What are the qualities of a true intellectual?

Jost Schneider
Self-perception and perception of others by intellectuals in a pluralistic society


In the democratic-pluralistic societies of the 20th century there is a diversification of the term "intellectual" for educational and socio-historical reasons. There is no more the Intellectuals, but five different intellectual concepts, namely the unrealistic, the journalistic, the critical, the discourse-creating and the anonymous intellectuals. Not all of these concepts can be perceived from all positions in social space. So today more people can be mistaken for intellectuals who do not see themselves as such; and conversely, more people can see themselves as intellectuals who are not recognized as such by the public.


  1. The invisibility of cultural capital
  2. The five intellectual concepts of the present
  3. Advantages of diversifying the concept of intellectual

The lexeme "intellectual" has one mandatory and several optional semantic characteristics. Critical attitude, political engagement, intellectual autonomy or public effectiveness are - as the conceptual history recapitulated by Dietz Bering shows 1 - optional conceptual features that were only valid in some epochs, social classes and schools of thought. On the other hand, the semantic attribute> higher education / learning

In our pluralistic society, however, this mandatory feature of the term has also become problematic in terms of communication pragmatic, because education / learning can no longer be adequately and reliably made known. Observers with different positions in social space do not interpret the same phenomena as indicators of higher education and scholarship. The facultative, usually more unambiguous and uniformly identifiable features of the term "intellectual" are therefore often overweighted, especially in public perception (mass media). The mandatory semantic characteristic still applies, but since the facts that it denotatively denotes are not perceived in the same way by all observers, there is in practice a diversification in the use of the term.

1. The invisibility of cultural capital

The causes of this phenomenon and its consequences for the self-perception and the external perception of those affected become clear when one takes Bourdieu's differentiation between objectified, institutionalized and incorporated cultural capital 2 to illustrate why the mandatory term 'higher education / scholarship' in one pluralistic society, as it has developed in Germany - apart from the interruption caused by fascism - since the beginning of the 20th century, can no longer function as a reliable distinguishing feature.

  • Objectified cultural capital
Bourdieu understands this to mean buyable and sellable cultural objects with an increased distinctive value, such as sophisticated books, pictures, musical instruments, sculptures and the like. The possibility of proclaiming intellectuality with the help of such objects is becoming increasingly difficult for two reasons, which have already been analyzed many times.

Firstly, in the age of technical reproducibility of almost all cultural goods (Benjamin), such objects are becoming popular. The insignia of "legitimate" taste, indicating higher education, is more widespread than it was in the 1960s, when the statistical surveys for Bourdieus Subtle differences were carried out. Although the differences have by no means disappeared, they have become much finer and therefore more difficult to perceive due to a more confusing differentiation of the social space.

A second factor reinforces this trend towards confusion, namely the professionalized commercial exploitation of the distinctive value of "legitimate" cultural objects. Overcrowded museum shops, musical performances in rented city theaters and stadium concerts with star tenors prove that there is now an industry of its own that has recognized the sales value of cultural legitimacy. 3 In this situation, the accumulation of objectified cultural capital is an increasingly unreliable means of promoting higher education.

The differences have become so subtle that permanent, even professional occupation with the> cultural scene

  • Institutionalized cultural capital

Bourdieu understands this to mean all certificates from legitimate educational institutions such as school and university degrees, academic titles or state-recognized professional titles (architect, lawyer, professor).

In the course of the educational expansion of the 1960s, such certificates and patents - like Bourdieu himself in The subtle differences and Homo academicus showed in detail - experienced a lasting devaluation; Various lawyers, teachers and doctors "flooding" made it clear to a broad public that good and higher school qualifications are a necessary, but not a sufficient requirement for professional success and for a superior position in the social sphere today.

In addition, the diversification of educational qualifications has led to a greater lack of transparency in educational hierarchies. And the profile of the various training centers has also become blurred as a result of their expansion into large-scale enterprises. Whether a certain subject is better to study at this or that university at a certain moment is determined in a recurrent ranking that corrects and dynamizes the original hierarchy, which was based on anciency and internal reputation.

