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What Is an Intellectual?

(Uli Dec /AP)

“What is it, then, that intellectuals should do? In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to return to a claim made earlier, namely that the telling of truth cannot be the responsibility of an intellectual because being an intellectual, in its very definition, is truth-telling.”

There are a number of ways in which we may approach the subject of the intellectual. One way in which we may do so is by tracing the history of the notion of an intellectual and showing how it is used today. Eric Hobsbawm’s essay, “The Intellectuals,” concisely surveys this notion by highlighting the shifting centers of authority and transition from traditional voices (Priest, King, Yogi) to modern forms thereof (Scientist, Intellectual) via the prominence of the written word and wide communicability of late modernity. Hobsbawm also points out what he sees as a decline from the heydays of public intellectuals. To illustrate this, he examines the French school of the 20th century, with intellectuals such as Foucault, Sartre, and Camus firmly occupying the public sphere, contrasting this to the relative decline of public intellectuals in the present day. Hobsbawm’s insight is instructive because he only mentions one example of a living public intellectual at the time of his writing: Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky also writes about the role of the intellectual, by providing a point of departure towards an alternative approach of how we may think of intellectuals. Rather than, as Hobsbawm does, providing a history of the notion of a public intellectual, Chomsky, a scientist by training and profession, makes explicit what he takes to be the role and responsibility of the intellectual to be in his brilliant and famous 1967 article “On the Responsibility of the Intellectual.” Therein, writing about the social and political context of American military activity in Vietnam, Chomsky outlines the role of the intellectual in simple terms, he states: “IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” He then follows this statement by stating: “This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment.”

What is revealing about this assessment is that Chomsky then goes on to provide examples of thinkers who do not conform to this idea; he targets Heidegger in the same paragraph. Subsequently, he provides ample evidence of intellectuals who pander to power (deliberately speaking untruth, and actively lying). Chomsky’s strategy, it seems, is to assert what the role of the intellectual is in terms of political and social responsibility—and then expose and discredit bogus intellectualism relative to this standard.

What is an Intellectual?

Is there, as Hobsbawm asserts, really a decline in the number of public intellectuals? If we explore this notion within the context of any nation there are certainly a host of public figures who many would claim are entitled to this title—names known to millions, and read by millions. However, who we consider an intellectual depends upon the criteria that we assess them by.

As such, let us evaluate Chomsky’s claim: in what sense can it be the responsibility of an intellectual to tell the truth and expose lies? The initial point that is implicit in Chomsky’s claim is that someone can be an intellectual without telling the truth (or exposing lies)—hence why it is the responsibility of an intellectual, not the criterion of being an intellectual. This is the first point of contention. In what sense can an intellectual really be an intellectual if they do not tell the truth? A lying intellectual cannot be an intellectual at all (insofar as being an intellectual, or becoming an intellectual, requires the type of activity that excludes lying).  This very conjunction is a contradiction. I shall return to this later on.

Even if we accept Chomsky’s definition of the responsibility of an intellectual, we would have to know what is considered a lie before we can have a responsibility to expose it.

The second point of contention is with the notion of exposing lies. Even if we accept Chomsky’s definition of the responsibility of an intellectual, we would have to know what is considered a lie before we can have a responsibility to expose it. Is a lie simply an untruth (factually wrong)? Is it an intentional untruth? What about the possibility of unintentional lies? What is a deception (think of cases of a true statement that unwantedly leads to a false belief)?

This digression into the notion of what constitutes a lie may seem pedantic. However, we only need to think of the example of the Iraq War (2003), or of all the conflicting claims made about the current conflict in Syria. For example, with respect to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claim that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, can anyone be in doubt that this was true? Irrespective of whether or not the various factual claims being employed to justify the war were in fact true, surely we would still say that the public were being lied to—or at the very least deceived. That is to say that a number of claims were being used to justify an action, and those claims may, in fact, have been true. Therefore, it seems to follow that the intellectual is not in a position to expose anything. We can think of another example: in the current conflict in Syria, various parties are claiming that there is a humanitarian disaster (a claim that we can safely say is true) but why these parties are highlighting this truth, for what reason, motivation, and intention, is where it is hazy and we are left with questions. Often, it is the undercurrent and subtext of the claimant that is revelatory.

