UK paperback


Brains of Britain

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?

  1. 1  Larry Lamb  May 9, 2011, 7:12 pm 

    A certain Observer columnist and all-round pretty decent guy is notably absent. I’m sure John Naughton will be receiving a sound, lightly anonymised, rhetorical thrashing one of these days.

  2. 2  Dan A  May 9, 2011, 7:19 pm 

    Steven Poole, natch.

    I’m not really sure how they created this list though. It seems like they just ran a finger through some newspaper columnists and tv listings tbh. Some of them are a real stretch.

  3. 3  BenSix  May 9, 2011, 7:38 pm 

    John Naughton is credited with three articles in Sunday’s edition. Perhaps the list was the product of five minute’s googling.

  4. 4  sw  May 10, 2011, 3:49 am 

    On the one hand, it’s hard to get too worked up by this sort of trivial, frankly anti-intellectual undertaking; on the other hand, what the fuck? What the fuck, man?

    Let’s just assume that “intellectuals”, in this case, are people who don’t just think and argue in public, but who publicly value intelligence as a way of facing the face-flattening hurricane of chaos that is life; who use their intelligence as a sort of red-laser-beam-emitting-vision-o-scope (RLBEVOS) as they try to find their fumble their through the whipping sandstorm of daily existence; and yet who respect but never wholly trust what they see and are constantly alert to the limits of their RLBEVOS? That rather widens the definition and makes it a bit more modern?

    Obviously, if “Steven poole” isn’t on the list, “unspeak community” should be? As a collective? The list is over-loaded with theatre-types, and yet it is surely already notorious for excluding Emma Thompson? She’s smarter, savvier, wittier, and far, far prettier than about 200 of the names on this list, which probably accounts for her exclusion.

    But why have the authors heaved in handfuls of theatricians, as I like to call them, and failed to include a few intellectuals in film? They have Michael Billington, but they don’t have Mike Leigh? Or Michael Winterbottom? Or Ken Loach?

    And in in scrubbing through the detritus of English intellectual life, why have the authors of this list reached so heavily into the dregs of anti-intellectual polemicists and pop tutors, but not included, say, Stephen Fry or Chris Morris?

  5. 5  Ian Holmes  May 10, 2011, 4:10 pm 

    They must find it comforting that <5% of their list are scientists. The journalists and critics who compiled the list don't understand what those science guys are talking about anyway, so it's just as well they're not saying anything important. Plus, one of the scientists they do include is Richard Dawkins, who is mostly famous for his missionary work in Africa these days.

  6. 6  Frank White  May 10, 2011, 4:12 pm 

    By all means, NOAM CHOMSKY….

  7. 7  dave heasman  May 10, 2011, 5:33 pm 

    No Hamish McRae or Gavyn Davies? And was it a tossup between Marina Hyde and Hadley Freeman? And bloody Rusbridger? Some of the best-written and most perceptive journalism since the early 70s has come from the fashion pages. I’d say that Vanessa Friedman could outthink more than half this list. Harry Eyres, should be there too.

  8. 8  Steven  May 10, 2011, 5:39 pm 

    sw, I approve of your more modern definition of “intellectuals”!

    Obviously, if “Steven poole” isn’t on the list, “unspeak community” should be? As a collective?

    The only problem with that is that the Unspeak™ Community™ is not “British” but rather a tentacular transnational organism, a bit like SPECTRE.

    Chris Morris? Definitely.

  9. 9  democracy_grenade  May 10, 2011, 10:55 pm 

    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”…

    There’s also the option, of course, of cutting right to the sneery chase and using ‘pseudo-intellectual’, a term usually used to describe people who deploy vocabulary and terms of reference taken to be constitutive of ‘intellectual’ discourse, but lack the legitimation that comes with access to a public.

    It’s an odd term, I think, in that it’s utilised by people who are attempting to set themselves up as earthsalty bullshit-cutters, and yet it implicitly involves abandoning extensive discursive terrain to an ‘elite’ defined by their social position/function, rather than by the content of their actual commentary (i.e. the true ‘intellectuals’ of whom the ‘pseud’ is a louderspeaker-less copycat).

    As for the list, I had no idea Ross McKibbin was well known. I guess I should try to figure out which one he is at seminars now…

  10. 10  Bruce  May 14, 2011, 6:19 pm 

    Ah, Unspeak is back. Good.

    As for the list of “intellectuals”, who really gives a damn? I don’t even see any comedy potential in it, unlike another recent list which, shamefully, excluded Charlie Sheen…

    “100 Most Spiritual People”:

  11. 11  dave  May 26, 2011, 11:55 pm 

    yeah, chris morris, mike leigh, ken loach. how about e.g. adam curtis, peter tatchell, edward bond, stewart home, catherine redfern? i confess i like lists like this – though this one’s a bit waterlogged with journos and historians. amused that ekow eshun & alan yentob aren’t in. as academics go, lots of cambridge names, but i’d have cleared some of the brush for j. h. prynne, raymond geuss, jack goody. bizarre lack of artists. provocative absence of islamic thinkers.

  12. 12  Graham Giblin  June 6, 2011, 11:51 am 

    My world is complete. All my wishes granted. I am now part of a “tentacular transnational organism”

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