In this situation, the accumulation of institutionalized cultural capital is not an effective means of making intellectuality known. With an academic title one is still counted as part of the educated class, but today this class is - fortunately - so large and heterogeneous that this means little unless the term 'intellectual' becomes a (linguistically unnecessary) synonym for> Academics

  • Incorporated cultural capital

The phenomena described above have been known for a long time. However, they concern only the "external" aspects of the phenomenon of intellectuality and could therefore be viewed as marginal. In fact, there is a great temptation today to define intellectuality solely by recourse to the incorporated cultural capital, which, according to Bourdieu, represents "internalized", i.e., education that cannot be bought, inherited or certified.

Several dimensions of this form of cultural capital can be distinguished, of which, with regard to the problem of intellectuality, only universal learning (wealth of knowledge, high level of general education), the ability to think (sagacity, intelligence), intellectual flexibility (increased comprehension), judgment (intellectual authority, > Wisdom <) and language awareness (language-critical, self-reflective style of expression) should be emphasized.

The perception of these and similar, non- "external" properties of the intellectual is also made more difficult in contemporary society. And some of these properties even tend to receive a new, i.e. negative, evaluation. This will be explained briefly with regard to the five dimensions mentioned.

  1. As far as the quality of universal scholarship is concerned, with the division of labor and specialization now fully implemented, this is not just presumptuous, but almost an expression of backwardness. In place of the philosopher who integrates all knowledge in a "system", there is the specialized "information broker", who defines himself more as an expert on search engines than as a universalist. At a time when obtaining information no longer requires a thorough understanding of that information, the polymath seems objectively dispensable.

  2. In an expert culture based on the division of labor, one hopes for unusual acumen not to solve problems, but to entertain. Intelligence is a quiz show attraction which - under conditions of booming biologism - is viewed as a genetic privilege of the rank of athletic stature or a beautiful voice.

    Like the success of Daniel Golemans Emotional intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ (New York 1995) illustrates, particular acumen can even appear as a problematic monstrosity that requires an emotional counterbalance: the less taboo creative thinking of the intelligence "beast" becomes an unpredictable danger that promises entertaining thrills for the talk and quiz show audience.

  3. In the age of globalization, increased comprehension is perceived as a general key qualification and as a monetary advantage in competition. Intellectual flexibility is only a special aspect of the general flexibility described by Richard Sennett in 1998, which in the "culture of the new capitalism" is not only demanded of intellectuals, but tends to be demanded from everyone. Constantly changing workplaces, places of residence, "life cycle partners" and reference groups require intellectual agility that can no longer be a distinguishing feature of certain educational levels and, above all, no longer an educational ideal in itself.

    Depending on the individual attitude towards this "culture of the new capitalism", intellectual flexibility will at best be seen as a necessary virtue in economic competition, but perhaps even more and more as a questionable adaptive effort.

  4. The authority of the particularly discerning, far-sighted, "wise" scholar is undermined or even perceived as presumptuous under the conditions of a general cognitive and epistemological or truth-theoretical relativism. Since in the age of pluralism every reviewer is followed closely by a counter-reviewer, trust in the authority of the scholar disappears whether he is a universalist or a specialist. Where the scientific truth (those who are unfamiliar with the matter) is consequently a matter of opinion, the emotional aspect of the "dispute" about the truth, which is only a matter of right, comes to the fore.

    The Goldhagen debate can be seen as a prime example of the dramatic treatment of a controversy that has long been resolved within academia and that has been exploited for media and business purposes, in which a David was sent into the hopeless but passionate sympathy aroused fight against the Goliath of the academic establishment. The outsider's increased sympathy values ​​are apparently due less to the scientific plausibility of his theses than to the fact that he was following the popular, contemporary dogma of relativism - certainly willy-nilly! - was able to enter one of the last areas closed to this relativism.

  5. The linguistic-critical, self-reflective style of expression of the intellectual who is aware of the possibilities of communication and their limits is increasingly being equated and confused with the characteristic style of subjectivity and "authenticity." Intimate confessions on talk show sofas are formulated in that fragmented, groping diction containing many metalinguistic elements, which can also be a sign of intensified linguistic awareness.

