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An intellectual is a person who uses his or her intelligence in either a professional or an individual capacity. As a noun and as an adjective, the term Intellectual refers to the intellectual's work, intellectual property, and to the life of the mind, described by the political theorist Hannah Arendt.

Terminology and endeavours[edit]

Jacques Barzun, a French-American intellectual.

The intellectual is a specific variety of the intelligent, which unlike the general property, is strictly associated with reason and thinking. Many everyday roles require the application of intelligence to skills that may have a psychomotor component, for example, in the fields of medicine or the arts, but these do not necessarily involve the practitioner in the "world of ideas". The distinctive quality of the intellectual person is that the mental skills, which he or she demonstrates, are not simply intelligent, but even more, they focus on thinking about the abstract, philosophical and esoteric aspects of human inquiry and the value of their thinking.[citation needed]

Traditionally, the scholarly and the intellectual classes were closely identified; however, while intellectuals need not necessarily be actively involved in scholarship, they often have an academic background and will typically have an association with a profession.

Intellectuals include not only philosophers, interested in epistemology, but also others in the arts and sciences, plus the humanities, with no boundaries as to fields of study.

The term intellectual property is an umbrella term relating to various laws which do not apply solely to intellectual work,[1] and is thus largely unrelated to the topic of this article.

The term "intellectual" can denote three types of people. An intellectual is a person who uses thought and reason, intelligence and critical or analytical reasoning, in either a professional or a personal capacity and is:

  1. a person involved in, and with, abstract, erudite ideas and theories;
  2. a person whose profession (e.g., philosophy, literary criticism, mythology, sociology, eastern philosophy, medicine, science, etc.) solely involves the production and dissemination of ideas;[2] or
  3. a person of notable cultural and artistic expertise whose knowledge grants him or her intellectual authority in public discourse.

Historical perspectives[edit]

In English the term "intellectual" conveys the general notion of a "literate thinker"; its earlier usage, as in the title of The Evolution of an Intellectual (1920) by John Middleton Murry, connotes little in the way of "public" rather than "literary" activity.[3]

Men of letters[edit]

The term "man of letters" ("belletrist", from the French belles-lettres), has been used in some Western cultures to denote contemporary intellectual men; the term rarely denotes "scholars", and is not synonymous with "academic".[4][5] Originally the term implied a distinction between the literate and the illiterate, which carried great weight when literacy was rare. It also denoted the literati (Latin, plural of literatus), the "citizens of the Republic of Letters" in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, where it evolved into the salon, usually run by women.

Nineteenth-century British usage[edit]

In the late eighteenth century, when literacy was relatively common in European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the "man of letters" (or littérateur[6]) denotation broadened, to mean "specialised"; a man who earned his living writing intellectually, not creatively, about literature — the essayist, the journalist, the critic, etc. In the twentieth century, such an approach was gradually superseded by the academic method, and "man of letters" fell into disuse, replaced by the generic "intellectual", a term comprehending intellectual men and women. Its first common usage occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, to denote the defenders of the falsely accused Artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus; see below.[7]

Nineteenth-century European modes of the 'Intellectual Class'[edit]

In the early nineteenth century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge speculated upon the concept of the clerisy—as an intellectual class, not as a type of man or woman—as the secular equivalent of the (Anglican) clergy, whose societal duty is upholding the (national) culture; likewise, the concept of the intelligentsia also approximately from that time, concretely denotes a status class of "mental" (white-collar) workers. Alister McGrath said that "[t]he emergence of a socially alienated, theologically literate, anti-establishment lay intelligentsia is one of the more significant phenomena of the social history of Germany in the 1830s", and that "...—three or four theological graduates in ten might hope to find employment" in a church post.[8] As such, politically radical thinkers already had participated in the French Revolution (1789–99); Robert Darnton said that they were not societal outsiders, but "respectable, domesticated, and assimilated".[9]

L'Aurore's front page on 13 January 1898 features Émile Zola's open letter to the French President Félix Faure.

