What makes one an intellectual?

Steve Farmer is not an expert on secularism only in the sense that he has followed it from the ‘outside’ (meaning, probably, he has not written anything about the issue himself). Apparently, the reason why he has not contributed to the debate has to do with the fact that (a) no legitimate researcher can take the debate seriously; and (b) Farmer is one such. Witness how he describes it: “I’ve watched this so-called debate for nearly a decade now from the outside, and nothing whatsoever has changed. Nor have I ever met a single legitimate researcher who took it seriously.” I wish some of the Indian intellectuals who have participated in the debate would read this judgment and digest what Farmer thinks of them. They will be thrilled to know that they are ‘illegitimate’ scholars!

The typical ‘academic’ way of saying that one does not have criticisms of a work is by acting pompously: “I have read it but I am not impressed”. Many academics hate acknowledging that there is much they have not read or, if they have, that they have nothing to say on that. After all, your ‘intelligence’ is proved by the fact that you can demolish everything except your own pet theory; so, they say ‘I am not impressed’. This remark works when one has a high-standing in the academic world; further, by making such a remark, one also suggests that one is so ‘busy’ doing ‘serious scientific research’ that one cannot be bothered to spend time criticizing third-rate ideas. In one of the domains I work is Steve Farmer (or his work) either known or recognized. He is a non-entity in the domains of sociology, political theory, psychology, philosophy and Ethics, law, history… So, whether or not he is ‘impressed’ by my writings leaves me and my academic colleagues cold. My peers in the peer-reviewed scientific journals find our writings on secularism worth publishing. If Farmer has anything interesting to say, apart from not being ‘impressed’, he can do so in the pages of all these journals. So far, he has not; and, I predict, nor will he ever.

Farmer is playing such a game: showing that he is both a ‘serious researcher’ and a very ‘intelligent’ man by telling you that he is ‘not impressed’. Do not expect academic courtesy in such games: it is played only by those pretentious people who are unable to contribute anything to scientific research but fancy themselves as either ‘brilliant intellectuals’ or even ‘geniuses’.

Many Kannada intellectuals and UR Anathamurthy play the indigenous version of the same game. Some are also prejudiced; a few others ignorant. Many would not understand our arguments because they lack the required background knowledge. In short, most Kannada intellectuals (including UR) are at a disadvantage when it comes to discussing with us. They cannot show humility towards learning the way a student can; these people are already ‘established’ and they make their living on the basis of the ‘authority’ they have been conferred with. To acknowledge that one is ignorant (of many things) or that one is wrong (about one’s beliefs) requires that people who call themselves ‘intellectuals’ are also truly that: ready to learn at any moment and acknowledge mistakes, when they discover them.

Let me give you an example of one such true intellectual. Gottlob Frege is rightly considered as the father of modern formal logic. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he wrote a book called ‘The Foundations of Arithmetic’ (in German), which was an attempt to describe arithmetic as formal, logical system. The manuscript version of the book apparently circulated in Europe and just when Frege received the page-proofs of the book, he also received a letter from a young unknown (at that moment) British student. This student showed that there was a fundamental flaw in Fregean system, which made Frege’s two decades work a wasted effort. Frege nevertheless published his book but with a foreword. There he spoke of the above letter, explained the criticism of this student (it is called the ‘barber paradox’) and openly acknowledged that his work (of the previous two decades) was a waste. He published it nonetheless, more for historical reasons than for its cognitive relevance. That young and unknown student answered to the name of Bertrand Russell who, at a later stage, reacted to an unknown male nurse from Vienna (during the First World War) the way Frege had reacted to him. That nurse was Ludwig Wittgenstein, another great thinker of the twentieth century.

These are the kind of people we should aspire to become if we have to bear the title of an ‘intellectual’ proudly.