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What is an intellectual? Where does the word come from?


Though its root can be traced back to late Middle English, the word intellectual only became widespread at the time of Dreyfus Affair (1894 - 1906). Defenders of Dreyfus - most famously, the French novelist Emile Zola - were described as intellectuals. It was not intended as a compliment but shorthand for  “the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound.”


Unloved intellectuals

Intellectuals were also despised by the authoritarian Left. Lenin, for example,  reserved particular contempt for what he liked to call 'bourgeois intellectuals', evidently not counting himself in a group that would be heading en masse to the gulags.

Today, the French accord due respect to writer, poets, philosophers and other assorted eggheads. Unfortunately some of the most celebrated examples have rather tarnished the brand. Althusser murdered his wife while Monsieur Intellectual himself, Jean Paul Sartre, was a serial champion of despots including Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

Intellectual but idiot?

In the anglosphere a more skeptical view of intellectuals tends to be be associated with political conservatism. William F Buckley famously said that he would rather be governed by fifty individuals picked randomly from the phone book than the collective teaching staff at Harvard.  More recently Naseem Taleb had railed against what he calls the way that what he calls the IYI (intellectual yetidiot) dominates public discourse.


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