The anti-intellectualism of intellectuals

One often hears intellectuals adopting anti-intellectual positions. Academics routinely deride the “Ivory Tower,” for instance, and highly educated theologians insist on the superior insights of the people in the pews. There’s apparently just something about reading and thinking a lot that makes some people crave contact with the “grass roots.”

I’ve tended to understand this as a form of self-hatred stemming from an anti-intellectual culture, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if there might not be another factor at work. Maybe the intellectuals who are so enamored of plain folk just enjoy being the smartest person in the room. Maybe they’re tired of arguments, tired of proving themselves — and they just want to settle down in a social location where everyone will recognize that they’re right. They side with the people over against the elitist intellectuals because that is the way for them to secure their elite status. They deride other intellectuals as divisive bullies, as intolerable snobs, in order to innoculate their group from seeking another intellectual leader.

In other words, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals is an attempt to convert intellect directly into power and authority. Thus in a sense, they’re right to distinguish themselves from the “Ivory Tower,” that mythical land where people argue in good faith and accept criticism and correction, where people don’t take the recommendation of another book as an insult and welcome input from people who know more than them. Where’s the payoff in that?

25 thoughts on “The anti-intellectualism of intellectuals

  1. Less dramatically, it might be that the intellectual is adopting this kind of rhetoric as a way to foreclose any critical engagement with their position. A disguised ad hominem.

  2. I wonder if the same goes for pastors. Rather than having to argue with intelligent seminary professors or theologians, they have a complete monopoly and become the resident “theological scholar” at the church. This positions affords them immunity from critiques.

  3. ambzone is right that that’s how it functions in the context of academic debates. I’m thinking more of people who actually do “put their money where their mouth is,” which tends to happen more often in church contexts (such as Jeremy describes).

  4. “where everyone will recognize that they’re right”
    I think that this is a desire that very rarely is satisfied. Ok. when you’re an intellectual you really can feel that people think about you that you are the smartest. But it doesn’t mean that there is any power connected with it. It’s is rarther simple recognition: “oh, s/he is an intellectual, s/he has to be smart”- but that’s all.

  5. What you’re describing most certainly happens. Not being an “intellectual” myself (more of a dilettante) I’d also suggest that there’s more to “know” about life than intellectual knowledge, obvs. Perhaps some of said academic anti-intellectuals are simply offering, or recommending, that there are things to learn apart from (in addition to) what can be gleaned from books? Of course, if academics are deriding other academics in order to secure a place of power amongst the simple un-smartened people who don’t know much about stuff, then that’s just plain silliness, and everyone should know better. I see you’re frustrated, and understandably so. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

  6. Except that many “plain folk” think that intellectuals are quacks and disagree with them on just about anything. So it might actually be a challenge; the “plain folk” are really the final frontier. If you convince a plain person, you can convince even the most arcane intellectual.

  7. I think the situation with pastors is more complicated, but yes. The anti-intellectualism is the only option to have as the resident scholar of a congregation, after graduating from a seminary where the “real” theological work is either not taught or is left to be done in a location far away from the church.

  8. I do my damnedest as a pastor to put myself in academic contexts where I can get put through the intellectual ringer (but it really is hard work and I understand why many pastors give up on this). But conversely there is a different sort of knowledge to be engaged and formed in among the ‘laity’ . . . but it has to, in some ways, by something *other* than academic because otherwise it is too easy to play the role of expert (which, then you just need to do responsibly I guess).
    I don’t see this element as pervasive in my denominational circles but we have a long history of a more integrated approach to knowledge . . . for the weaknesses that tradition has as well.

  9. Isn’t “anti-intellectualism” just a form of nostalgia? Most, having spend many years acquiring expertise in some narrow field, feel some displaced nostalgia for “what if I didn’t go to grad school and just married that girl I liked in high school and had a bunch of kids now and worked a regular job like all them nice regular folks?”

    I do think anti-intellectual is a form of empowerment – and it’s because intellectualism fails to empower. It is ridiculous though as a coherent position. It is as consistent as a institutionally established academic raging against the system that sustains him/her – it’s cute but ultimately also oddly self-indulgent.

    Anti-intellectualism is just a “mid-life crisis” intellectualism.

  10. I think Dana is right. If they aren’t anti-intellectual, the common folk want to see an explanation and reasons to agree with the often helpful stuff the scholar might be saying. The “common touch” has a relation to *reason*.

    But I definitely agree with Jeremy about pastors. Ye should all check out Douglas Wilson and his church in Idaho, where there is a whiff of that.

  11. Ian Hunter has good things to say about this in his work, especially his stuff on the “persona of the philosopher” and the “history of theory,” where he looks at the Kantian posture of critical intellectuals that position themselves against civic intellectuals like bureaucrats and others outside the university

  12. Thinking about this in a different context, that of British cultural studies, a paradigm of populism emerged strongly in the 1980s but it had everything to do with internal intellectual politics. Specifically it came from rejecting the academic obsession with discerning a revolutionary subject and the inevitable fretting over working class cultural practices that comes along with that. A few of these populists built solid careers outside academia, or straddling academia, but not within mass culture. The point being, I think, that while there is an intellectual anti-intellectualism of the kind that ambzone criticizes in the first comment – of the “my departmental colleagues are all irrelevant bourgeois gasbags but I am truly one with the common man” variety – there are also examples of anti-cultural elitist intellectual critiques that are not simply a different form of status seeking.

