Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual

Paul Griffiths:

You’ve asked me how to become an intellectual. You’re young, it seems (only young people ask questions of that kind), and you think you might have an intellectual vocation, but you can’t see what to do about it. What should you do in order to become the kind of person an intellectual is? What kind of life permits doing what intellectuals do? How can you begin to have such a life? This is what you ask, and these are good, if grandiose, questions.

They’re also countercultural questions, at least in America. Here we tend toward contempt for intellectuals, when we think about them at all; our heroes are those who act rather than think, and especially those who find, or at least try for, wealth and fame. Most American parents would welcome their child’s declaration of an intellectual vocation with dismay at the penury, obscurity, and unhappiness likely to follow from heeding that call. And they’re unlikely to be wrong about the penury and the obscurity.

Still. The questions you ask are good ones because it’s clear enough that among the things we humans do is think, and we do it with a remarkable intensity and application and precision and range. We can, and some few of us do, formulate questions and try to answer them, even when neither questions nor answers have immediate or obvious practical application. We develop concepts and distinctions and thought experiments aimed at a deeper, fuller, and more precise understanding. And we argue with those who differ from us, sometimes, it’s true, out of the delight of battle and the urge for victory, but sometimes, too, because we find in argument a powerful device for clarifying a position and seeing how it might be improved.