Top ten failed intellectuals

Prospect magazine has an utterly risible list of “top 100” intellectuals (via Bryan Appleyard and Frank Wilson, both of whom offer their opinions at the links provided). Like Susan Baleé (see comments at Bryan’s blog), I have heard of only one out of the first ten named people, and I’ve only heard of him because he got a Nobel prize for literature recently (I hadn’t heard of him before that). I have, however, heard of numbers 11 and 12, Noam Chomsky and Al Gore. I would call Noam Chomsky an intellectual (whether or not one agrees with him) but I would not call Al Gore one. I would also call Richard Dawkins (who features in the list) an intellectual. Although it is fashionable to despise him, one does not have to agree with someone’s views for that person to be considered an intellectual, and Richard Dawkins surely qualifies on the basis of a superb body of work.


However, returning to the main point, Frank Wilson and Bryan Appleyard are, of course, founder members of the Failed Intellectuals Society. I don’t make it into that exalted group, but here are my top ten Failed Intellectuals (in no particular order), all of whom I can recommend highly:


Frank (link above)


Bryan (link above)


Susan Baleé


Nigel Beale


Clare Dudman


Henry Gee


Dave Lull


Ian McEwan (not a popular choice among some fellow FIs, I realise)


Mary Beard


Patrick Kurp.


There, you can’t do better than that — you read it here first.

27 thoughts on “Top ten failed intellectuals

  1. Hi Maxine,
    As you will see on my blog tomorrow morning – the first post of the day – you are welcome to join us any day. I agree about Chomsky – at least in his field, but I’m not so sure about Dawkins. He can be a very good writer, but he is often a very sloppy thinker. And he doesn’t really do science. He just writes about it. Still, I’d rather include him among the intellectuals than have him join us Failed Intellectuals.

  2. Maxine, I am honored. I definitely don’t measure up to the rest of that distinguished company, but I’m pleased as punch that you think I do!

  3. Thanks for the comments. Susan, you are too modest (I’ve read some of your writing). I have it on good authority now that the list, which was decided by a readers’ poll, was the victim of the “block vote” approach. Clearly, readers of Tolkein are not also readers of Prospect;-)

  4. That made me go from 🙂 to :-))).
    Thank you, Maxine. I feel hugely honored (and have to say you might not be in your own list- but you’d be in mine!)

  5. I’m neither an intellectual, neither am I failed. The Old Boy still has some lead in his pencil. I agree with Frank about Dawkins, though.

  6. It doesn’t come any worse than this farrago. Looking at the related blogs, I have to think it has been overlooked that this is supposed to be a list of “public intellectuals”. That term was coined 21 years ago as a description of intellectuals, people who have ideas and/or opinions about issues, who broadcast or exercise those ideas and opinions in the public realm. I put it simply, but it will suffice. It was totally redundant, because the term ‘intellectual’ had never previously been used in scholarly parlance to describe people of ideas who kept those ideas to themselves. But once coined it inevitably gained currency and, rather disastrously, as we see here, it was increasingly applied to ‘people of ideas’, very often academics, who participated in government, whether it be as holders of formal office or as more or less formal advisers. And this where it all comes unstuck, for while scholars who have written about the nature and role of the intellectual may vary somewhat in their definitions (Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, J.P. Nettl, Isaiah Berlin, Robert Nisbet, et al.), I am quite sure they would be in agreement that once an intellectual becomes ‘institutionalized’ in any way, let alone part of government, he ceases to be an intellectual — the role of the intellectual being to stand outside, independent, and observe, analyze, comment on, and, in general, ideate. It struck me particularly that this list includes Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, and David Petraeus (!), three academics, a writer/commentator/academic turned MP, and a general, all of whom have had a part in the formulation or propagandizing of U.S. foreign policy. Having Petraeus in there is just ludicrous, but none of the others would I designate an intellectual, for they have all been long and far too much a part of the institutions of power. There are more of the same on the list, plus plenty who are there because people have the idea that to gain a measure of fame as a playwright, historian, university president, or theologian, to be an academic, or to be just plain brainy, makes you an intellectual. It doesn’t, but the word has lost all significant meaning.

  7. Hi Maxine,
    re: the top ten: Like you I’d only heard of Pamuk. I actually cut and pasted the list into Word so that when I had time I could go to work with Mr. Google. After reading the list I felt distinctly ill informed…like a failed intellectual!
    re the honour…many thanks. words fail me.

  8. I’m afraid that to me, the word ‘intellectual’ has become tainted by politics. When I was growing up, a Leftish cousin described Left-wing politics as ‘intellectual’ politics, as if anyone who deviated from the party line was in some way barred from becoming an intellectual.
    The term has also become tainted by pretention.
    Recently, and particularly in British academic circles, the word intellectual has become marred by a certain modish antisemitism in which it has become entirely acceptable in salon circles (which are, of course, Leftish and pretentious) to express views about Jews which would be shocking if expressed more directly or publicly. This is seen particularly in the output of the BBC and its transcripts, the Grauniad and the Indescribable.
    Being Jewish, of Rightish tendencies and (I hope) unpretentious, anyone who calls me an intellectual is liable to get a smack round the gob with a stale bagel. I’ll just about stomach ‘failed intellectual’ as it’s tongue-in-cheek … but …. well, really.