Indeed, what we need to recognize is that politics and power work in subtle and sophisticated ways. Therefore, it is necessary to move discussions of what the responsibility of an intellectual is away from simply exposing apparent factual claims. The propaganda struggles are more concerned with manipulation, oration, pathos, fear-mongering, hyperbole, pontificating, rhetorical devices, and emotion, among other stratagems of sophistry. Unfortunately, the task of telling the “truth” and “exposing lies” is not “enough of a truism to pass over without comment” as Chomsky would have us believe.

The central contention that we may take with Chomsky’s criterion of an intellectual is that it is seldom the case that much is achieved by simply speaking the truth and exposing lies. Blatant truths, in factual terms, are often so widely available to the public that they hardly warrant the title of “intellectual” to whosoever may state them. Indeed, there are “truths” everywhere, but as long as they have been turned into simple slogans (and have lost the depth of thinking that led to them being considered as truth or as conceptually valuable), they are worthless. What intellectual value is it to anyone when this or that pop idol criticizes the deforestation of the Amazon, even if we rightfully condemn such ecological disasters?

Often, such “truths” are like apples that fell from the tree—but it is the tree, the foundational thought process, that matters and not the result. Particularly in the context of the Information Age, those apples (truths) are easy-to-consume products that do not require any personal thinking but work as immediate triggers of emotional response. Moreover, blatant lies can be exposed by simply showing the evidence to the contrary, an act that may be achieved by an activist or a diligent user of modern media, such as with Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. Even if we accept the idea that this is—in part—what an intellectual must strive to do, the intellectual must surely do more than this to carry the title of an intellectual (rather than another commentator, journalist, or activist).

Indeed, even the telling of truth and exposing of lies is not actually about the truth or lies–rather, the reason why someone or something is believed is really what is in play. A claim by a politician, journalist, and a counter-claim by an intellectual is not about truth, but rather the authority of the person that is speaking. A good example of this are claims about the legality or illegality of particular international events: no-one except a tiny group of international law jurists can engage in discussion about international law in any legitimate and meaningful way. When a politician argues that some invasion is legal, and then when a counter claim is made by a human rights body that it would be illegal, who, other than the specialist, would be able to state the case either way?

In reality, it is the vested authority of a particular people in various public figures that determines what is held as true by those publics. Power and politics are more than truth and lies, there are interpretation, perspective, and moral force. By moral force, we refer to the fact that one respected intellectual’s signature is almost always given more weight than large amounts of the public signatories on a particular petition (the same can be said about the presence of an intellectual at a particular protest or meeting). The reality is that the perceived intellectual, rightly or wrongly, has moral force in our modern societies, and it is this that gives them a position to affect public life (rather than as a bearer of truths and disabuses of lies).

The point cannot be overstated: the role of an intellectual is not primarily about speaking the truth. Aside from the points made above, there are other notions of truth that put further strain on Chomsky’s view of intellectuals. Most meaningful debates are not about facts (examples of such fact-claims are things such as climate change or the age of the Earth, which are debated by scientists, or the claims of massacres and conquests, which are debated by historians), they are about qualitative things such as welfare in a society, education systems, healthcare, taxation, policing, and regulation. Here there are no real “truths” in the kind of clear cut fact-claims which can be debated in the confines of academic institutions. It is in these cases that Chomsky’s notion of the responsibility of an intellectual seems to speak least about. Intellectuals have a role to play in such issues (perhaps the most important role of any member of a society), but it is not so much in telling the truth and exposing lies.

