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On the "Pseudo-intellectual"

Here is a term that has recently started to annoy me: the pseudo-intellectual.  To be fair, I've thrown this term out (and often inappropriately) in internet debates; I should probably self-criticize for those times in which I've been inaccurate.  After all, this is a term that is usually employed in a very inaccurate manner: we use it simply to insult people who use an intellectual discourse but with whom we disagree. The hallmark of the internet leftist, or the internet expert of any kind, is to complain about the supposed "pseudo-intellectual" who opposes their position and does so by referencing a constellation of intellectual language.  Rather than treating such an opponent as an intellectual in hir own right, it is often easier to simply dismiss them as pretend intellectual.  Occasionally this is done with a juvenile appeal to fallacies, which is in fact lower than the level of intellectualism that is perceived as pseudo.

Perhaps this term bothers me because I've been on its receiving end.  Some asshole who disagrees with my arguments throws the term in my face and, despite the times that I have also (maybe wrongly) used it, I cannot help but be offended.  After all, my supposed intellectualism can be quantified and, in this quantification, can be justified as legitimate: I have a bloody doctorate.  What else is the standard of intellectualism?  That is, if we were to dispense with doctoral expertise as a standard of intellectualism then what becomes the replacement standard?  Some self-proclaimed expert on the internet who labels all of hir opponents as pretenders?  I am not adverse to questioning a doctorate as an authoritative standard; I just don't think that some random internet expert can determine the replacement standard based on hir individual opinion.  But these are the people who throw out the charge.

But don't "pseudo-intellectuals" visit on a regular basis?

Take, for example, the furor over a proposed (and silly) Left Forum panel regarding Zizek.  The complaint is that Zizek is, once again, a pseudo-intellectual.  Never mind the fact that Zizek possesses academic credentials and functions, materially, as an intellectual––just because we disagree with him, he must be a fake thinker!  None of this is to say that I like Zizek, or think that his intellectual output is entirely useful (I don't, generally speaking), only that I have a serious problem with a dismissal based on some abstract appeal to intellectual efficacy.  I'm sorry, internet expert, Zizek is an intellectual because he functions materially as an intellectual: his productive practice is entirely intellectual (he reproduces his existence by writing books, speaking, thinking, etc.), and he is quite conscious of this vocation.

Hence, if we were to provide a material definition of "the intellectual" we would have to focus primarily on the act of production that allows those belonging to this category to reproduce their own existence.  If we were to appeal to some abstract category of what counts as acceptable intellectual discourse, we would immediately lose ourselves in the realms of subjectivism and idealism.  Subjectivism because we are looking for a category of intellect according to our individualistic assumptions of what counts as intellectual.  Idealism because we are appealing to some abstract notion of thought.  The material fact is that, like it or not, those who persist according to intellectual labour are, in point of fact, intellectuals.

Thus, the problem is not the pseudo-intellectual but intellectualism as a whole, as it currently functions as a category of [privileged] labour in this mode of production.  The intelligentsia is not an independent class, as much as it would like to believe this is the case, but a social category shot through with various class commitments; on the whole, at least at the centres of capitalism, it is located somewhere in the realm of petty-bourgeois, particularly because of the consciousness it mobilizes.  Reactionary intellectuals, for example, are still intellectuals––I happen to think they are shit intellectuals who should be rectified or purged, but I can still recognize that they are intellectuals since it is through intellectual production that they reproduce their means of existence.  Cold warrior historians, then, were never pseudo-intellectuals, but very significant intellectuals with concrete intellectual influence.

Those who are able to reproduce the means of their existence either completely or primarily because of their intellectual labour, however, often like to see themselves as a unique class with commitments beholden only to this class.  Many intellectuals unconsciously or consciously refer to see themselves as an intelligentsia that is somehow free from the consciousness of other class positions––some might go so far as to claim that they are even misunderstood and alienated from the proletariat.  Even those, such as myself, whose labour is intended to support proletarian struggles may make the mistake of acting as if they function in a category that is separate from the primary class categories of capitalism; it is easier to pretend, sometimes, that the actual class struggle is between the literate and illiterate and that those intellectuals who spread political illiteracy are not actual intellectuals because they misunderstand the terms of this class struggle.  In this sense, a pseudo-intellectual is someone who is not part of the authentic intelligentsia––someone who spreads confusion, someone who is an outright reactionary, or just someone whose ideas I happen to dislike because they do not coincide with my understanding of proper intellectual class struggle.

All of this, of course, is connected to a larger problem that permits some people to function as intellectuals while disqualifying others, regardless of their intelligence, from this category: the division between mental and manual labour.  A society that transgresses the boundaries of capitalism in a revolutionary manner must then be a society in which the especial category of intellectual is annihilated.  Not because we want to drag everyone down to the level of illiteracy, but because we want a system of mass education that makes intellectualism immanent.  This is why I've always found the attempts to massify philosophy and science in the GPCR both interesting and laudable: here was a moment where there was a large-scale attempt to overcome the division between mental and manual labour, paralleling similar attempts to massify art.

