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“The Intellectual in Contemporary Society”

This article is being written at a time when "intellectual" has become an ugly word. Perhaps, after all, it is an ugly word. It designates a human type that is more unstable and unpredictable than most societies will allow human types to be. Quarrels between intellectuals and the societies in which they live are thus not confined to the present moment. But they have been intensified today to the point of exasperation. More than ever society is in need of intellectuals, and more than ever it feels the urge to get rid of them. More than ever the intellectual feels a deep attachment to his social bonds, and more than ever they have become highly problematic for him. No wonder the intellectual is constantly brooding over the role he plays, or the role he thinks he ought to play, in society.

I am even tempted to think that the past is in this respect incommensurable with the present. Yet two moments at least in the (Western) past may be considered to offer very striking similarities to our own situation. I will call these moments "the Socratic moment" and "the moment of the Renaissance." The light they cast on the "contemporary moment" is not to be lightly dismissed.

Let us consider the case of Socrates. He thought of himself as a member, and even as a loyal servant, of his city-state. But his adherence to the existing social order was never total. An uneasy feeling prevented him from living up to the equation "philosopher=citizen." It was probably the feeling that the time had come when it was no longer suitable for the intellectual to act as a lawgiver, but when, by the same token, he could not confine himself to being a mere "civil servant." The inner daimon, though chary of words, intervened in his life far too often to make it possible for Socrates to follow any traditional course of action. True, the inner daimon never declared what ought to be done; and so the intellectual was not expected to be, as we should put it today, "revolutionary." But since it declared quite forcibly what was not to be done, the intellectual could not be fully "adapted" either. Thus Socrates was the first Western thinker who clearly perceived that there was a gap between himself and society. He had not yet reached the point of announcing that society was functioning badly and that it had to be drastically reformed. But he was obviously dissatisfied with the social order and did nothing to conceal his dissent. Hence Socrates' life consisted in a perpetual oscillation between two equally trying extremes: loyalty to his own conscience and loyalty to society. Betwixt and between he drank the hemlock and became for a time the intellectual par excellence.

The moment of the Renaissance lacks the attractive simplicity of the Socratic moment, but in many respects it is closer to our own situation. During the Renaissance there was not one but a variety of intellectual types. Indeed there were so many that it is legitimate to question whether we can speak of the intellectual in that period. For to whom do we refer? To those who helped find a compromise between contrasting beliefs, like Ficino? To those who were concerned only with themselves, like Montaigne? To those who sought an ideal State like More? To those who wanted to create a real State, like Machiavelli? To the investigators of Nature, like Cornelius Agrippa? To the investigators of the soul, like Vives? None of them completely expressed the situation of the intellectual in the society of the period, but each of them expressed it in some degree. All of them recognized at least the existence of a constantly deepening discrepancy between the beliefs to which they were attached and the ideals they sought to propagate, between life and reason, between action and thought. The Renaissance intellectuals tried to put the affairs of society in order, but they did not pretend to play the role of "sages," still less that of "models"; they contented themselves with attempting to serve as "guides," first of themselves and then of their own society.

The Socratic moment and the moment of the Renaissance resemble ours in some important respects. Today, as five and twenty-five centuries ago, the intellectual feels little assurance that social reality and intellectual activity are in accord. But unlike the thinkers of those earlier epochs, he no longer feels that he can carry out a neatly outlined program. He knows that he cannot become a "sage" or a "model," and he has strong doubts that he will ever be considered a "guide." For the society of today seems to think that it could do without "thought" and hence without the brains that produce this commodity, and yet not suffer annihilation. True, society has not reached the point of wholly rejecting intellectual activity or "thought." But it often rejects intellectual activity that is not strictly adapted to social demands. The intellectual activity which is not exclusively a result of such demands I shall call "free intellectual activity." It is this kind of activity that society today begins to view with a considerable amount of misgiving. Society suspects that as soon as the intellectual begins to think "on his own account" unwelcome consequences may ensue. That the intellectual's thinking may be oriented toward discovering the best scheme for a "good society" is immaterial to society; sometimes it only makes matters worse. In point of fact, what society fears is less the intellectual's interested indifference than his disinterested devotion. The former is at most blameworthy; the latter becomes intolerable.

Quite often today large sections of the population regard the intellectual as at once useless and harmful. They accuse him of doing nothing—nothing "useful," that is—and then declare that he is responsible for any process of "social disintegration." All this being rather illogical, it seems that the intellectual should dismiss such accusations as groundless. Intensification of soul searching rather than ironical contempt is, however, the intellectual's usual reaction. After all, what society says has its points. Society makes accusations without due respect for the laws of thought, but with a keen insight into the nature of the problem. No less than four questions are involved in society's harassment of the intellectual, and to these questions only the intellectual can give a clear answer. They may be formulated as follows: First, what is the intellectual? Second, in what society does he find himself? Third, what can he do in it? Fourth, what should he do in respect to it?

