What is intellectualism?

Some (mainly my parents) tell me that I over-analyze things. I don’t doubt this, and in this post I want to try to characterize the intellectual spirit. I’m not trying to defend an intellectual relationship to the world (I think it has serious deficiencies as a way of life, even though broadly, I identify with it), rather, I just want to characterize it. Perhaps though in giving an account of it, some parts of it will appear to be attractive.

There are some debates that do not effect us. For example, whether global warming is happening or not will be a problem or non-problem for future generations. Or take arguments in development economics. I don’t live in a developing economy, and so the debate about how much debt growing economies should take on doesn’t concern my life. We have the phrase “that is a purely intellectual question,” or more contemptuously, “that’s academic.” The intellectual, contrary to the city official, the doctor, or lawyer, takes an interest in controversies that don’t effect him or may not even effect human beings (debates about free will won’t change anything about how we live our lives, we merely want to know). The intellectual takes his beliefs very seriously, even about things that are not significant, and sees his holding false or unguided belief as a type of affront to his dignity or integrity. In other words, the intellectual temperament is characterized most by a relationship between ideas or beliefs and the ethical view of oneself.

The lawyer, when shown that some of his ontological beliefs are mistaken is likely to undergo no change in his psychological makeup. He will casually toss his mistaken beliefs aside and move on with his life. The intellectual however will take a mistake very seriously and will consciously build up his new beliefs and ensure that his mistake is corrected for and understood. This is because something about the self perception of the intellectual is tied up with the beliefs that he does or does not hold.


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