Mayashanti5282046’s Blog


The Intellectual Pt 1: Origin, rise, and decline (?)

Posted by mayashanti5282046 于 十一月 22, 2008

Sim Kwang Yang | Nov 3, 07 11:41am

Published in

Writing in his column article entitled “’Amateur’ pros giving country a bad name” in the


NST on Oct 28, Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, lamented “certain unprofessional conduct and behaviour by professionals and intellectuals, causing embarrassment not only to the fraternity, but the country as well.”

He has not specified what kind of conduct and behaviour by professionals that have brought us shame, but I assume they have something to do with the questionable professional ethics of some of our lawyers, doctors, architects, auditors and such other revered and highly-paid professions in the country.

He also went on to extol the principle of an “amateur” intellectual, as articulated by Edward Said, especially in his book Representations of the intellectual (1994). The honourable VC of our country’s leading higher institution of learning concluded his observation as follows:

“His (Said’s) intellectual honesty should be enough of an inspiration for us in trying to establish a firm tradition and consciousness as the next phase of human capital development in Malaysia.”

Here, I sense the possibility of a “confusion of categories” over the term “amateur” in the context of discussing unprofessional conduct in Malaysia, in contrast to Said’s idea of an “amateur” intellectual.

(In any case, I wonder. If Edward Said were to have been appointed to a senior position in a Malaysian university, and assuming that he had given acceptance to his appointment, how long would he last – a month, or a year? Would he have accepted uncritically the premise that the function of the university is the mass production of “human capital”?)

Anyway, the meaning of the term “intellectual” is not all that clear, and is a matter of considerable debate in the West. (Interested readers can refer to the book Intellectuals in Politics, containing a collection of essays by prominent academics, and edited by Jeremy Jennings and Antony Kemp-Welch.)

The sociological definition of the word “intellectual” often refers to a person who makes a living with his “intellectual” as opposed to “manual” labour, but that is not what we mean in the current context.

The spirit and tenet of this peculiarly Western cultural tradition are probably embedded in the European Enlightenment, especially in the life and work of the French philosophes, with Voltaire as its central iconic figure.

By common consent though, the modern 20th century sense of the word “intellectual” has its origin in the late 19th century Europe with the Dreyfus Affairs in France. It acquired the specific connotation of referring to certain group of thinkers and writers – in this case men such as Emile Zola, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, and Anatole France – who intervened into the political domain in the name of Justice to secure the release of the Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, against unjust charges from the state.

Ideals of intellectual life

This vision of the intellectual as a nation’s conscience and a social critic without fear and favour received one of the most radical expressions in Julien Benda’s treatise La Trahison des clercs – the treason of intellectuals – published in 1923 in Paris.

Though the article was a blistering attack on the intellectuals who had abandoned their calling and compromised their conviction, rather than a systematic analysis of the normative life of intellectuals, Benda did give many names of many icons as people who really embraced the lonely and courageous ideals of intellectual life. Socrates and Jesus were often mentioned, and so were more recent figures such as Spinoza, Voltaire, and Renan.

“Need I recall”, Benda wrote, “how Fenelon, and Massillon denounced certain wars of Louis XIV? How Voltaire condemned the destruction of the Palestine? How Renan denounced the violences of Napoleon? Buckle, the intolerances of England towards the French Revolution? And, in our times, Nietzsche, the brutalities of Germany towards France?”

Clearly then, Benda’s ideal intellectuals are “those whose activity is essentially not the pursuit of practical aims, all those who seek their joy in the practice of an art or a science or metaphysical speculation, in short in the possession of non-material advantages, and hence in a certain manner say: “’My kingdom is not of this world.’”

Clearly then, Benda’s intellectual had to speak to power, and did so from afar, even from an adversarial position to what we call the mainstream society to-day. From his perspective of unproblematic Platonism, he had in his mind probably the exiled philosopher kings of The Republic, pronouncing moral judgement on the world from the vintage point of abstract and universal values against what he called “the organisation of collective passions” such as sectarianism, nationalism, class, race, and religion, “passing from intellectualism to intellectual actions.”

In the 20th century, they are often referred to as “universal”, “prophetic”, or “public” intellectuals. Whatever their labels, they intervene into the public arena from a position of relative autonomy. As Karl Mannheim put it in Ideology and Utopia (1966):

“From a sociological point of view the decisive fact of modern times, in contrast with the Middle Ages, is that the monopoly of the ecclesiastical interpretation of the world which was held by the priestly caste is broken, and in place of a closed and thoroughly organised stratum of intellectuals, a free intelligentsia has risen.”

Their elative autonomy frees them from the “interest-bound nature of political thought”, providing them with “political knowledge” as opposed to false “ideology”. By virtue of their work and their autonomous position, intellectuals have the responsibility for truthfulness and for commitment to truth.

This was a view argued by Alan Montefiore in The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1990): “By ‘an intellectual’ I mean here to refer to anyone who takes a committed interest in the validity and truth of ideas for their own sake’”. Being an intellectual is thus defined in terms of a vocation.

Such haughty ideals of a real intellectual are both noble and attractive, and many writers on both sides of the Atlantic have indeed tried to live out their vocation as a passionate but disinterested conscience of their own times. Immediately, we think of great names like Orwell, Russell, Pasternak, Sartre, Camus, and more recently Derrida and Chomsky.

Likewise, there is now emerging in Malaysia a small band of writers who try to emulate the examples of their European and American counterparts, as well as intellectuals in the developing world, engaging the power centres in a critical dialogue through alternative media such as malaysiakini.

Unfortunately, Benda’s version of the ideal intellectual does have some serious epistemological, moral, and political problems.

In Western liberal democracies, where the intellectuals have the most influence, the danger is for the idea of the intellectual to be institutionalised, and so absorbed into the dominant political order. Heroic dissent may become politically correct and fashionable!

Their moral high ground can also be questioned, in an age in which the tyranny of absolute relativism rules, and near-nihilistic universal scepticism tends to look with disdain any claim towards universal objective truth. Epistemologically, even if there is a kind of universal objective truth, how can an intellectual claim any secular knowledge of such truth?

Oprah more influential

Then, there is Marxism that changed world history in the 20th century. By all account in Benda’s book, Karl Marx has to be the real intellectual par excellence, believing and preaching that the job of philosophy is not to understand the world merely, but to change the world.

Unfortunately, when Marx’ philosophy has been turned into a dogma by political Marxism, his idea has turned into an instrument of state terrorism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And so, we witness the persecution, execution, and exile of Benda’s intellectuals in communist countries everywhere.

The vehicle of an intellectual has always been the print media, especially in what is called the realm of high culture. Towards the end of the 20th century, the emergence and rise of the electronic audio-visual media, as well as the massive proliferation of mass popular culture, have combined to whittle away the influence of the traditional intellectual. Oprah is now far more influential than Chomsky in the USA to-day!

Then there is the problem of the self-perception of aspiring and accomplished intellectuals everywhere – including Malaysia. Once intellectuals see themselves as the embodiment of an almost divine vocation, breathing brimstone and hell fire on corrupt worldly powers from the rarefied sanctity of Mount Olympus, they’d better live the life of a saint. Otherwise, they would be vulnerable to personal attack on their indiscretion – not that such personal smearing is a legitimate form of argument.

That was what happened in the UK in the 80s, when the conservative revolution of Margaret Thatcher had unleashed an army of very literate hatchet-men upon the British intellectuals in the 1980s.

It was within that historical context that Edward Said was invited to the BBC Reith Lectures in 1993, to present his reworking and revival of Julien Benda’s vision of the roles and responsibilities of the intellectual.

To be continued…



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