What is an Intellectual

AAA wrote:

Webster has the following definition:

an intellectual person is one who (2b) "[engages] in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect". and looking up intellect, I find: in.tel.lect \'int- *l-.ekt\ n
1: the power of knowing : the capacity for knowledge
2: the capacity for rational or intelligent thought esp. when highly developed
3: a person of notable intellect

So now we go back to the doctor. Is it rational or intelligent for someone to *demand* the toilets in his room be changed because of the direction they face, only after the regime changes? Why not make the same demand from the very start? I must ask the following question with no intent to put anyone down or insult anyone's beliefs. Can any activity that is in any way related to any religion be considered intellectual? I don't think so.
After all, religion is based on faith, not fact. Whereas knowledge is based on fact. And I will add that to say that something or someone is not intellectual is not to make any value judgments whatsoever.



I strongly disagree with you that being an intellectual is equivalent to being irreligious. In the first place, not everyone accepts a religion because of faith. Many people go the other way; and arrive at their religious beliefs through reason. Secondly, believing in a religion because of faith does not exclude one from using reason in inquiries.

A good example of the first case in our times, I can mention Alfred North Whitehead (co-author of Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell.). See his book 'Religion in the Making, 1926.'

A good example of the second case in Mediaeval Philosophy was St. Thomas Aquinas who showed how reason can be used in Christian Thought. In Iran, see the works of Imam Mohammad-al-Ghazali. He postulated a lot of theories in skeptic epistemology that reminds one of Descartes. I think he had indirectly influenced Spinoza through the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. Spinoza was one of the three pillars of Western Rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza).

Among the thinkers of our times, Teilhard de Chardin [Christian], Krishnamurti [Independent Religion], Chogyam Trungpa [Tantric Buddhist], Shunryu Suzuki [Zen Buddhist], and Philip Kapleau [Zen Buddhist] are just a few religious thinkers to note; who were highly intellectual and definitely did not abandon reason. There are even some science fiction authors such as C. S. Lewis [Christian] who were religious and definitely very intellectual.

In fact one of the best books of History of Philosophy that I have ever read has been written by a Christian father by the name of Frederick Copleston.

But I think in the above posting, there is something that is being correctly emphasized. The thing is that for the majority of Iranian educated folks, there is a big discrepancy between the degree of educated opinions in their own field of work; as compared to their opinions in other areas of human endeavor. It is true that this may be a fact everywhere in the world, as noted by authors such as Alvin Gouldner, but in Iran this discrepancy is really out of proportion.

In fact, this SCI is the first intellectual Iranian forum that I have seen in my life, which is not only progressive in its political views but actually addresses all fields of human activity. I think there is a reason for this problem in Iranian modern social development. If you notice, our political intellectuals usually have a "one-track" mind: Observe the Mojahedin postings.

I think the modern thought essentially developed in the political arena in Iran, and except for some small endeavors by some thinkers who paid attention to other arenas of human thought (natural sciences, education, philosophy, psychology, religion, etc.), most others mainly viewed modernism in terms of political change.

I have argued for the above idea in an 8-part series of articles in IRAN TIMES about 7 years ago. The articles were published as 'Progressiveness in the Present Epoch' (taraghi-khahi dar asr-e konooni) from November 20, 1987 to January 8, 1988.


[…] if you are interested in the subject, you may take a look at them in your library. Those articles may be of interest to people who are interested in that field of inquiry. Unfortunately, I have not done any further research in this field; […] I hope some day, a more elaborate research into this problem of Iranian intellectual development gets published.

BBB Wrote:

IMHO, a 'political intellectual' is a contradiction in terms! As I see it, an intellectual should not be confused with an apologist. What we had in Iran, unfortunately, were mostly apologist and advocates, having a fixed ideological agenda and happily stewing in their own juices.

Let me explain. The way I see it, intellectualism is probably more to do with the way one perceived his/her environment than how s/he is affecting it. In a way, intellectualism is more of a personal thing: it's to do with one's inner thoughts. I don't believe in too vocal an intellectual, or they might uncomfortably sound like advocates!
And of course, by definition, intellectualism is the ability to observe and to think 'objectively,' that is without any prejudice. And finally, an intellectual is probably more of a seeker and less of a finder- I'm, however, careful not to go as far as saying s/he is a sceptic, but you should get my meaning.
Now, these characteristics have hardly anything to do with our 'one-track' minded 'intellectuals,' wouldn't you say?



I don't really think 'political intellectual' is a contradiction in terms, just like I do not think 'religious intellectual' is a contradiction in terms. But I agree with the gist of what, I think, you are trying to say; that an intellectual is a person who is more *curious* and *inquisitive* about the universe and society, rather than someone who is more of an apologist or advocate of a political, religious, or cultural program.

