opening the flood gates of shite


7. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

Harris is an interesting one. An auteur, as well as a political, historical and cultural critic. He may well be a nutter, along with people like RDE, but should that mean automatic exclusion?


8. bill - April 28, 2008

I being a nutter should – its the reason Waters is out, even though he probally thinks he is an intellectual. What we’re really trying to define is real thinkers whereas Harris and Waters are just showmen and sycophants. I would be more inclined to let Desi in than them. That is a sober Desi


9. bill - April 28, 2008

that should I think being a nuuter should


10. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

Should the Cruiser be out then? What about Brendan Clifford? After all his and his organisation’s pamphlets have a hugely disproportionate place in academic discussions of the north.

On the subject of leftists, what about Roy Johnston? A man with a very wide range, and undoubtedly clever, but without any real influence for several decades, though his version of the history of the 1960s is extremely influential. Smiffy has opened an interesting can of worms.


11. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

In terms of range and readership, Splintered Sunrise may well be the leading left public intellectual given he has had 200,000 visitors to his blog. He goes beyond Ireland in his readership too.


12. ejh - April 28, 2008

I think we might (related to comment #1) distinguish between public intellectuals and others: the latter would be people who are interested in, and informed about, historical and contemporary ideas and ideologies, rather than simply being interested in practicalities. The former would be people who are known to and read by a literate public and who find a wide audience among them. I’m not sure (judging by the proliferation of bores and obsessives in the comments boxes) that this is true of SS, however intelligent and well-informed it is.


13. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2008

Des O’Hagen, then what of Smullen? Splintered most definitely despite portions of his (?) readership.

ejh, what about science? Is that part of it? Although I think you might be onto something as regards a distinction with practicalities….


14. Garibaldy - April 28, 2008

Smullen’s being dead should probably leave him out as I thought this was currently alive people. On the having a mass audience, I wonder. On the practicalities, the point is surely to change, not interpret the world!


15. Tomaltach - April 28, 2008

I would add Garret FitzGerald. Whereas I don’t think he fits the mould of say Chomsky, or BH Levy, as academic-intellectuals, I think he does fit for ‘public intellectual’. His engagement with issues such as Europe, Public Service, the problems with Irish Government, and indeed, in earlier days. He studied the decline of the Irish Language, indulging his famous fondness of statistics. And he wrote that book recently Ireland and the World. He’s certainly a thinker about issues affecting Ireland and he is engaged in public debate.


16. John O'Neill - April 28, 2008

I ‘m not sure if he would be considered an intellectual, but for educating a group cert school leaver like me Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” has filled some of the many gaps. I like his accessable style of writing and if the award is for broadening the understanding of ‘lay people’, not impressing other intellectuals he would get my vote.


17. ejh - April 28, 2008

I think Bryson is someone who presents ideas rather than possesses them.


18. jc - April 28, 2008

From the viewpoint of a longterm resident of the US (20 years — a member of Ireland’s very own lost generation), two Irish thinkers who loom large over here are Denis Donoghue and Colm Toibin.


19. John O'Neill - April 28, 2008

ejh you are correct of course. But explaining complex ideas in plain english is a (intellectual?) skill in itself. Many of the names mentioned above are historians who present revisionist (or new) perspectives on past events rather than new ideas.


20. Starkadder - April 28, 2008

I’d second Tomaltach’s nomination of Garrett Fitzgerald,
and I’d also nominate Diarmaid Ferriter and Ivana
Bacik, and Fintan Lane. Desmond Fennell on the
right and D.R. O’Connor Lysaght on the left might
also fit the position, but they lack a wide public
On a slightly related topic, “Politics in the Republic of Ireland”
by John Coakley and Michael Gallagher claims Irish political
culture is “suspicious of ideology” and sometimes
anti-intellectual (using R. Hofstadters’ definition
of anti-intellectualism as hostility to the
educated, analytic and creative mind). I suspect
an ideology-driven politician like
Margaret Thatcher would have been less
successful in the Irish environment.


21. Pete Baker - April 28, 2008

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who defined an intellectual as “Someone educated beyond their intelligence.”


22. WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2008

GBS was no slouch when it came to coining appropriate phrases…

I think that Starkadder you’ve got it right that ideology/philosophy has always been rather suspect in Ireland (across the island I’d argue). Populism and pragmatism have been much more central…

After all, when it’s posited that our most profoundly ideological party is the PDs, hmmm… summat wrong there to my mind.