  9. Dear Henry, you put the nail on it. This is why Frank and Bryan formed the failed intellectual society. It is tongue in cheek and I’m sorry if you don’t find it amusing. It was not intended to be serious.
    Philip, Kerrie, Nigel, I saw some people yesterday who know what happened at Prospect: the list was decided by voting, and they got a whole vast mass of emails from certain parts of the world. This is what often happens on these occasions. Perhaps the organisers could have done something to eliminate this “mass cheating”, but I suppose if you have a readers’ poll you have to take what comes?

  10. BTW, Henry, I don’t agree with you about the Jews, but then I don’t watch TV or move in the circles you describe, so maybe I’m wrong. But when I was younger, I had a lot of Jewish friends who were in the BBC and are there still, I don’t believe that as an institution it is anti-semitic. I cannot believe that any institution in the UK would dare to be antisemitic, after our experiences and actions 60 years ago.

  11. … in fact, if you go to that site’s Forum (its news pages)
    http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/
    you’ll find antisemitism alive, well and thriving in Britain’s UCU (Universities and Colleges Union) in its repeated calls for boycotts against Israeli academics (the persecution of Jews being only just beneath the surface), boycotts volubly supported by prominent academics such as Dawkins.

  12. Henry, thanks for the links. I don’t want to visit any politically motivated sites, particularly anti-semitic ones, thanks anyway. Anti-semitism will not be tolerated on this blog!
    I have experienced enough of that boycott issue in my “day job” to have no wish to go anywhere near it. But nobody I know gives it a second’s thought. I am sorry Richard Dawkins is involved in it, but this does not negate the fact (in my mind) that he has done excellent work, and has written some jolly good books as well as turning on young people to science as a university lecturer.

  13. The blog is not antisemitic – its function is to highlight antisemitism in the academic and intellectual left.

  14. Maxine, I did rumble what happened in the case of particular elements on the list, but I doubt not that the general nature would have been the same even if the fixes had not been put in, and my comment was intended to have general application anyway. Indeed, I could have written, mutatis mutandis, the same about a similar exercise by Time magazine some while back. I am not sure this game is worth the candle. Volumes have been written about the nature and role of the intellectual in European and British society in the 19th. century and for much of the 20th. It is in the nature of a grand tradition, and it has nothing to do with pretentious left-wingers having pseudointellectual conversations in salons, with or without the antisemitism. I do not like to see it lost, forgotten or misrepresented, and I should like to mention here one thing about it, relating to Henry’s comments, which not a few books and essays have discussed at length — it owed much of its richness and character to a preponderate Jewish element, for they, as quintessential outsiders and in their intellectual traditions, were ideally suited to the role. And, yes, they tended to be of the left politically — the societies they lived in or migrated from, the societies they observed, the societies that excluded them, were absolutist/right-wing/conservative, so it is hardly surprising. The Jewish element among the New York Intellectuals were in the same tradition before Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, Norman Podhoretz et al. performed a volte-face and originated neoconservatism, a doctrine centred initially only upon total, wholly uncritical support of the policies of Israel. And with that has come the insidious insinuation, rife in the States particularly, that criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Zionism, anti-Zionism is anti-semitism, and criticism of Israeli policies is thus anti-semitic. And so it is now that intellectuals of the left who criticize those policies are accused of antisemitism, including many who are themselves Jewish (this latter aspect riding upon the concept of the ‘self-hating Jew’.) I lived in Stanmore and much frequented Hampstead for a number of years, and I had and have Jewish friends there who could be this criterion be accused of it. There are two great dangers in this, and one of them is, of course, the trivialization of antisemiticism, ever with us and resurgent in a number of quarters. But taking this all in all, it seems to me a sad decline in the intellectual tradition and in the level of public discourse.

  15. Philip – the trend towards an intellectual antisemitism is, nevertheless, real, and well-documented.
    Maxine – my antipathy towards Dawkins is well-known. In my view, he wrote one very good bvook a long time ago, and since then he has become an intolerant religious maniac, and inasmuch as he is followed by those of a similar stripe, a demagogue and rabble-rouser hardly better or worse than Oswald Moseley. In the context of this post, though, how can it be that Dawkins is an intellectual whereas other popularizers of science such as Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond are not? These gentlemen have not only produced great and influential books, but continue to be active in science (qua science) in a way that Dawkins isn’t, and hasn’t been for more than 20 years, and conduct themselves with, dare I say, a more refined and scholarly deportment.