    And at the same time, two different styles of expression are reserved for the educated, which do not offer an adequate opportunity for an older type of intellectuality, namely first the distinguished and rapidly presented expert suada, which requires a moderator who slows down, translating foreign words and technical vocabulary, and second the witty, witty style of the experienced "lateral thinker" who produces entertaining deviations from thinking and controlled taboo violations according to the principle of the loosened tongue.

    Anyone who does not take up these styles and uses the diction of a more traditional intellectualism, which is characterized by language criticism and awareness, must reckon with being perceived as a subjectivist whose words do not aim at generally binding and scientific truth, but at the authentic articulation of very personal difficulties. Grotesque misunderstandings can arise if the interviewee then misinterprets the willingness to understand and help routinely shown to him as a sign of intellectual allegiance ...

As an interim conclusion it can be stated at this point that the incorporated cultural capital can no longer be reliably proclaimed and asserted today. Although many practice accumulating or even maximizing this form of cultural capital, the importance of which as a necessary precondition for a career is beyond question, this does not mean much under the conditions described. The Intellectuals can no longer be reliably identified today, even and especially when one reverts to the obligatory semantic characteristic of this term.

2. The five intellectual concepts of the present

The problems presented do not result in a complete de-contouring, but only a diversification of the meaning of the term "intellectual". There is no more the Intellectuals, but several different concepts of intellectuality - to be presented below - that can be linked to this term. Even in a pluralistic society, however, not everyone is their own intellectual; You cannot declare yourself to be an intellectual; you are "appointed" to it by others using one of the virulent concepts of intellectuality.

Which of these concepts is brought up when and by whom depends essentially - according to my thesis - on the position of the person making the judgment in social space, i.e. on his capital structure in the sense of Bourdieu.

In the broader public, especially in the social classes which themselves have relatively little cultural capital, those concepts dominate in which the more easily recognizable, optional conceptual features and institutionalized cultural capital play the most important role. For the intellectual concepts of the educated classes, on the other hand, the institutionalized and, above all, the "invisible" incorporated cultural capital are of greater importance. Since the two social classes are not very clearly separated from each other, there is overall a colorful spectrum of intellectual and intellectuality concepts reflecting the differentiation of the social space.

In a pluralistic society, the definition of the term 'intellectual' - contrary to the thesis formulated by Georg Jäger at the beginning of his article The Writer as Intellectual - can no longer be obtained from the sole analysis of the discourse of the intellectuals themselves, who do not have exclusive power of definition own on this issue. It can also be assumed that the intellectuality concepts of less educated classes are by no means less effective than those of more competent users of the term.

Although, in principle, only extensive field research can provide information about the concepts of intellectuality that dominate the various fractions of the social space, a preliminary typology of such concepts, most of which have a complicated and rich genealogy, is formulated and put up for discussion. As far as I can see, five different variants have coexisted since the late 1960s, two of which dominate in less educated (A) and two in more educated (C) milieus. The third concept, that of the 'critical intellectual' (B), is used and taken into account in both milieus, which are only roughly demarcated here.

A 1
The unrealistic intellectual

We encounter this particularly striking, but by no means rare, concept of the intellectual today mainly as a figure in entertainment films or similar products in the mass media. In principle, however, it goes all the way to Lessing's comedy of types The young scholar (First performance in 1748) and mainly includes the identifying features of distance from practice and body, the academic title (often:> the professor <) and the cryptic, enigmatic language. Frequently used props are eye-catching glasses, disheveled hair and bizarre, eccentric clothing.

In its positive variant, the embodiment of this particularly clichéd concept (and derived from Alfred Sohn-Rethel 5 in terms of economic history) figures as a distracted but lovable inhabitant of the ivory tower, such as Professor Abronsius from Polanski's Dance of the Vampires represents.In its negative variant - particularly taken up by the Nazis and partially functionalized by Schelsky 6 - this type appears as a useless type, whose educational arrogance and self-purposeful thinking stamps him as an eccentric and outsider.

A 2
The journalistic intellectual

This concept is also mainly staged in the mass media, for example by moderators and (regular) guests at public and media-exploited discussion events or talk shows. Because of this media connection, it is relatively new and includes characteristics such as a special flexibility in adapting to a wide variety of conversation partners and situations as well as an understandable, concise, often witty or ironic language.

