The thoughtful role that dare not speak its name

March 10, 2006

Despite denials that they exist, British intellectuals are both native and necessary, argues Stefan Collini

The history of the idea of the intellectual in Britain is, by and large, a history of denial. First, there is the tradition of denial that the species is native to these shores; it is assumed to flourish elsewhere - which, on inspection, usually means Paris. Then there is the recurrent denial that present candidates could ever measure up to the giants of the past; intellectuals are always assumed to be becoming extinct in one's own generation, whenever that generation happens to be. And, of course, there is the insistent denial of the label in self-description: intellectuals, it turns out, are always Other People.

At the beginning of the 21st century, denial assumes another currently fashionable guise: it takes the form of claiming that social changes are making the species extinct. Intellectuals, it is asserted, belong to a passing world of unequal access to information, with a small, educated elite extracting cultural deference from the unlettered, or less lettered, many. In a world of egalitarian social attitudes, widespread prosperity, near-universal higher education, limitlessly available information and an unprecedented abundance of distractions, no one will listen any more. The noun "intellectual" itself will become an archaism.

Having surveyed this long history of denial for my book Absent Minds , I do not share this pessimism. It is not just that, at the most abstract level, the structural relations underpinning the role will always be available to provide a corrective perspective, whether conceived in terms of the relation between general/particular, disinterested/instrumental or specialist/ non-specialist. It is also that the substantive issues that stir intellectuals to public utterance in the present are not going to go away in any foreseeable future. Moreover, the media's eager embrace of the opportunities provided by the intersection of the democratisation of cultural life and the development of new technologies will also continue to provoke the counterpoint of voices that are more reflective, more critical and better informed. And, finally, there does not seem any likelihood that the dialectic of specialisation-and-laments-about-specialisation will become a less marked feature of cultural reflection in the coming century.

With respect to the last of these points, what we may broadly call "academia" will be in the 21st century surely even more central to the intellectual and cultural life than it has been in the 20th. By no means all (or in some times and places even the majority) of those termed "intellectuals" have been academics, nor should they be. But it seems highly likely that an increasing proportion of the coming century's intellectuals will have some kind of academic connection, and even those who do not will have to acknowledge and take account of the authority of academic scholarship. The nature of disinterested scholarly inquiry provides a fund of resources to be called upon in criticising all that is superficial, fashionable and merely interest-driven in the agenda of the day.

In this respect, academics still have a deep well of resources to draw from. But such resources can be made effective in the wider society only if enough individuals are willing to try to tread the fine line between self-effacing specialism and self-promoting vulgarity. Academic intellectuals will have to continue to foster the rigour, respect for evidence, disinterestedness and wider perspective that are among the animating ideals of academic scholarship while at the same time managing to escape its increasing hermeticism to bring these qualities to bear in wider public debate.

Doing this successfully would not mean trying to ape the street cred of some strains of cultural studies, nor would it mean descending to the Sunday-paper opinionatedness of the occasional don with strong metropolitan literary connections. But the very processes that may appear to make it more difficult for reasoned argument, informed judgment and a broad perspective to get a hearing in the public domain simultaneously generate a corresponding hunger for those qualities. A diet of media-degradable titbits and sound-bites stimulates an appetite for something more substantial.

In attempting to meet these needs, academics, like other intellectuals, can rely less and less on the deference formerly accorded to irrelevant or merely contingent social attributes and connections. But that simply means that they have to prove their title to be heard by showing that they have something to say that is worth listening to.

Stefan Collini is professor of English literature and intellectual history at Cambridge University and author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain , published by Oxford University Press this week, £25.00.

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