On Intellectuals in Britain

Richard Vinen reviews Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, in The Nation:

Stefan Collini encapsulates some of the paradoxes that dominate discussion of English intellectuals. In spite of his exotic name (it is interesting to speculate on how his work would be received if he were called “Steve Collins”), Collini is an English professor of English literature at an English university. He is also well versed in Continental academic life, particularly that of France. By his own definition (of which more below), he is an intellectual, but he also has a skepticism and a distrust of grand theory that some might see as quintessentially English. Perhaps for this reason, he has mainly communicated his ideas, so far, in essays and extended book reviews. This book seeks to bring his arguments together.

Collini begins with definition. He is not concerned with intellectuals in the “sociological sense” (meaning those who follow particular professions) nor with intellectuals in the “subjective sense” (meaning people who think). Rather–sailing between the Snowvian Scylla of statistical analysis and the Leaviste Charybdis of value judgments about the intrinsic quality of people’s writing–Collini wants to look at intellectuals in the “cultural sense.” By this, he means that an intellectual is characterized by an authority that has been established through “creative, analytical or scholarly” work, by access to means of communication that take intellectuals’ views to a wider public than that reached by his or her initial work, and by the fact that his or her views intersect with matters of wider general interest. To sum it up crudely, intellectuals for Collini always have some public dimension. The phrase “public intellectual” originated in the United States, but the real innovation of American life is the “private intellectual”–that is, one who addresses general issues but does so in such obscure publications, and in such opaque language, that he or she can only reach his or her own colleagues on the faculty at Duke or Yale.