"Intellectual" can be used to mean, broadly, one of three classifications of human beings:
In many definitions, intellectuals are perceived as impervious to propaganda, indoctrination, and self-deception. Yet problems arise from the historical response of many intellectuals. It is often questioned how those described as intellectuals actually responded, in the face of repression and crimes committed by the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, and by other regimes of authoritarian-totalitarian ideology. The question invited is: How and why can intellectuals be vulnerable to indoctrination despite their intelligence? In other words, there is a large debate on the fallibilities of intellectuals and their lack of self-criticism, from Julien Benda to Paul Johnson.
The English term "intellectual" as a noun is only around a century old, and in a broader perspective there are many variations on concepts of a literate thinker. In its earlier uses, such as John Middleton Murry's The Evolution of an Intellectual (1920), there was little in the way of connotation of public rather than literary activity.
The expression "man of letters", has been used in some Western cultures to describe contemporary male intellectuals. The term is rarely used to denote "scholars": it is not synonymous with "academic".
The term "man of letters" implied a distinction between those who could read and write, and those who could not. The distinction had great weight when literacy was not widespread. "Men of letters" were also termed literati (from the Latin), as a group; this phrase may also refer to male 'citizens' of the Republic of Letters. Literati survives as a term of abuse and is used in journalism. Literatus, in the singular, is rarely found in English - the English term is litterateur (from the French littérateur). The Republic of Letters grew during the late 1700s in France in salons, many of which were run by women.
From that time onwards, in Europe and elsewhere, some variant of the idea of an intellectual class has been important (not least to intellectuals, self-styled). The degrees of actual involvement in art, or politics, journalism and education, of nationalist or internationalist or ethnic sentiment, constituting the 'vocation' of an intellectual, have never become fixed. Some intellectuals have been vehemently anti-academic; at times universities and their faculties have been synonymous with intellectualism, but in other periods and some places the centre of gravity of intellectual life has been elsewhere.
One can notice a sharpening of terms, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Just as the coinage scientist would come to mean a professional, the man of letters would more often be assumed to be a professional writer, perhaps having the breadth of a journalist or essayist, but not necessarily with the engagement of the intellectual.
The Dreyfus affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century is often indicated as the time of full emergence of the intellectual in public life; particularly as concerns the role of Émile Zola, Octave Mirbeau and Anatole France, in speaking directly on the matter. The term "intellectual" became better known from that time (and the derogatory implication sometimes attached). The use of the term as a noun in French has been attributed to Georges Clemenceau in 1898.
The public intellectual is assumed to be a communicator and participant in public debates, accessible in mass media. Such a person communicates information and perspectives on a variety of societal issues, not just a specialist area. The role visibly overlaps with that of a journalist, therefore, so that the question is, what makes a "public" intellectual distinctive? This matter is linked to media as well as to the intellectual life. Public intellectuals are primarily concerned with ideas and knowledge. Their social role means that they respond and react to society's issues and problems. They can provide a voice for others who may not have the skills, time or opportunity. They should be prepared to listen to a multitude of differing opinions and beliefs, and to construct their own conclusions taking these into account. Intellectuals also involve themselves with issues not specifically related to their area of expertise. Intellectuals may ‘rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession [...] and engage with the global issues of truth, judgement and taste of the time’. The contemporary scene offers many different forms of media such as an Internet blog, a lecture or forum, television and radio, and print.
The role, effectiveness and behaviour of public intellectuals have been debated since the phenomenon acquired a name. The debate is framed differently in different countries, and the very possibility of their place has been questioned. Although some intellectuals may and attempt to gain acceptance and recognition in contemporary society, according to Edward Said this has been virtually impossible: the
Many intellectuals are seen as having a close relationship to certain political administrations, an example being Anthony Giddens with Tony Blair's Labour Government, with respect to the ideas of The Third Way. Vaclav Havel claims that politics and intellectuals can be linked but also states that responsibility to their ideas, even if presented by a political leader, lies with the intellectual and therefore he claims that Utopian intellectuals should be avoided as they offer what they deem to be universal insights that can and have potentially harmed society. Instead, he argues that attention should be granted to those who are mindful of the ties that are created through their thoughts, ideas and words. It is these intellectuals that Havel contends should be, ‘“...listened to with the greatest attention, regardless of whether they work as independent critics, holding up a much needed mirror to politics and power, or are directly involved in politics”.’
In some contexts, especially journalistic speech, intellectual refers to academics, generally in the humanities, especially philosophy, who speak about various issues of social or political import. These then are by definition the so-called public intellectuals — in effect communicators with a theoretical base. Academics do generally stick to their own area of expertise or research, whereas intellectuals apply differently what are the same types of book knowledge and capacity for abstraction.