23. eamonnmcdonagh - April 28, 2008

“minor internet egotists.”

and the rest of us are…???


24. smiffy - April 29, 2008

Adrian Moles. 😦


25. Garibaldy - April 29, 2008

Still measuring your, eh, brain capacity then smiffy? And comparing it to others in the showers?


26. chekov - April 29, 2008

I figure that the whole idea of a “public intellectual” and even the idea of a category of “intellectual” is pretty much without merit. I reckon that Chomsky and Said were simply generalising from themselves, which I don’t think is a very realistic way of looking at the way that the concept is used in our society.

Most commonly, as far as I can tell, it is applied to people who are ‘difficult’ to understand due to the complexity of what they write and say. In general, I think such people are more often than not bullshitters with little to say. The smartest people with the most to say are the easiest to understand in all fields. As John says, the real challenge is to express one’s ideas in as simple a language as possible to ensure that those who read one will receive the ideas that the author was trying to convey. That’s what marks out the smart people who are trying to communicate an idea from the bullshitters whose only message to communicate is “see how smart I am”. Unfortunately, university education in the liberal arts is pretty much devoted to developing an ability to obfuscate the stupidity and lack of insight of one’s thought with complex, flowery and convoluted language.

The idea that ‘intellectuals’ must be comfortable dealing with a range of subjects also strikes me as wrong-headed. It simply elevates those whose ideas are highly abstract, as the more abstract the idea, the easier it is to apply it to everything and anything. For example, the highly abstract basic ideas of Marxism are enough to give even the newest recruits to trotskyist-groups an opinion on everything under the sun. Waters is a good example of this too – one basic idea at a high level of abstraction which is applied to every single event that ever happened in the world to produce an endless stream of commentary on demand.

To my mind, a much better measure of a writer’s worth is whether the concepts that they try to convey are correct, how insightful they are (i.e. some ideas are right, but only restating well-known stuff) and whether they are capable of communicating them effectively.

From this point of view, I would actually hold smiffy above most of the Irish intellectuals mentioned above – many of whom have devoted most of their careers to trying to show how smart they are without having anything else to say at all.


27. Pidge - April 29, 2008

You mentioned Singer on the list. I’ve read Animal Liberation, but I was wondering if there are any good reviews, critiques etc on it.

(Sorry for being off topic. To add to the intellectual list, in a Politics.ie style, I of course add every member of the party I’m a member of.)


28. smiffy - April 29, 2008


Best place to start might be with the collection of essays Singer and His Critics which includes articles on Singer’s approach to our moral duties to animals. It should be possible to get it through a library. I have a copy, but couldn’t find it when I went looking for it just now (it’s probably out in the shed), so I don’t know if it contains a specific review or critique of Animal Liberation.

You might also try Singer’s website here although the bulk of the material is relatively recent and the quality of much of the writing about Singer which it links to varies considerably.


29. ejh - April 29, 2008

To my mind, a much better measure of a writer’s worth is whether the concepts that they try to convey are correct

And we know this?


30. chekov - April 29, 2008

“And we know this?”

We use our brains to arrive at a thing called an opinion using stuff called evidence.


31. ejh - April 29, 2008

We do. We also use aforesaid brains to be aware that judgements are not necessarily definitive – even our own – and that a contribution to the debate may be valuable without being correct in all or any of its conclusions.


32. Tomaltach - April 29, 2008

I see where you are coming from and that you want disagree with the authority conferred on so called intellectuals simply because they strike an intellectual pose. We’re all familiar with the grey bespectalced man (usually a man) being inteviewed in front of a bookcase!

I think there is a reason to be suspicious of the term and of this sort of constructed authority. Nevertheless, the idea of a public intellectual is useful if we use it in the sense that we are talking about people who are engaged in the public debate and who bring a degree of depth and analysis to it that isn’t normally found in say, the average newspaper commentry. Most of what passes for opinion and comment is exactly what you say – people talking bullshit. But if you look at the names mentioned above, you often find they are people who have done some level of hard graft in trying to employ intellectual tools to enhance the debate – in a genuine and useful way. And the pleasing thing about the list of names above is that they are not by any means homogenous, a bland list of university academics. It’s people from a multitude of disciplines and careers – from journalism, to academia, to politics.

And I agree with ejh about the ‘correctness’. You could read a piece of analysis which is ultimately flawed but which may nevertheless enlighted the debate by opening up further avenues of exploration. The trouble with the mundane, rehashed, journo-commentry is that it is often, no so much wrong, but just shallow and adds nothing to the debate.


