Thursday, January 21, 2010


Who Is an Intellectual?

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, tr. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1988; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1989) p. 132:
I would propose to extend the term to the person educated beyond his daily trade, whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an attempt to renew itself, increase itself, and keep up to date, and who does not react with indifference or irritation when confronted by any branch of knowledge, even though, obviously, he cannot cultivate all of them.
Levi is reacting to what he calls a "pointlessly restrictive" definition of an intellectual by Hans Mayer, aka Jean Améry, quoted on the preceding page:
I certainly do not mean to allude to all those who exercise one of the so-called intellectual professions: having received a good level of education is perhaps a necessary condition but not sufficient. We all know lawyers, physicians, engineers, probably also philologists, who are certainly intelligent, perhaps even excellent in their field, but cannot be called intellectuals. An intellectual, as I would like it to be understood here, is a man who lives within a system of reference which is spiritual in the broadest sense. The sphere of his associations is essentially humanist and philosophical. His esthetic consciousness is well developed. By inclination and aptitude he is attracted by abstract thought.
By Améry's strict definition, I'm certainly no intellectual, and I probably don't meet Levi's broader definition either. Even if I did, it's not a label I'd ever use to describe myself — to my ear it sounds a bit pretentious.

Thanks very much to the anonymous reader who kindly sent me a copy of The Drowned and the Saved as a gift. I stayed up late last night reading this thought-provoking book, and I plan to read it again soon. There might be a misprint on p. 41, where "Zurüchschlagen" should perhaps be "Zurückschlagen" — the word is spelled with a -k- on p. 135.

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