Monday, May 30, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


Last week I had the great pleasure of reading and reviewing the stimulating collection of essays by Roger Horrocks, Re-Inventing New Zealand. In it, Horrocks discusses (among many other things) the status of intellectuals in New Zealand and the strong kiwi strain of anti-intellectualism. I think his arguments are piquant and well worth reading, but there is something that troubles me.
What do we mean by an“intellectual”?
I am playing a little dumb here, because I have a general apprehension of what is meant by the word, but let me consider it for a moment.            Strictly speaking, any human being who uses his or her intellect is an intellectual, But even if we limit the word to people who are involved in specialised studies or the professions or who have an advanced education, there is confusion. Doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers are all specialists who have an advanced education, but even though they all use their intellects, would they all qualify for the term “intellectual” as it is currently used?
Somehow, I think not, if only because doctors, scientists, lawyers and engineers perform practical functions of which even utilitarian non-intellectuals approve.
Okay, then, let us say an intellectual is somebody of some intellectual eminence who is involved publicly in abstract ideas or the higher reaches of thought or matters of moment. Would all such be called “intellectuals”?
Again, somehow, I think not.
My problem is that when people refer to “intellectuals” they are in fact referring to a small sub-set of those who live the life of the mind. They are referring to intellectuals engaged in the arts or social sciences or (perhaps) philosophy. This is very much the connotation of the word as used by Horrocks when he speaks of “anti-intellectualism”. He does not mean people who hate scientists, doctors, lawyers or engineers. He means people who hate challenging ideas in the arts and social sciences.
But this is a very limiting concept. What of those people who, intellectually and armed with a great deal of learning, more or less approve of things the way they are? I mean conservative intellectuals. Yes, there are such people.  And at what point does one qualify as a bona fide intellectual? Would a theologian who had spent years translating obscure texts from the Aramaic, and who publicly lectured on them, be considered an intellectual? Or would she be excluded from the magic circle for not espousing challenging ideas?
I do not think I am a philistine or an anti-intellectual. I can wave around a number of university degrees. I have written a number of books. I think I am reasonably well read and I do engage in public debate (okay, take a little saunter through the index of this blog). Furthermore, I am on the arts / humanities side of things. And yet I am still waiting for my official badge as a recognised intellectual. Perhaps my ideas are not avant-garde enough. Perhaps I am too middle-of-the-road. Perhaps my religion excludes me and proves me to be a dunce and a blockhead. But I do not think that any time soon anyone is going to call me an intellectual.
In the end, the concept of “anti-intellectualism”means “anti a certain sort of intellectualism”(or in a debased form “anti the ideas of which I approve”).

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Now let me change topics in this little sermon.
Many people (not only Horrocks) have lamented the “anti-intellectualism” of New Zealand society. I contend that (in the fuzzy and unsatisfactory way I have defined this term) this is not a problem uniquely, or even conspicuously, peculiar to New Zealand.
But (oh! the heresy of it!) as an aspiring intellectual, I think that sometimes suspicion of intellectuals is justified. And it does not always mean a lynch-mob of anti-intellectual oafs waiting to string up thinkers who challenge them. Something always makes me recall that cheerful quatrain by W.H.Auden, who, as far as I know, was an intellectual who had nothing to do with New Zealand:
To the man in the street who, I’m sorry to say,
 Is a keen observer of life,
The word intellectual suggests right away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.”
            Make a few time-specific adjustments to the wording, and you get the point of this. To put it another way, while the general baiting and suspicion of intellectuals (as narrowly defined) may be wrong, being an intellectual is not a free pass to be an arsehole.


  1. I enjoy your work but this really hits the nail firmly on it's head.

  2. Hi Nicholas, An interesting piece. Just to comment on one point: personally I agree we should be happy to include scientists, doctors, engineers, etc., in the category of intellectual, provided they think for themselves, do a lot of questioning, and are able to come up with original ideas now and then. I've always seen science and the arts as close companions, as leading modes of thought. I like scientists with an interest in the arts, and artists with an interest in science, and I've known, or read about, many cases of that. You're right that there are 'intellectuals' with a narrow conception of 'intellectuals' (and I remember some from university), and there's a phoniness about that. In my 'anti-intellectualism' essay I cite columnist Garth George as an example of someone with anti-science prejudice, and I also say: 'Of course intellectuals...turn up in many other areas also, such as business, but I will focus on the areas I am most familiar with.' (p.146)

  3. Thanks Roger. I don't disagree with your response here and [especially on the subject of climate change] we do now have the prospect of more "anti-intellectualism" with regard to science. Having raised at least some children who have opted very much for the sciences (but all of whom are literate and at home in the arts), I'm also skewing things a bit here for the sake of controversy. Frankly, I think it's the duty of humanities people to learn at least the rudiments of science, if only to head off the anti-evolution, anti-climate change crowd. Even so, the cry of "anti-intellectualism" is most often raised in response to oafs who cannot see the point of art of funding those weirdos who set up art galleries in New Plymouth etc.etc.