33. John Green - April 29, 2008

I’m with Chekov on this one. I haven’t met an intellectual yet who wasn’t full of shit.


34. Tomaltach - April 29, 2008

The term you want is bullshiter not intellectual. All fields of human endeavour have their bullshiters. An ‘public intellectual’ in my book is someone who values the pursuit of knowledge and is willing and capable of sharing that knowledge, and who uses the intellect in exploring matters of importance or interest to the public. Not at all the same as a bullshiter.


35. Hugh Green - April 29, 2008

Perhaps there should start an intellectual drinking game, for pointy-heads only, because no-one else would find it amusing. You make four, maybe five photocopies of the Prospect sheet, and you write a quotation from the ‘intellectual’ in question on the other side. Cut them up and stick ’em all into a hat. Moving round in a circle, you have to identify the intellectual from the quotation in question, or else down a shot. You have three guesses, and each time you must down a shot if you get it wrong.

It’d go something like this:

-Which renowned public intellectual said “The Prophet would have not have disapproved of 9/11, because it was carried out in his example”?

Er…Bernard Lewis?
(Downs shot) Yusuf Al-Qaradawi?
-Mmm mm.
(Knocks back another)The Pope?
-‘Fraid not.
(Gulp) So who then?
-Ayaan Hirsi Ali, apparently. You moron.

Minutes of fun.


36. John Green - April 29, 2008

Hi Tomaltach–

Point taken, although actually I think we’re in agreement. Someone who meets your criterion of explaining novel and complex ideas in a fashion amenable and accessible to the public generally fails to receive the “accolade” intellectual precisely because they speak the same way as everyone else. A public intellectual should wear their learning lightly and only be consulted on their area of expertise, surely. I still think Chekov has it right that the very concept of an “intellectual” is flawed. We never refer to engineers or biologists or statisticians as intellectuals, yet someone who’s read Lacan and Badiou and who has an opinion on the Middle East is immediately elevated to the status of genius and their opinion sought on everything from gun control to Christmas.


37. John Green - April 29, 2008

Oops. That was an incoherent ramble. Strike my name off the list of candidates.

What do you mean you already had?


38. ejh - April 29, 2008

We never refer to engineers or biologists or statisticians as intellectuals, yet someone who’s read Lacan and Badiou and who has an opinion on the Middle East is immediately elevated to the status of genius and their opinion sought on everything from gun control to Christmas.

Well, in the scientific field there’s Hawking and Penrose and Dawkins and so on.

That game at #35 sounds good – can somebody get me it for Xmas?


39. John Green - April 29, 2008

Hi ejh–

Yup, never say never.

Is Hawking a public intellectual or is he just the go-to guy for questions about Time and Space?


40. ejh - April 29, 2008

A bit of both, but then again public intellectuals are a bit of both. I mean Chomsky is the go-to guy about US imperialism: he doesn’t often get asked about the New York Giants or this summer’s fashions. (Which is just as well, because if he did then life would have turned into Viz almost completely and it would be time to call in the aliens with their planet-destroying death ray.)


41. John Green - April 29, 2008

Heh heh. “Noam Chomsky, here’s your question: The Hammers. The Hammers is the name of which Premiership football team?”


42. John Green - April 29, 2008

nickname. I meant nickname.

Christ, I’m having a bad day.


43. Tomaltach - April 29, 2008

Recently when Hawking had the word search software on his voice machine upgraded he was able to explain that the previous version was buggy and was picking the wrong words. He had never mentioned black holes. He was talking about ass holes, especially his neighbour. All he had ever said was that the guy next door was a waste of Space and Time and he wished that gravity would just gobble him up into a singularity. Then he revealed that he has been playing a game with PhD students who stand at the blackboard and add a new term into the equation every time he nods or beeps.


44. Joe - April 29, 2008

Damien Richardson, anyone?

“Whether one is blessed with a prodigious flair for articulacy or merely entrusted with a basic monosyllabic uttering of contentment, the relevance of this coming season will stimulate in every green and white heart at least a temporary escalation in embellished eloquence, so as to allow all an opportunity to express the most wondrous sense of anticipation and excitement that lies within.”

From Dangerhere.com


45. joemomma - April 29, 2008

“I mean Chomsky is the go-to guy about US imperialism: he doesn’t often get asked about the New York Giants or this summer’s fashions. “

Or, you know, linguistics and shit.


