Free to be Intellectual

When I think of intellectuals, though, I don’t really think of Hollywood producers or politicians or even newspaper columnists. But the people I do think of seem to have something else in common. They don’t just love thinking, they love language. They love its tricks and intricacies, its games, the way it gets written down, the books it gets written into, the libraries those books are in, and the typography those books use.

 Aaron Swartz

I wanted to start with this quote Tuesday, but I hadn’t realized how angry I was with the current trend of “play nice”. Especially since those who call for it mean nothing like kindness but instead want to block all real communication. The consensus seems to be there’s a danger in opinions, especially if they’re strongly felt (but what’s the point otherwise?) and it seems to be a result of the irrational distrust of intellectualism in America.

“Intellectual” is a dirty word, and I don’t understand why.

English: An intellectual contrasted with a pri...

English: An intellectual contrasted with a prize-fighter; by Thomas Nast ca. 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, I’m biased. I like to consider myself an intellectual: not particularly intelligent, perhaps, but I love to think, love to play with words, to really discuss even trivialities if there’s enough I know—or don’t know—about it. And fortunately, I’ve had a mostly sheltered life. I went to college, knew plenty of similar-minded people and still. My social circle, such as it is, is made up of others who like debates and have conversations where we don’t just spend hours reinforcing our opinions.

Before I go any further I suppose I should also define what mean by ‘intellectual.’ Obviously, it’s much like Swartz’s, and that’s why I quoted him His article helped me coalesce my thoughts into this post. It’s something I’ve thought about on generally and vaguely before. Another:

What good is thinking if you can’t share?

I hadn’t realize how frustrated and circular my own thoughts were getting: this is a topic I’ve turned over and over in my mind, but never quite gotten down for public consumption. “Intellectual” doesn’t and shouldn’t have anything to do with academics or even graded intelligence (i.e. IQ tests).

For example, as much as I read I feel like it takes me forever to finish anything, because I have to respond. I can’t just passively take it in, I want to dialogue with the author, make sense of not only whether I agree, but why I’m responding the why I am. Not simply decide how well the author has made her argument, but compare it to how others have engaged with the topic, the structure of their arguments.

I recently picked up a book, The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys from the library. After just two chapters I knew it was a book that I would have to own. But again: I’m spending so much time thinking and responding to his writing, I’ve only read the first third or so. Powys suggests (in the most generous sense, as I don’t have the book with me at the moment) that you don’t need an education, or class, or power to have culture. A cultured person thinks deeply about the world around them and uses the expressions of culture (philosophy, music, art) to decide how to create a personal culture: one that’s always under revision, always willing to be challenged, always understands the ‘why’ is important and doesn’t take any belief for granted.

“Curiosity, especially intellectual inquisitiveness, is what separates the truly alive from those who are merely going through the motions.”
― Tom Robbins

That’s what I call an intellectual: someone who prizes having a definite personal culture, and doesn’t fall into fickle, unformed drift of so-called Public Opinion, but makes up his or her own mind.

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And now that I’ve finally managed to define what I think an intellectual is (or should be) I still haven’t gotten to the point I most wanted to make. I guess I have a series on my hands. I’ll try to finish this part tomorrow.


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