On an almost weekly basis, I occasion to have a few beers in an English pub at the bottom of Brisbane's Queen Street Mall. Over a pint of Guinness I bring up something I have heard this week or that and conversation ensues. Though I am typically with my close friends, it is funny to see how different people treat conversation.
Like most people, my friends will often use topics as a way of building common ground and connecting with others. Whereas, in my own case, I try to explore a topic in all its depths, fostering debate and helping form connection between radically different ideas.
As you can imagine, most people prefer me in small amounts. I have been called intense, overwhelming, intimidating and exhausting - but nonetheless quite harmless. My passion for learning and bottomless curiosity about the world around me is a shock to the system for most, and people typically prefer their chitchat light and fluffy.
Yet maybe there is something of a change going on in the world. When elections are won by intellectuals instead of the ordinary chap who you would like to share a beer with, there is a real and present danger that ordinary people might be becoming interested in policy. And who knows what kind of horrors might be unleashed if they start to insist on empirical evidence in place of ideological certainties.
But what is an intellectual and how do they hone their craft and ideas?
“Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself”. - Plato
“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” - Albert Camus
Supposing we set the bar low enough, or appeal to the sorites paradox as many authors do, and posit that all people are intellectuals to some extent. Then we might conclude, from the wikipedic definition, that a person is more of an intellectual if they rely more heavily on their intelligence and analytical thinking. This would tell us almost nothing, especially when we consider the contemporary renaissance in emotional cognition and reasoning.
Intellectuals often carry signs and attributes that help us distinguish them against the norm. They often have a university degree, though some do not and vice versa. They often maintain an expert familiarity with their subject, though there are many polymaths who earn the title. They are often dispassionate and clever, though this cleverness may turn out quite flawed. All in all, being an intellectual is not about these details, but rather the practice of reflection and analysis.