Who is an Intellectual and what should the Role of Intellectuals be in Society?

Seminar Paper 2004 8 Pages

Sociology - Political Sociology, Majorities, Minorities




1. Who is an Intellectual?

2. What should the Role of Intellectuals be in Society?
2.1 Should Intellectuals create Utopias?
2.2 The Role of Intellectuals in Totalitarian, Post-totalitarian and Democratic Societies
2.2.1 The Role of Intellectuals in Totalitarian Societies
2.2.2 The Role of Intellectuals in Post-totalitarian Societies
2.2.3 The Role of Intellectuals in Democratic Societies

3. Conclusion


Attempting to define who is an intellectual brings up the general impossibility to give a “correct” definition. As the formulation of a definition depends on the context, the thematic field, there is no universally valid definition, no objective “prototype” of an intellectual can be stated. Examining intellectuals in the context of totalitarian, post-totalitarian and democratic societies, I will analyse their outstanding role within these three regime types. Asking ‘what should the role of intellectuals be in society?’, this question enters the normative field.

In the course of the programme we have come across several scientific approaches which define intellectuals differently, each based on a respective focus. According to the humanist point of view everyone is an intellectual – although he/she may not have the function of an intellectual (Foucault 1994). The intelligentia approach emphasizes the role of education whereas a Marxian definition focuses on the relation to the means of production: the intellectuals produce culture and therefore are opposed to the production of goods.

In view of this variety my approach is based on Max Weber’s notion of the ideal type: functioning as a model, the definition comprises several realization forms; however, possible deviations from the ideal type do not result in the point that the ideal type is wrongly or inadequately defined because the it does not lay claim to be an authentic picture of reality, rather it is an abstract model comprised of exaggerated features.

1. Who is an Intellectual?

On this basis and inspired by Saxonberg’s and Thompson’s (2002) approach, the determining elements of my definition of intellectuals comprise the following: Intellectuals are those educated people (institutionally educated or autodidactically) who contribute in different ways and to varying degrees to the production and development of cultural goods – in the form of speech, books, music, paintings or sculptures. Intellectuals can be writers, musicians, artists, philosophers, social scientists, clergymen etc. whose expert knowledge and exceptional capacity of critical reflection substantiate their minority status. They are distinguished from the sphere of material production which is constituted by manual workers. This distinction is based on the fact that intellectuals behaved differently compared to workers in times of social transition, as for example the Polish revolts in 1968 (ibid.). Because an intelligentia approach, focussing in the first line on education, would also include the leaders of a society into the group of intellectuals, this definition would be inappropriate for analytical reasons. This is also valid for the humanist approach – stating that everyone is an intellectual would be pointless because of its expanse.

2. What should the Role of Intellectuals be in Society?

2.1 Should Intellectuals create Utopias?

Closely related to the definition of intellectuals is the role, they should adopt in society. Generally speaking, intellectuals should take over a reflective perspective on society. Assuming that intellectuals produce ideas, these ideas can be of a critical nature and might induce change. One form of intellectual contribution is utopianism which “emerges as a passionate questioning, even rejection, of the present in favour of tomorrow or yesterday” (Donskis 2000: 49). With regard to the twentieth century as “the epoch of completely fulfilled utopias” (ibid.: 33), its horrors disillusion utopian thinking – they warn about its dangers in the light of totalitarianism and associated violence. Vis-à-vis the gloomy history of utopias which were put into practice, it might be asked if intellectuals should still write utopias or should it rather be their task to save humanity from any further harm of utopian societies (ibid.)? Popper (1961) criticizes utopian thinkers for their holistic way of thinking that is expressed in the assumption that whole societies can be changed, with those utopias put into practice serving as large scale experiments. Popper (1961) holds an anti-utopian point of view; on the contrary, he emphasizes the impossibility of an all comprising social change – and consequently relies on a step by step approach, including the trial and error technique. Engels (1880/1984), who distinguishes himself from utopianism, can nevertheless be characterized as an utopian thinker – regarding his detailed and sophistically developed programme.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
511 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Dalarna – European Political Sociology
Intellectual Role Intellectuals Society



Title: Who is an Intellectual and what should the Role of Intellectuals be in Society?