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.