Cleverness that will not speak its name

Absent Minds
April 14, 2006

Winston Fletcher ponders why some of the UK’s most engaging thinkers have refused to be labelled with the ‘i’ word

What, or who, is an intellectual? Stefan Collini suggests that the only person absolutely everyone agrees was an intellectual is Jean-Paul Sartre. Are there any others you can quickly name whom you reckon merit this illustrious title — or is the title so nebulous that you will need time to think? And would those you name wish to be called intellectuals? As Collini shows in his magisterial but flawed book, many people do not. Why not, one wonders?

How can members of this rarefied species be identified? Are intellectuals defined by their jobs: academics, writers, researchers? Or are they defined by their influence in society: erudite columnists, political think-tankers, TV historians, pop philosophers? Can they be specialists or must they be polymaths? And how about ethics? Pace Sartre, whose unconditional support for Stalin and Mao, not to mention his personal conduct, might raise a few eyebrows, does it matter a jot what intellectuals believe or how they behave?

Or should intellectuals be defined simply by their intellect? And what would this mean? By their IQ (maybe Mensa members are automatically intellectuals)? By their exam results (only starred firsts need apply)? By their publications in peer-reviewed journals (would these be assessed by quality or by quantity)? Or is it that intellectuals — like certain medical conditions — can only be recognised, never precisely described?

These questions, bar the more frivolous ones, riddle Absent Minds from beginning to end. In an attempt to resolve them, Collini traces the etymology of the word "intellectual" in his opening chapter and then submits his own definition. He is interested only in the word’s use as a noun, so he pays little attention to its adjectival heritage. Though Chaucer used it adjectivally in Canterbury Tales , its first recorded use as a noun was by Byron in 1813, and in the subsequent two centuries its meaning has wandered about a bit. Collini identifies three different current usages, which he calls "sociological", "subjective" and "cultural". He argues that sociological usages depend on individuals’ occupations and apply when a close synonym for intellectual would be "brain worker": academics are a prime example. Subjective usages, he says, describe individuals who are interested in ideas and theories for their own sake but have little or no interest in their practical utility. "Cultural" usages focus on individuals who are thought to possess, as he puts it, "some kind of cultural authority" and "who deploy an acknowledged intellectual position in addressing a broader non-specialist public". Collini embraces the third usage and tries to apply it as his definition throughout the book.

But this triangulation of usages is not particularly helpful, as it fails to resolve most of the definitional uncertainties and confusions. Consequently, these difficulties return to bite Collini in the ankle at every turn. In the epilogue, a few paragraphs from the end, he admits that Absent Minds ’s preoccupation with senses of the term "intellectual" may be a reason for readers to disagree with the book’s main arguments. You bet. Collini is, incidentally, much given to such seemingly self-effacing self-criticisms. He regularly highlights lacunae in the book to argue that they are not really lacunae at all, but are intentional parts of his grand plan. This ruse, though acceptable once or twice, becomes rather smug with repetition.

The book’s main argument is straightforward. Commentators of all hues, Collini claims, believe that British intellectuals are as mythical as unicorns. Some commentators believe that there used to be British intellectuals but that the species is now extinct; others believe that there have never been any British intellectuals because the words "British intellectual" constitute an exemplary oxymoron. For a Brit to be an intellectual just isn’t on: we Brits are men of action, not namby-pamby daydreamers.

Collini dubs the belief that there are no British intellectuals the "absence thesis", hence the book’s title. He believes the absence thesis to be bunkum. The absence thesis was built, Collini shows, on what he calls "a tradition of denial" that began early in the 19th century. As far back as 1830, the poet, novelist and politician Edward Bulwer Lytton, among others, took for granted that his readers would accept the view that the British are a nation of non-intellectuals. To put forward this denial of intellectualism in the country of Locke, Paine, Hume and Adam Smith, of Coleridge and Wordsworth, of Newton, Shakespeare and our other great dramatists — all towering intellectuals, even if the word was not used as a noun in their heyday — and to expect the denial to be accepted without demur, was extraordinary. But this is Collini’s point: the "tradition of denial" was already half-embedded.

And once embedded, the tradition of denial and the resulting absence thesis became, Collini argues, impossible to uproot. Leonard Woolf wrote in Encounter more than a century later in 1959: "No people has ever despised and distrusted the intellect and intellectuals more than the British." And as late as 1999, Sir Peter Hall was able to state with confidence: "We still live in a country where ‘intellectual’ is a pejorative term."

