Book Review

What Does It Take to Be “Not an Intellectual”?

Dale Carnegie bio

What does it mean to say that someone is “not an intellectual?”

Various writers on this blog have engaged vigorously in discussion over how (or whether) to distinguish texts or historical figures who are properly subjects of intellectual history from those that are not. While I come out on the latitudinarian side of that debate, I think that it is nonetheless a different matter to call someone “not an intellectual” than to judge their work’s suitability for an intellectual historical project.

That difference can cut two ways, though. I think we can all imagine—however stringent our criteria may be for what is and is not a suitable subject of intellectual history—that a person who is not primarily thought of as an intellectual may still produce a text that meets the standards for complexity, influence, or what have you to merit consideration by intellectual historians. Popular song, for instance, is one realm that offers much to the intellectual historian without requiring a debate about whether to call popular songwriters and performers “intellectuals.” (For the record, I think it is obvious that certain songwriters and performers are among the purest examples of organic intellectuals there are.)

On the other hand, we can even more easily imagine a text produced by a fully accredited intellectual that we can agree is not a productive subject for further inquiry. I’ll let you fill in your own examples.

I am prompted to think about this phrase, “not an intellectual,” because it recurs a few times, with some minor differences in wording, in Steven Watts’s recent biography of Dale Carnegie, Self-Help Messiah. Watts is a professor of history at the University of Missouri, and has written about three other Midwestern boys who grew far beyond the region, in one way or another: Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and Hugh Hefner.

This won’t be a review of the Carnegie bio, but suffice it to say that it is an excellent piece of work—thorough, balanced, insightful, colorful, and suggestive. Carnegie, the man who sold millions of copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People, comes out a truly intricate character, one who captured some of the major contradictions of the early decades of the twentieth century. The title of the book jars a little with the sophistication of Watts’s analysis and the cogency of his case for Carnegie’s significance. “Self-Help Messiah” makes it sound like the book is going to be deflationary, debunking, but in fact it rather boldly emphasizes—at times—how much more complex Carnegie is than any debunker could appreciate, and, moreover, how useful sorting out that complexity can be to the historian–even, I think, to the intellectual historian.

I say “at times” Watts is bold and emphatic about Carnegie’s importance and complexity because he does commonly undercut his enthusiasm with the kind of reminders of Carnegie’s limitations to which I’ve been alluding. The longest and most involved one occurs rather early, on page 8:

Nor was Carnegie an intellectual who systematically thought his way to new conclusions. Instead, his revolutionary notions about success in the modern world took shape, in part, from his unique genius for soaking up new, controversial ideas that were floating around in the broader cultural atmosphere and synthesizing them into a popular form. But they also appeared from a more direct source: the cauldron of his own experience, the events of his own remarkable personal life.

What is notable to me about this passage—and it has this effect in context, too, not just in a standalone excerpt—is the strange shadows it throws over the word “intellectual” by the way it contrasts the “intellectual” with Carnegie.

From this passage, does calling Carnegie “not an intellectual” praise or scorn him? He’s portrayed as a “genius” but also derivative; revolutionary, but unreflective. He’s well-informed, but eclectic. An autodidact, with the virtues and frailties that go along with that.

Some of these questions touch on some of the issues raised by Aaron Lecklider’s book Inventing the Egghead, which I reviewed for this blog last year. In one sense, Watts is calling Carnegie “not an intellectual” as a politer way of saying he was not an egghead—he was practical, grounded, and full of real and worthwhile experiences. Yet there is also a sense of suspicion of the coherence and stability of the unsystematic way that Watts says Carnegie went about pulling together various cultural fragments.

Where can this leave us? Not, I think, asking “was Dale Carnegie an intellectual?” What I have tried briefly to show is that it can sometimes be harder to answer the questions, “was Dale Carnegie not an intellectual?” and, “in what ways was Carnegie not an intellectual?” These questions encourage us to think not in terms of bars that people have to clear, but rather it forces us to confront how we implicitly fill in the positive content of the control group of our experiments in intellectual history, how we imagine attributes common to this group, not just lacks.

Being “not an intellectual”—that’s not just about lacking whatever it is that makes someone an intellectual, but about having or doing something else. I believe we should be as self-conscious about what that “something else” might be for us as we are scrupulous in our definitions of the category of “intellectual. We should more often ask how, if we do have a control group of “non-intellectuals” outside of the intellectuals we study, we construct the qualifications for being in that control group.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. From the passage you quote, and your own analysis, it seems that the key sorting mechanism for this author is “systematic”/”unsystematic” — to be an intellectual is to be a “systematic” thinker who self-consciously develops a logically coherent way of thinking about/being in the world, while to be “not an intellectual” is to cobble together a world view on an ad hoc/improvisational basis without insisting on the logical coherence of the whole set of ideas (or, perhaps, without even being aware of what those ideas are).

