You call yourself an intellectual?

February 18, 2005

Feeding off the spoils of oft-cited research hardly counts as original thought, says Steve Fuller

To the naive observer, intellectuals and academics look very much alike.

Both talk a lot, gesture wildly and wear bad clothes. The big difference, however, is that intellectuals care about ideas and know how to deal with them effectively. Ideas can be conveyed in many media to many audiences in whatever time and space is allowed. If you can't convey things in this fashion, then either you're not much of an intellectual or what you're trying to convey isn't much of an idea. Instead, you may be a hack flogging a policy, an entrepreneur marketing a product or an academic advancing your career.

Of course, some academics are intellectuals. They're the ones who aren't panic stricken when told their presentation time has been halved or when they forget to bring a prepared text or PowerPoint ensemble. They have no trouble making an impact because they can always go beyond the words they've written. If they know nothing else, which is always a possibility, intellectuals know their own minds. When they speak, they don't sound like they're miming - an impression one often gets from what pass as academic talks. Ask even a distinguished professor something related to, but slightly off their official topic and you might as well have flashed your headlights at an innocent deer.

How to explain this state of affairs? Perhaps the cult of research productivity prevents academics from devoting the time needed to fully grasp all the ideas their work contains. In that sense, they know less than they say. This leaves lots of room for intellectuals to borrow and steal, use and abuse, their ideas for their own more broadly gauged purposes. When academics complain about journalists and politicians mishandling their ideas, they should ask themselves why they didn't go public sooner. Grant application deadlines? Too many essays to mark? Too many meetings to attend? Intellectuals need to get their priorities straight.

The only academics who have made a concerted effort to act like intellectuals are natural scientists. There is an institutionalised "public understanding of science" movement in this and other countries, but no comparable "public understanding of humanities" or "public understanding of social sciences". Little surprise that Richard "selfish gene" Dawkins topped Prospect magazine's poll of Britain's leading intellectuals.

Two reasons stand out why natural scientists fare best as intellectuals.

The first is that their research costs more than that carried out in other disciplines, and Britain in particular is a latecomer to regular public research funding. Thus, scientists have become practised at singing for their supper. Second, scientists realise that their ideas are not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, conveyed by words on a page. A lab demonstration or a technological application might do as well, if not better. This makes scientists more adept at translating their ideas into different media than text-bound scholars in the humanities or the social sciences. When people complain about jargon in the latter fields, this is usually what they mean.

Dawkins' best efforts notwithstanding, one taken-for-granted feature of contemporary academic life routinely undermines our ability to be intellectuals. It is a fundamental assumption of the research assessment exercise - namely, that we are in the business of "knowledge production".

Intellectuals may destroy dogmas but they most certainly do not produce knowledge. The latter implies the alienation of ideas from the thinker to such "outputs" as publications and patents, the value of which is determined in a market consisting of either other similarly alienated knowledge producers or, increasingly, a class of grateful parasites euphemistically called "users and beneficiaries".

In contrast, intellectuals demand to take personal responsibility for their ideas and enjoy nothing more than to have them contested by others equally willing to expose their theories in public. An apt target of intellectual loathing is the practice of profligate citation that blights academic writing and is increasingly favoured as an indicator of "impact" in the research assessment exercise.

The basic idea is that the more often your work is cited, the more important it is considered. To the intellectual, the problem with this practice is not what it says about the relatively few who receive the lion's share of citations - but what it says about the many more who prop up these market leaders by citing them so much. It fosters a dependency culture whereby academics are rewarded for feats of ventriloquism, that is, an ability to speak through the authority of others. The result is institutionalised cowardice.

The great intellectuals, from Socrates and Jesus to Galileo, Voltaire, Zola and Bertrand Russell, all stood trial, and most of the rest courted lawsuits. When intellectuals mention people in print, it is to praise or attack them, not to be excused for transiting through a bit of intellectual property bearing their name. The latter situation conjures up words such as "toll", "rent", even "protection money" - especially if one thinks about the need for academic writing to undergo a "peer-review" process before publication. In that case, "argument by namecheck" simply becomes a prudent strategy for surviving in an academic culture that values indebtedness over solvency in the life of the mind.

At this point, a scandalised academic will observe that all this name-checking serves a valid intellectual function. It helps to orient the reader in a complex field. Unfortunately, the number of citations in an academic article is usually surplus to requirements. The curious reader with a limited tolerance for false leads is better served by consulting a web-based search engine for what they don't understand than following up a list of references. Of course, the list may provide a reliable guide to whose opinion the author thinks they need to take seriously.

Being an intellectual is about thinking for yourself, not second-guessing who might pass judgement on you. Professional training in academic life involves learning where the research frontier lies and how to push it forward - not how to challenge the field inside the frontier. Consequently, most academics carry on producing more sophisticated versions of the kind of research they were taught. Solutions to problems of significant intellectual and social import can be easily ignored simply because they do not conform to what academics have been trained and rewarded to see.

Nearly 20 years ago, Donald Swanson, a library scientist at the University of Chicago, coined the phrase "undiscovered public knowledge" to capture this phenomenon. Swanson had hit upon the cure for a puzzling medical condition, not by obtaining a large grant that required prior peer approval but by combining insights he had gathered from reading across academic specialities.

Management gurus like to speak of what Swanson did as "lateral thinking", or "thinking outside the box". It was certainly thinking outside the academic box. He supposed it might be more worthwhile to read old research in several fields than conduct new research that promised a breakthrough in a single field. Re-examining what the thundering herd has left behind is a time-honoured strategy for cultivating the independent-mindedness that marks a true intellectual. Too bad there are no academic grants for it.

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at Warwick University and author of The Intellectual , published in March by Icon Books (£10.00).

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