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What defines a “real” intellectual?

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I dunno… should technical writers have to go through a mandatory course on writing in the humanities?


[quote=“Mindysan33, post:29, topic:43071, full:true”]
What defines a “real” intellectual?[/quote]

Great question! In my part of the world, there is a strong anti-intellectual backlash. One of the frequent tactics is dismissing anything which sounds too involved or high-minded as “pseudo-intellectual”. Kind of a blanket term which says: “Oh yeah, well… You are not as smart as you obviously think you are!”. And almost always used by people who rigorously defer to common-sense and so refuse to stick their neck out by trying to articulate any ideas which may come across as controversial or alienating to their herd.

My approach to dealing with this is offer them benefit of doubt, and ask for clarification, rather than the “correct” response of unthinkingly agreeing. “Wow, you could very well be right about this. But how exactly do you discern between that which is pseudo-intellectual, and that which is actually intellectual?” This puts them on the spot and I have seen quite a few people rage pretty hard at this, which can be quite funny.

I’d assume that there are probably multiple definitions of “pseudo-intellectual” too. I tend to see it lobbed at people in the humanities more often (like the linked article is clearly someone who is attempting to explain theory to a broad audience, so probably a grad student of some kind!), but I’ve also seen it aimed at people spouting Ayn Rand’s theories as well. for myself, if I don’t agree with something, I try not to call it names, but describe why I disagree, often using my own lens of historical understanding.

And yes, there is a strong anti-intellectual bias around these parts too. America loves the “common man” (which apparently means something along the Palins or whatever) and abhors those who get a doctorate, because those of us who do are getting “brainwashed” into being a radical Marxist. I tend to view it as learning a particular set of skills more than anything else.

[quote=“Mindysan33, post:32, topic:43071”]
I’d assume that there are probably multiple definitions of “pseudo-intellectual” too.[/quote]

Certainly, my understanding of the word would be someone who uses someone elses arguments or authority to back up their own position, without truly knowing or understanding these. For instance, arguing that Rand, Marx, or others had crucial insights without having bothered to read them. Probably because it was more important for them to identify themselves with certain groups. I would also apply this to anybody who votes a certain ticket or supports any sort of party line, as people who are putting forth token ideological positions through membership.

Sounds like a fine methodology to me. Certainly more effective than stereotyping yourself!

I never really encountered any significant anti-intellectual bias in person until I was about 30 years and and moved to another city. Part of me was hoping that it was a phantom of broadcast media which actual people didn’t subscribe to.

My experience is that despite professing to love the “common man”, much of the US tends to be hostile to egalitarianism. This commonality seems to require careful populist rationalization. I suppose I could call it The Myth of the Accidental Elitist. The end effect seems to be that of cultivating credulity and stilted discourse.

My son was mostly raised by “other people” for nine years, so I am having fun trying to teach him about media and critical thinking, which he had not been exposed to. Without blowing his mind too badly. It still surprises me how discouraging people can be, insisting that using one’s head only achieves unhappiness and alienation, compared to inheriting pre-digested, pre-approved opinions and personalities from “trusted sources”.

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Cannot find that one in openly accessible sources. Do you have an ISO alternative?

The one whose arguments aren’t imaginary? (I know, such ones make them appear more complex…)

Here is a story from local faculty of math/physics, I don’t know if it was apocryphal or not.

Some education big cheese wanted the faculty head to give mandatory humanities courses to his students. He agreed, if the humanities students get mandatory calculus. The proposal was quickly withdrawn.

…and, actually, any kind of writing that stresses concise and understandable form without much of added fluff will do a good job.

That would be the ISO 5318008:1992 Intellectual person specification - full and pseudo variants

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Well, isn’t the problem with figuring that out is that not everything is… corporeal? When you’re making an argument about, ethics say, you can certainly point to acts that are ethical or non-ethical (and of course, that’s in part going to be in the eye of the beholder), but the ideas and beliefs that creates someone’s sense of ethics might not be something physical that you can point to… it’s an idea that we can talk about, but not a formula you can write down or something tangible. Does that make ethics imaginary? So, I guess I’m asking what constitutes something imaginary? Is the labor performed by people who are in the humanities imaginary if they are talking about ideas, and not physical facts you can see? Is History less imaginary than philosophy?

Korzybski’s approach was that all communications are instances of differential calculus.


The most difficult trap in discourse I think is the dichotomies of objective versus subjective, fact versus opinion. Many people who like hard, empirical approaches to social issues apply a rather mechanistic, 19th-century type of rationality which posits humanity as outside of the natural universe, where pure observation seems possible. On this end, scientific thinking has drastically shifted towards the discontinuous and indeterminate. On the other end, people who use subjective models such as art and religion like to try “justifying” their thinking by framing it in objective-sounding terms, which compounds the problem by convincing those who don’t know better, while baiting those who do.

In short - people do not trust metaphysics. So we get “factual” arguments about things such as ethics and social norms. And those who are empirically-minded likewise might explain away religion as superstitious ritual, while not applying the same rigor to criticism of commerce, politics, and other social institutions which are based upon metaphysical notions while pretending to be “practical”. This results in a lot of large-scale rationalization of why we do things. Between The Enlightenment and the advent of real-time mass media, most people were able to assume agreement and take these for granted.


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Here’s one definition:

  1. Be outstanding in their field
  2. Be in their productive years
  3. Have lost their position and generally be considered to be in some danger, whether for religious, racial, or political reasons
  4. Hold the promise of improving existing scholarship in American universities
  5. Have an assurance of a teaching position for at least two years—this visa requirement also benefitted the Foundation’s financial interests, as scholars without long-term positions would require additional resources.

From an article on the Rockefeller Foundation, which exfiltrated and then subsidized refugee intellectuals from Nazi occupied Europe.
The Anguish of saving Endangered Scholars

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It’s amazing how much corporate influence there has been in academia… right now I’m looking at dissertation completion fellowships, a many of them come from corporate money…

But also, do you think it’s the only definition? Does one need to be an academic to be an intellectual? Maybe there just isn’t one definition, though. There is this, then there is the Gramsican definition of an “organic intellectual” who is not from the middle class, but from the working class… But again, I think that probably means at least some engagement with academia…

Also, I promise I’m not trying to be difficult here, I really am curious! If we have a society that is anti-something, but what are they anti… :wink:

Well, those are not one definition, they are five criteria. I don’t like these because they imply interpretive bias according to institutional affiliation or social status.

I prefer to define “intellect” or “intellectual” as a discipline, process, or set of skills. Such as the use of scientific methodology, or reliance upon formal reasoning to understand phenomena. As such I consider it not as representing a class of person, but rather a way of doing things. This seems more functional to me.

I prefer to define “intellect” or “intellectual” as a discipline, process, or set of skills. Such as the use of scientific methodology, or reliance upon formal reasoning to understand phenomena. As such I consider it not as representing a class of person, but rather a way of doing things. This seems more functional to me.

So, how would you allocate the “Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars”?

It’s one definition. Considering the context, it may be an unfair definition. Or it may be a definition that matters. The use of limited resources to purchase the safety of as many intelectuals as possible.

hey, that sounds like economics. A perfect segue into Posner’s Public Intellectuals

Yeah, but isn’t there also a minimum velocity as well as a minimum dosage involved in that calculation?

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