Who is an “Intellectual”?

During my younger days, I used to distinguish people by whether they were intellectual or not.

In those years, I was naïve enough to express it directly: “Sorry, but you’re not an intellectual.” It was much later that I realized what an insult it was to my friends.

Almost all my friends and everyone who knew me then started to use the term derogatively. From “Oh, I can’t understand this because I’m not an intellectual” to “Oh, this is mainstream common knowledge, but you wouldn’t know it, because you’re an intellectual”. These expressions were expressed with a sneer, as if being an intellectual, I was somehow to blame, and should be ashamed of myself.

As a result, I stopped using this concept in all my communication with people because I realized it was being perceived as judgmental.

Then I observed how this adjective was being regularly used in mainstream literature and media, from TV shows to newspaper op-eds. “Intellectuals” were folks who were leftist and activists for the Marxist cause. “Intellectuals” were those who go on hunger strikes against any and all capitalistic endeavor.”Intellectuals” were sympathizers with the Maoist insurgency in India. “Intellectuals” were those who lead the workers of a labor union to fight against the injustice being meted out to them by their evil corporate bigwigs.

I have not seen any concept that has been so distorted, twisted to utilize for or against propaganda, misunderstood, and most often misinterpreted. A virtue that has been adjudicated as a vice,  a quality that is considered derogatory and spoken of in pejorative terms, derided being an “intellectual”.

The fundamental misunderstanding is the perception that not being an intellectual equates to not being intelligent. Because the words are so phonetically close, not being an intellectual is most often perceived as not being intelligent. Which is obviously an insult if you ever express it to anyone.

Every intelligent person is not an intellectual, and neither is every intellectual person intelligent.

All of us have a lot of beliefs by which we live our lives. These beliefs are our axioms. When someone questions one of those beliefs, we react defensively. We are rarely willing to listen and challenge that belief. There is a barrier.


If we jump across that barrier, there is a whole new world to discover.

Beliefs permeate through society via osmosis. An intellectual is one who is impermeate to that osmosis. An intellectual is one who is not only willing to challenge his beliefs, but one who will be grateful to you if you do so. An intellectual is one who does not automatically imbibe his society’s value system but questions it. An intellectual asks “Why?” before he adopts a belief.

An intellectual is an iconoclast. But that is not something to be ashamed of, or feel guilty about, it is in fact, something to be cherished.

Talk to an intellectual about any topic under the sun, and he will either tell you something about the topic you didn’t know yourself, or be grateful to you for teaching him something new. An intellectual is that adult who has not lost his childhood curiosity.

An intellectual is one who not only thinks but is willing to think.

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