Subtitle: The 1993 Reith Lectures, London, Vintage, 1994

Said explicitely links back to Benda and Gramsci, and he creates a modern definition of intellectuals based on some of those theories.

According to Said’s interpretation of Benda, the main task of intellectuals in La trahison des clercs is a search for truth. Said writes that for Benda intellectuals are “a tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the consciousness of mankind” (p. 4). Said goes on to say that what Benda indicates as moral betrayal of the intellectuals is their attitude to compromise. Yet, despite the fact that Benda’s is “basically very conservative work” (p. 7), “the image of an intellectual” as generally conceived by the French author “remains an attractive and compelling one” (p. 6), and “he does not endorse the notion of totally disengaged, otherworldly, ivory-towered thinkers” since his intellectuals are “moved by […] disinterested principles of justice and truth, they denounce corruption, defend the weak, and defy imperfect and oppressive authority” (p. 5).

On the basis of this analysis, Said’s own aspiration for intellectuals is that they should act on the basis of “universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testify and fought against courageously” (p. 9).

Even though Said believes that there is a Benda-like “vocation” of intellectuals (p. xiii), which consists in the search for truth and ethical responsibility, he takes up Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellectuals” and states:

“Gramsci’s social analysis of the intellectual as a person who fulfils a particular set of functions in the society is much closer to the society than anything Benda gives us, particularly in the late 20th century when so many new professions - broadcasters, computer analysts, sports and media lawyers, management consultants, policy experts, government advisers, authors of specialized market reports, and indeed the whole field of modern mass journalism itself - have vindicated Gramsci’s vision” (p. 7).

In summary, with regards to the practical contemporary evidence of Gramsci’s predictions, “today, everyone who works in any field connected with the production and distribution of knowledge is an intellectual in Gramsci’s sense” (p. 7).

So, both Gramsci’s and Benda’s ideas on intellectuals, for different reasons, are components of Said’s ideology. From these premises, Said develops his own model.

Said’s ideal intellectual is animated by “a spirit of opposition” aimed at the establishment (p. xv); should resist the pressures of politics, hence “my characterization of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power” (p. xiv).

Intellectuals, according to Said, should act individually. Individuality tells intellectuals apart from “an anonymous functionary or careful bureaucrat” (p. 10). Such individuality, in addition to uniqueness, is also synonymous of “loneliness” understood as separation from the pressures of power (p. 17). Said’s ideal intellectuals do not conform to the views of the powerful, they rather belong “on the same side with the weak and the unrepresented” (p. 17). This does not mean “opposition for opposition’s sake” but rather questioning of received ideas and critical ways of thinking (p. 25). In this respect, one of the metaphors used by Said to define intellectuals is the image of “exile”, a “metaphorical condition” of “individuals at odds with their society” (p. 39).

Following Debray [1], and even though Said did not believe that what Debray discussed about France is totally exportable to other countries, a discussion can be started on intellectual agencies and their hegemonic eras. For instance in France, as Debray shows, intellectuals were mostly Sorbonne academics in 1880 to 1930, and after that, until about the 1960s, mostly gathering around journals and independent agencies (as Sartre, Gide and Malraux did), and finally, since about 1968, they became involved with the world of mass media as journalists, talk-show participants, and so on. The latter development would apply to intellectuals also in a number of countries other than France.

At the time of writing the Reith Lectures, Said believed one of the main flaws of intellectual life was “professionalism” (p. 55), understood not as the right of intellectuals to have a profession, but as a deterioration of their own societal role in terms of excessive “specialization”, a feature by which intellectuals lose their sense of enthusiastic discovery (p. 58), “expertise and the cult of the certified expert” (p. 58), and “drift towards power and authority” (p. 59). According to Said, the intellectual should have a “different set of values and prerogatives. These I shall collect under the name of amateurism, literary, an activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than by profit, and selfish, narrow, specialization” (p. 61).

[1] R. Debray, Le pouvoir intellectual en France, Cape Town, Ramsay, 1979 (English transl. Teachers, writers, celebrities: the intellectuals of modern France, London, New Left Books, 1981).