The first question cannot be answered by definition; description looks far more promising. To that end we shall alter our grammar slightly; instead of asking, "What is the intellectual?" let us ask, "Who are the intellectuals?" "Well," it will be retorted "nothing is easier than to answer this question: the intellectuals are all of us, all, that is, who write essays, book reviews, poems, novels, or symphonies; all who teach in some respectable institution of learning; all who discover a new theorem, a new theory about the structure of chromosomes or enzymes, a new isotope of uranium or lithium; all who give lectures; all who attend congresses and meetings; all who sign manifestoes; all who refuse to sign them; and, first and foremost, all who indulge in talking about "the intellectuals." Since a great many people fall into these categories, the number of resulting intellectuals is rather staggering. Will it not be more pertinent to ask, "Who are not intellectuals?"

Let us not fall, however, into an error that is quite common among intellectuals, the error of believing that intellectuals must be few. This belief is unfounded. Quantity does not matter. Then is it quality that matters? Will all those count as intellectuals who write good essays, discover important theorems, teach their subjects with unusual charm or profundity? Intellectuals are tempted to answer affirmatively. But the facts will not bear them out. For there are authors of excellent essays or discoverers of far-reaching theories who, strictly speaking, are not intellectuals. Ortega y Gasset has written that the intellectual is intellectual even if he is stupid. This paradox contains a grain of truth. It means that the intellectual is not only a man who acts in a certain way, but also one who lives in a certain way. But to live as an intellectual means to hold that the exercise of intelligence has its own ends. This man, in fact, is not inclined to take chalk for cheese; he may use his intelligence ineffectively, but he will use it scrupulously. He may act in the service of society, but as long as he is an intellectual he will not become subservient to society.

This last point is fundamental. Just like Socrates, Montaigne, Erasmus, or Vives, the contemporary intellectual is a member of society and cannot dispense with society in the name of an assumed superiority or in virtue of a complete independence from the body social. Yet, whatever his particular attitude to society may be, he cannot reduce his activities entirely to a social function. However, "society" is too abstract a word
for our continued use; the intellectual does not live "in society," but in a given society. Our second question must therefore be answered immediately: "In what society does the intellectual live today?"

Modern society has been characterized by a series of crises. Each of them appeared to threaten the dissolution of the body social. But each of them ended in a (transitory) stabilization. Three of these crises are outstanding. The main factor in each is not difficult to grasp and, of course, to measure, for it is quantitative.

The first crisis in the modern age I have elsewhere[1] called "the crisis of the few"; it culminated at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It can be depicted as the crisis of an intellectual (and social) minority which proposed a model of society that was as admirable as it was sterile—a model of society valid only for the few who were willing, or able, to become part of it.

The second crisis I have called "the crisis of the many"; it culminated in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was the crisis of a large social class which likewise sought, and found, a model of society valid only for itself. These models, in fact, fulfilled their (limited) purpose. But the social and intellectual crisis continued to grow and spread and increasingly overflowed the narrow confines of the proposed social models.

The third crisis may be called "the crisis of all"; it began to develop fully from the end of the nineteenth century. It is, of course, "our own crisis." The changes that occur today are rapid and incessant; the problems that arise are complex and often inextricable; the solutions offered are numerous and contradictory. In distinction from the earlier crises, ours is truly universal. Hence the solution must be, so to speak, "total." Any social or intellectual model that attempts to solve or stabilize it must meet requirements that have never been heard of before. Two of these requirements I consider as obvious as they are difficult to meet: flexibility and universality.

History has, of course, precedents for our present situation. But never before had society become such a universal headache. Internal tensions threaten to dissolve it. Our society is, for example, highly organized. But it is no less extremely disorganized. It may be compared to a ship sailing powerfully on through a tempestuous sea, but not knowing whither it is bound, or indeed if it is bound anywhere. The ship's mechanisms are all in expert hands. The countless parts of the huge machine docilely obey the highly skilled workers in charge of them. Only one part of the ship resists control—the steering gear. Those who grasp the helm the most doggedly very soon find that it responds to none of the courses for which they want to set it. The rudder does, indeed, work, since the ship has not yet run on the rocks. But it works under immense pressures of which the officials are ignorant and which can only be imputed to the total momentum of the ship. Shifts are constant; courses are unpredictable. This situation I have sometimes called "history as geology," that is, the belief that at certain times historical events appear to man to be geological catastrophes. There is no occasion to mourn over this fact, for hopes of a successful course are as reasonable as fears of a disastrous wreck. But the position of the intellectual on such a ship proves to be rather uneasy. He is often asked the best way to grasp the helm, only to be made responsible for all the bad results of clumsy steering. He is supposed to enlighten his fellow men, who, at the same time, do their best to prevent him from enlightening them.

