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liminal cut steel

December 23, 2012

Three blog posts in one day is unprecedented but a tweet led me to an essay by William Deresiewicz, wherein he writes about intellectuals:

“we’ve forgotten what an intellectual is. It isn’t a smart person; it is someone, precisely, who speaks of public issues to a public audience. […] An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. […] But celebrity, like the institutionalization that comes with being an academic, is inimical to the intellectual’s mission: questioning the mental status quo. The more a part of things you are—the more embedded in the machinery of status and position—the harder that is to do. As Kazin said, “values are our only home in the universe.” Allegiances, to any group, are fatal. The intellectual’s job is to think past the culture: to question the myths, metaphors, and assumptions that limit our collective imagination. ”

I was all set to decide perhaps that’s what I am, when I Googled ‘intellectualism’, which led me to its Wikipedia page, which includes:

“In the field of philosophy, ‘intellectualism’ occasionally is synonymous with ‘rationalism’, that is, knowledge mostly derived from reason and ratiocination. Socially, ‘intellectualism’ negatively connotes: single-mindedness of purpose (“too much attention to thinking”) and emotional coldness (“the absence of affection and feeling”).”

That’s about the opposite of what I would say I’m doing. The above seems to me very NT, very Air, very Athena. I’m NF. (Astrologically, I’m Fire and Water, but in this particular sense) I’m decidedly Earth. Which means the goddess analog must be Aphrodite.

I can say I have no allegiances to any group. I’m not at all ‘embedded in the machinery of status and position’; outside of my 57 readers, and various people I’ve met in my offline life (many of whom would say I “think too much”), no one else has ever heard of me.

For that matter, can you name yourself an intellectual? Or does the act of doing so make you a snob? An arrogant fool? A poser? All three at once?

I often enjoy William Deresiewicz’s writing, but in other parts of this essay, he sounds like the proverbial old man, yelling ‘you kids get offa my lawn!’ (That is, asserting that everything was better in the past.) I notice that none of his praiseworthy past geniuses are women.

However his essay linked me to Jack Miles’s essay, Three Differences between an Academic and an Intellectual: What happens to the Liberal Arts when they are kicked off campus?, where I found such germane snippets as:

“A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. “

[Definitely true.]


“It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”



“Like hunters, who join the chase when they can and leave it when they must, sharing the kill with the tribe when they are successful, so intellectuals study when they can and stop when they must, seeking ever to please themselves but sharing their intellectual pleasure, when they write, with their readers.”

[Not wild about that metaphor but, upon further reflection, it seems rather apt.]

More questions, no answers.

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