Wednesday 27 November 2013

What is that elusive 'real intellectual' quality?


I am a 'real' intellectual - and have been since I was a small child, when people used to call me Professor.

But I do not think this is a matter of IQ - or at least that is not what makes me an intellectual while most people with the same or higher IQ are not intellectuals.


In fact, most of the most highly intelligent people are certainly not intellectuals in the sense that I mean.

And some not very intelligent people by adult standards certainly are intellectuals - in other words youngish children who would score less than average (less than 100) on an adult-marked IQ test; yet who very obviously are intellectuals, as I was.


Furthermore, in modern culture, the overwhelming majority of the most successful people in intellectual domains are not intellectuals - although they may be, usually are, clever enough to disguise themselves as intellectuals in their public productions, such as writings, if they want to - and this disguise may be very difficult to penetrate, even for another intellectual - but if you happen to meet them it is very soon obvious that they are faking it.


So, being a 'real' intellectual is not primarily about high cognitive ability - although it seems to require high cognitive ability. There is some qualitative difference or distinction which marks an intellectual, and from early childhood - and it is more like a bias than an ability, and it is a masculine quality - yet it is not detected by standard personality testing... 

It seems that some sympathetic and objective non-intellectuals can detect this quality in children, but they tend to get it mixed up with cognitive ability - so anyone who excels at exams or other educational evaluations gets regarded as 'an intellectual'; so the category of intellectual gets swamped by non-intellectual (sometimes extremely non-intellectual) high achievers.


My impression is that intellectuals can recognize each other, and perhaps only intellectuals can reliably detect this quality - just as only highly gifted 'musical' people can detect natural musicality in others - although modern life seems designed to suppress the natural ability to make this distinction, as well as to prevent anyone acting upon it.


I get the strong feeling (reading history) that much of intellectual life used to be dominated by real intellectuals such as myself - who were picked-out, identified during childhood by other intellectuals - 'given' a niche in the intellectual world, and trained for it by prolonged apprenticeship (while allowing that mistakes are made and corruption occurs so that non-intellectuals would sometimes be selected by error or for wrong reasons)...

- rather than (as now) real intellectuals competing for niches via competitive evaluations; excellence in which is always quantitatively dominated by non-intellectuals.


But probably, the non-competitive, 'recognition' system can only work when the intellectual niche is not especially comfortable, when in fact the job of being an intellectual is materially poor and in some ways deprived; so that nobody would want to 'be an intellectual' unless it suited their nature.

Or, on the other hand, when the intellectual world is primarily amateur; then a 'pure' system of selection by-intellectuals-for-intellectuals could (and sometimes does) operate.

Or a mixture of both - as when universities were dominated by a combination of impoverished scholarship boys, paid for by some form of chritable patronage, and self-funded amateurs from a wealthy background.  



Nicholas Fulford said...

Ever read Hesse's "Magister Ludi"?

Intellectuals mine for meaning and connection, take joy in the aesthetic which arises from serious mind-play, and stand in slack-jawed awe at the complex and beautiful interrelationships in the universe.

It is an attitude and a practice, (though having extra IQ helps to see further and deeper.)

dearieme said...

I was about fifteen: a teacher I thought very highly of asked a question of the class, expecting to stump everyone. I volunteered an answer, arguing from a premise that was only an intelligent guess. He dismissed it, adding "ever the intellectual, eh?" He told us the correct answer.

Decades later I remembered the exchange and looked the matter up: his answer was bogus, mine was a decent approximation to the truth.

Never mind; he was an excellent teacher anyway and must have occasionally wearied of me. Happily, I have never been cursed to teach an energetic fifteen year old capable of pursuing points with relentless logic, just for the hell of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - "
Yes - I know Magister Ludi/ Glass Bead Game.

Intellectuals mine for meaning and connection, take joy in the aesthetic which arises from serious mind-play, and stand in slack-jawed awe at the complex and beautiful interrelationships in the universe."

Yes to one and two - but I'm not convinced about the aesthetic sensistivity of intellectuals as a class.

I think the virtue of *most* intellectuals is that they get so much satisfaction from what you call meaning, connection and mind-play that they are usually honest - because dishonesty will ruin the 'game'.

So that even an evil (anti-Good, power-seeking, sadistic) real intellectual, like Nietzsche, may be extremely honest.

On the other hand when a real intellectual becomes dishonest - like Nietzsche's supposed-disciple Heidegger - then it is a deliberate, calculating thing, done with full awareness of the implications - and the result is particularly nasty, slimy and insidious.

dearieme said...