Yet Collini identifies a galaxy of brilliant 20th-century Brits whose lives and work flatly contradict such assertions. Though you might want to delete some, or add a few of your own, the likelihood is that you would willingly label as intellectuals most or all of the following: W. H. Auden, A. J. Ayer, Arnold Bennett, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, G. D. H. Cole, Cyril Connolly, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, J. M. Keynes, Harold Laski, F. R. Leavis (and Queenie?), Peter Medawar, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, Karl Popper, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, A. J. P. Taylor, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, Raymond Williams, members of the Bloomsbury group, New Left Review writers… the list goes on and on — but so, inexplicably, does the tradition of denial.

Many on the list, however, would personally have disowned the label intellectual. Several of them used it as a term of criticism, even contempt. Though Collini does not say so, Byron’s first use of the word was itself unfavourable. This is why, as Collini points out, "intellectual" often appears in inverted commas or is prefaced by "so-called" or an equivalent deprecatory epithet. But here Collini briefly loses the plot. It is not just the word intellectual that is deprecatory. There is a raft of deprecatory words for people who are too clever by half (a deprecatory phrase itself, of course): brainbox, clever dick, know-all, smart aleck, smarty-pants and swot being just a few of them. What are these nouns but derogatory slang synonyms for intellectual? In the words of the T-shirt, nobody likes a smartarse. Many Times Higher readers, I’ll wager, experienced hostility to their cleverness while at school. The kids at school may not have known the word intellectual, but that did not stop them from taunting and tormenting the clever clogs. Add to all this the whiff of pomposity and elitism that adheres to the word intellectual, and it is hardly surprising that many intellectuals balk at being called intellectuals. Indeed hostility to the clever appears to be an innate Anglo-Saxon attitude. It is apparent in Shakespeare ("He thinks too much: such men are dangerous"). It was encouraged over the centuries by the worst of our public schools: don’t sit their ruminating, boy, get on with it! Whether it is principally an Anglo-Saxon prejudice or is innate in humanity is a difficult question. But Collini has no doubts. He argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the tradition of denial is international. His tours d’horizon of those countries that we have always believed to nurture intellectuals — where we have been sure intellectuals burgeoned and felt wanted — is a tour de force .

He swiftly deals with Russia, Germany and smaller European countries, illustrating how the tradition of denial occurs in all of them. He then turns to America and France, the two countries in which most of us believe intellectuals to thrive. Crossing the Atlantic, he shows that, as so often, British and American prejudices mirror each other. While we tend to believe that Americans are more sympathetic to intellectuals, they believe that we are. The flight of American writers and thinkers to Europe during the first half of the 20th century and the hysterical anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy era in the 1950s reflect American intellectuals’ alienation from their countrymen. This alienation has been exacerbated by the often crude and bigoted religiosity of many Americans, compared with the secularity of their intellectuals. Collini takes all this as evidence that the tradition of denial is as prevalent in America as in Britain.

But in France he is on shakier ground. Quoting Raymond Aron’s dictum " La France passe pour le paradis des intellectuels ", Collini admits this view is widely held across the Channel — which itself disproves the existence of the absence thesis over there. Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1970s, French intellectuals noisily tried to influence their country’s politics, with some success, garnering much public recognition in the process. And since the 1980s there has been much wailing and gnashing of Gallic teeth, lamenting the demise of French intellectualism — which also contradicts the tradition of denial. So Collini ends up weakly arguing that the absence thesis and the tradition of denial are simply feebler in France than elsewhere.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem. As a history of intellectuals in Britain and abroad over the past two centuries, Absent Minds is first rate, if a tad prolix. It is immensely authoritative, wide ranging, readable and often witty. But the absence thesis is almost irrelevant to this history. Since it is impossible to define with much precision what an intellectual is, and since many intellectuals themselves disown the label, how can you decide whether or not they have been absent? Perhaps Collini felt he needed a controversial peg on which to hang his book, so he created a straw man to knock down. But why bother? The book would have been even better had the absence thesis been absent.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of the Royal Institution, and has intellectual interests.

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

Author - Stefan Collini
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 526
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 929105 5

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