Thenceforth, in Europe and elsewhere, an "intellectual class" variant has proved societally important, especially to self-styled intellectuals, whose degree of participation in their society's art, politics, journalism, education — of either nationalist, internationalist, or ethnic sentiment — constitute the 'vocation of the intellectual'. Moreover, some intellectuals were vehemently anti-academic; although universities and their faculties have been synonymous with intellectualism, in other times, centre of gravity of intellectual life has been the academy.

In France, the Dreyfus affair marked the full emergence of the "intellectual in public life", especially Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau, and Anatole France directly addressing the matter of French anti-semitism to the public; thenceforward, "intellectual" became common, yet occasionally derogatory, usage; its French noun usage is attributed to Georges Clemenceau in 1898.

Eastern intellectuals[edit]

In India the hereditary Brahmins have been the majority in intellectual and scholarly occupations owing to the rigid caste system which reserved education and dissemination of knowledge only to those born in the particular castes. However, following India's independence and introduction of reservations for scheduled castes, the proportions have been increasing in favour of other castes and Brahmins have also increasingly taken to non-intellectual professions. It should be noted that before the rigidity of caste system, everyone was entitled for education. Many intellectuals have come out from other caste system also: Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, etc. As per Atreya smriti 141–142: Brahmin is the person who devote his or her whole life for education. In a more correct statement, intellectuals were used to be referred as Brahmin in old traditions.

In China, Scholar-officials, also known as Scholar-gentlemen, were civil servants appointed by the emperor to perform day-to-day governance from the 206 BC to 1912 AD, These officials had earned academic degrees by passing the imperial examinations and were skilled in calligraphy and Confucian texts. They dominated the government and local life of China for two thousand years.

In Joseon Korea (1392–1910), literati designated the Confucian chungin ("middle people"), a petite bourgeoisie of scholar-bureaucrats (technicians, professionals, scholars) who ensured the Joseon Dynasty's rule of Korea.

Public intellectual life[edit]

The term "public intellectual" describes the intellectual who participates in the public-affairs discourse of society, in addition to his or her academic and professional affairs.[10] Regardless of the academic or professional field of expertise, the public intellectual addresses and responds to the problems of his or her society, and, as such, is expected to be impartial, and to “rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession . . . and engage with the global issues of truth, judgement, and taste of the time.”[11][12] Yet, Edward Saïd said that the

. . . real or “true” intellectual is, therefore, always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society.[13]

An intellectual is often associated with a particular ideology or with a particular philosophy, e.g. the Third Way centrism of Anthony Giddens in the Labour Government of Tony Blair.[14] Václav Havel said that politics and intellectuals can be linked, but that responsibility for their ideas, even when advocated by a politician, remains with the intellectual. “Therefore, it’s best to avoid utopian intellectuals offering ‘universal insights’ that might, and have, harmed society, preferring, instead, that those intellectuals who are mindful of the ties created with their insights, words, and ideas should be . . . listened to with the greatest attention, regardless of whether [or not] they work as independent critics, holding up a much-needed mirror to politics and power, or are directly involved in politics.”[15][16]

Relationship with academia[edit]

In some contexts, especially in journalism, 'intellectual' generally denotes academics of the humanities—especially philosophy—who speak about important social and political matters; by definition, the public intellectuals who communicate the theoretic base for resolving public problems; generally, academics remain in their areas of expertise, whereas intellectuals apply academic knowledge and abstraction to public problems.

The sociologist Frank Furedi said that 'Intellectuals are not defined according to the jobs they do, but [by] the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the values that they uphold';[17] they usually arise from the educated élite, although the North American usage of 'intellectual' includes them to the 'academics'.[18] Convergence with, and participation in, open, contemporary public debate separates intellectuals from academics; by venturing from academic specialism to address the public, the academic becomes a public intellectual.[19] Generally, 'intellectual' is a label more often applied to public debate-participants from the fields of culture, the arts, and the sciences.

