What is an Intellectual?

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.

24 Replies to “What is an Intellectual?”

  1. What kind of anti-intellectual comments do you get? Given that Joseph Smith could be considered an intellectual (depending on your definition), I think that we should celebrate doctrinal, theological and philosophical study.


  2. Nice round-up, TT. In my experience, anti-intellectual discourse often defines “intellectuals” as those who rely on their own reasoning than on the scriptures or the prophets.

  3. In addition to Ben’s comment, I would add that I think issues of complexity create anxiety for believers who accept that ‘the gospel is simple’. Thus people who complexify, who interrogate and question create an anxiety which is then labelled as ‘intellectual’. I wonder whether the ‘anti-intellectual’ rhetoric is tied to correlation’s attempt to simplify.

  4. So much of the discourse and polemics over who is an intellectual and what that entails is tied to geography. A trusted and fully integrated intellectual in one ward may be a heretical pariah in another ward a few miles away. The ward ‘scriptorian’ from a rural region may be considered the ward intellectual until she moves to Ann Arbor and then that identity may be lost as she encounters a new community of ward members who outflank her in regard to their intellectual dispositions.

    I recently spoke with a former ward member just prior to his relocation to a new ward in a new state. He is in my estimation an authentic intellectual. During our conversation he expressed a good deal of anxiety over how he would fit into his new ward. In our ward he didn’t need to profess knowledge or faith in anything (and by his own admission he could not) and he could happily exist as a dependable, trusted, and loved ward member in spite of his beliefs and non-beliefs. He was the go-to member for running a modified scouting program in an inner city ward, for an encyclopedic knowledge of less-active members, and for maintaining meaningful relationships with those who departed from the ward community for one reason or another. But he feared that he would become the ward heretic and suffer the alienation which is often accompanies such denomination or simply be known as the intellectual with all of its pejorative connotations.

  5. A soon-to-be missionary in his farewell last Sunday mentioned that he thought of himself as an intellectual. He actually might be one and I am proud that he would like to be some version of an intellectual, but I almost died when he referred to himself as one.

    In his talk he had mentioned that he had been reading Nibley with his father. This is a good start. He also had a testimony of the Book of Mormon, but had not read all of it…yet.

    I think that some of us over glorify the intellectual while others are quick to demonize them.

    I personally have a rather broad definition. I know PhDs who I would not consider intellectual and I know some people will little formal education who I very much think are intellectuals.

    For me, a key criteria for being an intellectual would be that they are well read.

  6. “But he feared that he would become the ward heretic and suffer the alienation which is often accompanies such denomination or simply be known as the intellectual with all of its pejorative connotations.”

    Wait…that is what I aspire to…

  7. You only like the last definition because that is how you see yourself. I am “anti-intellectual” mostly because of 1 and 2, where the intellectual insists on 5 even as they also insist otherwise. If that wasn’t the case, then I would be considered (and Glenn Beck for that matter) an intellectual because of number 4. How do you determine if someone is “smart” anyway? Grades, achievements, earning power? How do you know that non-intellectuals do not ask the same questions? Maybe they do and come up with different answers and just don’ t write a paper or book on the subjects. To be honest, most intellectuals I know generally like the questions more than they do the answers.

    I consider “Intellectual” as a value judgment rather than a description.

  8. “To be honest, most intellectuals I know generally like the questions more than they do the answers.”

    Damn that Socrates for setting such a bad example.

    I actually agree with this comment, but likely for different reasons. Jettboy, I am glad that you (and Glenn Beck for that matter) have the answers figured out. Why does this make you so grouchy?

  9. Building on Chris’s criteria of being ‘well read’–which I think is an absolute must–I would add the ability to think critically. This means rejecting simplistic assumptions, superficial answers, and often black/white dichotomies. Of course this goes with Aaron’s comment about simplifying. This also builds on the idea of being more interested in questions, because I think there is actually a humility involved that reminds us we never have final answers. (I like Terryl Givens’s hypothesis that in Mormon theology, we often have many of the answers but are seldom aware of the pertinent questions.)

  10. I agree with Chris H. that a self-identifying intellectual is kind of cringe inducing, but that is because I take the label to be a compliment and compliments paid to oneself are kind of off-putting.

  11. “I like Terryl Givens’s hypothesis that in Mormon theology, we often have many of the answers but are seldom aware of the pertinent questions.”

    Hey Ben, where does this come from? It’s interesting. Is it in one of his books?

  12. Chris H, despite your sarcasm maybe we both came up with a difference between “intellectuals” and “non-intellectuals” that hasn’t been touched yet. There are those who like the answers and those who like the questions.

    The ones who like the answers feel satisfied with what they have. Those who like the questions don’t, and make those who like the answers “grouchy” because they feel those who like the questions are acting like snobs. Why can’t they be satisfied with the answers like the rest of us poor slobs? For that matter, why can’t they be satisfied with answers to start with? Always moving the target, coming up with new things as if nothing will satisfy their insatiable appetite for non-conformity. They want to be treated with respect while at the same time show no respect for the status quo that most people call their lives, their faith, their reason for existence.

  13. Todd. I am sure it is in more than one place, but I came across it in Givens’ recent FAIR presentation concerning his work on the pre-mortal life.

