An intellectual is a person who uses his or her intellect to study, reflect, and speculate on a variety of different ideas.
Men of letters
The man of letters stood in many cultures for what we might take to be the contemporary intellectual; the distinction not having great weight when literacy was not fairly universal (and, incidentally, not assumed of a woman). Men of letters are also termed literati (from the Latin), as a group; literatus, in the singular, is hardly used in English.
The clerisy and the intelligentsia
Coleridge speculated early in the nineteenth century on the concept of the clerisy, a class rather than a type of individual, and a secular equivalent of the (Anglican) clergy, with a duty of upholding (national) culture. The idea of the intelligentsia, in comparison, dates from roughly the same time, and is based more concretely on the status class of 'mental' or white-collar workers.
Modes of 'intellectual class'
From that time onwards, in Europe and elsewhere, some variants of the idea of an intellectual class have been important (not least to intellectuals, self-styled). The degrees of actual involvement in art, or politics, journalism and education, of nationalist or internationalist or ethnic sentiment, constituting the 'vocation' of an intellectual, have never become fixed. Some intellectuals have been vehemently anti-academic; at times universities and their professoriat have been synonymous with intellectualism, but in other periods and some places the centre of gravity of intellectual life has been elsewhere.
One can notice a sharpening of terms, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Just as the coinage scientist would come to mean a professional, the man of letters would more often be assumed to be a professional writer, perhaps having the breadth of a journalist or essayist, but not necessarily with the engagement of the intellectual.
The Dreyfus affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century is often indicated as the time of full emergence of the intellectual in public life; particularly as concerns the role of Émile Zola in speaking directly on the matter. In fact the term intellectual as we now have it became better known, from that time (and the derogatory implication sometimes attached).
Strictly a doctrine about the possibility of deriving knowledge from reason alone, intellectualism can stand for a general approach favouring the head over all else. Criticism of this attitude, sometimes summed up as Left Bank, is probably more general than of intellectual workers; it is possible more easily to be reconciled with a writer being an intellectual, by trade, than to any overall intellectualist claim that thinking in the abstract has priority.
Academics and public intellectuals
In some contexts, especially journalistic speech, intellectual refers to academics, generally in the humanities, especially philosophy, who speak about various issues of social or political import. These are so-called public intellectuals — in effect communicators.
The term masks an assumption or several, in particular on academia, for example that intellectual work goes on generally in private, and there is a gap to society that requires bridging.
The German poet Stefan George is an example of an intellectual who rejected and despised both the academic and too public roles for an artist, and yet was highly influential.
Outside the West
In ancient China literati referred to the government officials who formed the ruling class in China for over two thousand years. They were a status group of educated laymen, not ordained priests. They were not a hereditary group as their position depended on their knowledge of writing and literature. After 200 B.C. the system of selection of candidates was influenced by Confucianism and established its ethic among the literati.
The Hundred Flowers Campaign in China was largely based on the government's wish for a mobilisation of intellectuals; with very sour consequences later. This is perhaps typical of a state's instrumentalist approach to the existence of an intellectual class.
- George B. de Huszar, ed. The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960. Anthology by many contributors.
- Paul M. Johnson, Intellectuals. Perennial, 1990, ISBN 0060916575. A highly ideological onslaught, discusses Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, Noam Chomsky, and others