There are some terms in the English language we use mainly to describe others, and almost never, out of modesty or otherwise, to describe ourselves. ‘Intellectual’ is one such term. Perhaps this is because the very idea of an intellectual seems to have a certain transcendental quality. Thus for Ralph Waldo Emerson, the power of the intellect was something that ‘dissolves fire, gravity, laws, method, and the subtlest unnamed relations of nature.’ It was ‘the simple power to all action or construction.’
The common image of the intellectual confirms this picture. To be called an intellectual is, in a way, to occupy an exalted status: to stand beyond the pursuit of practical ends, uncorrupted by material ambition and desire, and offer some original understanding of the world. Even when reference to an intellectual is negative—as it is, for instance, with disdainful talk about the ‘ivory tower’—the image of the intellectual as one devoted to learning and ideas remains.
Such depictions of the intellectual have long existed but they fail to capture the full picture. What is missing is any sense that the intellectual is not merely a person of ideas or an interpreter of events. For all his love of ideas—a love of ideas for their own sake—the intellectual is more than a navel-gazing scholar. His endeavour is necessarily one of applying ideas to achieve political, social and cultural goals—to attain progress by bringing reason to the world.
In an important way, then, intellectuals are unavoidably public. ‘The intellectual,’ as Edward Said noted, ‘is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or option to, as well as for, a public.’ Our most powerful intellectuals are those who dare us to defy convention, and who liberate us from the stereotypes and received custom that constrain our thought and imagination.
There is the sense, however, that intellectuals today are spectators—either as esteemed thinker or cloistered scholar—rather than agents in society. Much of this can be explained by some of the fundamental shifts taking place in the intellectual life of the West, and the gap that has emerged between the social position of the intellectual and the general public they address.
Where once our intellectuals would have been readily located on the Left Bank, in Bloomsbury, or Greenwich Village, today they are more likely to be found in the quiet groves of the academy. There was a time when intellectuals made their mark outside the classroom—take, for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, Walter Lippman and Herbert Croly. Nowadays making an intellectual impact on the general public requires making a mark first in an academic field and attaining some prerequisite credibility. The intellectual has become a more scholastic creature.
At the same time, the audience an intellectual requires—an attentive, critical and idealistic public that can absorb arguments of length and complexity—is becoming more elusive. The voice of our age is that of the media pundit, not the intellectual. In an information market dictated by a twenty-four hour global news cycle spanning television and the internet, image captures and sound bites are standard currency. There is little space for the kind of sustained reflection and resistance to accepting easy prescriptions that the intellectual demands from his public.
In light of this, we can only wonder whether intellectuals can still fulfill their social role as those who challenge custom, tradition and authority, and impel us to reach beyond inherited wisdom. As intellectuals are increasingly ensconced in university offices and corridors and as the patience of the public continues to shrink, the challenge is ensuring that the intellectual does not disappear. There remains the danger of intellectuals no longer addressing the public, but rather speaking only among themselves as members of insular communities, in esoteric languages. Today’s intellectual would do well to avoid such solipsistic enclosure and instead adopt the ethos that their work should find its audience not among scholars but among the general public. The cries from the ivory tower are rarely heard amid the bustle in the town square.
This Spring issue of The Oxonian Review of Books features reviews and articles touching on the matter of the intellectual. Joshua Cherniss’s essay on the late Isaiah Berlin explores the ideological battles over the interpretation of Berlin’s political philosophy and the ongoing impact of Berlin’s ideas on contemporary politics. Chris Nathan reviews the posthumously published In the Beginning Was the Deed, a collection of political essays byphilosopher Bernard Williams. True to form, this issue of the ORB has a distinct Oxonian flavour. In addition to those Oxford giants Berlin and Williams, James Womack takes a look at New Bats in Old Belfries, an edited volume of poems penned by former Wadham College Warden, Professor of Poetry and University Vice-Chancellor, Maurice Bowra. We continue our focus on intellectual life and the academy with Andrew Hay’s review of Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents.
The rest of this issue features an eclectic mix of reviews on history, science, biography and fiction. John-Paul McCarthy offers a review essay on Irish history, dealing with recent books on Michael Collins, Eoin O’Duffy and a selection of essays by former Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald. Jacob Foster explores the marriage of natural and social science in the postwar years as documented in Rebecca Lemov’s World as Laboratory. Nicholas Farrelly reviews Phil Thorton’s Restless Souls, an account of life on the Thai-Burmese border with rebels fighting the current Burmese military regime. Patrick Belton takes us inside the transformation occuring in Hamas. And we take a closer look at the life of DH Lawrence as an ‘outsider’ with Katherine Hurst’s essay on John Worthen’s recent biography. Other books reviewed in this Spring issue include Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. Finally, our Arts and Culture section features an essay from Steven Stowell offering a critical perspective on representations of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain, reviews of the films Munich and Caché, and also theatre reviews of Nights at the Circus and The Andersen Project.