Intelligent or Intellectual?

A guest post by Ivan.

We have quite a few intelligent people in our TPD community, and we have some intellectuals, and sometimes, but not always, they overlap. Are the two always identical? Let’s think about this.

The word “intellectual” was not used as a noun in the English language until late in the 19th century. As late as the the mid-Victorian age, “intellectual” was used only as an adjective, but not as a category of person. It used to refer simply to a tendency to think contemplatively, but it was not used to describe any particular class of people until around the 1880s, the time when the Russians coined the word “intelligentsia,” which was later transliterated into English, as was the very new Russian concept of intellectuals” as a particular class of people.

The very word “intelligentsia” is Russian. The letters “ts” near the end, are transliterations of a Russian letter, “tse”, followed by the Russian suffix “ia” for the category.

And the very concept of an entire social category of people being peculiarly devoted to matters of the “intellect”, originated in Russia in the late 19th century. It is a concept which is essentially concerned with social prestige based on belonging to a
community of shared opinions. And this is something entirely different from what the status of “scholars” used to be. The Russian concept of “intelligentsia”, was based not so much on having scholarly interests, as it was based on having a special (socially advantageous) identity based on sharing a culture of opinion.

The word, and the concept, of “intelligentsia” were imported to America in the late 19th century, mostly by immigrants from Russia. The word and the concept have spread throughout Europe since that time, partly (but not entirely) through the later influence of American academia on Europe. Again, this is not to be confused with other, earlier European concepts of thinkers. The peculiar quality of the Russian (and now American) concept of “the intellectual class”, is its essential aspiration toward social advancement and respectability, and even popularity, AND, perhaps most of all, the aspiration of the “Intelligentsia” to be a specialised class who are equipped, and most of all empowered, to guide the body politic, and the masses. The Russian “intelligentsia”, like those of later America and even later Europe, were a very Populist class of people
whose main aspiration was to be a specialised elite who were authorised to rule the masses. (Lenin was THE Quintessential man of the “Intelligentsia”, but now their name is Legion, both on the nominal “Left” and the “Right”, throughout Europe and America. Neo-conservatives like (the late) Leo Strauss, and titular “liberal” scholars like Noam Chomsky, BOTH come from the legacy of this rather NEW concept of “intelligentsia.” The “intellectuals” of both the Right and the Left in America – and in much of Europe as well – stem from the same Russian roots of Lenin’s time, when the “intelligentsia” aspired to be a new Priesthood of the masses.

Now, I did not write the following lines – and for personal reasons I do not want to give the name of the man who did. (But I do have his permission to quote from his book, here.) On this topic, he wrote:

The modern historian should never – a strong word, this – treat ideas categorically, since such a treatment, with its implicit exaggeration of the directness of the function of certain ideas, will only lead to their divorce from reality in retrospect – which is, too, why too much importance should NOT be attributed to the history of the intelligentsia.

And the same author also wrote, of the American comedian, Groucho Marx, that he was “intelligent without being intellectual”, in contrast to a later, more effete (in that author’s opinion AND mine) comedian, Woody Allen, who is “intellectual without being intelligent.”

And my main point in posing a contrast between Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, here, is to suggest an illustration of the difference between being intelligent for the joy of it (as Groucho Marx was), versus trying to appear intelligent for the sake of appearing so (like Woody Allen, and I would say like Karl Marx too, just to play with a Marx versus Marx metaphor here.)

Query: What is more important: Being “an intellectual”, or being intelligent? And what do the members of our TPD community aspire to most, between those two ways of being? And how and why?

The Discussion: 41 Comments

When you get down to it, all I want to do is have some fun. . . till the sun comes up on the Santa Monica Boulevard.

Putting it that way, Ivan, I guess I would go with Groucho though I enjoy Woody Allen movies.

February 7, 2006 @ 8:20 am | Comment

I think I remeber from one of my history courses that the noun Intellectual was first used in western Europe during the Dreyfus-affair, when the supporters of Dreyfuss as a group were called Intellectuals by the same French guy who also said that Amerika has maid it’s way from babarism to decadence without the detour through civilisation.

February 7, 2006 @ 9:20 am | Comment

made not maid

February 7, 2006 @ 9:21 am | Comment

“America is the first country to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization.”
— Oscar Wilde

February 7, 2006 @ 9:49 am | Comment

Some knowledgeable intellectuals are lacking intelligence.

