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The Role of the Intellectuals

- Abstract

AN ESSAY on the current social significance of the floating stratum variously known as “the intellectuals” or “the intelligentsia” must at the outset face the obvious problem of coming to terms with its own implied assumptions: notably, the belief that the theme warrants yet another effort at clarification. This could easily turn out to be a piece of self-deception. Intellectuals, after all, are people who specialize in generalities. A writer who assigns an important role to their particular function possibly overrates an activity which by some (unattainable) standard of judgment may not rank quite so high as he supposes. As against this, it is arguable that the intelligentsia has hitherto managed to keep its role concealed: partly from lack of awareness, partly from a justified apprehension of the consequences were it publicly admitted that much of what passes for “cultural life,” “informed opinion,” “enlightened attitudes,” etc.-not to mention “spiritual values”-could readily be subsumed under some such unfeeling label as “intelligentsia thinking.” So far from inflating its own importance, the intelligentsia, it might be said, pretends that it does not carry much weight, and on occasions even protests that it does not really exist.

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