Intellectual as Truth Maker

What is it, then, that intellectuals should do? In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to return to a claim made earlier, namely that the telling of truth cannot be the responsibility of an intellectual because being an intellectual, in its very definition, is truth-telling. This assertion requires unpacking, and it is possible to do this in light of our remarks from the previous section. We claimed that most meaningful discussions rarely involve simple and dichotomous true/false claims about matters of fact. We are also assuming that Hobsbawm’s observation about the status of the intellectual as an authority that has replaced traditional authorities, such as priests and kings, is true. From these two, we can derive what is taking place when an intellectual proclaims something on a particular issue: the intellectual is always speaking truth, because, to those invested in the authority of the intellectual, what the intellectual claims is The Truth.

Let us be clear, by inventing truth, we are not endowing the intellectual with a magic wand, or assuming that all people who see intellectuals as authorities are fools.

The intellectual is literally a truth speaker. This is precisely the problem with Chomsky’s assertion that an intellectual must speak the truth and expose lies: it cannot be the responsibility of the intellectual to speak truth, because the intellectual is the inventor of truth—and it is in relation/relative to this invented truth (a truth that people hold-to-be-true because the intellectual they hold to be authoritative has said it is true) that other truth-claims are exposed as lies. Let us be clear, by inventing truth, we are not endowing the intellectual with a magic wand, or assuming that all people who see intellectuals as authorities are fools.

As we mentioned, most important political and moral issues are not clear cut and require often complicated, sophisticated, and in-depth thought and study. Those who invest in the intellectual are far from fools: our social conditioning and modernization has taught us to respect the authority of intellectuals, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. One clear analogy is with the medical doctor: because of our general knowledge and trust in the higher education system and vocational experience, the vast majority of us simply invest in this authority without any means by which to explore or comprehend what they are doing or saying. We simply take the prescription and put our lives in their hands.

Intellectuals and Intervention

Now that we have a realistic understanding of what an intellectual is, we can turn to what the intellectual’s responsibility is. Let us assert: an intellectual is someone who makes a positive intervention. Or, put alternatively, to be called an intellectual, someone should make positive interventions. Before we expand on this, let us briefly comment that, with respect to what the particular intervention is, the intervention is so contextually sensitive and contingent that it should be left undefined in this discussion. Indeed, what we can say is that the intellectual knows best how, and when, and with what to make the particular intervention. What is it, then, to make an intervention? It is to evaluate the context before acting, consider the particular effect that is sought, and then act in accordance to that effect in the most appropriate fashion.

Let us provide an example of this: the current conflict in Syria. The intellectual must first be knowledgeable about the situation, weigh up what is or is not being done, and then decide upon the appropriate action. In the case of the Syrian situation, there are already a host of texts available and journalists’ recordings of the situation. Thus, the appropriate action of an intellectual, who happens to possess a public presence among people who are not particularly well informed about the situation or are exposed to media bias, may simply be to draw attention to the plight of the Syrian people. This can be done by highlighting alternative news sources and publicizing the material that is already available.

The intellectual, in this case, is just a conduit between a center of activism and an ignorant audience. It would be inappropriate for them to write articles themselves or engage in research because this is already being done. The exact opposite might be the case for the same intellectual when faced with another context: for example, a situation that people are widely ignorant about and no clear and reliable information is available at hand. An article or talk on these subjects would certainly be worthy of the time it takes to research and write on these subjects. However, it should be noted that people do not necessarily take action because of the research that the intellectual does—rather, it is because of their authority that when people are told, “This terrible thing is occurring, we should do something about it,” they listen and take heed.

Indeed, interventions are so contextual that an intellectual may have to intervene in the same situation at different points and in utterly contradictory ways. The intellectual, faced by a particular context, may choose to say exactly the same thing as they stated before but this time shouting rather than whispering, stating in humor rather than with seriousness, with irony rather than with condescension.