Frank Furedi wrote that "Intellectuals are not defined according to the jobs they do but the manner in which they act, the way they see themselves, and the values that they uphold". Still, public intellectuals do usually emerge from the educated elite, and North American usage tends to place them with academics. A type of convergence with, and participation in, the open, contemporary public sphere separates them from other academics. Going outside a specialism and addressing the general public allows an academic to become a public intellectual. In general practice, 'intellectual' as a label is more consistently applied to participants in fields related to culture, the arts and social sciences than it is to those working disciplines in the natural sciences, applied sciences, mathematics or engineering.
The public intellectual at times brings controversial topics (evolution, religion, global warming, genetic modification) in the forefront of public discussion. They often speak in the issues of the day, but may try to answer unanswerable questions, and to act on moral imperatives more than considerations of career. The public intellectual has been identified with a role of controversy, conflict and contradiction, since the Dreyfus affair, and polemic writing that goes well outside academic protocol. The term public further masks an assumption or several, in particular on academia, for example that intellectual work goes on generally in private, and there is a gap to society that requires bridging. Debate as to whether academics can and should become public intellectuals is therefore also related to the converse questions: of whether academis is too enclosed, or academics are preoccupied with protecting their work from scrutiny beyond peer review, reluctant to share their work with the world for public criticism and contestation. Thomas Bender for example, states that academics ‘orient themselves nonetheless almost exclusively to professional structures and contexts, jealously defending their autonomy’; and would rather contest and debate with fellow academics rather than with the wider population. The argument on the Ivory Tower has been restated by Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that intellectuals now only come out of the ‘Ivory Tower’ when backed into a corner.
Bourdieu has argued, contrariwise, that intellectual autonomy is at risk through the relationship between the intellectual and the world of politics. He says that this must be looked at in regards to a wider pattern of conflict that exists, between intellectuals and the organisational pressures that they encounter on a regular basis. Bourdieu, himself a ‘labelled’ intellectual, states that politics is a world of censorship as ‘...the efforts of powerful political groups seek(ing) to rein in the ideas of intellectuals and keep them within a circumscribed set of boundaries’. The employment of intellectuals by the state to Bourdieu is a negative position, as the state then becomes influential in the espoused words of the intellectual, as though their conditions of employment they are prevented from ‘...stepping too far outside the limitations considered appropriate by the dominant classes.’
It has been said that ‘academic careerism has dealt a serious body blow to the continued vitality of intellectual life’.. The customs of academia have an impact on the effectiveness of public intellectuals, simply because the two aspects have distinctive aims and methods of support. Attempts have been made to create programs and initiatives in which public intellectualism can be taught, namely at Florida Atlantic University.
The role of a public intellectual may be to connect scholarly research with public policy. Michael Burawoy, an exponent of public sociology, criticises ‘professional sociology’ for failing to give sufficient attention to socially important subject matter, blaming academics for losing sight of important public events and issues. Burawoy supports ‘public sociology’ to give the public access to academic research. This process necessitates a dialogue between those in the academic sphere and the public, meant to bridge the gap which still exists between the more homogeneous world of academia and the diverse public sphere. It has been argued that social scientists who are well aware of the various thresholds crossed in passing from academic to public policy adviser are much more effective. A case study on this passage shows how intellectuals worked to re-establish democracy within the Pinochet regime in Chile. This transition created new professional opportunities for some social scientists, as politicians and consultants, but entailed a shift toward the pragmatic in their politics, and a step away from the neutrality of academia.
C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argued that academics had become ill-equipped for the task and that, more often that not, journalists are ‘more politically alert and knowledgeable than sociologists, economists, and especially [...] political scientists’. He went on to criticize the American university system as privatized and bureaucratic, and for failing to teach ‘how to gauge what is going on in the general struggle for power in modern society’.. Richard Rorty was also critical of the ‘civic irresponsibility of intellect, especially academic intellect’.
Richard Posner concentrates his criticism on "academic public intellectuals"; claiming their declarations to be untidy and biased in ways which would not be tolerated in their academic work. Yet he fears that independent public intellectuals are in decline. Where writing on the academic public intellectual Posner finds that they are only interested in public policy, not with public philosophy, public ethics or public theology, and not with matters of moral and spiritual outrage. Their input has come to be on hard-headed policy questions, rather than values. He also sees a decline in their factual accuracy, linked to a reliance on qualitative and fallible reasoning.
