Brains of Britain
May 9, 2011
Surely there is something wrong if Alain de Botton ((Previously in “Alain de Botton”: A Week at the Airport, Status Anxiety.)) gets on any list of Britain’s top five million intellectuals (let alone the “top 300”), and Prince Charles does not?
Such confusion arises, I expect, because intellectual as a noun for a person (dating from 1652) is now almost inescapably, in Quentin Skinner’s terminology, an “evaluative-descriptive” term. ((“Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action”, 1974.)) It might be that you hate the black-polo-neck-wearing, Macbook-toting and Baudrillard-reading clientèle at your local Starbucks, and so will say intellectuals with a sneer, to mean something like “useless stuffed-up gits”: as the OED’s helpful usage note puts it:
From the late 19th cent. often with mildly disparaging connotations of elitism and probably influenced by the use at that time of French intellectuel to denote any of the culturally minded supporters of Alfred Dreyfus.
Alternatively, however, it might be that you approve of public displays of intellection (perhaps you get off on performing them?), and so your use of the term intellectual will carry a quiet smile of praise or approval (as might do the terms philosopher or poet). In that case, however, you will be surprised to find not only the aforementioned Alain de Botton on the Observer’s list, but also “Melanie Phillips” and… Michael Gove?
The right way to avoid such horror is perhaps simply to try to keep in mind as neutral as possible a meaning of intellectuals, to mean “people who think and argue in public”, whatever your opinion is of the face-flattening bullshit they actually spew. Therefore, the most whelk-faced obstupefact (Michael Gove?) could properly be termed an intellectual if he were, in fact, a “public figure[s] leading our cultural discourse”, as the Observer has it — even if he were leading it into a bottomless dark septic tank of bilious unreason.
That exercise of mental will might make us comfortable with the inclusion of many people on this list, but there remains, oddly, a small but interesting class of people who are actually real thinkers but, as far as I can tell, have a vanishingly-small-to-nonexistent role in “public” or mass-media “debate” in the UK — say, Derek Parfit, or Christopher Ricks. In a way, they should not be on such a list at all, are even insulted by their inclusion. But if they are going to be listed, then why not others?
Which “intellectuals” do you think are missing from the list, readers?