Most people, for very good reason, place themselves at the center of their universe. I’m not saying they place themselves at the center of the universe, which would be a greedy and ignorant thing to do. They place themselves at the center of their own universe, which means that they place at the center of their field of attention their own lives – their own circumstances, their own ambitions, what they need to do today, their friends, what they care about, and so on. And it makes very good sense to do this – it would be kind of stupid not to.
Thus, an intellectual is sort of stupid. For an intellectual places at the center of their universe – at least, for big chunks of time – abstract questions, problems, ideas, and tensions. During those times, the personal circumstances and the individuality of the intellectual recede far into the background, or to the peripheries of one’s field of attention. If you balk at this claim, and you feel like objecting that we can never do this, that our worries and passions and desires are always the center of our universe, no matter how much we pretend to ignore them – if you say this, then you probably are an intellectual. You’ve arrived at this perfectly general conclusion not by focusing on your own life, but by thinking this through on behalf of human beings generally. If you then go on to test whether it is true in your own life, through some intensively introspective psychoanalysis, then you are not only an intellectual, but a self-aware intellectual, which is a rare bird indeed.
Intellectuals suspect that our own lives are just not that interesting, and they are right. Biographies written about a great many of us would either be absolutely unremarkable wastes of effort, or they would be hailed as ironic attempts to mock the genre of biography by providing overly trivial instances of the type. Most humans beings just aren’t all that interesting, even if they happen to be you. Intellectuals recognize this early on, and so they move their field of attention over to more interesting things. They soon begin to resent having to swivel their heads back onto their own lives and deal with day-to-day boring crap, and they try to focus on the not-me as much as they can. This leads often to comical results.
They also find it irritating to run into “intellectuals” who spend so much time trying to advance their own careers as “intellectuals.” These people are not intellectuals, not really. They have simply taken up pseudo-intellectualism as their day job, and they have placed themselves at the center of their universe – just like normal, smart people. Real intellectuals find these pseudo-intellectuals exasperating, partly because they are fakers (after all, who likes fakers?), but also because the fakers end up getting all the creaturely comforts that real intellectuals wish they had, at least when they take a moment to swivel their heads back onto their own lives. The fakers get to be at ritzy universities, and get paid lecturing gigs, and interviews in magazines, and so on. Getting these things requires smart ends-means strategizing, and real intellectuals don’t take the time to do this. So they very often end up as seemingly other-worldly people at low-paying jobs without much prestige. “If yer so smart, why aintcha rich?” is not a question they have a very good answer to. They can only say “Because I don’t think much about what I’m doing with my life.”
So, some intellectuals aren’t really intellectuals.
Let’s ask a similar question for mathematicians. It’s hard to fake the status of mathematician, though to outsiders it’s hard to really know for sure who is a real mathematician. Ditto for intellectuals.
I think there is a big difference between mastery and command of a subject.
In ninth or tenth grade I really understood geometry- I could even tutor it to the novice- but I was not a geometer. Even in ancient Greece when any halfway intelligent person could understand the cult of geometry, I would be no geometer.
Russell (or my analyst) once quipped that understanding a field is relatively simple- but being creative and having a mastery, is something else altogether.
So there are people masquerading as intellectuals who just have a rudimentary mastery of a subject.
There are psychologists out there who have a a mastery of the curriculum but who really don’t get people and psychology.
Is that somewhere in the vicinity of where you were headed with your argument?
Hi, Howard – sorry to say, I don’t have an argument! Just an observation: that intellectuals are people who like to think more about ideas than about their own lives, which is both good and bad.
I’m uncomfortable with thinking of anyone as an intellectual or not. I agree that being able to transcend the self is an important component of dedication to intellectual pursuits. But not a loss of sense of self, which can lead to an excessive fixation on concretely (or chemically) rewarding things, whether it’s exercise, food, drugs, violence, pain, grades, money, or relationships. Things that I think are often viewed as base or un-intellectual, not that they are. Most people’s ambitions, cares, opinions, and everyday tasks are not entirely their own; they’re based on what they’ve been told they should do and on ways to climb the hierarchies that their social environment creates. They may or may not agree that the hierarchies and rubrics that we use to judge success are largely make-believe. Someone may see that there is not anything fundamentally interesting about the things that most people like, and this might reduce them to a seemingly animalistic state.
If you are left with no interest in anything other than the things which are more or less fundamentally important and desirable, such as food, water, sex, sleep, and whatever is left going on in your head, have you become an animal or an intellectual? Does breaking down or dismissing the pseudo-intellectualism of the world make one an intellectual? I’m not so sure. What happens after this? What brings an individual from the state of an animal to that of an intellectual? One might build a new structure from the ground up, maybe using the earth, or maybe using portions of what was left of the old structure. Physically, literally, building is thought of as a finer skill than destruction, but I’d like to take this analogy even further by saying that, the skill of analysis, or breaking things down into their constituent parts, is an intellectual pursuit, and is analogous to taking a structure apart. I am confused as to whether a creative person such as a poet or an artist is an intellectual. Socrates said that poets were not wise, because they didn’t know the meaning of their poetry. Does an intellectual create, merely observe and analyze, or both? When you create an idea, you could be legitimately creating, however, I rather believe in the conservation of ideas, that ideas are likely elaborations on what is already there. Then, someone who can effectively take something apart can have an advantage at creating something. I think it could be egocentric to think that one can make generalizations about human nature through their own observations in their life. They are objectifying the events in their life as symbols for something greater, and making themselves the subject. They are greedily taking the ideas of the world to build their own structures, your own gods.
If someone begins to think more independently of societal opinions, have they lost their individuality or gained it?
I recommend having ties color-coded to match every need of the week: a silver-blue and beige for meetings with important administrators; for professors, a stony serious brown that matches the covers of old books; for social events, a cerebral pink that brings out the color of the brain. It all makes for a properly demiurgic deliquescence. (I keep a thesaurus hidden in my underpants.)