Public policy[edit]

In the matters of public policy, the public intellectual connects scholarly research to the practical matters of solving societal problems. The British sociologist Michael Burawoy, an exponent of public sociology, said that professional sociology has failed, by giving insufficient attention to resolving social problems, and that a dialogue between the academic and the layman would bridge the gap.[20] An example is how Chilean intellectuals worked to re-establish democracy within the right-wing governments of the Military dictatorship of Chile (1973–90), the Pinochet régime allowed professional opportunities for some liberal and left-wing social scientists to work as politicians and as consultants, but that their access to power required political pragmatism, and stepping away from the political neutrality of the university.[21]

In The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills said that academics had become ill-equipped for participating in public discourse, and that journalists usually are “more politically alert and knowledgeable than sociologists, economists, and especially . . . political scientists”.[22] That, because the universities of the U.S. are bureaucratic, private businesses, they do not teach critical reasoning to the student, who then does not “how to gauge what is going on in the general struggle for power in modern society”.[22] Likewise, Richard Rorty criticised the participation of intellectuals in public discourse as an example of the “civic irresponsibility of intellect, especially academic intellect”.[23]

The American legal scholar Richard Posner said that the participation of academic public intellectuals in the public life of society is characterised by logically untidy and politically biased statements, of the kind that would be unacceptable academic work. That there are few ideologically and politically -independent public intellectuals, and disapproves that public intellectuals limit themselves to practical matters of public policy, and not with values or public philosophy, or public ethics, or public theology, not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage.


About the place, roles, and functions of intellectuals in American society, the Congregational theologian Edwards A. Park said, “we do wrong to our own minds when we carry out scientific difficulties down to the arena of popular dissension”.[24] That for social stability it is necessary “to separate the serious, technical role of professionals from their responsibility [for] supplying usable philosophies for the general public”; thus the cultural dichotomy of public-knowledge and private-knowledge, of “civic culture” and “professional culture”, which are the social constructs that describe and establish the intellectual sphere of life as separate from the civic sphere of life.[24][25]

The public- and private- knowledge dichotomy originated in Ancient Greece, from Socrates's rejection of the Sophist concept that the pursuit of knowledge (Truth) is a “public market of ideas”, open to all men of the city, not only to philosophers. In contradiction, Socrates proposed a knowledge monopoly for and by the philosophers; thus, “those who sought a more penetrating and rigorous intellectual life rejected, and withdrew from, the general culture of the city, in order to embrace a new model of professionalism”; the private market of ideas.[24]

From the Socratic division of knowledge arose criticism about the place, role, and function of the intellectuals of and in a society. In the Netherlands, the word “intellectual” negatively connotes he or she with “unrealistic visions of the World”. In post–Communist Hungary, the intellectual is an “egg-head” who is “too-clever” for the good of society. In the Czech Republic, the intellectual is person aloof from reality. Yet, Stefan Collini said that derogatory connotations of “Intellectual” are not definitive, because, in the “case of English usage, positive, neutral, and pejorative uses can easily co-exist”; the example is Václav Havel who, “to many outside observers, [became] a favoured instance of ‘the intellectual as national icon’ ” in the early history of the post–Communist Czech Republic.[26]

The British historian Norman Stone said that, as a social class, intellectuals misunderstood the reality of society, and so were doomed to error and stupidity, poor planning hampered by ideology.[27] In her memoirs, the Tory politician Margaret Thatcher said that the anti-monarchical French Revolution (1789–99) was “a utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order . . . in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals”.[28] Yet, as Prime Minister, Thatcher asked Britain's academics to help her government resolve the social problems of British society — whilst she retained the populist opinion of “The Intellectual” as being a man of un-British character; Thatcher's opinion was shared by the conservative newspapers The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, whose reportage on the subject documented a “lack of intellectuals” in Britain.[15][29]

