Intellect and Intelligence

I would eventually like to discuss expertise and amateurism in relation to some ideas that Michel de Certeau forwards in The Practice of Everyday Life, but much of what I would like to say will depend on a distinction between intellect and intelligence that I am taking largely from Jaques Barzun’s The House of Intellect, a subject that I would prefer to discuss quite separately, so I am writing this post by way of preparation for later things.

Before I even get that far, however, I need to say that I have a very ambivalent relationship to Barzun in most respects.  I will not take the time to discuss the reasons for this ambivalence in any detail.  I will just say that I respect some of his ideas very much, but that our perspectives on fundamental issues diverge very widely, and I would not want my use of this particular idea to imply an endorsement of his thinking generally.

The distinction that I am taking from Barzun is between intelligence, which he defines as the native or protean ability to accomplish ends according to one’s wits, and intellect, which is the knowledge that is passed down by a community.  Intelligence innovates, invents, solves, whereas intellect is the common body of knowledge that intelligence has discovered as it becomes shared and applied in a community.  Intellect is, in Barzun’s own words, “intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs, and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning, and spurs to emotion – a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth.  Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter at hand.”

This distinction is crucial for me because it locates the role of the intellect and of intellectualism as inseparable from intelligence.  Intelligence produces knowledge, but the intellect collects this knowledge and makes it available to the community, permitting those who have intelligence in one way or another to build upon it and produce new knowledge, but also permitting those without intelligence in one way or another to function as if they did.  So, for example, if I had a great deal of mathematical ability, which I most certainly do not, I would not have to discover trigonometry through my own intelligence, since this knowledge would be available to me through the community’s intellect, through its body of common knowledge, so that I could apply my intelligence to higher orders of mathematical research that have not yet been added to that common knowledge.  Conversely, if I did not have any real mathematical intelligence, which is much closer to the case, I could still make use of trigonometry, even if my understanding of it was imperfect, because I could draw upon the community’s shared knowledge when I needed it, through others who did understand, through books or other resources, and through calculators or other devices.  The function of the intellect, in short, is to serve intelligence, either by enabling it or by substituting for it.

For Barzun, this intellect, this body of common knowledge, is understood primarily as literary and alphabetical.  While he does not explicitly reject the possibility of other kinds of common knowledge, whether they be orally transmitted, physically modelled, visually projected, or virtually transferred, he emphasizes to exclusion the kinds of intellectual communities that have been established around the written text and that have become institutionalized in the forms of schools and academies and universities.  This is the case to such a degree that his defence of intellectualism is at times indistinguishable from a defence of institutionalized education, even if the sort of institution he envisages is quite different from the one that is currently operative.

There is nothing in Barzun’s definition of the intellectual that necessitates this narrow understanding of intellectual community, however.  The same ideas would apply to any such community, whether they were formed around oral cultures, mythologies, and histories, or around modelled skills, arts, and techniques, or around visual art, theatre, and film, or even around virtual spaces and activities.  This broader understanding of intellectual community would then be able to include the kinds of common knowledge that operate in the kitchen, the workshop, the factory, the stage, the garden, the studio, the internet, the field, and wherever else knowledge is exchanged within a community.

This more inclusive concept of the intellectual community would also go some way toward alleviating the increasing disrespect that Barzun sees being shown to intellectualism generally, because it would remove the artificial distinctions between formalized academic intellectualism and the many other forms of intellectualism that operate elsewhere.  While permitting these various intellectualisms to retain their individualities, it would recognize the commonalities between those who practise them, between the professor and the cook and the carpenter and the artist.

This does not mean, of course, that all cooks and carpenters and artists, or even all professors, are necessarily intellectuals, at least not in one important sense.  Barzun markes this sense in passing when he describes the intellect as one form of intelligence, and I would mark it much more forcefully.  For me, intellectuals are those who relate themselves to the community’s body of common knowledge in a particular way, not merely using it to accomplish a necessary task, nor merely consuming it for its own sake, but actively involving themselves in its life.  Whether the intellectual tradition be theology or cooking, gardening or mathematics, those who relate to it as intellectuals are those who abandon and discipline themselves to it like an erotic desire.

This relation to knowledge does not require any great intelligence, though it will tend to develop this faculty in its practitioners.  Neither does it require any great degree of familiarity with its intellectual tradition in advance, though this familiarity will be its natural outcome.  What it requires is a certain desire and a certain longing, not for knowledge in itself, nor even for what this knowledge might accomplish in itself, but for what the very desire for knowledge might accomplish in the one who desires.

Because it is birthed through desire, it will have no absolute way of proceeding, even if it will always be marked by the extremes of discipline and abandon.  Neither will it have any absolute relation to knowledge, even if it will always be marked by the extremes of veneration and negligence.  It will always be driven past what it is able to grasp.  It will always use the knowledge it desires against itself.  It will cope with knowledge rather than master it.  It will hack knowledge rather than assume it.  It will throw itself into knowledge rather than take knowledge into itself.  Its relation to knowledge will never be a mere uitilty, never a mere pedantry, always also a consuming eroticism.  This is the relation of the intellectual, neither to intelligence nor to intellect solely, but to a desire for which these things are only ever a means.

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