Edwards A. Park once said “we do wrong to our own minds when we carry out scientific difficulties down to the arena of popular dissension”. In this, Park wanted ‘to separate the serious technical role of professionals from their responsibility of supplying usable philosophies for the general public’. This is a rationale for maintaining a private/public knowledge dichotomy, and Bender differentiates between ‘civic culture’ and ‘professional culture’, in order to describe the different spheres in which academics can operate. This attitude goes back a long way: Socrates disliked the Sophist's idea of a market of ideas in the public domain, and instead advocated a monopoly of knowledge. Thus, ‘those who sought a more penetrating and rigorous intellectual life rejected and withdrew from the general culture of the city in order to embrace a new model of professionalism’.
Conflicting views and opinions of the intellectual set the tone for criticism of the public intellectual's role in society. The typical right-wing view takes intellectuals to be too theoretical, with shallow roots in real life. Whilst quite generally the term intellectual has negative connotations, such as, in the Netherlands as having ‘unrealistic visions of the World,’ and Hungary as being ‘too clever’ or an ‘egg-head’ to the Czech Republic as discredited and an almost shameful term relating to being cut off from the reality of things, Stefan Collini also states that this is not the full representation of the term, as in the ‘...case of English usage, positive, neutral and pejorative uses can easily co-exist,’and Havel, as an example, ‘...to many outside observers [became] a favoured instance of the intellectual as national icon.’ (Collini, 2006: 205) within the Czech Republic.
Norman Stone states that intellectuals are, a class, if not the class that got things badly wrong, doomed to error and stupidity. Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs described the French Revolution as ‘...a Utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order [...] in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals.’ Thatcher as Prime Minister called on selected academics, while retaining a common view of the intellectual as un-British, shared with journals such as The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph''.
Marxists interest themselves in the status of intellectuals for a number of reasons: their class position, the way they form a reservoir of ideas, and in the public sphere their ability to interpret and their potential as leaders. At the same time, intellectuals (from Karl Marx onwards) have taken an interest in Marxism from the most varied angles. A widely held view by Marxists is that intellectuals are alienated and anti-establishment. Although Marx seemed to imply in his reference to intellectuals that they are constantly engaged in an instinctive struggle with established institutions, including the state, 'such a struggle could be carried on within such institutions and in support of established institutions and against change'.
Antonio Gramsci, a theorist on intellectuals, argued many years ago that 'intellectuals view themselves as autonomous from the ruling class'. He suggests that this conceptualisation 'originates with intellectuals themselves, not with students of intellectual life'. His standpoint is that every social class needs its own intelligentsia, to shape its ideology, and that intellectuals must choose their social class. The extent to which ideological currents have influenced the twentieth century milieu has caused some observers of intellectual life to make ideology part of the definition of an intellectual. Lewis Feuer expresses this view when he states that 'no scientist or scholar is regarded as an intellectual unless he adheres to or seems to be searching for an ideology'.
Marxists believe intellectuals resemble the proletarian by reason of their social position, making a living by selling their labour and therefore are often exploited by the power of capital. On the other hand, intellectuals perform mental work, often managerial work, and due to their higher income, they live in a manner comparable to that of the bourgeois. Intellectuals have been neutral instruments in the hands of different social forces. However, Marxists believe that ‘all knowledge is existentially based, and that intellectuals who create and preserve knowledge act as spokesmen for different social groups and articulate particular social interests’. Gramsci has a Intellectuals offer their knowledge on the market, Marxists suggest that ‘under modern Western capitalism, the intellectuals make commodities of the ideologies they produce and offer themselves for hire to the real social classes whose ideologies they formulate, whose intelligence they will become’. Marx believed that intellectuals aim to universalise their ideologies ‘then turn about and expose the partiality of those ideologies.’
Yet, for Harding, Marx's theory of the rise of the proletariat was to rely on the intellectuals of that historical period, as stated by Gramsci:
In this situation, as with other areas of society, it is the intellectuals, not the proletariat, who are to define the emancipation of the workers. According to Harding (1997), for the creation of any mass consciousness of ideals, intellectuals are essential. Alongside Gyorgy Lukacs, he also considers that, as a privileged class, it is they, not the workers who can interpret 'totality', giving them the right to be considered leaders. Lenin also maintained that the ideology of socialism was beyond the comprehension of the working classes. The intellectual level which was necessary for the development of such ideologies was, he maintained, out of the reach of the average worker.
Marxists believe that intellectuals talk and communicate in a certain language that is distinctive to other intellectuals and middle-class populations. Alvin Gouldner labels this language 'critical-reflexive discourse'. By this, Gouldner argues that 'intellectuals universally agree that their positions be defended by rational arguments and that the status of the individual making the argument should have no bearing on the outcome'.
Peter. H. Smith suggests that 'people from an identifiable social class, for instance, are conditioned by that common experience, and they are inclined to share a set of common assumptions'. With regard to figures, ‘94 per cent come from the middle or upper class ... only 6 per cent come from working class backgrounds’.
