In a recent post about the loneliness that LDS humanities scholars can face in their wards, the topic quickly turns to the “intellectual” in the church (and proves my theory that posts about anti-intellectualism in the church are the best place to find anti-intellectual comments!). The problem with these kinds of discussions, it seems to me, is that the definition of an “intellectual” is highly unclear. Like other terms such as “conservative,” “liberal,” or “feminist,” the label “intellectual” may be either an honorary designation or an insult, depending on who is wielding it. I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the definitions of “intellectual” that I see in the way that it appears in LDS cultural discourse, both the good and the bad.
1. An intellectual is always a “so-called” intellectual. That is, there is no real intellectual, only the person who claims the title. In this view, the designation of any person or group as an intellectual is only evidence of their “so-called” status.
2. An intellectual is a liberal. Just as the term liberal can be either a compliment or an insult, the equating of intellectual with liberal cuts both ways.
3. An intellectual is dangerously “secular.” There is no calling of an “intellectual” in the church. This is a term foreign to LDS culture and status designations, and is therefore seen as an intrusion of values from the outside.
4. An intellectual is simply a smart person. If someone reads books, even a lot of books, they are just as qualified to express their intellectual opinion as those with professional training as scholars. In this way, a scholar does not have any particular value other than being smart, which is also the case of the intellectual.
5. An intellectual is a smart person who agrees with me. In this view, being an intellectual is judged by the criteria of my own beliefs and opinions. If you hold those, and are smart, you are an intellectual.
6. An intellectual is someone who works in the humanities. Critical and creative thinking is simply non-existent in other fields like business, law, medicine, and science. Perhaps to put it more generously, an intellectual is one who deals with a particular set of questions about meaning, language, and truth that are make it distinctive from other disciplines.
7. An intellectual is a professional scholar. Only those who are graduate students or otherwise paid professionals as scholars can properly claim this title.
8. An intellectual is someone is someone who belongs to the group of intellectuals. Like other other official and unofficial designations, from dentists to environmentalists, an intellectual is someone who shares the values of, and is recognized by, other intellectuals. These may include features like those who ask questions that non-intellectuals do not ask, and is open to questions. An intellectual is able to converse with those with whom she disagrees on a shared set of discourses, to articulate the assumptions, problems, and logic of their own views and those of others. In this view, an intellectual has no particular ideological affiliation other than the rules of intellectual discourse, but even those rules may be open to review if done in an intellectual manner.
Now, I prefer the last definition, both because I see it as the most generous and most neutral, but I could be willing to be persuaded otherwise (does that make me an intellectual? :). One problem with the others is that they are used in polemical, rather than descriptive definitions. Perhaps one of the reasons why the title “intellectual” is both revered and reviled is the American cultural tendency to both despise and praise hierarchy. For instance, the category of the “rich” is both hated and admired. Of course, there is no purely descriptive, non political category, but neither is there a world without categories. To keep the category of “intellectual,” and to try to define it in a way that is useful, seems like a worthwhile effort.