46. Damian O'Broin - April 29, 2008

What about Fred Halliday, or is he merely an ‘expert’ rather than an ‘intellectual’?


47. Agitator - April 30, 2008

Kevin Myers. Obviously.


48. sonofstan - April 30, 2008

Interesting discussion this: some of the tropes seem to resonate with the book I’m reading – Tom Garvn’s rather dotty Preventing the Future,

Garvin relies too much on anecdotage and his politics are off the radar, but his central point – or one of them – is sound; Irish education ‘policy’ until the 60s was a disaster. The church held onto virtually all primary and secondary schooling, not for the greater good, but to produce priests and keep the nation as a whole catholic; the other main influence, irish language revivalism, had a single, and impossible objective. By restricting access to secondary and tertiary education, just getting there became an achievement, and a badge of distinction, and learning anything was unnecessary.

The church feared scientific education because it feared modernity, as did the language revivalists; urbanisation and prosperity it – correctly – thought would weaken the faith; even the things it specialised in – classics and philosophy – it did for other ends and not for their own sake; and it stiffled philosophy (and social science) departments with a thomism that was about 6 centuries out of date. Add to this the complete isolation of Trinity, and a total lack of interest in research, and he paints a picture of a country wide educational slum.

The role of a public intellectual in such a society is therefore precisely not to ask questions; the prospective audience for such a thing is too insecure and too cowed by authorities themselves paranoid and insecure. Learning as an end in itself may be elitist and overrated, but at least a general value is placed on independent thought; in the irish situation, education was seen only as a means to impossible ends – the preservation of a rural, devout irish speaking pre- modern idyll; in a telling phrase, Garvin suggests that some native ‘intellectuals’ saw ireland as a ‘European Tibet’.

In such a place the only option for independent thought was the same as in the former Eastern Bloc; exile internal or external.
Thing is, 50 years after the first chinks of light came in, we are still uneasy with uncomfortable thought, we want our commentariat to assure us endlessly about our specialness. The reason the likes of Waters and Myers get an audience for their ramblings is that their exactly at the level of their audience – they read a few books once, but they’ve let opinions calcify and like to hear the echo as the bluster from across the middle pages of the IT bounces off their mental stalagtites.

Of course there’s bluster and idiocy elsewhere; Melanie Phillips and Nick Cohen represent a steep decline from Orwell or AJP Taylor; but at least there there was something to decline from; and of course a certain lack of intellectual self- confidence and drift is the hallmark of new nations; but Ireland was not just a colony – it was semi-metropolitan, and the hermetic idiocy of the first half century of independence was unnecessary.

Re Chekov’s ‘common sense’ diatribe above; suspicion of difficult ideas and the belief that ‘if i don’t get it, it must be bullshit’ is exactly the the attitude that preserves the hegemony of the market; competition is natural, communism didn’t work, risk- taking should be rewarded and so on…… part of the armoury of the revolutionary should be ability to think against common sense, to imagine what the world would look like viewed through different lens is a first step to changing it.


49. Garibaldy - April 30, 2008


I’d agree with virtually all of that (especially the last paragraph but not the praise for the narrow-minded, petty-bourgeois nationalist informer Eric Blair), but it’s wrong to say that the revival of the language was impossible – it’s been done elsewhere, but there was neither sufficient political or societal will, especially among the middle and upper classes.


50. sonofstan - May 1, 2008

It’s fairly faint praise to claim Orwell represents a higher class of commentator than Melanie Phillips……..

Re: an teanga – where else? Israel obviously, but that’s such a special case in every respect. Czech replaced German in urban CS, but that also involved population transfer and genocide of much of the German speaking cohort (whereas in Ireland, it was the Irish speaking cohort we exported – among others).

Garvin’s point is that, in the context of an underfunded and primitive educational system, where a huge majority of people didn’t get beyond primary school, concentrating so much effort of teaching a language with no practical application -certainly in Dublin and the East- contributed to the fact that so many left school illiterate in both languages.


51. John Green - May 1, 2008

In defence of Chekov, I don’t think he was advancing the view that if ideas are difficult, they must be bullshit. It’s reasonable to argue, as Bourdieu does in the Language of Symbolic Power and Homo Academicus, that professional intellectuals deliberately obscure their ideas as a means of retaining control over their social capital and to exclude and intimidate those outside of their specialist areas. The construction of jargon in any discipline functions not just as shorthand but also as a way for a particular class fraction to carve out a niche for itself to defend privileged access to resources. To suspect users of jargon of bullshit isn’t an attitude that necessarily defends “common sense” so much as entitles the non-academic public to be suspicious of apparently complex ideas presented by so-called intellectuals who refuse to clarify them by using language we can all understand.

