In Absent Minds Stefan Collini examines a puzzle that has occupied cultural commentators for more than a century. Why is it that Britain no longer seems to have any intellectuals? In fact, has Britain ever had any intellectuals? If it did, what happened to them? From the outset Collini’s intention is to dispel this myth of absence, but, as he points out, to do so is to raise a new set of questions. Why do people so badly want to believe in the nonexistence of British intellectuals, and why has this concern persisted over the years? As Collini observes, there is a “rich tradition of debate about the question of intellectuals,” which suggests that the issue has been a regular cause of anxiety.
Collini argues that the denial of the existence of intellectuals, or of a clearly identifiable intellectual community, is a prominent aspect of national self-definition within Britain. Furthermore, those who might be identified as intellectuals are quick to disown the title, suggesting that while it might apply to others, it does not apply to them. Ultimately, the understanding seems to be that intellectuals are a species not native to Britain but instead a foreign import, and thus to be regarded with suspicion. Collini’s intention is to demonstrate that this perception is false and to show that Britain does possess its own indigenous intellectuals and always has, no matter how reluctant they might be to embrace the title.
Collini’s first task is to define “intellectual,” a task that is less straightforward than it might at first seem. It is easy to suppose that by establishing a clear definition one will be able to identify precisely what kind of person is being described, after which it becomes a simple matter of finding such people and labeling them as “intellectuals.” In reality, “intellectual” is a word that attracts what Collini calls a “force field” of meanings rather than one that is clearly recognizable. The idea of the intellectual, even in the twenty-first century, is still likely to provoke disagreement.
The term emerged in France during the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906). French novelist Émile Zola’s open letter “J’Accuse” (1898) prompted more than a thousand writers, scholars, teachers, and other university graduates to put their names to a letter endorsing Zola’s charges. The use of titles and educational qualifications as badges of authority prompted the letter’s detractors to refer to them as the intellectuals. The term therefore entered common usage in France with a pejorative meaning attached to it. (Given the contrasts often made between pejorative use in Britain and apparently more favorable associations in France, it is worth noting that the term initially carried similarly hostile overtones in France.)
References to the Dreyfus affair brought the term into use in Britain, although there was no obvious term for it to replace and no corresponding situation for it to describe. From the outset British commentators were unclear how and to whom the term should be applied. The Russian term intelligentsia also came into English at around the same time although in Russian this did refer to a distinctive social grouping of well-educated people set apart from an otherwise illiterate society. Although committed to being critical of religious and political authority, the intelligentsia were, in Britain, viewed with as much suspicion by those who might be thought to be their natural supporters as by their detractors, reinforcing the sense of unease regarding such continental practices.
Having charted attempts to define the intellectual, Collini turns his attention to finding the missing British intellectuals. As becomes clear almost immediately, intellectuals do exist within British culture and have always existed historically. However, they have gone by many labels, not all of them easily linked to intellectual, and have fallen foul of a practice of denial that began in the nineteenth century. This denial arose from existing assumptions and prejudices, not least the habit of contrasting Britain with nations perceived as being less fortunate. The British prided...
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