February 7, 2006 @ 9:51 am | Comment

no, oscar wild was not a Frenchman.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:08 am | Comment

An intelligent being will find the truth, an intellectual may just regurgitate what has been programmed.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:26 am | Comment


Oscar Wilde was not a Frenchman, but he is the person who your quote is attributed.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:38 am | Comment

Seems we have different dictionairies. My sources say it was Georges Clemenceau.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:49 am | Comment

It also seems that G.B. Shaw gets some credit for that quote. Dunno.

Where are our resident intellectuals (intelligencia?) to shed some light on the history of this quote?

February 7, 2006 @ 11:13 am | Comment

A Proposal for a Concentration Camp for Intellectuals

This post wants to focus on the issue of modern intellectuals.

Now before I proceed. I must define what is an intellectual. In this post, an intellectual is defined as someone with a formal college degree (at least bachelors), and has a career that is closely related to the academic field. The most proper group is of course professors, but scientists, engineers, high school teachers, writers, lab researchers, poets, etc. are all considered intellectuals. Now you may ask, “Math, what is it that you want to talk about intellectuals?”

Well, I have a proposal for the treatment of intellectuals. That is, I propose a “Concentration Camp for Intellectuals”. This camp would contain massive number of intellectuals, and confine them for 5 – 10 years, or even longer. This camp can be applied to every country, wether USA, Europe, China, etc.

Now, some of you may scream angrily and spit your sliva, and say “Math, you are too cruel!” But I of course do not think so.

First, this camp must be voluntary. If an intellectual does not want to go to the camp, that is ok. But if one chooses to go, he has to sign a contract that says he must stay in the camp for 5 years (or 10), and be under the watch of camp-guards. And in those 5 years, he is not allowed to publish any books or papers like he usually does. He can study and conduct research, but not allowed to publish anything. After he gets out of the camp in 5 years, he can of course resume his publishing.

Second, when he leaves the camp after 5 years, he will automatically be given a tenure as a full professor in a university (or a senior engineer in a factory, or a senior scientist in a lab, or a certified writer, etc, depending on his original career). There’ll be no interview, no evaluation. He’ll simply receive the title and the salary. Of course to enter the concentration camp, he must at least have a bachelor’s degree and be already working in an academic/intellectual field.

This concentration camp can be located in a very scenery resort, with lakes, mountains, trees, etc. They can roam around the resort without restrictions, they can sleep all day, or read all day, or swim or day, or eat all day, or mastrubate all day, whatever they want. But they are not allowed to bring anyone with them, and certainly not allowed to escape. They are allowed to write home, if they miss their wives.

But as soon as they get out of the camp, they’ll automatically become a full professor, full scientist, full engineer, etc.

I can promise you that under this system, a nation will be able to produce many talented intellectuals, and many may go on to win Nobel Prizes and discover new theories.

What do intellectuals, especially Chinese intellectuals, lack? I believe they lack time. Because they lack time, they become very impatient, and impatience does not lead to results. No intellectual today can sit down and do peaceful research for 20 years and not care about anything around him. Most intellectuals are too busy with fighting for positions, fighting for bonuses, fighting for funding, buying stocks, grocery shopping for their families, and all the mundane things in life. How much real “quality” time do they have left for research everyday, I would say no more than 3 hours. What does an associate-professor in an university think about everyday?

He thinks: “I am now an associate, I want to be a full professor. So I need two books and 6 papers. I already published one book, but I have no idea what to write for the second book. Well, I need some material fast. Ok, I will just paste together some random thoughts and put some fancy terminology and fill that to be my second book. But the publisher wants 30,000 words, I have enough material for only 20,000 words. Why don’t I modify a paragraph here and there from other people’s books and put them together. But I can’t copy too much, otherwise I’ll be caught. Oh wait, I have a conference to go to next week, the compenstation is $500, and I also need to make up questions for the final exam for my class. Oh, my wife wants me to buy her a gold necklace this week. Oh, I heard they are electing new members on this committee, I better have something for a few papers so I can have a shot for that committee. But what papers should I write? Well, I’ll just borrow some random things from other papers and put my name on it, no one reads it anyway. Oh, a company wants me to be their advisor, I should discuss it with them tomorrow…. Oh I need to write some essay for this funding application. Ok, it’s 6pm, I need to get home early otherwise the traffic is too heavy.”

Does that sound like an intellectual? It sounds more like a politician to me. And if the majority of intellectuals are spending most of their time being politicians, then how can there be any real fruits coming from their jobs?

