The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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Russell Kirk - 08/31/11

As a noun descriptive of persons, “intellectual” implies a person given to abstract thought, presumably of an advanced or radical character, as distinguished from a person attached to tradition, convention, and custom.

In the seventeenth century, the term “intellectual” was chiefly employed to describe a person who holds that all knowledge is derived from pure reason. The more common term for this concept was “intellectualist.” Both had derogatory connotations. Francis Bacon criticizes the intellectualist, in The Advancement of Learning (1605), for being a mere abstract metaphysician. Bishop Parker remarks how “These pure and seraphic intellectualists forsooth despise all sensible knowledge as too grosse and materiall for their nice and curious faculties.” Without actually using the term “intellectual,” David Hume demolished eighteenth-century a priori thinkers (after the model of Locke) who took Reason as sole guide to the nature of man. Coleridge—also without using the term—attacked intellectuals as devotees of Understanding, “the mere reflective faculty,” as distinguished from Reason, the organ of the supersensuous.

As a noun descriptive of persons, “intellectual” appeared scarcely at all in nineteenth-century dictionaries. So far as the term was employed in Britain and America, it meant the “sophisters and calculators” whom Burke had denounced, the abstract philosophes; it was a category despised equally, though for different reasons, by Romantics and Utilitarians. It was closely linked with an unimaginative secularism: John Henry Newman attacked Sir Robert Peel for embracing it. By implication, an intellectual neglected the imagination, the power of wonder and awe, and the whole realm of being beyond mere rational perception.

Despite the term’s derogatory history, a group of persons in the early twentieth century began to describe themselves as intellectuals. They were influenced by the concepts and the terminology of Marx, who said that the intellectual must always gnaw at the foundations of society. This use of the term “intellectual” posits a body of schooled and highly rational persons bitterly opposed to established social institutions: outcasts, in a sense; alienated men; rootless, radical folk. During the Dreyfus controversy in France, factions of the Right used “les intellectuals” with contempt to describe cafe revolutionaries—men who had broken with tradition; foes of patriotism, order, and the judgment of the centuries.

Until fairly recent decades, London and New York did not know the domination of the intellectual. Not until the 1920s, in Britain and America, was there much talk of the treason of the intellectuals, because the word intellectual was seldom used for lack of a distinct class to which it might be applied. Not even Emerson wrote about the “American intellectual.” He disliked the concept of “a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul,” a body of persons claiming to speak “exclusively for the intellect, and for the intellect only.”

Nevertheless, beginning with the 1920s, there developed in the United States a category or class of intellectuals, chiefly in Manhattan, virtually identified with political and social movements of the Left, ranging from mild secularism to outright advocacy of communism. Lionel Trilling and William J. Newman stated that they employed the words “intellectual” and “liberal” almost synonymously. Correspondingly, educated conservatives have declined to be labeled “intellectuals,” preferring such designations as “bookman,” “scholar,” or “writer.”

Not all liberals or radicals, however, embrace the designation “intellectual.” In the 1950s, someone wrote to Bertrand Russell inquiring after his definition of that term. “I have never called myself an intellectual,” Russell replied, “and nobody has ever dared to call me one in my presence.” Russell also stated, “I think an intellectual may be defined as a person who pretends to have more intellect than he has, and I hope that this definition does not fit me.”

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