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Intelligentsia And Society

Although the intellectual world's diversity and multiplicity have been recognized, the question of the precise nature of intellectual activity continues to be debated. The early-twenty-first-century controversy over scientific research in France provides an excellent example with which to consider the question of the intelligentsia within the particular context of globalization. In this conflict, the parties involved are, on one side, researchers who have accused the French government of taking an anti-intellectual stance in making budget cuts and putting severe limits on scientific research, and, on the other, government policy makers who label such protestors as ideologues. And, in the debate that seems to have developed ever since the Dreyfus affair—an event that is commonly associated with the coining of the word intellectual and that pitted artists, journalists, and other intellectuals against the two most powerful institutions in French society, the army and the government—the polarization of the Left (progressives and liberals) and the Right (conservatives and reactionaries) has taken shape in the public arena with new intellectual figures (here considered as actors) and focusing on intelligence (conceived of as a resource). Some intellectuals who are opposed to this polarization have denied an identification with the role of the intellectual and any relationship to government that that implies The principal promoter of this middle path, Alain Finkielkraut, justifies his position in refusing to be defined as an intellectual, saying that intellectuals in the early-twenty-first-century "only enter the public arena to accuse the guilty." He takes issue with the petition denouncing "the war on intellectualism" launched against the French government by the magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

In contrast to Finkielkraut, Said insists on the rebellious role of the intellectual, as one who questions more than he or she sanctions—"The intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries the truth to power." Said also noted that, in English, "the word 'intellectual' was [usually associated with] 'ivory tower' and 'sneer.'" The negative connotations of the term are underlined by Raymond Williams in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Until the middle of the twentieth century, unfavorable uses of intellectual, intellectualism, and intelligentsia were dominant in English, and, according to Said, "it is clear that such uses persist" (pp. xiv, x).

The contemporary controversy over the identity and goals of the intellectual, by way of the references and history that the controversy summons up, emphasizes questions about the nature and political economy of intelligence in its relationship to society and the public arena. Two questions in particular recur repeatedly in this debate. The first is whether or not intellectual work and activist intervention are compatible, and if the intellectual has a duty to declare a position for or against the important issues of the day. The second is whether or not the intellectual has the means and legitimacy to intervene in the public debate. The arguments triggered by the negative assessment by researchers and cultural figures of the politics of the French government are not new. On the contrary, they are part of a long tradition that has shaped the function, role, representation, and actions of intellectuals in contemporary society, in their variety, their clashing and changing trajectories, and the conflicts that they bring or incite.

The controversies involve political, cultural, and moral questions as much as they do issues relating to the influence of language, traditions, and historical conditions on intellectual intervention. More precisely, it is a question of determining whether, in taking positions, the intellectual must make clear his or her relative independence, or take a position aligned with a political party, church, or cultural group. Should the intellectual express support for a universalist tradition disdainful of all local cultural roots and all references to a particular place, belief, or community? If one accepts that every intellectual has a particular audience and belongs to a particular culture, what establishes him or her as an intellectual is the ability to think and act independently from them. The possibility of moving between sticking to what is familiar (staying within one's historical community) and being open-minded (embracing the universalist tradition), speaking out in public or retreating to the ivory tower, seems to have contributed to the identity of the intellectual and the utilization of intelligence in all human societies.

Of course, styles, grammars, and degrees of prolificness are not all similar as marks or emblems, even if the historical path of the West has become established as the metanarrative and the inescapable point of reference with respect to human universality. Despite this, whether in agreement with the Western model or dissenting from it, different practices have flourished since the opening of the world to European imperialism, addressing Western hegemony in light of particular aspects of dominated societies (colonial and postcolonial) or peripheral societies (China and Japan, for example), striving to create alternative visions. The emergence of these new voices, the diversification of intellectual horizons, whether colonial or postcolonial or embracing non-European nationalisms, and the cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial emphases that distinguish human societies, continue to give rise to an extraordinary metamorphosis in intellectual identity. As a result, the most basic intellectual foundations and the assumption of a fixed point around which everything revolved have been called into question. Whereas the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment seemed to have succeeded in dividing rational intelligence from feelings, personal life from public life, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen configurations of greater complexity, a diversity of intellectual vehicles, sources, and individuals and groups who declare themselves to be (or are regarded as) intellectuals.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIntelligentsia - Intelligentsia And Society, Definitions, Challenges To Traditional Discourse, Response To Orthodoxy, Bibliography