What is an “Intellectual”?

It strikes me that a great deal of the dysfunction we face in the systems of present-day society (whether business, government, science, you name it) seems to hang on one very simple, often overlooked question: what is an “intellectual”?

It will not suffice, of course, to answer “smart people”, as we are trained to do almost to the point of reflex. As cannot have escaped the notice of anyone above the age of five, many smart people, in fact, are not intellectuals, and also obversely: many intellectuals are vulnerable to spasms of breathtaking idiocy (what Taleb calls the IYI, or intellectual-yet-idiot).

Alas, then: intelligence, while widely associated with intellectualism, is nonetheless only tangential to it.

Perhaps it would be better to think of intellectuals in terms of their function in society (or their “responsibility”, as Chomsky once somewhat Polyannaishly put it), or more precisely, their goals as a class.

Here we get somewhat further. Indeed, like any social class, intellectuals tend to associate primarily with other intellectuals, to compete primarily with other intellectuals, and to see themselves, in some abstract way, as part of some vaguely shared social function. But, still, this does not completely convey what this function might actually be.

When one looks at their collective doings and commonalities, the answer that arises most naturally is that intellectuals, above all, are conductors—both in the sense of a musical performance and in the sense of a wire carrying a signal.

When a new cultural “score” is prepared and sent out for its premiere, it is intellectuals who arrange and oversee the performance. But it is also through intellectuals that the score is conducted, with near-light speed, to points far and wide, so that further performances may duly take place.

We see, then, that the intellectual’s function (at least in our system) does not stem primarily from brave truth-telling or even from a necessarily superior ability to arrive at truth–from “smartness”. Nor is it entirely explained by selfish class motives. Nor is it even always an intellectual who composed the score.

Instead, the typical intellectual’s role is not only to perform and transmit the score, but to wholeheartedly believe it. An intellectual’s capacity for absolute belief in the truth of what they conduct is, in fact, as vital a property as their conductive abilities; it provides a built-in affective boost to the signal, reducing its attenuation over long distances.

We may state the situation this way: intellectuals as a class are powerful because they are useful; and they are useful because they are gullible. (Or you can say “docile”, “impressionable”, “conformist”—though I find these somewhat euphemistic.)

How are they made so gullible, you ask? In the past, actual selection for gullibility was crucial. But in more recent times, gullibility is primarily cultivated in intellectuals through the simple expedient of rendering them expansively proud of being intellectuals.

Orwell once said it is difficult to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. But now imagine if this man were instead convinced that his ability to understand *anything he is told* made him a superior kind of being, one of the first inhabitants of a new plane of human existence, freed of the shackles of error and tradition, with special dispensation to bring this light to humanity, etc., etc.! Now, what would such a man (or woman) not be able to “understand”?

So it is to inculcate this sense of absolute (and absolutely useful) pride in being intellectual as such, and not to impart any particularly powerful or truth-producing technical or philosophical acumen, that we must conclude is the primary aim of the modern institutions of “intellectual” formation–of colleges, graduate schools, schools of law, business, and international relations, etc. Indeed, over time, “education” has become completely indistinguishable from “the creation of intellectuals”, in the very sense of “intellectual” here used.

But to return to an earlier question: what is the end *goal* of this class known as “intellectual”? That is more interesting, and may be expressed through an extension of our electrical metaphor. As the proportion of the population comprised of these *intellectuals* increases towards a limit, the gullibility and conformism of that population will, it stands to reason, steadily increase. But when this limit is reached, a curious thing happens: all resistances to the spread of wholly arbitrary conformity completely vanish. The society, in effect, becomes a memetic superconductor. (Such a condition may already be somewhat familiar to our more media-savvy, and particularly our younger compatriots.)

We may have developed an idea, then, of *who conducts*. But we also now see that this is a lesser question than it first appeared. For the question of *who composes*, as yet, remains shrouded.

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