Intellectuals and Society

Sociological and Historical Perspectives

Authored by: Patrick Baert , Joel Isaac

Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory

Print publication date:  March  2011
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415548250
eBook ISBN: 9780203875575
Adobe ISBN: 9781135997946


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Since its inception, the meaning of the term “intellectual” has shifted over time and across national cultures. This makes a firm definition difficult. In what follows, we designate as “intellectuals” scholars who invoke their expertise to address issues of broader societal or political significance. This definition has a number of implications. First, it draws an analytical distinction between intellectuals and experts. Experts can be intellectuals, but only if they tackle issues that go beyond their speciality and are of wider political, cultural, or social significance. Intellectuals are experts, then, just insofar as they are trained and have excelled in one field before dealing with broader issues. Second, intellectuals can, in principle, be found in any field of learning or cultural achievement; there is no a priori reason why they should be concentrated in the arts and humanities or any other domain. Natural scientists or mathematicians, as we shall see, can and have been intellectuals in the sense we have specified. This means that the study of intellectuals extends to science and to natural scientists, even if the archetypal intellectual is, in fact, usually associated with the arts and humanities. Third, by virtue of the fact that intellectuals address broader social and political issues, they have a predilection to engage with a wider public – either the “general public” or multiple publics outside their specific realm of expertise or authority. It follows from this view that a considerable number of intellectuals can be termed “public intellectuals” because they make a concerted effort to communicate with and influence non-specialist publics, and to shape public policy. Finally, intellectuals do not necessarily work in the academy. To be sure, they often have done so, and, we shall argue below, they are increasingly to be identified within a matrix of academic disciplines. Nevertheless a substantial number of intellectuals operate outside the groves of academe.

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