So my concentration camp isolates them from all these troubles. The only thing they have are mountains, trees, lakes, food. They’ll become bored very fast, and when they become bored, they can calm their minds down, and spend time doing real studying/reseaching/thinking that they were supposed to do but had no time for. More specifically, they can escape the harrassment from their wives and children. They no longer are forced to make love to their wives at night, or give bathes to their children. And when they come out of the camp, they will automatically be promoted and receive permanent high positions in their field. Of course not everyone is willing to spend 5-10 years in my concentration camp, so those who do enter must be very determined and strong.

What do you think of this proposal? I think it is a good one? What do you think? Do you think it is a good one? I think it is.

February 7, 2006 @ 1:55 pm | Comment

“They are allowed to write home, if they miss their wives.” …

so it’s an all-male camp huh? no such thing as an intelligent or intellectual female? and i guess we’re at home washing dishes in your happy fantasy.

February 7, 2006 @ 4:47 pm | Comment

Is postmodernity a continuing legacy of the modern movement or a set of clever detracking discourses in overthrowing the intellegent quest for truth and goodness?
It’s likely a hermeneutic discussion. Hopefully without being off-balanced intelligent and intellectual, the acts of questioning and seeking answers are essential in understanding the parts and the whole. There was no separation in the beginning let alone hierarchy, and the query I would instead post: can being a true intellectural stand without intelligence, and the vice versa? An example of a subset of queries maybe: is being intelligent but not intellectual means lacking complete tactfulness in deliverance? Yes, it’s a zen conundrum.
Good read, thanks!

February 7, 2006 @ 5:13 pm | Comment

Math is a humorist. I’m convinced now.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

Math, your comments are in line with a recent article in the MIT Technology Review.,1,p1.html

Some lines:

Following Deng, the Chinese government has been investing heavily to bring the sciences up to Western standards of quality, originality, and productivity.

The result has been a large number of shotgun mergers. For example, the city of Hangzhou had four unidisciplinary universities, including one agricultural and one medical. In 1998, these were abruptly amalgamated into one, Zhejiang University. Zhejiang now has some 43,000 students, including 5,500 PhD candidates.

“Their universities have two structures of authority in them,” Schwarz said. “The apparent one to Westerners is the president and the vice presidents and the deans. The one that’s not apparent is the party secretary, vice secretaries — for every level on the academic side, you have one on the party side.” Like the Red Army in the Soviet Union long ago? “Yeah, exactly right. And the latter is more powerful than the former — or it has been up to this point. But that’s rapidly shifting.”

Good science in our era is done in groups within groupings, from the individual laboratory to the research institution to the national network with its professional associations and controls and rewards, multiple levels of scientists judging scientists, to the world scientific community, integrated however loosely by shared attitudes and standards. New ideas, discoveries, grow from the bottom up.
he deep question for China, then, is how to plant and cultivate the discipline of science, the ethos. I raised this question with every scientist I talked to. Two problems demonstrate the difficulties — the Confucian problem and the plagiarism problem. These are not oddities or incidental aberrations. They are rooted, ingrained, internalized.

Such a hierarchy is said still to govern much of the teaching of science in China; it lurks in laboratory relations. Most notoriously, it led to the misidentification in 2003 of the cause of the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS. The first cases showed up in southern China late in 2002; the disease spread to Beijing and other cities and threatened to go global. In February 2003, a senior scientist in Beijing announced that he had found the cause, the bacterium Chlamydia. A junior in his laboratory knew that this was mistaken, for he had isolated the true cause. Out of respect, or fear, he said nothing.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:45 pm | Comment

Essentially, people have to want to be a scientist for the quest for truth more than the quest for wealth.

In reality, both components exist. But if you bias to the latter, you get the situation in China.

This is probably due to the cultural shift into focusing so much on getting rich, and the concept of “seeking truth” doesn’t hold much water, at least when people are raised not to think critically about so many things around them.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

I like the saying:
“If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, then you don’t understand it.”

The asian confucian idea is already bad enough for innovation. Now add on top of that being raised in an information and thought-restricted environment. It might not hinder lab techniques or practicing engineering, but it will certainly stifle creativity.

I’m not bashing the CCP here. It’s just a very clear to me that if you restrict thinking and expression, something is lost. Just as it is with the case that if you teach children to have certain values, it invariably impacts that child’s view of the world, and your relationship to that child.

Innovation comes from the bottom. What you guys think? Top or bottom? Obviously throwing tons of money at a research effort helps. But that dosen’t answer the question of top or bottom.

