What Makes Someone an Intellectual, According to 68 People?
Are you or someone you know one?
If you asked most people to name an intellectual, they would name dead people known within a field. People like Descartes, Jung, and Bayes. Even those who try to give you a more comprehensive answer would think of them first.
Till a few years ago, I would have given the same answer. But recognition within a field isn't the only condition to be an intellectual. After talking to 68 people about this, I realized the definition extends further than that.
Intelligence, like recognition, is a characteristic of most intellectuals. Intelligent people grasp, know, and recall more data than most people. They are also better at reasoning and critical thinking. Someone with these traits is at a higher chance of being able to devote themselves to analyzing and producing knowledge than someone who doesn't have them. That's why most intellectuals are smart.
Yet, most smart people aren't intellectuals. Think of your school, college, or postgraduate friends who were smart. Most of them have likely never disrupted their field of study or industry.
What every intellectual has is a thirst for truth, whether it validates their worldview or not. If you do research to understand the world but reject findings that run against what you think, you are a hack. A lot of the people I've met that consider themselves intellectuals are hacks. They try not to burst while I present a thesis that shakes their world. They nod. Say, "I understand." But they are waiting for their time to speak to tell me how wrong I am.
Unlike those people, an intellectual, in their search for truth, would not dismiss an idea. They would rather verify its authenticity and explain whether the belief is true or not, as well as why people hold such beliefs.
Sometimes, though, the openness to consider different ideas is not present in the short term. As someone told me, "someone can be an intellectual and be a complete asshat." Schopenhauer died without considering Hegel someone worth listening to. Even though Hegel was and remains the most popular of the two. All people at the top of their hierarchy are susceptible to becoming egocentric. Yet, most intellectuals I know or have studied went on to research why they are wrong in private. Some just throw a tantrum before doing it.
Besides ego, public shame might be an obstacle for intellectuals to admit they are wrong. Often, when an intellectual admits they are wrong in the present, people question whether he was right in the past. Many health authorities said to do X and Y during COVID-19. Then they said Y was not helpful. So people stopped doing X and Y and quit listening to authorities.
Many people think a consensus is necessary to consider someone an intellectual. They are wrong. Someone can think and produce more knowledge in a field than anyone else and not be an intellectual. If the findings are not verifiable, such as those in astrology, they are thinkers worthy of curiosity. But they are not intellectuals, even if those in the field believe they are.
Nowadays, the general public talks about how Jordan Peterson, a public intellectual, is no longer one. How he is losing his spark after his illness. But no matter what they claim, the facts are there:
His first post-grad job was as a professor at Harvard
Sells out events in which he only speaks about his ideas
All-time record for publications by a grad student at McGill
People have reproduced his videos close to 500 million times
These ideas both prove he is intelligent and has a thirst for truth. Such a thirst might have risen after he quit teaching. Now, he uploads many conversations each week with public thinkers that do not always agree with him.
As a note, if many people say someone is an intellectual, there is a significant chance they are. But it's nothing but a proxy.
Listening to the opinions of 68 people, I noticed a pattern of fear. The title of intellectual comes with expectations. If you have it, you feel you must be smarter than anyone else and disrupt a field. As a result, many intellectuals do not call themselves one. They instead criticize those who do.
One of the people who helped with this essay said:
"if the New York Times calls you an intellectual, that's one thing." "If you make business cards and write 'intellectual,' it's safe to assume there is a disconnect with the real world."
“You need at least two people who would agree that you are an intellectual." "Or two people who would think of you when asked to name an intellectual"
Neither is right. Both are either not OK with the fact that they are not intellectuals or afraid of the expectations that come with the title.
The million-dollar question is, do I see myself as an intellectual? Before and after talking to 68 people, yes.
The reason I write despite not having thousands of subscribers is that I feel I must write, think, and read. It's part of me. It's why I have researched the benefits of studying myths or the links between the ancient consumption of magic mushrooms and the birth of consciousness, even if, for most scientists, these are unscientific, crazy ideas. I entertain them until I find evidence that I should not.
Now, you might think I am not, and that's fine. Perhaps I am not. However, whether I keep searching for the truth or not depends on the same factor: whether I hold onto the idea that I'm one. So I'll call myself one.
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