Some intellectuals will argue that if my description is accurate, then the conclusions drawn from it are illegitimate. If society functions in the manner of a natural phenomenon whose laws are unknown to us, will not one of the intellectual's chief tasks be precisely to set about describing the phenomenon and, as far as possible, to formulate the laws that govern it? If this were so, the intellectual should not listen to those who clamor for guidance; he should limit himself to taking out his stethoscope and ausculating the beatings of the social machine. It would be absurd for the intellectual to pretend to become a lawgiver, a philosopher-king, or even a social adviser; to understand the workings of society should be his main or his only, concern.

The answer to our last two questions would then be an easy task. In fact, the fourth question would make no sense at all. There would be no point in asking what the intellectual should do in respect to the society in which he lives if he could do only one thing. My digression might halt at this point. This might well accord with the reader's wishes. It is only too bad that it would not accord with the demands of reality.

That my description has been accurate does not mean, however, that it has been complete. History is not like geology; it only happens that sometimes it looks as if it were of a geological nature. Despair and resignation may then intervene, but only to prepare the mind for a greater amount of intellectual courage. After all, our society has not run on the rocks. It is not like a wreck passively awaiting an inventory of the causes that produced the disaster; it is perhaps drifting, but at the same time it is making headway with greater power than ever before. The intellectual therefore can say something about its course. In point of fact, three possibilities are open to him in this respect. For one thing, he can try to understand the nature of his society. For another, he can try to justify it. Finally, he can try to change it. None of these possibilities excludes the others, and they usually combine. But to avoid unnecessary complications I shall leave out the combinations and concentrate on the simplest alternatives.

Understanding society is approximately equivalent to saying, "Society is thus and so," and this in two senses. First, in the sense in which the scientist often says: "Nature is thus and so." Secondly, in the sense in which we ordinarily say that "the world is like that" to the extent that we think it useless to try to change it. The two meanings are often reduced to an apparently trite statement: "Society is what it is." This statement is commonly accepted as a truism among intellectuals who have come to the conclusion that the workings of society are fundamentally similar to the workings of nature. But its acceptance tends to become general in periods when men feel that they are, so to speak, crushed under the weight of society. In addition, the two motives usually combine: to reduce social processes to natural processes is at once the cause and the effect of a movement of retreat from society—of fear of society. Hence the attitude of comprehension often leads to an attitude of justification; to declare that society is what it is constitutes the first step toward proclaiming that it is as it ought to be.

He who would justify society has in fact only to add to the statement, "Society is like that," the brief conclusion "and so it ought to be." To be sure, the conclusion contains a value judgment that was not in the premise. But if the conclusion was not logically implied in the premise, it was strongly suggested in it; the justification of the being of society simply makes explicit what was already implicit in the understanding of its nature. The two statements start from a common assumption—the idea that society is only an actual reality with no implicit potentialities. This common assumption is, in turn, based on a thesis as simple as it is famous: the Parmenidean dogma, "What is, is," to which it is customary to add Hegel's apothegm, "What is, must be." And perhaps this is true of material things. But in human life "being" implies "the power to be." The attitudes discussed above are, then, realistic only in appearance; they amputate such a significant fragment from human reality that after the operation the patient is barely recognizable.

In consequence, many have believed that only the third attitude is tenable: "Society must not be understood, but changed." Tired of contemplating the world, some intellectuals have decided to alter it. Yet the adoption of a change-seeking attitude as the only defensible position may lead to results not basically different from those obtained by adoption of the understanding and justifying attitudes. Indeed, carried to its final consequences, the change-seeking position is, in its own way, a passive attitude. It is passive in respect to the future, or rather in respect to a certain future toward which, it is held, the "March of History" is inevitably proceeding. The intellectual, then, starts from revolt but ends in conformity. To try to understand society is to declare that what is, is. To try to justify society is to establish that what is, should be. But to try to change society, and to do nothing else, is tantamount to proclaiming that what will be, will be.

It seems that the intellectual can do nothing but conform—to the present or to the future. But should he conform? The fourth question now awaits an answer. It has to be a very ambiguous answer: yes and no, or rather yes in one sense and no in another. I have two reasons for taking this course. First, the intellectual cannot help adopting all of the above attitudes, because he cannot avoid understanding society and adapting to it in some way. Second, he must not confine himself to adopting only the above attitudes, because pure conformity, that is, adaptation to society—present or future—would abolish the only good that allows intellectual life to flourish, namely freedom.