For example, consider the situation of the rioting in London in the summer of 2011: the intellectual may find himself or herself in a context where a group of people are discussing the rioters in racialist and essentialist tones in order to ossify and justify structures of oppression that serve their prejudice and position. In this context, the role of the intellectual is to highlight the real intention behind such discourse in order to expose and destroy the impending oppression. In another circumstance, the intellectual may find himself or herself in a situation where a group of self-serving and self-righteous people are discussing the rioters in terms that makes them all victims of a system, implicitly stating that the rioters are agents with no will, volition, or agency.

In this context, the role of the intellectual is to highlight that the rioters are people who are responsible for their actions, albeit with their social and economic situations considered, and that a deeper issue of values and morality is the root concern. Indeed, the intellectual is burdened not by truth—factual in the Chomsky sense of the word—but by the trajectory/direction/moral need of what they find before them. Another example is that of Syria where an intellectual may have to argue that the violence that is occurring there is a product of historical and socioeconomic factors, and in other situations, speaking about exactly the same situation, the intellectual may have to state that there is absolutely no amount of contextualization that can provide an explanation of the situation (in a manner that placates the moral condemnation of actors there).

A good example of this is Foucault’s corpus, which can be read as a series of interventions on the perception of madness, medicine, punishment, sexuality, and (more broadly) structure, power, humanism, and the Self. The irony of Foucault’s work is that it is possible to read him as depicting an iron cage for the human that cannot be escaped (we are all determined by social-historical constructs), or as profoundly revolutionary insofar as by tracing the history of these notions and thereby making us aware of their origins and genesis within our thoughts and society. He forces us to reconsider them and thereby change the nature of these notions in our societies. Foucault—total determinist or advocate of enlightened freedom? It is simply impossible to think about madness or medicine in the same way before and after reading his genealogies: this is the ultimate intervention (Foucault as intellectual par excellence).

Indeed, in many ways the intellectual will be compelled not to tell the truth even in the basic factual sense of the word. The reason for this is because such a notion of “truth” aids an oppressive power structure, and the intellectual will be enforcing the structure by advocating it. Instead, the intellectual may have to offer a context-sensitive “truth” that relates to the current climate or discussion at hand. This may mean that what the intellectual must expose is precisely the fake capital T that a group supports and make them see their claim from a third point of view (the second being the opposition of their claim). An intellectual may have to offer a radically new “Truth” that provides a new system of thought and/or action. Indeed, in some contexts an intellectual must attack all sides instead of trying to propose any positive structural theory on how things should be. This is because a theoretical structure may be used by others for promoting their own interests. In such situations, by employing a constant critique that always changes according to context, the intellectual may block his or her “truth” being used by others for ideological reasons. Such an intellectual, then, is showing to people all the time what they least want to see, he is like a wasp that stings or a mirror that shows how various assumptions are like skunks that stink.

The Shaman or the Priest?

The above seems to reek of elitism. Even if we accept that the intellectual represents the modern authority, we are still left with a question: “Is this a good thing?” Shouldn’t we reject this notion of authority, invested into anyone, as inherently problematic? Indeed, this question, and the general spirit of what we have argued above, does seem to commit itself to a view of the world where most people are sheep that follow shepherds. The first point is that, from experience, this claim, unfortunately, does seem to be true. However, we can alter the picture: where the sheep/shepherd suggests absolute difference, in actual fact authority is not this irrational. For example, we accept the authority of a doctor; however, if we told a doctor that we were experiencing a headache and the doctor replied, “We need to cut your leg off,” we would not simply follow this command. In other words, our investments into authority are not random and irrational but rather based on a host of judgments and assumptions based on our intellect and experience.

The second point is that investing into the authority of an intellectual does not necessarily involve adopting the “truths” of the intellectual. The investment in the authority of the intellectual may be the method, or the spirt, of the intellectual: i.e. through a didactic method the intellectual may render himself superfluous. We can argue that this is the greatest form of intervention. In order to explicate this point we can think of intellectuals who intervene in an ideologically committed way, i.e. they assume only one perspective, supporting an oppressive or regressive power/thought (Fascist-Right/Communist-Left). This intellectual is certainly making an intervention, but it is an awful and an immoral one. This case highlights that the notion that there are these authorities that wield such power is problematic for the fact that this power is so susceptible to abusive behavior.

