Last month, my young nephew who is now in the last year of his high school came to visit me for a few days. And in one of our conversations about his studies and his future academic plans the topic swerved over to more serious stuff. We discussed questions such as: why compulsory schooling, why study certain subjects, and finally, who is an intellectual.
This post is about the last question, though the others are equally interesting. But given some of the current context in the country, it makes sense to ponder upon this question. Once again.
During my conversation with my nephew, we discussed a few general things to analyse what is intellect and how intellect can be developed etc. But I still needed to give him a more concise explanation. I still needed one for myself.
So I looked up. And here is what I discovered.
Intellect, Intellectual and Intelligence
All depends on the meaning you attach to words used—it is a matter of nomenclature. Ordinarily one says a man has intellect if he can think well—the nature and process and field of the thought do not matter. If you take intellect in that sense, then you can say that intellect has different strata and Ford belongs to one stratum of intellect, Einstein to another—Ford has a practical and executive business intellect, Einstein a scientific discovering and theorising intellect.
But Ford too in his own field theorises, invents, discovers. Yet would you call Ford an intellectual or a man of intellect?
I would prefer to use for the general faculty of mind the word intelligence. Ford has a great and forceful practical intelligence, keen, quick, successful, dynamic. He has a brain that can deal with thoughts also, but even there his drive is towards practicality…Einstein has on the other hand a great discovering scientific intellect, not like Marconi a powerful practical inventive intelligence for the application of scientific discovery.
All men have of course an “intellect” of a kind, all for instance can discuss and debate (for which you say rightly intellect is needed); but it is only when one rises to the realm of ideas and moves freely in it that you say, “This man has an intellect.” Address an assembly of peasants, you will find if you give them scope that they can put to you points and questions which may often leave the parliamentary debater panting. But we are content to say that these peasants have much practical intelligence.
The power to discuss and debate is, as I say, a common human faculty—and habit. Perhaps it is here that man begins to diverge from the animal; for animals have much intelligence—many animals and even insects—even some rudimentary power of practical reasoning, but so far as we know, they don’t meet and put their ideas about things side by side or sling them at each other in a debate, as even the most ignorant human can do and very animatedly does. There too is the beginning of intellect…
Also for the reason that it is a common faculty of the race, it can be specialised, so much so that a man whom it is dangerous to cross in debate in the field of literature or of science or of philosophy may yet make a fool of himself and wallow contentedly in a quagmire of blunders and fallacies if he discusses politics or economy or, let us say, spirituality or Yoga. His only salvation is the blissful depth of his ignorance which prevents him from seeing what a mess he has made.
Again a man may be a keen legal or political debater,—the two very commonly go together,—yet no intellectual. I admit that a man must have some logical intellect to debate well. But after all the object of debate is to win, to make your point and you may do that even if your point is false; success, not truth, is the aim of debate.
* * *
People in ordinary speech do not make any distinction between intellect and intelligence, though of course it is quite true that a man may have a good or even a fine intelligence without being an intellectual. But ordinarily all thinking is attributed to the “intellect”; an intellectual therefore is a man whose main business or activity it is to think about things —a philosopher, a poet, a scientist, a critic of art and literature or of life, are all classed together as intellectuals. A theorist on economy and politics is an intellectual, a politician or a financier is not, unless he theorises on his own subject or is a thinker on another. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga)
As I read further and reflected more, I understood that Sri Aurobindo also points to a deeper way to explore this question – who is an intellectual. He invites us to look beyond the ordinary sense of the word. But in order to do that we must first accept that reason is not the only way to know or to create knowledge.
According to Sri Aurobindo, in a finer distinction, “an intellectual or intellectual thinker will then be one who is a thinker by his reason or mainly by his reason.” He gives the examples of Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw in this category. And he distinguishes them with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and C. R. Das, who he said would not qualify as intellectuals but rather as “thinkers and creators” in this finer distinction. In his words,
Tagore thinks by vision, imagination, feeling or by intuition, not by the reason—at least that is true of his writings. C. R. Das himself would not be an intellectual; in politics, literature and everything else he was an “intuitive” and “emotive” man. But, as I say, these would be distinctions not ordinarily current. In ordinary parlance Tagore, Das and everybody else of the kind would all be called intellectuals. The general mind does not make these subtle distinctions: it takes things in the mass, roughly and it is right in doing so, for otherwise it would lose itself altogether. (ibid)
He continues further and explains that most of whom we classify as ‘professionals’ – such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, administrators, etc. – may or may not be intellectuals or even thinkers in their field, despite their rigorous academic training, experience and success in their line of work.
But there is more.
And this is where we begin to get real answers. Answers that caution us so that we don’t go on making “mistakes of the mind.” Answers that have deep implication for where we turn to when we really need to know. Just as merely having intelligence doesn’t make one an intellectual, so does merely having a highly developed intellect not necessarily lead one to right thinking, right conclusions or right choice of action.
The point is that people take no trouble to see whether their intellect is giving them right thoughts, right conclusions, right views on things and persons, right indications about their conduct or course of action. They have their idea and accept it as truth or follow it simply because it is their idea. Even when they recognise that they have made mistakes of the mind, they do not consider it of any importance nor do they try to be more careful mentally than before.
In the vital field people know that they must not follow their desires or impulses without check or control, they know that they ought to have a conscience or a moral sense which discriminates what they can or should do and what they cannot or should not do; in the field of intellect no such care is taken.
Men are supposed to follow their intellect, to have and assert their own ideas right or wrong without any control; the intellect, it is said, is man’s highest instrument and he must think and act according to its ideas. But this is not true; the intellect needs an inner light to guide, check and control it quite as much as the vital. There is something above the intellect which one has to discover and the intellect should be only an intermediary for the action of that source of true Knowledge.
(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – IV, CWSA, Vol. 31, pp. 13-17. Emphasis added.)
Also read, Who is a true thinker?
To read more in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, click HERE.
 Perhaps the crows do in the “Crow Parliament” sometimes?