February 7, 2006 @ 10:57 pm | Comment

Antoine de Saint Exupery: “If you want men to build boats, first teach them to love the sea.”

February 7, 2006 @ 11:04 pm | Comment

From Henry Adams’ “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” (1904):

“The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, studied in the pure light of political economy, are insane. According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to an estimate made in 1840, more than 5,000,000,000 francs to replace. (That would be around one trillion dollars in today’s money, in 2005)…The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000….The share of capital which was – if one may use a commercial figure – invested in the Virgin cannot be fixed, any more than the sum total given to religious objects between 1000 and 1300; BUT IN A SPIRITUAL AND ARTISTIC SENSE, is was almost the whole, and expressed an intensity of conviction never again reached by any passion, whether of religion, of loyalty, of patriotism, or of wealth; perhaps never even paralled by any single economic effort, except in war.”

Just one example there, of how economic development is pulled by spiritual aspirations and dreams of beauty, rather being the foundation of any culture.

February 7, 2006 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

correction, my final line should have read, “rather THAN being the foundation of any culture.”

February 7, 2006 @ 11:17 pm | Comment

“The asian confucian idea is already bad enough for innovation.”
Skystreaker, um no. The birth of of Neo-Confucian era of Song China was in fact among the most innovative in technological development.
A positive ethos for academic quest is certainly necessary. Funding also make another absolute requirement. So far, no other nation has the wealth of US research universities and institutions. This investment is also a proof for the determination for innovation and quest for truth. However, it is also politically dependent, increasingly contested in bureacracy.

February 8, 2006 @ 12:25 am | Comment

Math, I pity you for your view on interhuman relationships:

“They no longer are forced to make love to their wives at night, or give bathes to their children. And when they come out of the camp, they will automatically be promoted and receive permanent high positions in their field.”

What kind of a world is that, you live in? Oh, I am well aware that the situation is not uncommon, people getting bored in their marriage or fed up with their children, but to lift this up to the status of an ideal living condition ?!!

Further, the granting of permanent positions will only undercut your scientific ambitions, as the permanent status is bound to take away people’s incentive to do something creative, something positive. And I would bet you that if people get bored in your nice prisoncamp, they will NOT take to work, but get either depressed or try to find a way out.

I also fully agree with Frances that you are a sexist.

Live happy !

February 8, 2006 @ 5:16 am | Comment

“Skystreaker, um no. The birth of of Neo-Confucian era of Song China was in fact among the most innovative in technological development.”
Zhu Xi certainly revitalized and reorganized Confucian thinking in his day. The above quote suggests that Neo-Confucianism was responsible for the prosperity of the Song. Please comment on how this was the case. Also, if you have any reading suggestions (Chinese or English) on Neo-Confucianism please let me know. I am just curious, as I am a student of Chinese history, but anything post-Tang is modern to me.

February 8, 2006 @ 6:46 am | Comment

I’m not an expert on Neo-Confucianism, but I do know enough about it to say that it was a political ideology which had very little to do with the (actually, rather modest, rather small) technological acheivements of China during the Soong Dynasty.

I see a logical fallacy here, of confusing correlation with causation.
Two things happening simultaneously, does NOT mean that the one thing caused the other. The mere fact that the “Neo-Confucian” movement occurred at the same time as some of China’s (small) technoligical developments, does NOT mean that Neo-Confucianism caused those technoligical developments.

February 8, 2006 @ 7:01 am | Comment

PS, damn, typo errors above, “technological”

February 8, 2006 @ 7:02 am | Comment

“The mere fact that the “Neo-Confucian” movement occurred at the same time as some of China’s (small) technoligical developments, does NOT mean that Neo-Confucianism caused those technoligical developments.”

Right. That was more or less my thinking in asking for clarification on how Neo-Confucianism spurred on any advances under the Song, a dynasty which, to the best of my knowledge is remembered more for the genius of Zhu Xi and Su Dongpo than it is for technological or economic innovations.

February 8, 2006 @ 8:08 am | Comment

Ivan, cheers for a diverting thread.

I utterly concur with your judgement that there is a difference …

“between being intelligent for the joy of it (as Groucho Marx was), versus trying to appear intelligent for the sake of appearing so (like Woody Allen … )”

Yet I demur at your codicil that puts Karl Marx in the same category as Woody Allen.