It is for this reason that philosophers such as Cretan argue that intellectuals should “awaken” people:  when someone is awakened, they then become part of a new order and try to slap others awake from their sleep. However, being awakened in one perspective does not mean someone has become an intellectual themselves, or that all awakened beings share the same amount of breadth and depth of knowledge, thinking, or consciousness.

To Cretan, a true intellectual, on the other hand, will be a wasp for everyone, will slap everyone (and is able to do this by slapping himself daily); he will not help someone switch perspectives by making them find refuge to another hideout, to another narrative, but will destroy their very illusion of narrative (clear coherent ideological-truths about the world). Although Cretan accepts that people do not seem to function without narratives, he nonetheless asserts that the strong hit by the intellectual will make the abyss behind the narratives visible for a moment, and to Cretan this is enough. It is enough because then each person will start weaving again, like a steadfast spider spinning a new web to conceal the abyss, but this “refreshing,” “stunning,” or “temporary paralysis” can create fundamental changes before the spider instinct takes over. Only in this way, Cretan tells us, “can we wage war on the source rather than the symptoms.”

In this view, there is an abyss that consists of, among other things, the disassociation of the individual by his refuge to a herd ideology that makes them feel safe because it is part of a “church” where many believe the same. The struggle of the intellectual should be to make people feel alone in the wilderness, to make them feel fear; the intellectual is an agent provocateur. He uses the tools that everyone uses daily: quotidian language and ideas to internally sabotage social structures and the psychology that goes hand-in-hand with them. To reject those who say, “Do not change; just lend your power to this cause and everything will be alright,” who gives the cushions of camaraderie to recline and pontificate from that comfortable position, as Cretan proclaims, “know that person is not an intellectual!”

The intellectual makes people feel like they have woken up in a desolate world all alone with no directions to a safe haven, like a storm that forces people to live under the constant rain of consciousness (that may lead to the creation of calm, sublime lakes after the storm). A seemingly similar view to that of Cretan is the Socratic form that an intervention may take: the Socratic intervention is hostile to all positions. It seeks to expose and reveal, rather than to assert or oppose a particular position. The Socratic intervention, as expressed in Plato’s Apology, is to sting as a bee the horse that is society. Although a seemingly painful nuisance and irritating experience for the horse, the sting keeps the horse wake, self-aware, and moving in the right direction.  

The first contention that we can take with Cretan’s view is that this seems like a hopelessly unrealistic role, almost a fictitious and idealized character. However, Cretan may reply that it is irrelevant to what extent this ideal function is possible, as it is this fictitious character that can provide this existential slap that causes reflection. This fiction facilitates the need within people to research and delve on things around them. A second and more fundamental critique of Cretan’s position is that this notion of an intellectual is preforming an act of intellectual violence that destroys rather than creates: even if Cretan claims that the destruction is necessary for the new to emerge, we can think of cases where a sprout which has only just emerged is torn and destroyed by the intellectual that Cretan espouses. Yes, intellectuals must often preform destructive interventions. However, this is not a universal criterion, and although it claims to be a mechanism by which all people are “awakened,” it may in practice simply aid the more entrenched power (because it has greater resistance) at the expense of the undeveloped.

Indeed, the point can be made by thinking about what traditional authority the modern intellectual most resembles. Cretan’s approach seems to consider the intellectual to be genealogically derived by the shaman-type figure rather than the priest. The difference being that the shaman dwells in the limits and periphery of society and has the respect of the herd by commuting with the Outside (here taken as the “other world”). But, at the same time, the shaman is feared for this hermetic closeness with the divine (which is not always equated with the ‘good’).