And which was why I said I’ve never met an intellectual who wasn’t full of shit. Every idea I’ve ever read in “difficult thinkers” such as Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Irigaray, et al. could always be explained in much clearer language without losing anything in translation.


52. sonofstan - May 1, 2008

that professional intellectuals deliberately obscure their ideas as a means of retaining control over their social capital and to exclude and intimidate those outside of their specialist areas.

This happens, obviously, but, in my experience, most philosophers anyway, have a deep concern with language and precision and a nose for jargon that makes me doubt if this function is as prevalent as you make out. What happens is something different that can certainly look very like what you are saying; shorthand evolves to avoid a long winded but clearer, more ‘ordinary language’ formulation each time a concept appears; so ‘logocentric’ is used instead of ‘an attitude which accords more prestige to the testimony of the spoken word than to the written word’ ‘objet petit a’ is used to instead of ‘the unattainable object of desire or the object cause of desire’ and so on; and as concepts are added to concepts, an indigestible linguistic pile up occurs. So, while the result can certainly look like elitist nonsense, often the intention is -relatively – honourable: precision and concision.
And as ‘language we can all understand’ becomes devalued by the subliterate discourse of ‘popular’ culture (I don’t mean what people say to each other, i mean what gets pumped out in industrial quantity by media, advertising and, increasing education as well), so that, in the end no understanding is possible because nothing is being said, then perhaps the effort of learning a more precise, if difficult, jargon is a price worth paying for access to ideas worth the effort?

Plus, philosophers who fetishise ‘ordinary language’ -Wittgenstein in particular – can be fiendishly difficult to understand. precisely because the language looks so easy….


53. Garibaldy - May 1, 2008

I’m not so much sure it’s a deliberate act to protect social capital, as to make the individuals who do it feel extremely clever, and also to hive off academic boundaries from other subjects, creating new departments and job opportunities.


54. smiffy - May 1, 2008

One quick point: while it’s certainly true that many academics working in the Humanities couch their writing in a rather opaque style, and one could argue about the motivation for this, it’s hardly true in relation to the majority of writers included on the Prospect longlist. Taking the five I chose – as one example – only one (Zizek) could plausibly be argued to write in this way and, even then, that only applies to part of his output. Also, Foucault isn’t really that hard to understand.


55. John Green - May 1, 2008

Hi Garibaldy–

Yup, that was the point Bourdieu was making. Delineation of boundaries, creation of new departments, control over jobs, and so on.

Hi Sonofostan–

I’m resistant to the idea that there is little being said of any value in a “debased” popular culture. Steven Johnson’s book “Everything Bad Is Good For You” offers an enjoyable analysis of the complexity of soap operas like the Sopranos and Coronation Street in order to demonstrate that far from being mindless drivel that washes over a passive audience, they require engagement, attention to detail, and a flexibility of mind generally ascribed only to postgraduate fans of the Brontes. Popular culture, after all, has its own jargon and complexity that renders most high court judges clueless. The point about academic jargon is that the price of learning it is not something that everyone can afford to pay in order to determine whether or not what is being said has any merit. I would reiterate that none of the difficult academics I have read had anything to say that could not be reduced to ordinary language, and so I think suspicion of their motives is entirely justified. Learning the jargon was only justified to make the discovery.

The problem lies less in philosophy, incidentally, than in literary theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, film studies, and so on, where ideas about popular culture that should, by rights, be accessible to all have been rendered opaque by jargon and ideas that, as a matter of principle, resist efforts to reduce them to plain language. One the one hand, naturally, there are those who deend the “new disciplines” by arguing that they require their own, original, relevant, discourses and concepts, but on the other there are rather more skeptical, perhaps cynical, sociologists who argue that the appearance of these disciplines has coincided with a lack of opportunity within the traditional academic disciplines and the consequent search by a specific class fraction (middle-class academics from outside of Oxbridge or the Ivy League universities) to legitimize their disciplines alongside the massiv expansion of academia to keep unemployment numbers down. And thus we get postmodernism! 😉


56. sonofstan - May 1, 2008

I agree about the Sopranos and Corry – and pop music – what i was after was more the sort of language used by estate agents/ business school graduates/ self- help/ makeover TV and increasingly, politicians and educators; anyone who uses ‘going forward’ instead of ‘from now on’ or ‘pro-active’ where ‘active’ would do; That’s where the real debasement of language happens.