Come on, like him or loath him, Marx was intelligent as well as being an intellectual. Communism as praxis may have been a relative failure in thre context of a complex industrial society, but Marxist thought has had a profound, often illuminating impact on the world of ideas that is the equal of the Freudian and the Darwinian revolutions.

To imply that Marx was merely a pseud, a bullshit artist in the same league as Woody Allen, is unworthy of you.

February 8, 2006 @ 8:33 am | Comment

Not that I’m defending a pederast who has not made a decent film since the 1970s, but isn’t the Woody Allen character an intentional charicature of the self-concious, nebbish New York intellectual? That is not the same thing as putting on airs in order to give the impression of being an intellectual

February 8, 2006 @ 9:11 am | Comment


Thank you for correcting me. I PARTLY agree with you, that Karl Marx is not in the same league with Woody Allen. Woody Allen was a HELL of a lot more intelligent – and more of a true Humanist – than Karl Marx. ๐Ÿ™‚

But still, between those three, I’m with Groucho Marx.

And I just LOVE how Groucho Marx danced….. ๐Ÿ™‚

February 8, 2006 @ 10:01 am | Comment

…a vision of Groucho Marx dancing with Karl Marx:

Karl: We must make revolution!

Groucho: Alright, but let me tell you, I’ve never done this with a man before…

February 8, 2006 @ 10:07 am | Comment

“China is its own worst enemy.”

Sorry that must sounds like a cliche!

February 8, 2006 @ 11:57 am | Comment

Many animals especially dogs are intelligent, not many are intellectuals. Many western american cowboys were intelligent, most were anti-intellectuals (the latter from an intelligent, intellectual american cowboy).

February 8, 2006 @ 12:14 pm | Comment

I’m with sojourner, and don’t perceive Karl Marx as being an intellectual poseur. I perceive him, rightly or wrongly, as being an intelligent philosopher who wrote down his theories in an attempt to provide us with a new framework for understanding the world. I don’t think he did it because he wanted the ‘status’ that would provide. I think he did it because he wanted to improve human understanding.

February 8, 2006 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

I’m agreeing with Dish on this one.

February 8, 2006 @ 9:55 pm | Comment

I’m not talking about history. My comments points out not challenging established beliefs with new ideas (based on facts) would slow innovation.

I don’t know the details of the Confucian era, but it’s quite possible that era fostered new thinking, including Confucious’ principles. We can’t logically argue Confician principles helop innovation just because it started or spread while there was innovation. Correlation is not cause.

February 8, 2006 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

“Correlation is not cause.”

February 8, 2006 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

Regardless of whether Neo-Confucianism brought about technological advances in the Song dynasty, the fact that they occurred together suggests that at least the two aren’t necessarily incompatible.

February 9, 2006 @ 12:40 pm | Comment

I should have got in on this thread from the start … as I almost feel it was aimed at me. Therefore, I would like to say that I agree that you can have intellectuals who are not intelligent. There are one hell of a lot of stupid people out there holding PhDs. Whether or not I am one of them, all I can say is that I confess to moments of utter stupidity in my life … and I hope that the other moments at least balance. Or maybe I’m taking it too personally? ๐Ÿ™‚

As for Math … that last post has confirmed it: it is MAJ. I had a strong suspicion before, but now I have no doubt. Therefore, it’s clear that a) Math does not actually believe in anything he says b) Math is deliberately trying to manipulate people c) MAJ is still addicted to the Duck.

February 9, 2006 @ 2:00 pm | Comment


Actually I didn’t intend to direct this thread toward anyone in particular, nor even to our group in general EXCEPT to provoke some rethinking about the purposes of intellectual work. (Which can include things like blogging of course, not just formal careers)

I think many of our readers didn’t quite get my main point, which isn’t so much about how “intellectuals can be dumb”, but rather how there is a difference between being intellectual and wanting to be “an intellectual” as a matter of social prestige or personal advantage. The latter tend to produce (and to reproduce) all kinds of corruptions of thought.

And the unmentionable one whom you have mentioned, IS actually a perfect paradigm of this. Actually a caricature of it. He would be do a lot of damage in the real world, if he weren’t so deranged that no remotely sane intellectual institution will ever have anything to do with him.

Anyway, as for you, FSN, personally I think you’re one of the more rational and honest guys around here.

February 9, 2006 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

Peter- Thanks for elaborating.

Ivan- Are you sure you are not my good rabbi?

February 9, 2006 @ 6:30 pm | Comment


Nope. I was born Catholic and I can only handle one kind of burdensome religious heritage in any given lifetime.


February 9, 2006 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

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