This concept is often represented and implemented by journalists and essayists, but also by "lateral thinkers" from all camps and professions who claim an increased degree of intellectual autonomy and independence. They reliably and regularly provide stimulating and entertaining food for thought and demonstrate intellectual "brilliance", whereby they are also allowed to violate taboos to a controlled extent.

In terms of public response, this intellectual concept, to which Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Roger Willemsen, Johannes Gross or Alice Schwarzer, for example, would be assigned in Germany, deserves the highest rank.

The critical intellectual

Behind this concept, which has been known since Voltaire, lies the role of the committed fighter for values ​​such as tolerance, equal opportunities, humanity, enlightenment, social peace and the like, as most clearly described by Gehlen 7. Publicly demonstrated moral courage and selflessness - sometimes also externally made known by renouncing consumption or unconventional behavior - lend him a legitimacy which, as Lepsius already emphasized, 8 does not necessarily need to correspond to his respective professional competence.

His objections and warnings are only more effective today, however, in a favorable journalistic environment, i.e. in situations in which the media - for whatever reason - consider it advisable to bring forward an (alleged) opinion leader and to criticize this or that grievance to declare temporarily a matter of general interest. Since in the meantime many artists and scientists who could potentially realize this concept have seen through this mechanism, many are reluctant, seldom and temporarily pushed into a corresponding role.

Nonetheless, in crisis situations the call for this type of intellectual, as embodied by Simone de Beauvoir or Heinrich Böll, is still loud, for a type of intellectual whose increasingly frequent silence today, even in the educated classes, is not yet consistently as a professional, resistant reaction to one media economically motivated instrumentalization of> moral instances

C 1
The discourse-creating intellectual

This concept, known since the emergence of the humanities in the 19th century, refers to the founders of their own schools of thought, scientific paradigms or world views, which usually have a maximum of institutionalized cultural capital and belong to the academic or artistic establishment, but which are also perceived in contact disciplines and occasionally in demanding ones non-professional periodicals are cited. However, they are not recognized as having a broad impact because their language is rich in foreign words and specialist vocabulary, their access to the mass media is limited and the everyday relevance of their work is not recognizable for many of their (potential) recipients.

Julia Kristeva, Karl Popper, Niklas Luhmann or Theodor W. Adorno could be cited as examples of this type.

C 2
The anonymous intellectual

This concept, which emerged with the educational expansion of the 1960s and the resulting inflation of all educational grades, encompasses scholars with only slightly above average institutionalized, but at the same time maximum incorporated cultural capital - a capital that cannot be reliably proclaimed for the reasons outlined above, so that validity and effect of these intellectuals remain limited to a narrow, private and collegial circle. Through personal encounters and hearsay, they can build their reputation among friends or experts, without, however (despite the - horribile dictum - the Internet, which is particularly attractive and suitable for them as a publication forum), achieving a real widespread effect.

Since their universal education is de facto only partially recognized, as a rule in professional contexts, they have a natural tendency to one-sided and exuberant educational ideologies that stylize a 'free-floating' - autonomous intellectual education as the ultimate in human development opportunities, or as a playful- ironic partial identification with role concepts of types A 1, A 2 and B, which guarantee greater identifiability and thus the chances of broader public recognition.

The sequence of these five intellectual concepts is not intended to establish or reflect a hierarchy. Rather, it should be emphasized that from certain positions in social space only certain concepts and their (more or less perfect) realizations can be perceived, so that the meaning of the term "intellectual" varies depending on the location of the speaker.

These locations cannot be changed without further ado, but neither are they innate once and for all in our pluralistic society. Increased social mobility and the democratization of education make it likely that the individual will be confronted with various transitional and mixed forms between the five concepts in the course of his life and accordingly have to differentiate and diversify his definition of terms.

As becomes clear here, there is an interaction between the concepts and their realizations. Although concepts can be subverted or mixed with one another to a certain extent, the individual is subject to undeniable pressure to adapt, particularly with regard to his position in social space. Since individuals are only perceived as intellectuals through the filter (at least) one of the five concepts mentioned, at least the representatives of those professions that require proof of intellectuality have to identify with one of these five roles under normal conditions.

