Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain

By Stefan Collini | Go to book overview

2
A Matter of Definition

'We can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting
the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a
measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond.'


I

There would, as I have already indicated, be little point in trying to legislate about the meaning of a term with such a complex history. The literature on intellectuals has been plagued with stipulative definitions which for the most part merely reflect their authors' own sense of what is important or desirable. Alongside the common derogatory uses, there has also been a marked tendency to use the term as an honorific or as a prestigious label, and since many of those who have written about intellectuals are, on some showing or other, candidates for being so described themselves, they are all too likely to build idealized or selfflattering features into their proposed definitions. It may help to avoid these pitfalls if we begin by distinguishing two enterprises that are all too often unwittingly run together.

In the first part of this chapter I shall confine myself to attempting to distinguish senses of the word. This is essentially an empirical matter: one records actual usages, however confused or contradictory they may appear on closer scrutiny, and one devises the most economical taxonomy of senses which will account for this variety of usage. In the second part of this chapter I shall then offer an analysis of what I consider to be involved in the concept of the intellectual that is represented by one of these senses, the one which seems to me most significant for contemporary discussion. Any such analysis or 'unpacking' of a concept is necessarily selective and contestable: although I naturally intend my account to be recognizable to all users of English and to be likely to persuade them that certain assumptions are implied in the relatively unreflective use of the term in this sense, I recognize that my analysis highlights certain features of the role of the intellectual at the expense of others and is bound, to that extent, to seem to be laying claim to a certain normative force. To put the distinction between the two parts of the chapter in other terms: it would be an absurd and doomed

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