How do you become an intellectual


From the beginning of the 19th century, the writers gained independence and thus social importance through new opportunities on the market and cooperation with the press. Artists, writers, scientists, teachers and journalists who were previously thought to be very different were now perceived as a group - the intellectuals. At the same time, they stood in a field of struggle for symbolic and cultural power, which was fought out under the guiding principle of 'freedom'. The new type of writer, who worked beyond his own field, was embodied by Alfred de Lamartine, but also by Victor Hugo; they were role models for the twofold championship in literature and politics.

Émile Zola's courageous advocacy of the unjustly convicted Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus in his open letter 'J’accuse' in 1898 corresponded to the logic of the individual intervention of a single, famous writer. What was new, however, was the solidarity of hundreds of writers and scientists with Zola. Together they campaigned for the cause of truth and justice. The group's new self-image, which has now been subsumed under the term 'les intellectuels', characterized writers and scholars who had acquired a reputation in their field and who took a stand on important questions of society on the basis of fundamental republican values.

With the collective intervention of intellectuals in the context of the Dreyfus Affair, a specific tradition was established in France that also caught on in Italy and Spain, but hardly in other countries. The prerequisite for the emergence of this model of political engagement was the democratic experience, the existence of a public opinion that went hand in hand with the freedom of the press, the meritocratic formation of the elite and, finally, the capital city effect. Committed intellectuals repeatedly appeared in crisis situations in France: for pacifism in the 1920s, under the sign of anti-fascism in the following decade, or against the Algerian war. Today they are committed against economic neoliberalism. Jean-Paul Sartre advocated the model of the universal intellectual who, as the representative of a universal truth, believes that, by virtue of his status, he can take a position on all political questions. This model was later superseded by that of the specific intellectual embodied by Michel Foucault; he intervened on the basis of his scientific competence. Pierre Bourdieu expanded this concept by introducing a collective specific intellectual. The media intellectuals like B.-H. Lévy are more of a parody of this model.

Heinrich Heine had represented an analogous ideal for Germany. It combined respect for an autonomous literature with commitment, but it was not a model. To be called an intellectual was often an insult in Germany, even when scholars repeatedly performed an intellectual function. This function consisted primarily of reflecting on the role of scientists in society, as can be found in Karl Kautsky, Georg Simmel or Max Weber. If the idea of ​​the committed intellectual gained respect in Germany after 1945, it was then often rejected again after 1989 when it was smiled at as 'kitsch of sentiments'. The French model was therefore adopted relatively late in Germany. After the deaths of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida, the scene in France is now dominated by media intellectuals who often lack credibility. In Germany, on the other hand, serious intellectuals, for example Jürgen Habermas or Ulrich Beck, intervene and make their voices heard.


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author Joseph Yurt
Period August 2013