If ideas about social reality were always completely subordinated to the actual structure of the body social, the answer would be easy: the intellectual should in any case adapt. If, on the other hand, ideas about social reality were always completely separate from the actual body social, the answer would be equally easy: the intellectual should always rebel. Fortunately, the relations between ideas about social reality and the reality itself are far from being simple and unequivocal; they combine in innumerable ways, they constantly attract and repel each other, and, above all, they frequently overlap. In the last analysis, the advocates both of sheer adaptation and of sheer rebellion deny that there is a relation between social reality and social ideas; by completely adapting ideas and reality to each other or by entirely separating them from each other, all concrete relations are done away with. The flexible, subtle, and often unforeseeable relations that obtain between ideas and social reality are replaced by identification or, what in practice amounts to the same thing, by a complete lack of contact. To maintain the contact between the two elements without ever falling into the trap of identifying them altogether makes the answer to our question a more formidable challenge, but it gives far greater hopes. In fact, the many loopholes left by the constant interplay between ideas and social reality open the field in which freedom stubbornly fights for its very life.

The positions that the intellectual should reasonably adopt in respect to his society are always dominated by the constant interaction between the elements discussed above. Two cases, however, may arise which the intellectual should consider with particular attention.

Let us suppose that, loyal to his mission, the intellectual undertakes to defend freedom of thought. Let us suppose that he enters into this undertaking so ardently and seriously that he is prepared to suffer martyrdom in defense of that freedom. Could he do better? It looks as if nothing more could be said in praise of his purpose. Unfortunately, being ready to accept martyrdom without any other consideration is tantamount to soaring on the wings of ideas and dismissing reality. The existence of the relation between ideas and reality having been forgotten, the sin of believing in a complete separation between the two will be committed. The intellectual's attitude may be praiseworthy; it may also, however, be fruitless. For readiness to undergo martyrdom is an excellent thing in a society that believes in martyrs, or which at least contains a reasonably large group that believes in them. But what if nobody pays the least attention to them? Even if consummated, the intellectual's martyrdom will be useless. It will not be a testimony, but a sheer physical annihilation. Some, I know, will contend that all blood shed in a noble cause is fruitful. But countless historical facts speak against this metaphor. On certain occasions, then, the duty of the intellectual may well consist in making an effort directed towards an apparently egoistical end—survival.

Does this mean that survival is the thing to be pursued always and at all costs? Far from it. Let us imagine now that in order to preserve freedom of thought—or a reasonable degree of it—an intellectual is told that it would be expedient to yield, at least partially, to external coercion. At first sight, nothing could seem more reasonable. But disastrous results may ensue if, again, relations existing at a given moment between ideas and society are disregarded. Complying with the suggestion may be the premise of a catastrophical outcome. After all, the insinuation that the intellectual should yield to coercion may be only a skillful maneuver intended to wreck his position. On certain other occasions, then, the duty of the intellectual is to resist to the last ditch, this being the only action that can be at once effective and genuine. Further examples are scarcely needed. Those hastily outlined will suffice, I hope, to show to what point an oversimplification of the relations between the intellectual and his society can, depending on the circumstances, make the former an outsider or a slave, and the latter, also depending on circumstances, a powerless ghost or a crushing reality.

These examples, I admit, are rather discouraging. Must the intellectual succumb to a bare relativism, forever devoting himself to working out a loose and often dangerous strategy that sees no further than the means to be employed and that has no fixed aim to pursue?

As I see it, such is not the case. To be sure, insistence on means can make us lose sight of ends. But the various and changing means which the intellectual is forced to employ must always be means only by virtue of their ends. What these ends are is a question that I must leave open for the present. I will simply point out two of them: freedom and objectivity. Ends, at any rate, must never become metaphysical absolutes; they must be intimately connected with reality. Hence I do not advocate the subordination of ends to means, just as I do not propose the justification of means by their ends. In fact, means and ends are equally necessary—and equally operative. To act in a society, the intellectual requires two things, both inevitable: ethics and policy. If he has only the first, he will end in sheer abstraction. With only the second, he will end in abominable confusion. Thus the problem of the intellectual in society proves to be a primary aspect of the eternal problem of the relation between ends and means. This problem—perhaps the most significant problem in ethics—cannot be solved by sacrificing one to the other, but only by stressing one from time to time in order to save the other. Strictly speaking, the problem can never be solved completely, since means and ends are never either abstract concepts or absolute realities, but a constantly changing mixture of the two. It is, by the way, a mixture as difficult to understand as it is impossible to avoid.


  1. Man at the Crossroads, translated from the Spanish by Willard R. Trask, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 109-237.

Ferrater Mora, José. “The Intellectual in Contemporary Society.” Ethics 69 (January 1959): 94-101.
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