I think i agree, more or less, with yr second para – interesting that (not so) contemporary French ‘theory’ (of what?) finds such a cosy home in US ‘liberal arts’ colleges; the jargon without content serves as a patina of learning the way ‘a little Latin, less Greek’ once did?


57. ejh - May 1, 2008

Paul Morley has a fuck of a lot to answer for.


58. John Green - May 1, 2008

Hi sonofstan–

re: your examples.


You spoke to the editor in me. 🙂

And re: your second point, here’s a nice excerpt from Luis Bunuel’s autobiography that I always keep close to my heart:

“While we’re making the list of betes noires, I must state my hatred of pedantry and jargon. Sometimes I weep with laughter when I read certain articles in the Cahiers du Cinema, for example. As the honorary president of the Cento de Capacitacion Cinematografica in Mexico City, I once went to visit the school and was introduced to several professors, including a young man in a suit and tie who blushed a good deal. When I asked him what he taught, he replied, “The Semiology of the Clonic Image.” I could have murdered him on the spot. By the way, when this kind of jargon (a typically Parisian phenomenon) works its way into the educational system, it wreaks absolute havoc in underdeveloped countries. It’s the clearest sign, in my opinion, of cultural colonialism.”


59. John Green - May 1, 2008

Some editor. Can’t spell Centro.


60. ejh - May 1, 2008

Is that from El Ultimo Suspiro?


61. sonofstan - May 1, 2008

only one (Zizek) could plausibly be argued to write in this way
I’m convinced, given his insane productivity and more than occasional repetitiveness, that Zizek doesn’t actually ‘write’ as such; he talks and a team of grad students try and keep up. I once knew a guy who was doing a PhD on him -the first in English i think – and was driven demented by his subject lapping him repeatedly in terms of output over the course of the project.


62. Garibaldy - May 1, 2008


I had read Bourdieu in terms of excluding other classes from knowledge, as opposed to factions within the one class but you are undoubtedly correct.


63. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2008

I love Zizek’s thinking, while being profoundly suspicious of it. His enthusiasm, which you capture sonofstan in your point, is contagious. I particularly enjoyed his idea that we (whoever we is) are all liberal communists now. Actually, if I’m not mistaken Ken Macleod made a similar point in one of his books… the triumph of welfare states (at least to some degree, etc, etc). Ah, that’s not good SF ref linking to Zizek… or maybe it is! 🙂


64. John Green - May 1, 2008

Hi ejh–

It is indeed. I always have it by my desk, for inspiration!


re: Zizek. Simon Critchley isn’t a fan!



65. ejh - May 1, 2008

I’ve had it by my bed for two years, with the intention of using it to reach me Spanish. I’m still on about page ten.


66. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2008

Hence my suspicion John. He’s this sort of becalmed ship from a very different philosophical position than say mine (and yours too I’d hazard) and yet that sort of makes him all the more interesting.


67. sonofstan - May 1, 2008

Zizek. Simon Critchley isn’t a fan!

They used to be a staunch mutual fan club – Simon was very proud of the fact that Essex ‘discovered’ Zizek – inevitable that the older man would eventually turn….

Infinitely Demanding is on my list of things I must read when the time comes where guilt free off-topic reading is possible again, but I already think I disagree with SCs bien pensant anarchism; the point Zizek made in the LRB about such anarchism being fine for those who don’t actually need politics seems a good one….


68. John Green - May 1, 2008

Hi ejh–

If your Spanish is as bad as mine that could be a surreal endeavour in its own right.


I’ll confess I haven’t devoted much time to Zizek on account of giving up on philosophy after 25 years of fruitless endeavour. 😉


I always think it’s preferable to pick your politics rather than acquire one out of necessity. People are motivated by all kinds of things, but the presumption that “Food comes first, morals follow on” has always struck me as cynical and suited to reactionary politics of one sort or another.


69. ejh - May 1, 2008

Ya no es tan mal, pero mejora muy lentamente porque me falta tiempo para leer….


70. John Green - May 1, 2008

heh heh. I shan’t even attempt to reply, but I got the gist.


71. ejh - May 1, 2008

Gist is probably all there was.


72. Damian O'Broin - June 24, 2008

and the winner is … Fethullah Gülen.

It would appear there was a bit of a Turkish coup!


73. WorldbyStorm - June 24, 2008

Ah, hadn’t seen that Damian. Nice one.


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