  14. #12: I think you’ve come up with the distinction that best characterizes how I think of intellectuals. So of course, because I like it, I’ll take it as the working definition.

    But I think half your inferences about motive are wrong.

    (FWIW, I’m fairly conservative/libertarian in my political *and* religious leanings. I love questions and satisfying answers equally.)

    “Always moving the target, coming up with new things as if nothing will satisfy their insatiable appetite for non-conformity.”

    Insatiable appetite for questions, actually. The other side has an insatiable appetite for answers. I think the main reason an individual is inclined toward intellectualism (as defined this way) or anti-intellectualism is whether *not* having answers (anti-intellectual) or *not* having questions (intellectual) produces more anxiety.

    Now put two polar opposites in a conversation and see what happens. This imaginary one is (hopefully) exaggerated for effect:

    Anti-intellectual: I love the simplicity of the gospel. It’s so easy to believe it, and when you do, following it is a no-brainer.

    Intellectual [whose anxiety gland is now producing anxiety enzymes in whole gallons per second]: How can you say that? There’s nothing simple about it! [Brings in Exhibits A through ZZ.] Also, it’s really not easy to believe. What about exhibits C-GG? It’s riddled with contradictions!

    Anti-intellectual [whose anxiety gland, which has inflated like a life raft, is putting pressure on the cerebral cortex]: Argh! No! You are ignoring the simple core of it all, and are playing semantic games on the periphery! It’s all nonsense! What ever happened to the plain and precious truths? Wo unto the learned who think they are wise!

    Intellectual: I can’t believe you are so arrogant as to assume that you, little ape-man, can know something so completely and absolutely as to render all questions about it meaningless.

    And so it goes.

    What’s going on? Anti-intellectual likes to have answers. He likes to know that he is behaving or believing in a way that is in some way *correct*. That he’s *safe*. The very fact that Intellectual brings up more questions – and doesn’t give answers! – is very threatening.

    Intellectual, on the other hand, doesn’t like answers that are asserted to be complete. He doesn’t trust them. He always assumes there’s more going on, and that the extra detail is vitally important. The fact that Anti-intellectual states that anything so important has such complete and perfect answers is very threatening.

    Fortunately, not many people swing so far to one end or the other. (Though we had a Sunday School teacher once who swung so far to the Anti side that it really bothered my wife, who strongly sympathizes with that side.) I think people are naturally inclined toward one or the other, but that circumstances can change them.

    For example, I used to be very anti-intellectual myself. Then, by doing graduate studies in computer science and statistics (of all things), I started dissecting everything; specifically, identifying common assumptions and trying to justify them – and often not being able to. I also concluded, by correlating Bayesian inference, information theory, and history, that infallible sources of evidence almost never exist. I’ve further been exposed to a lot of other ways to understand pretty much everything.

    End result? I don’t trust pat answers. There’s always more detail.

    Those same studies, though, produced some mitigating stances. For example, I think that questions are useless unless someone tries to answer them. (Computer science heavily emphasizes the pragmatics of a question.) Also, I think that with enough of the weakest evidence and the right mental model, you can approach 100% certainty to an arbitrary degree. (Bayesian inference.) And some questions make little to no difference (how exactly did BoM translation work?) – they are effectively (though not totally) independent of other concerns – and have no place in Sunday School or any other venue with a mixed intellectual/anti-intellectual audience. Focusing on them exercises the too-human cognitive bias to overemphasize the evidential strength of their answers.

    I think a lot of intellectuals have come to these conclusions as well. Unfortunately, like liberals and conservatives, we tend to polarize against each other in mixed company. The questioner wants to raise awareness of the questions, and providing possible or best answers would work against that. The answerer wants to raise awareness that there are very good answers out there, and raising more questions would work against that.

    And so…

    “They want to be treated with respect while at the same time show no respect for the status quo that most people call their lives, their faith, their reason for existence.”

    Given that “what produces anxiety in you” so strongly influences your life, faith, and reason for existence, I’d say that you could turn this statement around and still be absolutely correct.

  15. The real problem is that there is a self defined group that basically asserts that they have insight and knowledge that everyone else lacks and should appreciate.

    It is, of course, every group that feels this way.

  16. Given the highly authoritarian nature and structure of the church, the only way one can safely be an “intellectual” is to operate within a very narrow (i.e., church-oriented) sphere. I think there are many truly talented intellectuals in the church — they just keep quiet about where their thoughts are taking them.

  17. I think a convenient definition of intellectual (covers 95%) is a socially awkward person who likes to read non-popular books that aren’t exclusively science fiction/fantasy or biographies of the founding fathers. The last 5% who aren’t socially awkward are the lucky few, I think.

    I personally think the category of “intellectual” (even my convenience definition) is mostly useless and should be abandoned.

  18. Sorry, I should have been clear that I meet the convenience definition and have wonderfully positive feelings toward others who meet the definition. I still think the notion of intellectual is not terribly useful.

  19. about definition #6, even within the humanities, the intellectuals can be few, depending on whom you ask. it has been my experience, for instance, that some philosophy types, for instance, regard others, such as those who study dead languages, as non-thinking.

  20. “…it has been my experience, for instance, that some philosophy types, for instance, regard others, such as those who study dead languages, as non-thinking.”

    Wait…did I ever say that out loud. Sorry about that.

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