In the essay Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? (1998), the Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, of the Cato Institute, said that intellectuals become embittered leftists because their academic skills — much rewarded at school and at university — are under-valued and under-paid in the market economy; so, the intellectuals turned against capitalism, despite enjoying a more financially comfortable life in a capitalist society, than they would in either a socialist or a communist society.[30] The economist Fredrich Hayek said that intellectuals disproportionately support socialism; in the article “Why Socialism?”(1949), Albert Einstein said that the economy is not private property, that it is a “planetary community of production and consumption”.[31][32] In the U.S., as a demographic group, intellectuals usually hold liberal-to-leftist perspectives about guns-or-butter fiscal policy.[33]

Intellectuals, liberalism, and conservatism[edit]

Addressing their role as a social class, Jean-Paul Sartre said that intellectuals are the moral conscience of their age; that their moral and ethical responsibilities are to observe the socio-political moment, and to freely speak to their society, in accordance with their consciences.[34] Like Sartre and Noam Chomsky, public intellectuals usually are polymaths, knowledgeable of the international order of the world, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, the institutions and laws that regulate the lives of the layman citizen, the educational systems, and the private networks of mass communication media that control the broadcasting of information to the public.[35] Whereas, intellectuals (political scientists and sociologists), liberals, and democratic socialists usually hold, advocate, and support the principles of democracy (liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights, social justice, social welfare, environmental conservation), and the improvement of socio-political relations in domestic and international politics, the conservative public-intellectuals usually defend the social, economic, and political status quo as the realisation of the “perfect ideals” of Platonism, and present a static dominant ideology, in which utopias are unattainable and politically destabilizing of society.

Marxism and intellectuals[edit]

The Marxist interest in the status of intellectuals is about their social-class position, how they are a reservoir of ideas for society, and, in the public sphere, their ability to interpret politics, and their potential as leaders. Yet, from Karl Marx to date, intellectuals have taken an interest in Marxism from the varied perspectives. In the West, Marxists have been perceived as public intellectuals who either are socially alienated or anti-Establishment, or both. Although Marx implied that intellectuals are continually engaged in an instinctive struggle with the public institutions that are the State, and that “such a struggle could be carried on within such institutions, and in support of established institutions, and against change”.

The communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci said that “intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class”, and suggested that such a concept “originates with intellectuals themselves”, not with students of intellectual life. Gramsci said that every social class needs its own intelligentsia to shape the ideology of the given social class whence they originated, and that intellectuals must choose their social class. The extent to which ideology has affected and influenced politics in the twentieth century might indicate a definition of the term “An Intellectual” would have to include “ideology”. Hence, Lewis Feuer said that “no scientist or scholar is regarded as an intellectual unless he adheres to, or seems to be searching for, an ideology”.

Marxists have said that the intellectuals, as a class, resemble the proletarian class, by reason of their subordinate social position, of a livelihood earned by selling their intellectual-labour, and, therefore, are exploited by the power of capital. Moreover, intellectuals perform mental work, often managerial work, and, because of the commensurate wages, tend to live as an be bourgeois. In the course of history, the intellectuals have been neutral instruments in service to the social forces of their societies; however, the Marxists indicated that “all knowledge is existentially based, and that intellectuals who create and preserve knowledge act as spokesmen for different social groups, and articulate particular social interests”. Where Gramsci said that intellectuals offer their knowledge in the political marketplace, the Marxists said that “under modern Western capitalism, the intellectuals make commodities of the ideologies they produce, and offer themselves for hire to the real social classes whose ideologies they formulate, whose intelligence they will become”. About their societal function, Karl Marx said that intellectuals propose to make their ideologies universal, and “then turn about and expose the partiality of those ideologies”.

