The Commitment of the Intellectual
An oldie, yet irresistible goldie. Read and enjoy.
Veterans Today, 4-3-2013
What is an intellectual?
Paul Baran & Stewart Brand
The most obvious answer would seem to be: a person working with his intellect, relying for his livelihood on his brain rather than on his brawn.
Yet simple and straightforward as it is, this definition would be generally considered to be quite inadequate. Fitting everyone who is not engaged in physical labor, it clearly does not jibe with the common understanding of the term “intellectual.”
It applies accurately to a large group of people forming an important part of society: individuals working with their minds rather than with their muscles, living off their wits rather than off their hands. Let us call these people intellect workers. They are businessmen and physicians, corporate executives and purveyors of “culture,” stockbrokers and university professors.
All intellect workers have one obvious interest in common: not to be reduced to the more onerous, less remunerative, and less respected manual labor. Driven by this interest, they tend to hypostatize their own position, to exaggerate the difficulty of their work and the complexity of the skills required for it… And in seeking to protect their position, they identify themselves with the intellect workers who comprise the ruling class….
Thus under capitalism the intellect worker is typically the faithful servant, the agent, the functionary, and the spokesman of the capitalist system.
Typically, he takes the existing order of things for granted and questions the prevailing state of affairs solely within the limited area of his immediate preoccupation. …
In this regard he differs little, if at all, from the manual worker who molds metal sheets, assembles parts of an engine, or lays bricks in constructing a wall.
He is not concerned with the relation of the segment of human endeavor within which he happens to operate to other segments and to the totality of the historical process. His “natural” motto is to mind his own business, and, if he is conscientious and ambitious, to be as efficient and as successful at it as possible. …
The intellect worker regards dealing with problems of totality as one specialty among many. This is to him the “field” of philosophers, religious functionaries, or politicians, even as “culture” or “values” are the business of poets, artists, and sages.
The concern with the whole moves out of the center of the individuals preoccupation, and affects him, if at all, merely marginally…
The concern with the whole becomes irrelevant to the individual, and by leaving this concern to others he eo ipso accepts the existing structure of the whole as a datum and subscribes to the prevailing criteria of rationality, to the dominant values, and to the socially enforced yardsticks of efficiency, achievement, and success.
“The truth is the whole”
What marks the intellectual and distinguishes him from the intellect workers and indeed from all others is that his concern with the entire historical process is not a tangential interest but permeates his thought and significantly affects his work.
To be sure, this does not imply that the intellectual in his daily activity is engaged in the study of all of historical development. This would be a manifest impossibility. But what it does mean is that the intellectual is systematically seeking to relate whatever specific area he may be working in to other aspects of human existence. …
This principle “the truth is the whole” carries with it, in turn, the inescapable necessity of refusing to accept as a datum or to treat as immune from analysis, any single part of the whole.
Whether the investigation relates to unemployment in one country, to backwardness and squalor in another, to the state of education now, or to the development of science at some other time, no set of conditions prevailing in society can be taken for granted, none can be considered to be “extraterritorial.” …
“Values” and “ethical judgments” which to the intellect workers are untouchable data, do not drop from heaven. They themselves constitute important aspects and results of the historical process and must be examined with regard to their origin and to the part which they play in historical development.
In fact, the defetishization of “values,” “ethical judgments,” [..] as well as the uncovering of the specific interests which they serve at any particular time, represent the greatest single contribution that an intellectual can make to the cause of human advancement. …
Obligation to speak the truth
This is the issue on which the intellectual cannot compromise. Disagreements, arguments, and bitter struggles are unavoidable and, indeed, indispensable to ascertain the nature, and the means to the realization, of conditions necessary for the health, development, and happiness of men. …
Although the writings of C. P. Snow leave no doubt that he would unreservedly accept this point of departure, it would seem that he believes the commitment of the intellectual to be essentially reducible to the obligation to speak the truth. ..
In fact, the principal reason for his admiration for scientists is their devotion to truth. Scientists “want to find what is there.
Without that desire, there is no science… It compels the scientist to have an overriding respect for truth, every stretch of the way. That is, if you’re going to find what is there, you mustn’t deceive yourself or anyone else. You mustn’t lie to yourself…”
There are powerful forces at work shunting the energies and abilities of scientists in certain directions and impeding or sterilizing the results of their work in others. …
Telling the truth about what does matter, seeking the truth about the whole, and uncovering the social and historical causes and interconnections of the different parts of the whole is decried as unscientific and speculative and is punished by professional discrimination, social ostracism, and outright intimidation.
The desire to tell the truth is therefore only one condition for being an intellectual. The other is courage, readiness to carry on rational inquiry to wherever it may lead, to undertake “ruthless criticism of everything that exists, ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx)
An intellectual is thus in essence a social critic… He becomes the conscience of society. And as such he is inevitably considered a “troublemaker” and a “nuisance” by the ruling class seeking to preserve the status quo, as well as by the intellect workers in its service…
The more reactionary a ruling class, the more obvious it becomes that the social order over which it presides has turned into an impediment to human liberation, the more is its ideology taken over by anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, and superstition.
All that can be hoped for now is that our country will produce its “quota” of men and women who will defend the honor of the intellectual against all the fury of dominant interests and against all the assaults of agnosticism, obscurantism, and inhumanity.
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