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by Richard Nilsen

When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was tagged with being an “egghead.” It was enough to sink him in the election. No one wanted an egghead in the White House.
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But neither did anyone actually ask what an “egghead” might possibly be. We throw around the term “intellectual” as if it were widely understood. But the term means something very specific.
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It doesn’t mean someone who is very smart. Many smart people are not in the least intellectual. (Nor should they be — we need smart people who can actually do and make things, too.)
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It doesn’t mean simply someone well-educated or with a string of letters after their name. After all, Ph.D. is often just an acronym for “Piled Higher and Deeper.” Dogged drudge-work will earn you a Ph.D. if you are willing to put in the hours. (This is not to disparage those Ph.D.s who are intellectual — intellectuals often earn advanced degrees, but the degree itself is no guarantee.)
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When I was growing up, those who were considered intellectual were often called “nerds.” It was not a compliment. But nerd-dom has changed over the years, and now, nerds are almost never intellectual. Their heads are buried in video games or comic books. Yes, they can program like demons, but how much do they actually think about what they’re doing? Being able to do things civilians cannot does not make you an intellectual.
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We tend to think of intellectuals as those who know a lot of stuff. But at its core, being intellectual is not about knowledge, but about questions. An intellectual constantly questions things.
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Now, we all have questions. It is basic to being a human. But intellectuals are different in this respect: We all have questions, but intellectuals have questions about the questions. They examine the validity of our assumptions.
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Through most of history, we learned about the world from our elders, and our elders learned from their elders. This was a fine system for eons. And even today, the model most people have of the world is the one handed to them and reflexively accepted. This is our Umwelt, the picture of reality held in our psyche against which we measure things. It is not a very sophisticated model, and one that is frequently proved wrong, or at least unexamined.
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Consider three meals a day, or 8 hours of sleep. Take patriotism or gender roles. These are our “categories of thought,” and while they have served us well enough, they are still basically habits rather than realities.
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Let me repeat, this has nothing to do with intelligence. There are very smart people who use these categories of thought to accomplish much. In fact, the world runs smoothly for long stretches entirely because these people tend to run things. They are not intellectuals. No matter how smart they are, they have not that peculiar bent of personality that we can name as intellectual. (There can be a problem, though. Consider a complete non-intellectual who arrogantly and stupidly thinks his narrow vision comprises the whole world and has his finger on the nuclear button. I shudder.)
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But they are the vast majority of the human population throughout the world and throughout history. Problems occur when one set of assumptions bump face to face with a different set. Wars may start, people may die. But, inside the smooth running society, these assumptions keep the wheels greased — even if those wheels include patriarchy, slavery or 30-year mortgages.
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There are those, however, who recognize the categories of thought as things to play with. These are the clever people. They take our expectations and turn them upside down — usually to make us laugh or entertain us, but also to make us vote a certain way, or to make us sign on to a new religion. When they entertain us, they give us pleasure; when they manipulate us, they generally foster misery. Either way, they don’t question the categories, but merely rejigger them to effect.
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I think, for instance, of Quentin Tarantino. Clever as hell, but not what I could call an intellectual. He takes the tropes and memes of culture, mainly old movies — and mainly old bad movies — and turns them sideways and upside down, then fills them with clever dialog and makes bright, shiny new films that we admire for their sheen. But he has neither negated those tropes, nor even questioned them, merely juggled them — a new version of the vaudeville plate spinner. His ideas have no more substance than the deaths of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill — ducks in a shooting gallery. He is damned clever.
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Tarantino is not thinking outside the box: He is stacking boxes.
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Intellectuals, on the other hand, attempt to see the categories of thought and examine them, asking if they are truly solid, or mere habits of mind to be transcended. These are the people who think, as they say, “outside the box.” Indeed, for the rarest of them, there is no box at all: They see most clearly, with no filter. At least, that’s the attempt. It is so hard to do, most intellectuals really only achieve the creation of new habits to be accepted and followed by later populations. Still, they persist.
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My avatar for the intellectual is Albert Einstein, who inherited the categories of Isaac Newton, and jumped outside the box to see the bigger picture. From inside
Newton’s box, you could never unravel the riddle of photons. Of course, outside the box, we are now lost in a welter of quantum mechanics, and it will take a new Einstein to see past the walls of our new cosmic box.
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These intellectuals fill the ranks of many fields. If you want to compare an intellectual filmmaker with a clever one, then put side-by-side films by Tarantino and those by Ingmar Bergman. There are intellectual mathematicians who constantly question prime numbers, there are political scientists who question democracy, doctors who question research, novelists who question class and race, poets who question language, historians who question evidence. We once had Structuralists debunking the biographical interpretation of literature, followed by the Post-Structuralist who deconstructed them, and the current crop of intellectuals who are fed up with political readings of everything from Lewis Carroll to Jacqueline Susann.
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Now, these three types of mind I have just outlined are not three discrete kinds of personality. They are points on a spectrum. On one end there are the common minds, on the other there are the intellectuals and in the middle are various shades of clever. I have made a chart (one of the popular tropes in our current culture, so frequent in board meetings) showing the relative numbers of each type and the range of the spectrum.
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It should be pointed out once again, that this is not a range from dumb to smart. There actually can be intellectuals who are not very bright, and there are ordinary people who can be very intelligent. It is not the level of brainpower we’re talking about, but the inclination to focus that power on one type of thinking or another.
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Further, societies cannot function if everyone questions everything all the time. There is little stability in intellectual thought. Yet, societies can fester if there are no intellectuals among its number. The proportions I have shown in my “Spectrum of Exthecation” are generally the right proportion for a functioning culture. (“Theca” is the Latin word for “box,” and so, “exthecation” is “outside the box.”)
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In a way, I think of the spectrum as running from truth assumers through truth users and on to truth seekers. Where do you fall?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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