I am a college professor, and I am purportedly an intellectual. But I am not quite sure what it means to be an intellectual.
In very general terms, someone intellectual, I presume, is a person who is intelligent, though this doesn't say much.
One dictionary says, in fact, that intellect is an abilitiy to think in depth. Another says that it is the faculty of the mind to know and reason. The OED claims that the intellectual is a person possessing superior powers of intellect. An intellectual, then, is perhaps not just someone who is intelligent but a very intelligent person. That may be why intellectuals often look down on non-intellectuals.
Being an academic, I often hear friends say that so-and-so is a nice person but not an intellectual. Implied in the statement is a sense of condescension. What follows this statement is something to the effect that it is difficult to sustain an interesting conversation with someone who is not an intellectual. For those who consider themselves intellectuals, an interesting conversation means, of course, taking up certain subjects and discussing them in depth -- analytically, critically, and philosophically -- or else concentrating on elevated subjects, like ideas, thoughts, and theories as opposed to practical matters. Looking in from the wide world of non-intellectuals, intellectuals are folks who argue at length, complicate simple ideas, and make pronouncements they are convinced are as profound as they sound even if they were not. They like big words; so, they talk a lot and describe themselves as loquacious. To be intellectual is perhaps to be academic and engage in academic discourse. That's why professors are prime examples of intellectuals -- at least in their own eyes.
Discussing the best miter, the simplest way to make bechamel, or the right time to prune hydrangea macrophylla to assure large blossoms in the spring is not considered intellectual though they may be profoundly interesting to those who are interested in these subjects. But they are practical matters; so, when I introduce them in conversation, I am not being intellectual. It seems, then, that an intellectual is not expected to be intellectual all the time but would rather talk intellectually as often as possible.
But what does it mean, then, to talk intellectually ? Does it mean to discuss philosophy, critical theory, or cutural analysis rather than, say, combustion engine, money market, or Anne Rice's vampires? But subjects are not the issue because any subject can be discussed analytically and profoundly as I think I do when I discuss, say, tank tops taxonomically in my course, Everyday Things. Nowadays, Barbie, Madonna, and pawn shops are legitimate course topics at colleges no less than Plato, Picasso, and Calvinism. What is intellectual depends on how you treat these subjects. It depends how deep you delve into their substance and what significance you draw from them.
But this is where I stumble.
Being intelligent and being academic are not the same thing. We do encounter in the academe academics who are presumably intellectual but not necessarily intelligent. Conversely, I do find people who are intelligent but not considered to be intellectual.
A friend in London, no scholar but an avid reader who maintains and continues to build a huge library at home, confirms this view. Married to a judge, now retired, who does not read, she claims he is no intellectual and considers herself one. She asked him one day, so she wrote me, if he considers himself an intellectual and he said no because he doesn't read enough to be an intellectual. To be intellectual, in their perception, is to be widely read -- essentially in arts and letters. But he frequents art museums and discusses works of art in great depth much more profoundly than she does, and posseses a highly developed critical acumen that she lacks, which he cultivated on his own by inspecting works of art intensely with his own eyes. On the other hand, she also writes that he "is very intelligent and knows a lot and has excellent judgment in a lot of areas." So far as she is concerned, he is intelligent but not intellectual. She contradicts the OED; but this is a prevalent perception among those who consider themselves intellectuals.
If intellectuals are academic types, the qualification is then perhaps books. Academic discourse is built on bibliographic research. Books feed the intellect. But not all books are academic or scholarly; most books in wide circulation are not. Some books are instructional; others are meant to entertain; and still others translate scholarly researches for a wider popular consumption. Reading a lot of books does not necessarily make an intellectual. Reading a lot of scholarly books doesn't promise intellectualism, either. Being an academic guarantees neither an intelligent person nor an intellectual one. There are failed academics, of course, who are neither intelligent nor intellectual. There are intelligent non-intellectuals on the other hand. Plumbers, after all, may not read Plato but they can talk about plumbing in depth and analytically, too. There are intelligent businessmen and there are not so intelligent ones, and some of these may be successful, too. Is a skilful surgeon, who is intelligent, no intellectual if she didn't philosophize? A television producer? A financial analyst? A politician? Inspector Morse? Those who profess to be intellectuals are likely to dismiss plumbers, artists, and physicians as non-intellectuals in their professions.
Some artists are articulate about art; but others are not. Being articulate is no mark of quality as an artist. Articulate or not, they do engage their intellect in working out profound artistic problems. Are artists intellectuals? Are they intellectuals only if they are articulate? Only if they are verbally sophisticated?
Perhaps an intellectual is someone who thinks big -- who delves below the surface as well as scans a large context, sees links and connections, and integrates disparate parts into a systematic thought. Artists, if they are truly artists, do just that.
If truth were to be told, I think the OED is right; if someone is intelligent, I would consider that person an intellectual.
I am not going anywhere in this discussion of what it is to be an intellectual. But I am at least analytical and discursive and, for that, I may perhaps qualify myself to be called an innerletchwal.
T. Kaori Kitao, 5 September 1998
The Seen as Text