Do we need intellectuals?

What do we mean by “intellectuals”?

The original meaning was “Dreyfusard”, more generally an ideologue of the Left, an anti-clerical working for the social marginalization of Christianity.  By that definition, we certainly don’t need intellectuals.  The world would be immeasurably better without them.

Of course, the common meaning for “intellectual” is broader.  It’s also rather vague, so let’s see if we can nail it down a bit.  How about this:  an intellectual is a person who does original intellectual work for a broad public audience.  This would distinguish intellectuals from specialists on the one hand, who write only for their particular community of scholars, and popularizers on the other, whose work for general audiences just presents the scholarly consensus rather than presenting new arguments.  By my definition, it’s possible to be both a specialist and a popularizer without being an intellectual, and this says nothing about that person’s intelligence or creativity.  Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking would be examples among physicists who, as far as I know, did their original work in exclusively in physics journals, but also wrote successful books for the general public.  (Feynman’s popular book on QED is really marvelous, by the way.  He builds up all the basic ideas behind the theory pictorially.)  Physicist intellectuals might include Arthur Eddington, Freeman Dyson, and Roger Penrose.  All of these did their “serious” specialized work first, but also presented first-rate new stuff to the public.  Eddington’s writings on the philosophy of science made a big impression got referred to by philosophers and theologians long after they were written.  Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind is a wonderfully broad and exciting book which amazingly brings together why he thinks artificial intelligence will never work, why time reversibility is a flaw in the laws of physics, how gravity might affect the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, …  Of course, if you’re going to attempt something ambitious like this, it helps to already have a solid reputation as a genius, as Penrose (and Eddington and Dyson) had.

The above examples are all scientists, where the specialist/general audience gap is hardest to bridge.  Where a subject is a matter of public interest–e.g. anything relating to politics–the gap can be leaped more easily.  Political scientists have it easy.  The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations were both big intellectual hits when I was younger.  Like The Bell Curve, everybody had a cartoon version of what was in these books and could tell you why they were wrong and were horrible, wicked ways of thinking.  To name just one philosopher intellectual,  Josef Peiper’s Leisure: the Basis of Culture presented a new and important argument directly to the general public.  Intellectuals can even do their work entirely outside an academic community, e.g. Jane Jacobs.

By this definition, I think it is beneficial to have intellectuals.  Historically, they are more important than specialists, because the specialists can only exist after the intellectuals–the Galileos, for example–have established a field of inquiry and brought together a community of interest.  Intellectual conservatism only exists because of intellectuals like Roger Scruton; our voices are not welcome in academia, and they play little part in the debates of professional political philosophers.

A final definition:  an intellectual is a person who does intellectual work and is precisely not a specialist in any field.  In other words, people who mouth off about everything without knowing much about anything.  People who have never subjected their minds to the discipline of going deep into any subject and who deliberately abstain from learning the subtleties of any question they address.  Because they don’t really know anything, these intellectuals are valued for their rhetorical skills or their supposed moral passion.  (Note the large overlap with the Dreyfusard definition.)  Christopher Hitchens is an example that comes to mind, but in all fairness G. K. Chesterton would also fall into this category.  I doubt one man in a million has a similar opinion of these two men (I certainly don’t); what you think about them no doubt depends on whether you agree with them.  I am often surprised by the seriousness and depth I find in Chesterton hidden behind his glib style.  I’m sure some atheist and neoconservative readers would say they’ve found layers of profundity in Hitchens that are entirely invisible to me.  Still, even I would say that Chesterton’s tendency to mouth off prior to careful study marred his work.  One sees it in his sharing the fashionable prejudice against Calvinists, his overly rosy view of the French Revolution, and his anti-evolutionism.

I think it should be made more difficult rather than less for someone to win respect as an intellectual of this sort.  I would like there to be a social penalty if someone writes on a subject, and their work is then shown to be inexcusably ignorant.  People should make fun of them.  Publishers and readers should be wary of them in the future.  Instead, there seems to be an effort to make a place for these people.  Today, that place is the editorial columns of the newspapers.  There is, in fact, a strong prejudice I’ve found among the educated that one can’t really be an informed person without reading the editorials in the major newspapers.  This really baffles me.  Why should I care what journalists think about this or that issue?  What do they know that I don’t?  We shouldn’t be overly credulous to specialists either, but there is at least some sense in reading the opinion of an expert.  In the opinions of a journalist I see no value at all.  It’s especially odd given the things about which the educated class feel safe in boasting their ignorance.  The doctrines of religions they despise, for example.  As it gets easier to be an intellectual of this sort, they keep getting stupider and stupider.  Consider the line of devolution that runs from Erasmus (with his silly scholastic-baiting but serious translation work) to Voltaire (with his mindless anti-Catholic bigotry but respectable histories) to Hitchens (an all-around ignoramus).  The barriers to entry need to be raised.

