Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

Synopsis

The first full-length account of "the question of intellectuals" in twentieth-century Britain. Leading intellectual historian and cultural commentator Stefan Collini challenges the myth that there are no "real" intellectuals in Britain and offers a persuasive analysis of 'the intellectual' as a concept as well as detailed discussions of influential figures such as T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and Edward Said.

Excerpt

'Is there such a thing as an English intellectual? It is as well to pose the
question from the start, since anyone acquainted with the habits and social
position of intellectuals on the continent of Europe must have serious
doubts as to whether the same word can reasonably be applied to English
conditions.'

Perhaps the most common assumption about any book announcing 'intellectuals in Britain' as its theme is that it will be short. Indeed, it is sometimes assumed that such a book should properly belong in the company of treatises on snarkhunting or gazetteers of snakes in Iceland. It will already be evident, however, that the present volume is far from short. I should like to think that this palpable fact may even now be starting the process of calling assumptions about this topic into doubt, a process which the book's contents are devoted to furthering. But at the very least, the untoward bulkiness of the object in hand may cause the reader to pause and focus on what, more exactly, it is about.

This book is about the question of intellectuals in twentieth-century Britain. That is to say, it examines the ways in which the existence, nature, and role of intellectuals have been thought about and argued over, including claims about their absence or comparative insignificance. The formulation 'the question of intellectuals' signals in itself the presence of a topic of extended speculation and recurrent debate, something that is at once familiar, troubling, and unresolved. The enduring interest of the topic of intellectuals, considered in general analytical and historical terms, can scarcely be doubted, and it is anyway attested, as I have rueful cause to know, by a dispiritingly voluminous body of scholarly, polemical, and journalistic writing. However, the suggestion that the topic might be a similarly established one when considered in relation to Britain, or that the directly relevant source-materials might be abundant in this case, is likely to be met quizzically even by readers in whom my title arouses a response other than simply the desire to scoff. One of the lesser objects I hope this book will achieve is to document the existence in Britain of a rich tradition of debate about the question of intellectuals: there is indeed an extensive relevant literature, and it may . . .

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