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.
You might think high school staff rooms are a hotbed of intellectuals, or at least this was the impression I had in starting my graduate diploma of education. After all, many of these individuals already have a degree and are providing young people with their skills and knowledge. On the contrary, the sorts of people who go into teaching are people who have been institutionalized into the schooling routine. Try to bate a high level discussion over lunch and you are sure to be disappointed.
The intellectual, wherever they crop up, is often marginalized for focusing on the content of a conversation rather than the emotional connection with the other. Get two or more together and you would be amazed at the bond they can form. For the intellectual, building a relationship does not rely on having opinions and values in common.
In saying that, however, intellectuals do tend to fit into four key categories if we account for their preferred method (inductive/deductive) and values (abstract/concrete). There are Scholars, Communicators, Empiricists and Skeptics, and while there are very few people of pure type, most tend to fit into one category more than others and each category comes with its own particular strengths and weaknesses.
Let us start with the most archetypal of intellectuals, the Scholar, for whom the accumulation of knowledge and ideas is an end in itself. Such people are boundlessly curious and tend to emphasize learning for its own sake. Those that specialize are often called experts, and those that do not can sometimes earn the title of Renaissance man; either way they tend to be bookworms.
The second type is the Communicator, who also enjoys the collection of ideas, but prefers to keep things tangible and easily understood without the over-complication that abstraction can bring. This particular combination is most useful at parties and in journalism because it can make such people adept at bringing previously unknown concepts to those less savvy.
The Empiricist is the third type, and their approach is distinguished by the need for evidence. Rather than collecting ever more abstract ideas, they put those they have to the test and insist that they be consistent with others and workable in the real world. These are the sorts of people we turn to for peer reviews, and they are apt to bring up contrary facts and data whenever they are pitched an idea.
Last but not least, the Skeptic is the furthest away from the traditional Scholar. They deal in concrete reality and insist on finding fault with overdeveloped theories that have rendered themselves meaningless. Often iconoclastic and radical, they look to our presuppositions and help us to recognize how little we really know. For a true skeptic, no amount of evidence will ever prove or disprove something completely and to rely on faith is unacceptable.
Habits of Mind, Tools of the Trade
There has never been a better time to be an intellectual. Sites like Fora TV and TED offer an assortment of the best minds giving presentations and interviews. Podcasting on Radio National and the BBC has helped audiences keep track of their favorite areas of interest when they are too busy to read or sit down with a video. Advances in search engine technology have allowed us to find the books and articles we so desire, but these are all periphery.
What makes a good intellectual does comes down to a certain mastery of argumentation and logic, and that means an individual must apply the other styles beyond their preferred. After all, a pure skeptic can easily slip into closed mindedness while a pure scholar might be so open that their brains fall out. An empiricist can fall into the trap of pooling unnecessary evidence when they do not like the truth, just as a communicator can fall for rhetoric that makes complex things seem simple.
What a budding intellectual needs is balance, and only from that mindset can we begin to sharpen and hone the skill of inquiry. I must warn you, though; the thoughtful lifestyle is one few people fully embrace. Its demand for time and energy — along with its calls for curiosity, creativity, social interaction, and adaptability — can make it appear quite daunting. And so I will finish this essay with a few notes on how to enhance this journey.
First, sharpen your perception and broaden your knowledge base by learning how to listen and reflect on what you read; every form of content presents an opportunity to explore. Second, cultivate your creative side by producing essays, art, literature, music, and the like as an outlet for this scholarship. Third, go out and talk to people about what you are doing, especially since it is bound to be more interesting than your day job. Finally, have the humility to doubt what you believe and take the criticism people offer you.