'Birth of the Intellectuals'

According to Christophe Charle's book on the topic, a debate over their definition and role has raged since the beginning, writes Scott McLemee.

November 11, 2015

Someone once characterized the intellectual as a person “living by, for and off of ideas.” Another remark in the same terse vein calls the intellectual someone who habitually reads with pen in hand.

Neither definition would pass muster with historians or sociologists, but they are ideal for ordinary usage. Each takes the distinguishing feature of the intellectual to be certain ingrained ways of directing the attention -- without making any claim about his or her personal qualities or social status. This has the advantage of keeping snarling to a minimum. (No other noun provokes so much insecurity and hostility that people often feel compelled to put “pseudo-” or “self-described” in front of it.)

The trouble with such placid or neutral definitions, however, is that “les intellectuels” were born in a scene of great hostility and named amid a prolonged exchange of insults. Christophe Charle’s Birth of the Intellectuals 1880-1900 (Polity) uses the French word when referring to the academics and authors who rallied to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus in the late 1890s and the English word “when it is to be understood in the broader sociological sense.” (Charle is a professor of contemporary history at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.) The distinction is useful, but the thrust of book’s argument is that the persisting ambiguities and disputes over the concept -- even within sociology -- were already taking shape before the intellectuels rallied behind Émile Zola’s manifesto J’accuse in 1898.

That the author is a historian would not necessarily be a reader’s first guess. Charle draws so heavily on the ideas and perspectives of Pierre Bourdieu that I assumed he was a sociologist using educational and literary developments in France in the late 19th century for a case study of the field of cultural production. Anyone not already acquainted with the Dreyfus controversy, at least in broad outline, is bound to give up quickly: this is historical writing in which the narrative element approaches the vanishing point.

Instead of events, Charle reconstructs the categories and niches of brainwork during the late 19th century as each established its role in French society. At the same time, each was also marking off its own respective criteria for recognition and advancement. Republican principles, established by a century of revolutions, did not preclude the emergence of an elite -- but it had to be based on merit rather than bloodline, a “nonexclusive aristocracy” cultivated by the educational system.

Louis Pasteur served as an exemplary case: a man of modest origins, he had contributed to the well-being of humanity (the rabies and anthrax vaccines) and advanced knowledge (the germ theory) while bolstering the French economy with his method for keeping wine and milk from going sour. He was the patient, methodical laboratory researcher as national hero: his expertise possessed a recognizable social value.

Supplementing the tremendous prestige of the sciences was the model of specialized, highly professionalized scholarship in all disciplines practiced in German universities. So teaching and research could be understood and valued -- by those who practiced them and by laypeople alike -- as matters of public importance. That was true even when scientists and scholars prided themselves on remaining so concentrated on their areas of specialization that they ignored everything else.

The situation among novelist, poets, essayists and other writers was altogether murkier -- in part because of the rapid and chaotic nature of the publishing industry, especially given its susceptibility to economic pressures. The number of aspirants always exceeds the number of positions offering a writer access to readers or money (much less, as in the best case, both). And the range of available outlets for publication tends to interact with writers’ own interests, styles and degrees of mutual hostility in fairly volatile ways. Whether new literary movements create new literary journals or vice versa can only be determined on a case-by-case basis; even then, it will be partly guesswork.

The term “intellectuel seems to have been coined in France in the early 1890s, in the small but serious journals of debate written and edited by, well, intellectuals -- that is, writers, academic and otherwise, who expressed political and cultural opinions largely critical of the established order. The word is often said to have entered English as a neologism in the wake of the Dreyfus case. (Charle seems to make the same assumption, although Stefan Collini quotes Byron using it as early as 1813.)

In any event, the intellectuels who intervened to defend Dreyfus -- accusing the French military of anti-Semitism and of covering up evidence that would exonerate him -- were drawn from the ranks of the professoriate as well as writers, both creative and journalistic, established and otherwise. Charle goes over their social backgrounds, career trajectories and political affiliations exhaustively. In analyzing the statements they wrote and published, he pays close attention to how famous names and distinguished institutional affiliations were sometimes featured prominently to signal their authority and the seriousness of the cause. At other times, the indicators or prominence were downplayed: the list of signatures might have an illustrious professor alongside an obscure poet or an ordinary citizen.

The debate over Dreyfus quickly spun off what sounds like an equally nasty one over whether the intellectuels were heirs of Voltaire’s role as the voice of reason and justice against oppression, or just people interfering in military matters for which their education and verbal skills gave them no claim to competence. Because of its challenge to authority and the involvement of many figures with known anarchist or socialist tendencies, the pro-Dreyfus cause was largely understood as a movement of the left -- which inspired the anti-Dreyfusards to come up with accusations that they were radical elitist hypocrites. (A bit rich, given that those denouncing Dreyfus as a traitor included people who wanted to restore the monarchy.)

As for Dreyfus, he was exonerated a few years later. The notion that intellectuals can, and should, play some role as critics of the society they live in was established. Debate over how well they perform that function never ends, nor should it. And the snarling, of course, continues unabated.


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