However, this identification does not have to be total. It is the special attraction and advantage of a pluralistic society that it fixes the individual to certain roles only temporarily or depending on the context and otherwise allows him - albeit limited - freedom.

3. Advantages of diversifying the concept of the intellectual

Finally, let us address the question of whether a standardization of the five concepts of intellectuality would be possible and desirable. Do the intellectuals - in Bourdieu's sense - form a virtual class that could be unified through the development of an adequate "class consciousness", through the "mystery of the ministry" 9 (allegiance) or through joint actions?

The answer to this question can only be negative in view of the pluralization of society that has progressed since the turn of the century and reached a temporary climax in postmodernism. At most, such a process could be set in motion in the wake of a revolutionary dedifferentiation of society, such as was attempted in the "Third Reich". A homogenization of the concept of intellectual is therefore possible, but not desirable.

The Intellectual is dead, however the Intellectuals are - as can be stated in view of the overall beneficial consequences of the educational expansion - more lively and numerous than ever. However, more people can be mistaken for intellectuals who do not see themselves as intellectuals. Conversely, more people can see themselves as intellectuals without being recognized or perceived as such in public.

In this situation, today's task of those who perceive themselves as intellectuals is not to complain in an offended tone for recognition by all fractions of the social space, which is no longer feasible in pluralism, but to recognize the educational and social-historical causes of possible differences between self-perception and perception of others .

This presumably cannot ensure that clichés that mobilize atavistic resentment, such as the concept of the unrealistic intellectual, disappear completely from the public consciousness. But it can be argued for the establishment of a new type of intellectual who knows which intellectuality concepts he can and wants to realize in which situations - and which not.

The temporary and - as far as possible - self-determined assumption of changing roles has at least the advantage of protecting the individual intellectuals from outdated, pathetic-existential and inflexible self-definitions that guarantee a stable identity, but which can also become a tank in which a person can easily suffocate with his not only intellectual needs à la longue.

PD Dr. Jost Schneider
Ruhr-University Bochum
German Institute
GB 4/58
D-44780 Bochum

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1 Bering, Dietz: The intellectuals. History of a swear word. Stuttgart 1978. back

2 Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre: Economic Capital - Cultural Capital - Social Capital [1983]. From d. French by Reinhard Kreckel. In: P.B .: The hidden mechanisms of power. Writings on politics & culture 1. Ed. By Margareta Steinrücke. Unchangeable Reprint d. Ed. 1992. Hamburg 1997. pp. 49-79. Here: pp. 53-63. back

3 Rich illustrative material for this at: Schmitz, Claudius A. / Kölzer, Brigitte: Shopping behavior in retail. Approaches to customer-oriented trade marketing planning. Munich 1996. Here pp. 78-111, 150-226 and especially 381-385. back

4 Sennett, Richard: The Corrosion of Character. New York 1998 1998 u.d.T .: The flexible person. The culture of the new capitalism]. back

5 Sohn-Rethel, Alfred: mental and physical work. On the theory of social synthesis. Frankfurt a.M. 1970. back

6 Schelsky, Helmut: The work is done by the others. Class struggle and priestly rule of intellectuals. Opladen 1975. back

7 Gehlen, Arnold: The commitment of the intellectuals towards the state. In: Merkur 18 (1964), no. 5, pp. 401-413. back

8 Lepsius, M. Rainer: Criticism as a profession. On the sociology of the intellectuals. In. Cologne Journal for Sociology and Social Psychology 16 (1964), pp. 75-91. Here especially pp. 86-89. back

9 Cf. on this Bourdieu, Pierre: How a social class comes into being [1987]. In: P. B .: The dead grabs the living. Writings on politics & culture 2nd ed. Margareta Steinrücke. Hamburg 1997. pp. 102-129. back

10 Bourdieu's own answer to this question is - evidently under the influence of the more powerful tradition in France of the apparently attractive concept of the critical intellectual - less pluralistic and in parts straightforward normative. In addition Schwingel, Markus: Bourdieu for an introduction. Hamburg 1995. p. 133. back