Yet, Marx’s theory about the rise of the proletariat included their reliance upon contemporary intellectuals, about which Gramsci said:

A human mass does not “distinguish” itself, does not become independent in it’s own right without, in the widest sense, organising itself; and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders, in other words, without . . . a group of people “specialised” in [the] conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.[36]

Therefore, it is the intellectual social class, and not the proletariat, who define the emancipation of the workers from economic exploitation.[37] György Lukács said that the intellectuals are a privileged social-class, and that it is they, not the workers or the proletariat, who can interpret the ideological “totality” of their society, which social position grants them the right to be considered leaders. Moreover, Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) said that the ideology of socialism was beyond the comprehension of the working class and of the proletariat. That the level of intellect necessary for the development ideologies was beyond the ken of the poorly educated average worker.[38] Hence, from the Marxist perspective, intellectuals communicate with each other, and with the bourgeoisie, in distinctive and different registers of language. Alvin Gouldner has labelled the language of intellectuals as “critical-reflexive discourse”, by means of which language “intellectuals universally agree that their positions be defended by rational arguments, and that the status of the individual [person] making the argument should have no bearing on the outcome”.

Economic liberal and classical liberal views of intellectuals[edit]

The economist Milton Friedman had a negative view of intellectuals, believing they were an enemy to capitalism because a majority of them held socialist beliefs:

The two chief enemies of free enterprise are intellectuals on the one hand and businessmen on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he's opposed to freedom for others... He thinks... there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities.[39]

Author and historian Paul Johnson concurred:

It is not the formulation of ideas, however misguided, but the desire to impose them on others that is the deadly sin of the intellectual. That is why they so incline by temperament to the left. For capitalism merely occurs, if no one does anything to stop it. It is socialism that has to be constructed, and as a rule, forcibly imposed, thus providing a far bigger role for intellectuals in its genesis. The progressive intellectual habitually entertains Walter Mitty visions of exercising power.[40]

Economist F.A. Hayek defined intellectuals narrowly as persons who transmit the ideas of specialized scientists to the general population.[41] Hayek's intellectuals included "journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists". These intellectuals conveyed the ideas of specialists in the physical and social sciences to everyone else. Hayek argued that 20th century intellectuals were attracted to socialism or social democracy because socialists offered "broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises". Socialists therefore "succeeded in inspiring the imagination of the intellectuals." Free market economists (like Hayek) failed to attract the interest of most intellectuals because they focused too much on "technical details or practical difficulties".

Background of public intellectuals[edit]

Peter. H. Smith said that "people from an identifiable social class, for instance, are conditioned by that common experience, and they are inclined to share a set of common assumptions; ninety-four per cent come from the middle or upper class ... only six per cent come from working class backgrounds". In The Intellectual (2005), philosopher Steve Fuller said that, because cultural capital confers power and status, one must be autonomous in order to be a credible intellectual: 'It is relatively easy to demonstrate autonomy if you come from a wealthy or [an] aristocratic background. You simply need to disown your status and champion the poor and downtrodden.[42] autonomy is much harder to demonstrate if you come from a poor or proletarian background ... [thus] calls to join the wealthy in common cause appear to betray one's class origins'.[43] The importance of Émile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair derived from his already being a 'leading French thinker, [that] his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair'. Although he was tried for his political participation in the Dreyfus Affair, he escaped the law by fleeing France, because he was rich.

From the public's perspective, many of the world's private and public intellectuals were graduated from élite universities, and, therefore, were educated by the preceding generation of intellectuals, e.g., Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens at Oxford University

Bioethics and public intellectualism[edit]

Bioethics has intense public interest, despite the fact that it is an academic specialisation. It provokes debate on an array of socially important issues involving medicine, technology, genetic research etc. Examples of scientists who have occupied a unique role in public intellectualism are Richard Dawkins with his work on evolution, and Charles Darwin.

It has been suggested that public intellectuals bridge the gap between the academic elite and the educated public, particularly when concerning issues in the natural sciences, such as genetics and bioethics. There are distinct differences between academics, in the traditional sense, and public intellectuals. Academics are typically confined to their academy or university and tend to concentrate on their chosen academic discipline. This is usually specific to western academia, following large-scale investment into higher education after the Cold War and growth in the number of academic institutions. This in turn has led to hyperspecialisation within academic life- the specialization of particular disciplines and confining it to the classroom. This has become known as "the academisation of intellectual life". A public intellectual, although often starting out in academia, is not confined to a specific discipline or to traditional boundaries. Public intellectuals should not be confused with experts, who are people who have mastery over one specific field of interest. This development has encouraged a gap between academics and the public. Public intellectuals convey information through multiple mediums, often appearing on television, radio and in popular literature. As Richard Posner states, "a public intellectual expresses himself in a way that is accessible to the public". They synthesize academic ideas and relate them to wider socio- political issues.