  13. How do you think this relates to something like antiphilosophy in particular? One could make a case for a form of self-hatred in someone like Wittgenstein, perhaps, though personally I would be hesitant to make that claim. It seems even less applicable in the case of someone like Rosenzweig. But perhaps there’s a difference between “intellectualism” and “philosophy,” as both W. and R. remained intellectuals and seemed to be alright with intellectual activity as a whole.

  14. This article presents an interesting angle on intellectual expression, though I have to wonder if it perpetuates somewhat of a false dichotomy of intellectualism vs. anti-intellectualism. I may be mincing words a bit, but \would the topic take the same form if framed as intellectualism vs. non-intellectualism (discussing more-or-less specialized topics is common practice depending on the quorum), or as pro-intellectualism vs. anti-intellectualism (which in-itself is a topic of epistemological, “intellectual” discourse), or if all of the terms were taken into account?

  15. Adam – Could you give us an actual example or two of the sort of phenomenon you have in mind?

    I occasionally see intellectuals criticizing the biases of elite institutions, or criticizing academics/theologians for being out of touch with the concerns of most people. And, of course, some intellectuals are divisive bullies and/or snobs. These criticisms could, then, be perfectly reasonable – even well justified.

    Furthermore, one could certainly criticize the “Ivory Tower” without enjoying spending time with “non-intellectuals,” and vice versa.

    So, I’m wondering what sort of phenomena you have in mind that require the sort of psychological explanations you offer (e.g., “self-hatred,” or a desire to be “the smartest person in the room”).

  16. Dean’s comment prompts my question: does your position, Adam, reject a crass, self-serving anti-intellectualism by opposing to it an equally crass, self-serving, isolationist vanguardism? To whom is your work responsible, in general — not necessarily this or that essay/book, etc. — and ultimately — not immediately, as if everything you write must be easily translated into laypeople’s terms? With whom do you stand as you write and teach? Many of the anti-intellectual types you rightly critique posture for self-serving reasons, but the most generous read, as Dean hints at, is the awareness of how easily academics can become detached from the people for whom they are ostensibly writing. The question is not “for whom” but “in the community of whom” do you write?

    I don’t intend this to be an ad hominem question directed at how Adam lives his life, but more a question how we imagine (or should imagine) our connections to communities. The academy is a community. But then so are parties and churches.

  17. Your question is extremely abstract. Why would I jump to the opposite extreme of what I’m critiquing? Why would that even seem to be a danger or temptation?

    Sometimes I write for specialists in my field. Sometimes I write for a broader academic audience about institutional issues. Sometimes I write for a wider educated public. Sometimes I write documents that only circulate within Shimer College itself. I don’t have many ties with church or party communities, and so I don’t really write for those people — that would be presumptuous. Maybe I should have such ties, but that’s a separate issue. My writing functions in a variety of communities and I try to be responsible to the relevant communities when I write for them. None of this strikes me as particularly problematic or difficult to understand.

  18. Also, “the academy” includes undergrad students. When I teach, that’s who I’m trying to be faithful to — and so I spend most of my days with people who are, by definition, less educated than me, as does virtually every single working academic in the entire world.

  19. Checking back for responses, I’m once again bothered by Justin’s comment. The “but aren’t you in danger of the opposite extreme” is a hallmark of bad-faith attempts to distract — viz., “You don’t want to cut taxes? Well, we might as well nationalize all industry and set up gulags, then…” — and even if that wasn’t your intention, you should be more sensitive to the fact that I do not know you or your intentions at all, given that this is the first time we’ve ever interacted. And I’m glad you said that it wasn’t an ad hominem attack, because up until then, it really could have been construed that way! Again, I have never interacted with you before in my life, so I can’t know that you mean well.

    I don’t know what the goal behind your extremely abstract and vague question is — do you want to remain faithful to the church (and so perhaps feel defensive about my post)? Are you an activist who’s suspicious of academics? Or something else? I have no idea, while you have reams and reams of evidence for figuring out my convictions and goals in the thousands of blog posts I’ve written and published here for over five years.

  20. Oh, and my apologies: my last comment suggested I might consider you elitist. I did not intend that either. I do worry about that with this blog at times, but that wasn’t my point. I wanted to know what you saw as the best alternative. The original post was posed in dialectical terms so I thought it reasonable to pose other dialectical terms, and vanguardism and elitism were closest to hand, especially in the context of the real left you represent.

    I hope that is clearer.

  21. This post is good because I’ve been interested in the widely diverging “figures” or images that everyone seems to have of intellectuals. It’s commonly assumed that the intellectual is thought of by the masses as either being the overpaid bullshit artist or the expert worthy of respect and admiration. But between these poles lie an enormously variegated spectrum of opinions and desires and ideas.

    It seems that in the past five years or so the “figure” of the intellectual has been changing in the public imagination, but it’s no less confused and distorted. With the rise of more accessible intellectuals like Zizek (and his horde of followers) people seem to be looking more toward academics for, if not guidance, then for some sort of help in parsing the contemporary world. Some are looking for ideas and some are just searching for a subject supposed to know in order to help them clear up their thinking.

    Of course no one in their right mind would expect intellectuals to have a common understanding amongst themselves as to their collective roles in the university, the church, the media, or in radical political thinking or action. But I would be very interested to hear what the folks on this blog have to say about what constitutes the “figure of the intellectual” in the wider culture, what it is they do and what it is they are perceived as doing, particularly in the areas of radical politics and/or radical theology.

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