    But if William James is right, and epistemic style is a matter of temperament and sensibility, then it seems to me that we are all in the “control group” of the ad hoc thinkers, whether we tend to the systematic or the improvisational. The distinction is perhaps at best a heuristic one. At the very least, to make this distinction between types of thinkers — the systematic and the unsystematic — as part of a systematic analysis of someone’s life/work/ideas puts scholarship in a (necessary? temporary?) position somewhere above the moil of temperament and tendency.

  2. LD,
    Thanks for this great comment.
    I think your caution about the heuristic nature of the systematic/unsystematic distinction is right, but I’m seeing an interesting slippage in your last sentence–are we still talking about systematicity or method? What you seem to be saying, if I’m reading you correctly, is that scholarship can rise above the ad hoc-ness we all share not because scholars have a well thought out view on everything, but because they have reached a consensus on methodological parameters for their work.

    I’m not sure that clarifies anything, but I think it does suggest that systematicity is at least not the sole criterion for distinguishing between intellectuals and those who are “not an intellectual.” I guess I would lean toward there not being a sort of core distinguishing feature, because I’m not sure that the two terms are entirely symmetrical–if x is what makes someone an intellectual, I don’t think it is necessarily true that not-x makes someone else not an intellectual.

  3. Intellectuals self-consciously position and develop their ideas in relation to previous traditions of discourse on whatever subject they are engaging. This can be done systematically (Hegel) or eclectically (Nietzsche), but the key thing is that it be done. “Cobbling together” stuff that’s “in the air” often makes for compelling reading that, when done well (as with Carnegie), is highly revealing of its moment, but it’s not an act of intellectual”ism”.

    • Nils,
      Could you say some more about the distinction you’re making between developing one’s ideas within tradition and cobbling together things in the air? It seems to me that it is in practice very difficult to categorize anyone’s thought cleanly as entirely one or the other, given the way the title “tradition” can so quickly be bestowed on what was only recently considered a jumble of sources.

      Also, as a total side note, I’ve always found it interesting that “cobbled together” is one of our most common phrases for slapdash work, when in reality cobblers are exacting artisans. I suppose it could be instead a reference to cobblestones, but again, a properly cobbled road is not at all slapdash or jumbled.

  4. The pragmatic question: what is the intellectual/not intellectual distinction good for? That is, what do we gain in analyzing somebody’s thought if we designate that person an intellectual or not an intellectual?

    It seems to me the title “intellectual” functions in two ways–the first as an honorific, the second as a descriptive. The honorific use suggests that the intellectual is weighty, profound, has a claim to be listened to and respected. It involves an evaluation of the quality of thinking, a quality that is presumably not possessed by those who are not intellectuals. To call someone “not an intellectual” in this sense is a kind of put down, a suggestion that a person’s ideas are not substantial, serious, or thoughtful in any sense.

    The descriptive sense would seem to point to a social identity and function, and involve no apparent evaluation of the merits or weight of the person’s thought, but a description of the act of thinking, writing, and arguing in public from the stance of any one of a number of bodies of existing thought given institutional basis in publications (journals, newspapers, etc.) or other specific media. From this point of view, calling someone an intellectual is describing a social role, not attaching any honorific sense to that role. But this way of conceiving of intellectuals is functional, and so doesn’t help us understand the quality of their thought. Its useful for social history, but not the history of thought.

    The honorific sense, I think, is also not very useful for examining the history of thought, since it imports an evaluative prejudice in favor of a description of thought. Nils, I imagine, disagrees, as we’ve had this discussion before.

    • Dan,
      Thank you so much–this is very useful, and I really appreciate the distinction you’re making between the honorific and the descriptive. But what I’m trying to get at here is a sort of middle ground–a way of saying “intellectual” or “not an intellectual” ambivalently enough that it can perform almost as if it’s a neutral description, but yet it retains just enough of the honorific (or derisory) sense to charge the word beyond mere description. That’s what I think is going on in the passage I quoted.

      If I’m right about this ambivalence, I’m nevertheless certainly not sure what it might be good for!

  5. Actually, Dan, I agree! Moreover, I’m personally not particularly interested in the honorific quality: like others intellectuals can be good, bad, evil, whatever, so the honorific doesn’t mean much. On the other hand, as you rightly say, the descriptive function is relevant: it’s a particular social function to explicitly place ideas in a dialog with other/older ideas on the same topic. That function may or may not be performed well, and it may or may not be “useful” for some instrumental social, political, etc. end, but that dialogic function seems to me to be the essential social role of the intellectual.