In a society where the division between mental and manual labour operates, though, there are very real institutions and vocations that produce the category of the intellectual.  Academia is the primary productive site of intellectualism; it is the institution that is capable of authorizing who counts as a proper intellectual.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  On the one hand, the authoritative status of academia can and does provide us with a standard intellectualism that allows us to judge who counts as either a real or pseudo intellectual: this is not always a bad thing because it allows us to weed out crackpot six-day intelligent design theorists, hack philosophers, random internet experts who think academics they dislike are fake intellectuals, etc.  On the other hand, the authoritative status of academia can also produce an elitist disdain for those thinkers who do not possess the requisite degrees––the intellectual rigour it demands, though not bad in and of itself, does not operate outside of class struggle––and thus deem someone a pseudo-intellectual simply because they do not possess a doctorate or, even worse, fail to publish a book with a recognized press.

Although I might again be accused of being an anti-intellectual for complaining about this division between mental and manual labour, nothing could be farther from the case.  As always, the point is narrow the gap between this division and, in this narrowing, push for a society in which intellectual labour is an immanent part of all labour.  All forms of literacy need to be massified so that there can be no grounds for the existence of any form of pseudo-intellectualism.


  1. another interesting article. the term 'pseudo-intellectual' is surely overused, and if used to dismiss someones views we don't like, it is surely a misuse of the term. i am not a liberal, but i do not think Isiah Berlin can be called a pseudo intellectual. he is a serious liberal philosopher. i suspect the term that people might be searching for, but do not use, is 'sophist'. there are some intellectuals that, when we hear them speak or read their works, we get the impression they are bullshitting ( see Harry Frankfurt 'on Bullshit') somewhat. Bernard Henri Levy for example. He is certainly an intellectual, but i would classify him as a sophist. using human rights to argue for France to invade Libya. a dangerous kind of sophistry in which his real Zionist line is covered up with human rights discourse. With Zizek, it is a bit different, You are doubtlessly aware of the recent Chomsky/Zizek spat, and altho i would not state things in the manner that Chomsky did, there is something to what he says. There is an element to Zizek where one 'suspects' that he is just bullshitting, along with the rest of the fashionable french theorists by using these big terms and concepts to disguise their bullshit. there seems to be a lot more bullshit in 'continental philosophy' than analytic philosophy, it seems to me, as there have been so many big sounding claims that mean quite little or something entirely different when examined. ie ' death of the author', 'nothing outside the text' etc. and the meaning of many of the terms is unclear and i have asked even pgrad students on some of the terms they use, and do not get any clear response, and i suspect they do not know or there isn't a clear definition of terms. the sokal hoax and his book' intellectual impostures' also follows this line. i think that some internet commentators can also smell the bullshit, and resort to terms such as 'pseudo-intellectual' perhaps out of a lack of better terms. i guess what i am trying to say is that there is no smoke without a fire, the philosophers themselves must look at what they are producing and why it comes across as BS. i recently got out a book by Francois Laruelle, ( anti-Badiou, against Maoism in philosophy) who is touted by some as an important french thinker. I have a fairly good background in philosophy, and know a fair bit about Maoism, but i confess, i could not make head nor tail of what he is getting at. i don't want to call it BS, and i admit that it is possible that perhaps i do not have the sufficient background in recent French theory to really 'get it'. however, the suspicion that it is BS is there, and that there are some academics who want to promote obscurantism so as to promote their own careers is there.
    i think in Marxism as a whole, there is also a lot of BS, because there are a whole set of technical terms to which people resort to when attacking their opponents. In the hands of good Marxists, who know what they are talking about, it is not BS, but when used willy nilly, it comes across as BS. I can think of any number of Marxist-Leninist or Maoist polemics which attack their opponents in terms borrowed from philosophy as 'metaphysical' , idealist' etc, and i am pretty sure the writers do not even know the meaning of these terms, and these terms do not even add anything to their argument.

    i guess a meaning of the term 'pseudo-intellectual' might mean the use of philosophical and other terms by someone who doesn't really or fully grasp their meaning, but uses them either for their rhetorical value. in this case, the French theorists that Sokal talked about did not know or really understand the scientific concepts which they were quoting, they only quoted it to sound good. ( E=MC squared is a sexed equation...etc) and bolster their own careers and reputations.

    i think there is a problem with the intellectual, and it is good you have addressed some of these issues in your blog posts.

    1. I generally agree with your thoughts here... Good lord, Laruelle! I haven't read his thoughts on Badiou yet, but I have read his book *Philosophy and Anti-Philosophy* and have been largely annoyed/unimpressed. I don't think he's "bullshitting", though he is an obscurantist, but I think his intellectual output is, once you cut through the dross, quite banal and useless.

