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Intelligentsia

Definitions

Edward Said's Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures offers an excellent starting point for defining this type. Among the supporting materials on which Said relies are two well-known books, Quaderni del carcere (1947; Prison Notebooks) by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and La trahison des clercs (1927; The Treason of the Intellectuals) by Julien Benda (1867–1956). These texts were written in different circumstances but with identical concerns, relating to the appearance of theories and practices that contradict or threaten the transcendent values of truth, justice, and humanity. After comparing Benda and Gramsci—who "clash fundamentally" over the issue of who qualifies as an intellectual (for Benda, it is a small group of clerks chosen in a draconian manner; for Gramsci, all individuals are intellectuals, even if not all perform such a function in society)—Said proposes a simple definition of intellectual: "An individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, an attitude, philosophy, or opinion to, as well as for, a public" (p. 9). The intellectual's vocation is manifested in the consummate art of representation through words, writing, teaching, and participation in the media, including radio, television, and the press.

It is not disputed that the mission of the intellectual is to advance human knowledge and freedom. It is the differences in thoughts and beliefs that are important and often irreconcilable in determining who should be in command of this task, to what ends, and with what means. But who are these intellectuals whose nature is revealed by the role that they play or that society assigns them? Gramsci made a distinction between two types: on the one hand, the traditional intellectuals, priests, teachers, administrators, who ensure the cohesion of the hegemonic culture, while renewing, generation after generation, these traditional roles; and on the other hand, the "organic" intellectuals who, while a part of civil society, maintain a sometimes strained relationship with it. They are in the service of the social classes or enterprises that organize them and mobilize them to defend particular interests. They are, to borrow a phrase from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, engaged in society.

Benda was concerned with a category that he identified as a small group of erudite people, guardians of an irreproachable morality: a "conscience of humanity" responsible for1118 administering the empire of justice and truth that transcends the world in which they live. In Benda's vision, intellectuals have the responsibility of denouncing corruption, defending the weak, and defying oppressive authority. In this sense, they are agents of a mission that, if betrayed, has harmful effects on society. The values that they try to secure and preserve, because they apply to all peoples and nations, carry a seal of universality, for they are transcendent, transhistorical, transnational, and transcultural.

In the early twentieth century, Gramsci and Benda traced the spread of intellectualism and the identifying elements that marked the intellectual; the definitions in use at the beginning of the twenty-first century are variations based on their ideas, to which have been added a consideration of the emergence and consolidation of power, of wealth, and of the ascendance of new professions engaged in intellectual pursuits. In effect, in the early twenty-first century the term intellectual is applied to all activities connected with the production and circulation of knowledge as described by Gramsci; as noted by Said, "broad-casters, academic professionals, computer analysts, sports and media lawyers, management consultants, policy experts, government advisers, authors of specialized market reports, and indeed the whole field of modern mass journalism itself … have vindicated Gramsci's vision" (p. 7). Located there is the creative tension present at the heart of the mission and the demands of the intellectual, caught between the rebellion against and constant questioning of the hegemonic culture and support for the latter in order to ensure "order and continuity in public life" (p. 27).

Régis Debray has provided an excellent history of the intellectuals in modern France. Debray's discussion is divided into three historical periods: Between 1880 and 1930, the figure of the intellectual was solidly attached to institutions, none more so than the university; as professionals devoted to teaching and research, intellectuals found in these institutions effective protection against the church and its power. Between 1930 and 1968, the university lost its privileged place in the intellectual firmament, at least in the representation of the intellectual figure; in that function it was superseded by publishing houses, in which intellectuals and publishers formed "a new spiritual family," as Debray aptly described the relationship, citing such "family" members as Sartre, André Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, the Gallimards, and André Malraux. After 1968 this spiritual family broke up; intellectual engagement in the political sphere and the public arena took a new turn and created new idioms. Mao Zedong's China replaced the USSR as the ne plus ultra of socialism. Discourses and practices took to the fields or factories before moving on to editorial offices or radio and television production, government ministries, literary or film work. Debray strongly criticized this transformation, which enlarged intellectuals' sphere of influence while at the same time endangering their authority, for their reliance on their peers gave way to a search for a captive audience: "By extending the reception area, the mass media have reduced the sources of intellectual legitimacy, with wider concentric circles that are less demanding and therefore more easily won over.… The mass media have broken down the closure of the traditional intelligentsia, together with its evaluative norms and its scale of values" (pp. 71, 81).

Even though the history related by Debray applies to France, from his study one can draw the general conclusion that the power and legitimacy of intellectuals derive as much from the institutions with which they are affiliated and from the influence that they are able to exert as a result as they do to their individual authority. For example, describing the situation of intellectuals in the United States, Alvin Gouldner emphasizes the considerable increase in the areas of expertise that one could categorize as "intellectual" and the development of a culture of critical discourse for each of those categories. Beyond those identified by Said and Debray, he cites such late-twentieth-century additions as military strategist and international lawyer, which, like publisher and writer, utilize a specialized vocabulary that is shared only with peers of these disciplines. The French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault (1926–1984), commenting on this enlargement of the intellectual sphere to include new kinds of practitioners, pondered the consequences of replacing the universalist intellectual—the kind that Benda and Gramsci had been concerned with—by the specialist, whose expertise justified his or her intervention in other spheres, the public arena in particular.

Additional topics

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