  16. With that I wholly agree, Henry. ‘Intellectual antisemitism’ — the furnishing of ideas and arguments to justify the actions of practioners of racial hatred at the political and grassroots levels — has seen an increase in its purveyors in the West. In Russia, where it has a tradition all its own, it has reemerged with full and brutal force (and with somewhat less but still significant force elsewhere, e.g., Poland), and I fear that in these times when all things are global in significance and easily accessible to all, that will feed the tendency in other lands.
    Steven Pinker is on the list, by the by. I am inclined to agree with you about Dawkins — both he and his equally aggressive counterparts on the religious right-wing would do well to contemplate Kant’s Antinomies. Comparing him with Oswald Mosley, though, is a step too far for me.

  17. My comparison with Moseley – well, perhaps you are right. But I’m just getting my retaliation in first . …:)

  18. Henry
    May I, without any hint of anti-semitism, call you an intellectual?
    I’ll look forward to being smacked round the gob with a stale bagel on 30th August. May I have smoked salmon on it, please?

  19. You can have cream cheese and pickled gherkins too, if you like. But I’m still puzzled by the term ‘intellectual’. Do we ‘ideate’? I’m not sure I’ve ever had an original thought in my life. Do we, then, create a climate of thought that influences others? Well, nobody cares a tinkers cuss what I think… and quite right too.

  20. For those who are really interested in definition of ‘the intellectual’ and the role and functions thereof, the literature is substantial indeed, but J.P. Nettl’s essay ‘Ideas, Intellectuals and Structures of Dissent’ in On Intellectuals, ed. Philip Rieff, is a very good place to start. If that stimulates the cells, there is Lewis Coser’s Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View; Jacques Barzun’s The House of Intellect; Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life….But one work to which I would give special mention here is Julien Benda’s famous La Trahison des Clercs of 1927, translated by Richard Aldington as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, for that work is as relevant now as it was then, especially where the question of so-called ‘public intellectuals’ is concerned (Richard Posner’s book entitled Public Intellectuals has a list of 546 plus another of the ‘Top 100’, both illustrating why the term ‘intellectual’ has both lost its meaning and become dangerous), and also the matter of intellectual racism and anti-semiticism. That done, for the sheer pleasure of seeing a truly great intellectual at work, one can always read anything, or everything, written by Isaiah Berlin, including his writings on intellectuals.

  21. Furnishing an adequate answer would require rather greater length than this venue would justify, Henry, but perhaps I might say something about it as I clarify one matter that I think I have not made clear. I doubt very much if you are likely to run into any intellectuals in the sense or senses that I or the writers I mentioned above had in mind. I view it now as an historical matter, a tradition that emerged in the mid-18th century, notably in France, flourished particularly in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th, and started its decline in the 1960s. The one thing vital among the qualities of the intellectuals was their independence, their standing apart from institutions, supporting themselves most often as writers — novelists, critics, essayists, journalists — and observing with critical eye the socio-political and cultural conditions of their times. Once erstwhile intellectuals were lured into government (camels inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in, to adapt Lyndon Johnson’s line re Edgar Hoover), or into the service of any special interest, their former role as intellectuals in society ceased. As I wrote earlier, the term ‘public intellectual’ seems redundant — broadcast their view of matters was what intellectuals did — and I think as I look at these lists that what it means in practice is a mishmash of people, supposedly of notable intellect and expertise, no matter how narrow, or who are known for doing anything at all ‘intellectual’, and many of whom are most decidedly working in or in the interests of government or in the service of special interests. (Roger Scuton’s lucrative contract wiht JT Tobacco is but the most egregious example of an academic/intellectual doing this, and the number of academics whose research is now preponderately that termed ‘outside’ is a source of growing controversy and transforming the very idea of the university). There are surely a few soldiering in the old tradition, but ‘the intellectual’ in the sense and tradition that brings to mind Alexander Herzen, Moses Hess, George Orwell, Julien Benda, Hannah Arendt, Anatole France…they are gone. Their various endeavours were sometimes at bottom futile (those of the left in 1930s Britain, those of the right in France during the same period), but sometimes profound in their influence (France in the 18th century, Russia in the 19th), and I am quite sure there are those who do not mourn the end of the tradition. Margaret Thatcher was noted for enlisting ‘intellectuals’ as window-dressing for her policies, and I suspect thought of them rather as court fools. Rather more telling was her summing up of the French Revolution in her memoirs as the destruction of an established social order by “vain intellectuals”.

  22. Apologies for missing this very interesting exchange: I have been in Harrogate for a few days, where I understand the approved method of dealing with the academic pressures of life is to disappear for a couple of weeks.
    Although the “failed intellectuals” group is tongue in cheek, I recommend any of those blogs in the list (in my post) because their authors are interested in knowledge for its own sake, not in posing about it.
    Philip, thank you for your thoughtful points of view and for the reading recommendations.
    The meeting Richard (RPG) refers to above is called Science Blogging 2008, to be held on 30 August in London. All are welcome if they are interested in blogging+science. Henry, Clare, RPG and I will all be present and talking, along with others. See Nature Network http://network.nature.com for the programme and further details. I understand that Richard Dawkins will not be present, nor (sadly) will Ian McEwan.

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