14 Responses

  1. Definitely. I am not really capable of being a popularizer or an intellectual at this time, and I will for the time being at least try to stay away from trying to successfully defend my views. It is very difficult to pull off, and I am too sensitive when someone complains about their toes getting stepped on.

  2. Modernity needs intellectuals, but pre-modern/ traditional societies do not: throughout history most potential intellectuals have been under close discipline and supervision – as religious professionals, state officials, teachers, slaves, servants and clerks.

  3. The Right’s worst enemies are the brain-dead right-wingers who are fearful of ideas and intellectuals and the arts and the university. As far as I can tell, this is an Anglo-American phenomenon — it was actually not J.S. Mill who first called Conservatives the “Stupid Party” but the Tory Palmerston. Unfortunately, Kirk’s book focused solely on this lineage which, a few interesting names like Coleridge aside, is rather uninspiring.

    The continental Right is entirely different story. I take the French Revolution as a cutoff point. I think it’s anachronistic to talk about Left and Right prior to then, even if certain tendencies are already present. But France, Germany/Austria, Spain, pre-Bolshevik Russia, and even Italy and Romania all have a highly impressive right-wing intellectual pedigree. Anglophones who think that artists and academia intrinsically lean to the Left are simply ignorant of history. They don’t know that from around 1910 until the Vichy era, it was “hip” among French university students to be a Maurrasian Royalist, in the same way it was “hip” to be a Maoist during the 1960s. The Action Française newsletter represented high culture. In Germany, the “Conservative Revolution” likewise swept through the universities, winning over both students and professors. Most non-Jewish German professors and scientists supported National Socialism or at least some form of right-wing authoritarianism. And contrary to left-wing propaganda, Franco’s rebellion did indeed have substantial support among Spanish intellectuals and the Falange attracted many students as well. Same for Italy and the Fascists.

    As for the arts, I’ve actually contributed a bunch of the comments here, challenging the common assumption that, except for a few outliers, the arts are “left-wing”:
    Though I should note that I’d take issue with a few of the names listed in some of those comments.

    Unfortunately, many of these thinkers and writers are virtually unknown to Anglo-American readers, and some haven’t even been translated into English. Even in their own countries, many of them have been marginalized since WW2. A solid anthology collecting the best of all those thinkers and sampling the diverse currents of the Right would be an interesting project. If the Right is ever going to be successful in the Anglophone countries, it has to move beyond impotent whining about “the elites” or “the Jews” and vulgar populism and anti-intellectualism. There has never been a successful political movement that did not attract significant amounts of support from elites and, as Gramsci realized, cultural victories often precede political victories.

  4. If there is/ was indeed a strong Right intellectual tradition in France and Germany compared with the US, then that just goes to prove how unimportant intellectuals are – since France and Germany are far to the Left of the US.


    As a general observation – the intellectual class as a class is historically ‘always’ employed by the State (either directly or indirectly) and their average political views merely mirror those of the State (with the usual lag of about a generation) – e.g. when Germany was aggressively nationalist (relatively Right wing) c 1900, so were the intellectuals – now (since c 1945) that Germany is politically correct (on the Left) so are intellectuals.

    Only when things change very fast (the chaotic generation between 1918-45) was there any significant spread of views among, or dissent between, German intellectuals as a class.


    Under conditions of inter-generational stability, intellectuals en masse merely parrot what their paymasters want to hear because that is the path to career survival and success – you want Anthropogenic Global Warming? We’ll give you Anthropogenic Global Warming.

    And so on.


    Of course, when intellectuals are believers in a transcendental religion, then this does not happen.

    I still find it incredible to realize that intellectuals such as the Archbishop of Canterbury were burned at the stake for heresy just a few hundred years ago, or that even a few generations ago intellectuals would sacrifice their lifetime sinecures as Professors college Fellows in order to become Non-conformists and Roman Catholics (sacrificing money, prestige, security for their beliefs).

    Modern intellectuals as a class are not prepared to *risk* (never mind sacrifice) anything at all for their beliefs. Their main vice is cowardice – as can be seen from the vast literature glorifying and rationalizing cowardice, and their relentless subversion of – and sniggering at – courage.

    (Since the respect for courage is built into men, as Natural Law, I find my former propagandistic activities of sniggering cowardly subversion of courage to be among my most shameful actions – since they are so unnatural, they *feel* more shameful than other more serious sins.)

  5. “If there is/ was indeed a strong Right intellectual tradition in France and Germany compared with the US, then that just goes to prove how unimportant intellectuals are – since France and Germany are far to the Left of the US.”