Was there really a spell when there were few students from prosperous but less than wealthy backgrounds: sons of successful farmers, of small time lawyers, of apparatchik's, of merchants and so on?

JP said...

The modern intellectual may not be materially poor, but it is not far from it. It is certainly not the path to wealth, especially when you consider that most of them have to spend 10 years not merely earning nothing, but going deep into debt to pay for the required credentials. And then for (say) four to six years after that they are making maybe $25K a year as a postdoc. If they're lucky they'll then get a tenure track job, and if not they'll be stuck in adjunct hell or forced to teach at a community college. Very few intellectuals indeed are highly-paid superstars at prestige institutions.

All this being the case, I think it is still true that "nobody would want to 'be an intellectual' unless it suited their nature." They're not in it for the money, that's for sure.

Brandon said...

Interesting, I was called "professor" as a child as well. I've always been intellectual in the sense you describe here but I've always done sub-par in school. I despise the academic environment with its bureaucratic regimentation and the hoops you have to jump through. Could it be that modern academia is anti-intellectual?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d "Was there really a spell when there were few students from prosperous but less than wealthy backgrounds"

I can't quote numbers, but I do know that there were a lot more students from such backgrounds in the five Scottish universities (as well as more students as a proportion of the population) than at Oxford and Cambridge over the post-Reformation period up to mid 20th century. The Scottish universities were also much cheaper to attend - which was probably a major factor! And the students were younger from early teens - - so the Scots Universities were more like the senior years of an English Grammar school, but run on a non-residential basis. If you are interested in this, there are some excellent books by RD Anderson of Edinburgh University (History) on the topic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - "All this being the case, I think it is still true that "nobody would want to 'be an intellectual' unless it suited their nature." - You would think so, but it ain't so; not least because there are at least ten times, maybe a hundred times, as many jobs as there are suitable people to fill them.

I don't know the proportion of 'natural' intellectuals in the English population, but it would be about 0.1 percent - probably less - a few tens of thousands of people at most, spread around all intellectual jobs - some hundreds of college starters per year.

Almost all modern 'academics' are bureaucrats, first - teachers a long way second (because they don't *really* care whether their teaching is any good) - and intellectuals nowhere-at-all.

asdf said...

As with law today there are two tracks for intellectuals. The "low" track where all that you've written is true and it is materially poor. And a high "track" where you go to a top university and your writing is in the NYTimes. That is very rewarding, especially once you can get your first book deal.

Also, one has to remember that status is a material good in many ways. The college professor and the day laborer both making bad wages have very different social status, and this status attracts the kind of people who like status.

dearieme said...

I take it that you've somewhere told us what you mean by a real intellectual. Can you point me there, please?

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - No, this is it - this is me thinking aloud.

Yes said...

It's a kind of second sight.

My image and notion of Oxford would be the place where real intellectuals would reside and teach, at least in the past.

The main quality is enjoyment in particular of thinking outside the box, and being accurate in doing so. A flush of insight!

So it is a form of perception of reality. And of seeing beyond the reigning cultural views of what is accurate knowledge.

That insight, that aha! within the context of current knowledge yet illuminating a different view, is the elusive quality. It's very rare because it's a form of almost mystical insight.

I'm reminded of shamans in some ways, but a real intellectual would be involved not in going to the other world in vivid imagistic terms, but rather within and around the constructs of current knowledge and how that does(n't) fit with reality.

dearieme said...

But for centuries Oxbridge must surely have been awash with the sons of CofE parsons, keen to follow their fathers' trade?

At Cambridge, at least, for a very long time only two honours degrees were taught: maths and divinity (or maybe it was called theology). The maths course was (i) old-fashioned in content, but (ii) ferociously high in standard. For much of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, anyone who actually wanted an education would have been well advised to go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or the Continent rather than Cambridge, unless he wanted to do maths, or preach in the CofE. As the late 18th century debates inside Cambridge showed, some of the Fellows were very unhappy about the plight of the university. But as long as the bulk of the Fellows were young bachelors waiting for a CofE "living", not much was likely to improve without an alliance of reform-minded insiders and powerful outsiders prepared to use the power of The State to impose reform. I doubt if most of the Fellows passing through in those times were intellectuals, though many would have been able chaps.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Agreed. But there were concentrations of real intellectuals at particular Oxbridge colleges in particular eras (and later in particular departments or labs). But there are never many to go round.