  6. For doing intellectual history, the descriptive function mentioned here seems a bit indiscriminate or unhelpful without some evaluative dimension (‘honorific’ may be a bit misleading by way of capturing this) that does in fact account for the capacities and virtues* of an “intellectual,” some minimal desiderata for same by way of discriminating intellectuals from non-intellectuals and by way of making judgments as to whether or not someone exemplifies some or most of these capacities and virtues; and furthermore, does so in an exemplary fashion or not (along some continuum of such an assessment). One might infer this as well from the philosophical literature on the “fact-value” (or positive-normative, etc.) dichotomy, the principal lesson of which being the necessity and value of the distinction but awareness of the pernicious problems associated with a dualistic conception: this appears to be in keeping with the search for a “middle ground.”** Another way to approach this might be by way of clarifying our conceptions of rationality and reasonableness, as only the most “thin” or instrumentalist notions of rationality come with little or no connections to values.

    No doubt there will be disagreement as to the precise specification of any cluster of such virtues but I think it best to attempt to clarify what these might be than to simply assume, presume, or presuppose them, which appears (to me at least) to often be the case. This would go some way in the endeavor to identify why we’ve chosen “this” (or person or group, etc. and their ideas) to study rather than “that.” In short, I believe, with Andrew Sayer (among others), that this evaluative enterprise is necessary for any meaningful or significant description or explanation (historical or otherwise). It’s a common mistake to conflate this evaluative exercise with propaganda, subjective imposition of one’s own values, or the expression of an imperative or an injunction. Evaluative exercises can be linked to prescriptive ones but they need not; they certainly don’t tell us what precise course of action to take or what sort of intervention is best.

    * I won’t attempt to list some of these here but I suspect what are called the virtues of “critical thinking” would more or less be among them, perhaps in addition (some of these are in fact identical) to what’s been called (in ‘regulative’ or ‘virtue epistemology’) “intellectual virtues.” No doubt there will be disagreement as to the precise specification of any cluster of such virtues but I think it best to attempt to clarify what these might be than to simply assume, presume, or presuppose them, which appears (to me at least) to often be the case.

    ** I broached this topic in a preliminary fashion here: and in a series of 3 posts on “facts and values, truth and objectivity” (I’ve linked to the third post as it has the links to the prior two):

  7. Andrew, thanks for your reply.

    To be honest, the last line of my comment was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. IOW, I think the very act of definition carries with it the belief, or at least the hope, that the definer can somehow sidestep the issue of temperament, tendency, taste, sensibility. But the definition — or the insistence on drawing a distinction — is itself an expression of temperament, tendency, taste.

    There was recent discussion on the blog about the assumptions some people have about the relationship between historians and the subjects — or objects — they study. It’s possible that part of what Watts is doing in clarifying (repeatedly) for the reader that Carnegie was “not an intellectual” is a pre-emptive move against the assumption that to study something is to endorse it. Believe it or not, that rather facile assumption has even made an occasional appearance in the comment threads on this blog. “Is your subject sufficiently intellectual?” or “Are you sufficiently intellectual to know the difference between what is and isn’t sufficiently intellectual?” — these are the mechanisms some use to draw invidious distinctions. My surmise is that part of Watts’s reflexive and repeated qualification of Carnegie is to protect himself against some of that residual disciplinary contempt.

    • Ah, I’m sorry. I just misunderstood you. I blame the internet.

      I hadn’t thought at all of that particular possibility–that Watts was merely trying to put some distance between himself and Carnegie–but that’s a brilliant reading. I think that’s definitely what’s going on here.

      At the same time, I think it’s very interesting that he chooses to create distance at least in part by denying a claim that no one has ever really made–I can’t recall anyone who has ever taken up the cudgels on behalf of Carnegie’s right to the title of intellectual. Furthermore, it’s not like Watts’s professional identity is as a historian of intellectuals: I think his books might usefully be read as histories of ideas–in this case, of the ideas underlying the broad cultural shift from character to personality–but he’s not got the professional identity of, say, Martin Jay.

      Anyway, thank you so much for this idea. I will have to continue to mull it over!

  8. No, Andrew you’re fine — I don’t think you misunderstood me so much as I didn’t make my ideas very clear. And, as I said, I was “a little bit” tongue-in-cheek. Definitions do function to clear an epistemic space for systematic critical analysis in scholarship — and they also function to assert/display the critical acumen or systematicity (the scholarly virtue?) of the person deploying them.

    I’m sure you’re right about Watts taking as his object not “intellectuals” but ideas. But it’s precisely that approach that some find so objectionable — as if what makes an idea historically significant is the social significance or intellectual reputation of the person who expresses it. So, the objection runs, Daniel Rodgers quoted Peggy Noonan in Age of Fracture, and Peggy Noonan is clearly not an intellectual, so how can Age of Fracture be real intellectual history? However, if one’s object of inquiry is not “the intellectual” or “intellectuals” but “ideas,” then any text in which those ideas find expression is a useful source for the historian.

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