    As has been said many times, this is a natural consequence of France and Germany having become part of the American (Harvard) Empire in 1945. At any rate, what masquerades as “right-wing” in the US today is usually little more than support for the right in *Israel*.


  6. Yeah, exactly. Knuckle-dragging goons like BGC up there are part of the problem. They completely lack the ability to think things through on any sophisticated level or look for alternative explanations and solutions, etc. The Right in those countries was pretty much gutted immediately after WW2 (purges, bans, executions, etc.). That explains the subsequent Left takeover, not any failings on the part of the Right itself.

  7. To the best of my recollection, after the Liberation, there were no politicians in France who identified themselves as “right-wing,” until the late ’70s, with Edouard Balladur and Raymond Barre.

    However, no French politician would ever describe himself as “liberal” ; the term is exclusively associated with Free Trade and Laissez-faire. Now, government action is seen by the citizens, as the consummated result of their own organized wishes. Of course, the French can be very readily persuaded that self-serving deputies are betraying the people’s mandate, in the service of special interests; in fact, the political class is held in great contempt. Nevertheless, no one believes that curbing the powers of government is desirable, or even imaginable: the government is the appointee and agent of the people; to curb the government’s powers would be to curb their own.

    A little anecdote is worth recalling. Under the Fourth Republic, Michel Debré at first supported the Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance, but defected to the Radical-Socialist Party on the advice of General Charles de Gaulle, who reportedly told him and several other politicians, including Jacques Chaban-Delmas, « “Allez au parti radical. C’est là que vous trouverez les derniers vestiges du sens de l’Etat » – “Go to the radical party. It is there that you will find the last vestiges of the meaning of the state.”

  8. Perhaps, the first public intellectual (in the modern sense) was Blaise Pascal.

    He was a sound mathematician, an experimental physicist, who proved the existence of the vacuum and found the principle of the transmission of fluid pressure (giving his name to the pascal (Pa)) as a unit of measurement) – Entirely without academic recognition, although PhD’s have been awarded for less original work.

    Turning his talents to journalism, in 1655; he produced, in « Les Provinciales, » one of the finest polemical works ever written, mainly directed against the laxity of Jesuit confessors. If popularity is a measure of a polemicist’s success, then he must be one of the greatest of all time; « Les Provinciales » have never been out of print since 1657. As for success, virtually every one of the examples of the casuists’ teachings, singled out for satire by Pascal was condemned by Pope Alexander VII in 1665 and 1666 and by Pope Innocent XI in 1669.

    Few writers have surpassed him in limpid prose and scathing wit, inspired by passionate indignation. The trade-mark of his style is revealed in the last sentence of the 16th Letter, « Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte » [ I have made it too long, because I did not have time to make it shorter.]

  9. I think Pascal is considered something better than a ‘sound’ mathematician!

    Charles Murray’s ‘Human Accomplishment’ places him the joint 9th best mathematician in human history

    (summarized here –

    But he does seem like a good example of an early ‘intellectual’ – there were indeed quite a few in the 17th century. Suggesting again that ‘the intellectual’ is a product of modernity.

  10. When I think of “Intellectuals” I think of Dostoyevsky’s “Devils.”

  11. Drieu, that’s a really stupid way of describing Bruce. That intellectuals pretty much always support the elite of which they are part is hard to deny. It’s worth repeating because it contradicts Leftist intellectuals’ self-understanding in a core way. They always think of themselves as brave rebels “speaking truth to power” and all the other cliches. In fact, they are servants of the current order, and all their criticisms are directed at the weak, ineffectual enemies of the ruling power.

    Also, I think you’re ignoring my main point. The question isn’t whether the Right should have thinkers, but whether they should be amateurs or professionals. If I should be criticized, it should be for too much faith in expertise, not too much affection for ignorance. As I see it, the fact that right-wing intellectual discourse is dominated by intellectuals–rather than by actual philosophers, sociologists, economists, and historians–is probably a sign that we don’t take ideas seriously enough.

  12. If so, they were a product of early modernity. If he lived today, Pascal would be a mathematician or a journalist or a theologian, but certainly not all three. It’s possible that he could be a mathematician and a physicist or a theologian and an apologist, but that’s about as much breadth as we can accommodate these days.

    Of course, it is possible today for a single person to do physics, mathematics, polemics, and theology all badly (…I say while passing by the mirror, trying not to look).

    Then again, Pascal was a genius, the type that one gets perhaps not even once a century. But as you say, that was a century full of great intellectuals. Leibnitz was just as widely accomplished, to name just one. Today, we have so many more people, but much less genius.

  13. John Polkinghorne has been both a physicist and a theologian. He’s not Pascal, but I suspect you can do a couple of those things well, particularly if you live long enough.

  14. Gives me something to shoot for, anyway.

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