Cultural capital confers power and status. Steve Fuller points this out in his book The Intellectual, where he writes that in order to be a credible intellectual you need to have an increased sense of autonomy; “It is relatively easy to demonstrate autonomy if you come from a wealthy or aristocratic background. You simply need to disown your status and champion the poor and downtrodden”.. He then goes on to write; “Autonomy is much harder to demonstrate if you come from a poor or proletarian background... calls to join the wealthy in common cause appear to betray one’s class origins”. Émile Zola's importance in the Dreyfus Affair was because he was already a “leading French thinker, [that] his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair”. Although he was put on trial for his part in the affair, he had financial independence and was able to leave the country in order to escape his legal situation.
Many of the worlds intellectuals, as viewed by the public, have graduated from elite universities, therefore being taught by the preceding generation of intellectuals themselves. Taking as examples three of the top rated intellectuals at the moment; Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens,, Chomsky has ties with MIT, Dawkins with Oxford and Hitchens with Cambridge.
There are certainly exceptions. Harold Pinter, for example, originated from a "low middle-class background", and is successful as playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, poet, and political activist. These activities have cumulatively formed his status as a public intellectual.
Prominent female intellectuals contending in the public debates include; Germaine Greer, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, and in an older generation Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt and Simone De Beauvoir, to name but a few. Some consider, though, in comparison to their male counterparts, women have faced a harder time in being accredited as public intellectual. David Herman, writer and television producer asks, is it a result of institutional sexism in the media and Universities? David Goodhart, editor of Prospect argues that ‘...men [...] still dominate our intellectual and cultural lives’. Susan Sontag, considered to be a leading female public intellectual in the United States, died in 2005. Her death raised many questions, including, is there anyone to take her place? And where are all the female intellectuals? On the side of academia, it is only in more recent decades that women in numbers have been able to advance themselves and achieve recognition as a specialist or expert. The list given is dominated by scholarly feminists.
Feminist intellectuals, however, may find that both resentment and worship are symptoms of the feelings that they must endure from the public, such as many of the intellectual First Ladies of America do, namely, Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford, to name just a few. It is no wonder that such women may find comfort in the private realm from the hostility faced in the public world, but is this not also symptomatic of the male public intellectual whom returns to the safety and comfort of the ‘ivory tower’ when under pressure of hostility and aggression? (Showalter, 2001). Steve Fuller states, that the failing of female public intellectuals does not rest on them as individuals so much as it does on them as a collective. He asserts that male intellectuals, use each others works, they cite them and use them as support. Fuller claims that this ‘network of support’ is not apparent in female intellectuals works and that they don’t use each other in the manner that they should, a manner that would advance their cause immeasurably (Fuller, 2007 cited in Barton, 2004).
Although few female public intellectuals are recognized by the public, the Guardian did in the wake of its list of male public intellectuals also compose a list of the top 101 overlooked women intellectuals.
Bioethics has intense public interest, despite the fact that it is an academic specialisation. It provokes debate on an array of socially important issues involving medicine, technology, genetic research etc. Examples of scientists who have occupied a unique role in public intellectualism are Richard Dawkins with his work on evolution, and Charles Darwin.
It has been suggested by Parsi that public intellectuals bridge the gap between the academic elite and the educated public, particularly when concerning issues in the natural sciences like genetics and bioethics. There are distinct differences between academics in the traditional sense and public intellectuals. Academics are typically confined to their academy or university and tend to concentrate on their chosen academic discipline. This is usually specific to western academia following large scale investment into higher education after the Cold War and growth in the number of academic institutions. This in turn has led to Hyperspecialisation within academic life- the specialization of particular disciplines and confining it to the classroom. This has become known as "the acadamisation of intellectual life". A public intellectual, although often starting out in academia, is not confined to a specific discipline or to traditional boundaries. Public Intellectuals should not be confused with experts, who are people who have mastery over one specific field of interest. This development has encouraged a gap between academics and the public. Public Intellectuals convey information through multiple mediums, often appearing on television, radio and in popular literature. As Richard Posner states "a public intellectual expresses himself in a way that is accessible to the public". They synthesize academic ideas and relate them to wider socio- political issues.
There has been a general call for natural scientists and bio ethicists to play more of a role in public intellectualism as their disciplines have such relevance to civil society. Scientists and bio ethicists already play major roles in review boards, government commissions and ethics committees, it is easy to see how their research can have public relevance. Since academia is hidden away, it has been argued that scientists, and bio ethicists in particular should realise their duty to society by assuming the role of a public intellectual. This would mean taking their relevant research and communicating it through mass media to the wider concerns of the public. Increased public interest in bioethics has increased the responsibility for bio ethicists to become more engaged in the public domain- not in an expert role, but as instigators of public discourse.