    2. me above again. it might be interesting to look at the term 'obscurantist' as well. i mean, what are the reasons for it, why would someone seek to be unclear? as you probably know, there used to be a phrase that 'Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français'. one suspects that behind much obscurantism is nothing much, indeed, rather banal thoughts dressed up in high falutin language.

      btw i am not keen to dismiss philosophers or movements completely, and say it is all BS. this would also be a mistake, and as it goes, I have read some of the French theorists and a few of them are good, and worth grappling with if you are into that. i dislike the 'cult of personality' around some continental philosophers, which is thankfully, almost absent in analytic philosophy. there is no cult around,say, David Chalmers, as there is around Badiou. Zizek also does say some insightful and interesting things, and i would not want to make a blanket dismissal of his work. i think there is something of a Zizek backlash, partly because he has been overexposed, and when one sees him, one expects to see the Slavoj Zizek show. also, while his earlier books are quite good, (everything you wanted to know about Lacan but were afraid to ask Hitchcock), his later stuff is rambling mash of everything, and it is unclear what his position is on anything or what he is arguing for. A shame in a way.

      I am sometimes asked if i am in 'analytic' or continental' camp, and in reality, I am neither camp. I prefer the clarity of the analytical philosophers, but i dislike the fact they do not look at things which i consider important, ie class, politics, race,gender, history etc. the 'continental' philosophers do, but in a way which i, and many others, find obscurantist. post- colonial theory, with the exception of Edward Said, i found largely incomprehensible ( Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha etc) , altho it was something i wanted to like, and the issues it deals with are worthwhile and interesting.

      a bullshitter of a different kind is Bob Avakian, but a bullshitter nonetheless.

    3. While I do think that sometimes obscurantism is used to hide the fact that someone is indeed speaking bullshit (hence Foucault's famous statement to Searle about how Derrida was a "terroriste obscurantist"), I don't think this is always the case. Sometimes the author is just a poor writer; other times what they are dealing with is a very complex problem with a history of jargon and terms connected to it.

      Also, I don't see much of a "cult of personality" around continental thinkers that is any different from the same devotion to analytic thinkers. The difference is that continental thinkers, since they're usually talking about things that are interesting to people outside of philosophy, and about, well, interesting things in general, just gain more of following. Otherwise, you can find the same devotion amongst people who actually read analytics as there is amongst the continentals. (And, by the way, Badiou is both an analytic and a continental; he began as the latter, and it is interesting to note that "analytic philosophy" was important in France during the Althusserian period and this whole "analytic" versus "continental" thing is a bit of a myth.) Wittgenstein is a good example of analytic "cults of personality", for example.

    4. hi, me again. good points. I don't think that there is a clean distinction between analytic and continental philosophy, and you are right about Wittgenstein and there being a kind of cult. I suppose tho, there is a problem tho, it seems to me, not with the key thinkers, but with others around them who BS a lot, and this leading to the cry of 'pseudo-intellectual'. Regarding politics, and leftist mass politics in particular, however, there seems to be a problem with the obscurantist style of writing, if what we are trying to do is to communicate to those outside of the academe. there are some books that are not meant for non-philosophers, and that is OK, just as there are books written just for other economists or Physicians etc.
      Have you read any of the Analytic Marxists, such as GA Cohen? I think Cohen was on to something in his 'Non-Bullshit Marxism'. be curious to know your opinion on them. a big problem in understanding Marxism, imo, is that most of the key texts are reactions and critiques to other thinkers, some of who are not read nowadays. It is hard to get a central text that can be taken as the doctrine of Marxism. Das Kapital may be a central text, but it is hard to read and get a grip on. the writings on Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, require a lot of historical knowledge to know where and how to place them. it is hard to get a good book that gives a good all round understanding of the principle doctrines of Marxism.

    5. Yes I've read Cohen, and though I have a respect for analytic philosophy (it was part of my training), I really do not like the majority of his project. The rejection of dialectical logic produces a seriously flawed marxism and prevents him from understanding the categories of thought in Capital, and a lot of the work of successive revolutionary theorists.

      Again, while I do agree that there is a tendency to be obscurantist, I also think there is also a very dangerous tendency to conflate a level of conceptual work that is difficult to understand because of the language that is necessary for it and obscurantism. I actually don't think, for example, that Badiou is an obscurantist, I just think he is dealing with a long debate of ontology that has accumulated so much rarified language, as well as the rarified language of pure math, that his philosophical work becomes very difficult. When he is not doing this work, for example, he can communicate his ideas quite clearly for those unfamiliar with that history of language. (None of this is to say that i agree with badiou's project, because I also think that kind of ontological work is useless to embark on as a marxist). Despite my problems with them, I think the Frankfurt School was write that there is a flattening of language produced by commodification, and a one-dimensionality that prevents people from appreciating difficult intellectual work, whether or not they are in academia. And yes, at the same time, I think some thinkers (i.e. Bhabha is a good example) are unnecessarily difficult and are, indeed, obscurantists.

      Finally, there are many primers that give a basic understanding of the principle doctrines of marxism, but since there are so many marxisms various streams have their various text. Personally, I like the study manuals produced by the late PWG in India (that merged with the other Maoists to form the CPI(Maoist) at the end of the 90s), or even (just for marxist political economy) the Shanghai Textbook. There's a lot of this kind of thing. Party programmes are also good, but they're boring.


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