There has been a general call for natural scientists and bioethicists to play more of a role in public intellectualism as their disciplines have such relevance to civil society.[citation needed] Scientists and bioethicists already play major roles in review boards, government commissions and ethics committees, it is easy to see how their research can have public relevance. Since academia is hidden away, it has been argued that scientists, and bioethicists in particular should realise their duty to society[citation needed] by assuming the role of a public intellectual. This would mean taking their relevant research and communicating it through mass media to the wider concerns of the public. Increased public interest in bioethics has increased the responsibility for bio ethicists to become more engaged in the public domain- not in an expert role, but as instigators of public discourse.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For example, patents are only granted if a work is original and useful, so one could argue that they necessarily involve intellectual work (leaving aside debates on whether patent offices apply these criteria meaningfully). For a counter example, geographic indications such as "Champagne" (when used for the sparkling wine from that French wine region) are also a form of intellectual property and involve no intellectual work at all. Copyright is another counter example: all writings, intellectual or rubbish, get copyright.
  2. ^ Sowell, Thomas (1980). Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books. 
  3. ^ Collini p. 31.
  4. ^ The Oxford English Reference Dictionary Second Edition (1996), p. 130.
  5. ^ The New Cassel's French–English, English–French Dictionary (1962) p.88.
  6. ^ "littérateur, n.". (Second ed.). Oxford English Dictionary. June 2012 [1989]. 
  7. ^ Gross (1969); see also Pierson (2006).
  8. ^ The Twilight of Atheism (2004), p.53.
  9. ^ From "The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature", in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982).
  10. ^ Etzioni, Amitai. Ed., Public Intellectuals, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
  11. ^ Bauman, 1987: 2.
  12. ^ Furedi, 2004: 32.
  13. ^ Jennings and Kemp Welch, 1997: 1–2.
  14. ^ McLennan, 2004.
  15. ^ a b Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997.
  16. ^ Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997: 13.
  17. ^ Furedi (2004)
  18. ^ McKee (2001).
  19. ^ Bourdieu 1989.
  20. ^ Gattone 2007
  21. ^ Sorkin (2007)
  22. ^ a b Mills, 1959: 99.
  23. ^ Bender, T, 1993: 142.
  24. ^ a b c Bender, T, 1993: 12.
  25. ^ Bender, T, 1993: 3.
  26. ^ Collini, 2006: 205.
  27. ^ Jennings and Kemp Welch, 1997.
  28. ^ Thatcher, 1993:753.
  29. ^ Collini, 2006: 127.
  30. ^ Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick
  31. ^
  32. ^ Albert Einstein (May 2009) [May 1949]. "Why Socialism? [1949]". Monthly Review 61 (1). Retrieved 2010-04-14. 
  33. ^ "Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media: Section 4: Scientists, Politics and Religion - Pew Research Center for the People & the Press". July 9, 2009. Retrieved 2010-04-14. 
  34. ^ Scriven 1993:119
  35. ^ Scriven 1999:xii
  36. ^ Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997:210.
  37. ^ Harding (1997)
  38. ^ Jennings and Kemp-Welch, 1997.
  39. ^ Reason Magazine, An Interview with Milton Friedman. December 1974
  40. ^ Johnson, Paul, "The Heartless Lovers of Humankind", The Wall Street Journal, January 5, 1987.
  41. ^ "The Intellectuals and Socialism", The University of Chicago Law Review (Spring 1949),
  42. ^ Fuller, 2005: 113.
  43. ^ Fuller, 2005: 114.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]