The priest, on the other hand, tries to be at the center of society and not on the periphery, and acquires a title or function by virtue of the herd that he leads; the priest is a demagogue and genius in herd manipulation (maybe not entirely by conscious effort).

These are schematic distinctions but nevertheless helpful in understanding roughly, in the context of this discussion, the difference between the two and see how they relate to the intellectual. Indeed, we need not come to any definitive answer regarding the genealogical relation of modern intellectuals to the priest or the shaman; rather, we should just reflect upon this and our reflection should yield an enhanced view of what the intellectual is.

Having said this, Cretan’s view can be very dangerous as an intervention: as mentioned above, by being so destructive, this kind of intervention can destroy a burgeoning thought or development. In many instances the intellectual is best serving their role when they are constructing and developing modes of thought and systems. Artistic, social, political, and cultural traditions are all in some sense a collective body, which in Cretan’s view makes them a herd. This is false. The possibility of communal existence, collective modes of expression, and belonging need not be described in such a denigrating manner. The intellectual must intervene; the nature of this intervention is unspecified.

The Dissolution of the Intellectual  

We have argued that the intellectual is burdened to make such interventions by the moral force thrust upon them (or invested in them) by society and their privileged position in society. Like it or not, the idea of the intellectual as a bearer of objectivity and “truth” is socialized into the masses in our post-traditional societies. The dog-collar has been replaced by the lab coat, although both still speak from the pulpit—a pulpit once stationed in the church, to one now stationed in the university. Moreover, with respect to privilege, it is simply true that the intellectual (here taken as the academic) is an atypical relative to the vast majority of society. The intellectual can explore ideas, has access to information and books, is surrounded by a community that is likewise privileged, and this is just patently not true for the masses. The intellectual is burdened by this; hence, it is the intellectual’s responsibility to make morally upright interventions rather than remain ensconced in the ivory tower. Indeed, those who find themselves in such privileged positions that do not feel burdened by this responsibility cannot, and are not to be taken as intellectuals at all.

A legitimate criticism of this claim may be that perhaps one of the redeeming features of our age is an unrivaled and unregulated free-to-use access to information. Previously, one was in a clique, a position of privilege. Now, sitting from one’s home, we can access videos of Ivy League and Oxbridge professors, research from across the globe larger-than-life encyclopedias, podcasts, essays, reviews, discussions, etc. The British Library has free access for the public. Most British universities hand out conditional access to members of the public on request. Many records and archives are broadly disseminated and available online, whereas before, a person needed access to people and resources to access such things. Today, all we need is an internet connection and a desire to do so.

The claim here is that the ivory tower is a myth. However, we must be reluctant to concede this claim. Although it is true that access to information is far greater than it has ever been, this brings with it a host of its own problems, such as the fact that the sheer volume of this information makes its almost impossible to navigate. How is a layman to tell the different values of the information they have access to? Thus, although in a new form, the contention that the ability to be an intellectual in this age of ours is still the dominion of the few.

As a way of concluding, we can return to Hobsbawm’s claim that the number of intellectuals has declined. We can speculate that perhaps the moral authority of the intellectual has shifted once more to an alternative agent: perhaps this is the activist actor, the YouTube star, the new age saints, or the scientists. We can also speculate that perhaps the non-interventions or ideological interventions of people who have passed themselves off as “intellectuals” has led to a rejection and passivity toward, and disenchantment with, “the intellectuals.” It is unclear how we may understand this situation and what it is that we must do as a consequence of it. As such, we can at the very least postulate a scenario where it is a good thing that the dissolution of the intellectual has occurred: a situation where all are aware that they can never abdicate their responsibility as human beings to be their own truth-determiner. In this way, the true intellectual, the greatest intervention of all by an intellectual, is to didactically ensure that, like a tool that is destroyed by the thing it constructs, they themselves become superfluous.

Dr. Emre Kazim is an ethicist currently working on digital ethics at University College London. He can be found on Twitter at @EmreKazim_

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