But discussing the definitions of intellectuals is not going to get us anywhere. The question is what we observe as positive or as negative in the intellectual development of Iran. I think that ever since Mashrootiat, the intellectual development of Iran has been increasingly tilted towards political issues. Both liberalism and socialism were essentially introduced in their political forms in Iran, whereas in the West they entailed all areas of human life.

For example, liberal organizations such as Jebh-e Melli were as unaware as their leftist opponents about individual-rights (which is a basic issue of Western liberals such as John Locke). Jebh-e Melli was more a nationalist organization than a liberal one. The leftist parties such as Tudeh Party hardly discussed topics such as psychology or natural sciences (Arani wrote on both areas previous to Tudeh time, but his writings on this topic were mostly not of interest to Iranian left). I do not think to be anti-political or anti-religious is the solution for our impasse.

Tudeh party was always busy with political tactics and polemics. During the 1320-1332 period, Iranian intellectuals were relatively free; but all they produced was publishing daily swearing at each other about some political polemics. If you look at the papers such as Tudeh's Rahbar and Jebh-e's Bakhtar Emrooz of that period, you can hardly find any discussion of substantive significance. It is true that those were the topics of mass interest, but the intellectuals repeated them without really adding much to them.

In the previous period of Reza Khan, under repression, Donya of Arani or the works of Ahmad Kasravi and Dehkhoda had highly intellectual content but once there was democracy, that trend did not continue and political one-sided-ness became dominant.

The Islamic thinkers developed differently. In fact, they paid more attention to non-political issues. If you look at Ayatollah Khomeini's Velayat-e Faghih, it shows that he has studied the Catholic Church in many aspects, not just from a political or religious angle. He is carrying the debate about Velayat-e Faghih which has been part of Islamic Shi’a discussions since Ayatollah Behbahani of the Safavid era (not to be confused with people with the same name at the time of Mashrooteh).

But Ayatollah Khomeini adds to the discourse with new arguments when comparing status of Shi’a with the Catholic Church. He even notes the Vatican specifically in many passages. If you look at journals such as Maktab-e Islam of that period (I think Motahari was the editor), you can see how varied they were in their topics.

Woops, I got distracted. All I wanted to say was that the definition of intellectuals is not really of interest to me here. Actually Daniel Bell in a book called The Winding Passage has a very scientific analysis of the topic, which I totally agree with. He even notes some notable religious Jewish intellectuals in his treatise. How the history of intellectual development in Iran is written is also not of interest to me here.

My interest is to see how to compensate for what is lacking in our intellectual development. Our old ways have not worked. Iran is way behind the West in its intellectual development. This is true no matter what philosophical or religious inclination you may read.

Do you know anyone of the level of Teilhard de Chardin among our religious intellectuals? Do you know anyone of the level of Bertrand Russell among our secular intellectuals? It is not of interest to me to have a deterministic answer/excuse that well we are underdeveloped, etc. and why are you expecting so and so.....

I say if we do not expect to get there, we will never get there. Why not try to produce Avicenna's and Al-Farabi's again. We can repeat what the nationalist, liberal, leftist, Islamic, and others did in 1320-1332 and leave nothing of significance for our progeny, although feeling excited every day of it like they did. The choice is ours?

BTW, I have no problem with intellectuals who choose to be skeptics or agnostics. Actually when I read Imam-Mohammad-al-Ghazali's Kimya-e Saadat, I saw so much similarity between him and Descartes. Descartes wrote four centuries after Ghazali. Descartes is trying to answer the skepticism of Renaissance thinkers such as Sanchez. I do not know whom Ghazali is trying to respond to (my lack of knowledge of Arabic language is one more real barrier for me in this area), but Ghazali is definitely doing a lot of what Descartes did. Ghazali was respected by both Shi’a and Sunni scholars, although he was Sunni. I just do not understand why his followers such as Rumi, chose Mysticism rather than Rationalism?


Sorry for being so scattered, I am just writing as I am thinking.

Just one more thing, when I said the intellectuals of 1330-1332 period did not write anything of significance, I do not mean that they were uneducated. To the contrary, the leaders of Tudeh Party were as educated, if not more, as their predecessors of the Reza Khan period. In fact, they were the graduates of some of the best universities of the West or East. But whenever talking for people, they chose, for some reason, to be at the level of koocheh polemics. Did it mean that they thought people cannot understand more complicated stuff. I do not know. But their predecessors such as Arani, Kasravi, or Dehkhoda had a different attitude.

Sam Ghandchi
March 17, 1994
* The above article was first posted on SCI (soc.culture.iranian) Usenet newsgroup on March 17, 1994.

















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