Of Intellectuals And Other Species. What Gives?

By Apocryphalist

More than 30 years ago, during my student days, I bought a copy of Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” and started reading it. I bought it through the marketing artifice of that time: 150,000 copies had been ordered by fans even BEFORE Eco had finished writing the book! Although an avid reader myself, for the first time I leafed through the pages with a little bit of trepidation. Is this author serious? Is he for real? Pages and pages dedicated to Medieval History flooded my psyche as though I was taking a course in one, them being purely wrappers for a central fictional tale of some modern day Knights Templars, all the while disallowing me to put it down, not for the edge-of-seat thrillers therein, but due to the overload of background information and knowledge that freely flowed from the author’s mind like a stream from Kathmandu. I immediately decided that Eco was going to be my favourite author: drawing thrills for readers of fiction but camouflaging his real purport: to educate the readers, and impart knowledge. No Jeffrey Archers or J. D. Salingers ever did that to me and I wondered why.

From left to right: 1. Umberto Eco sketch by Ann-95 on Deviant Art. 2. Richard Dawkins sketch by Kristian Hammerstead for New Statesman. 3. Noam Chomsky sketch from Truthout.org

It was only a couple of years later that I found a hidden reason for my Eco-affinity: Newsweek (or was it Time?) declared that amongst living humans then, there were only three Real Intellectuals: Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins and Umberto Eco. So I am smitten with a disease: I am attracted to intellectuals is what it is! But no worries—may I never recover! The only time that that word was conferred by me to anybody was in only ONE personality in the past: Syed Naguib al-Attas and his work : ”The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri”. Syed Naguib was a student of famed Islamist Martin Lings and Cambridge-based Orientalist A. J. Arberry.

Anyway it dawned upon me one thing: it is not necessary that what people call intellectual be something that APPEALS to you. I hated Dawkins for his being an atheist and for his insistence that there is no God: so why is HE an intellectual? Isn’t that a *GOD*-given title? I know that in the Islamic case at least, recognitions like the Nobel Prize were given to Malala of Afghanistan who demonstrated what a brutal religion Islam is, to Shirin Ebadi for insisting what crap the Mullahs of Iran are, and even to Nahguib Mahfouz for really not currying favours with Islamic scholars in Egypt. Could Dawkin’s recognition be a part of the Grand Illuminati Scheme, I wondered.

Thoughts about who is an intellectual and who isn’t surfaced again yesterday when I read New Malaysia Herald’s article titled “Are All Professors Intellectuals?” Being an Intellectual-Loving Non-Intellectual myself, of course such a caption catches my eyes. The title suggests a grandiose analysis of Intellectualism permeating a specialized group  of high-browed academic pundits classed as Professors—an overview of whether they are intellectuals or not. Written by a writer who, in his profile, says that he is a “trained biochemist” but with the additional prestige of having metamorphosed into an art dealer, undeniably a far more credible entity for these sort of things  than any … ehemm… jobless pensioners can ever hope to be. But I am not sure that credential would suffice as a jury of the peers of those Professors. Anyway I perused on.

It seems that the entire contention of the writing is purely political: a person is deemed intellectual or not intellectual due to his/her political standpoint! That to me is rather akin to a person who had been involved in his entire life singing Dangdut songs for wedding ceremonies, is now saying that Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Waltz in Jazz Suite No. 2” is really not real music at all. Whoops. Wait. I better find a better example before right-wingers think I am demeaning local Malay dangduts. It’s like the local school under-15 chess champion studying the works of the entire World Grandmasters of Chess right from Steinitz up to the present time now having the dauntlessness of selecting which ones amongst them are REAL grandmasters and which ones are not even FIT to be called one. Wait. Is that demeaning too? Then too bad. Just git!

The Methodologies

I will not comment on the conclusion of that article yet, but rather for now, the methodologies. There are many professors in our country. Some are in the Majlis Professor Negara and some aren’t. So how do you conclude a certain professor is an intellectual and certain ones are not? Let’s see. I don’t think academic qualifications is a sufficient condition; but a person undergoing post-tertiary education certainly has more exposure in the analysis of things. A postgraduate-level research trains him to be critical of theories and initial conjectures and test them out in more practical settings with bigger expanse of data. He would have to be trained in producing empirical solutions to problems that he encounters, or, if it is required of him, start from ab-initio formulations for his solutions. All these certainly train him to be sharper and more responsible for any type of knowledge he deals with, both of which are fodder for the Intellectual. Now the author should be asking: have the Professors from this pundit-pool undergone all those? And has HE?

What next? Continuity of the knowledge discipline. After he passes out from his studentship he gets out to the world and applies his trainings and knowledges. Many would themselves be mentors for more students who aspire to be like him, and some became impetus of starting new knowledge, new technologies, new industries, new things for the benefit of mankind. Have we decided that none of our professors from our pool are not within these confines? Or, if they were, that it doesn’t really matter if they did or did not? And who gets to decide that?

What about a person’s views on communal life and society. His contributions towards the well-being of humans.  Or, as the case maybe, towards their destruction. Should Oppenheimer be called an Intellectual especially when he created the first atom bomb that ended killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives? How about those scientists who first created Laser and Fiber Optics without which modern-day global communications would be impossible. Are they intellectuals? How about Einstein, who initiated the studies of both these two cases until it reached fruition: should he be called an intellectual?

What else. A person’s erudition, his eloquence, his eludication in conveying ideas? Are these signs of a person’s intellectuality? How about his faith, his beliefs or non-beliefs, his ancestry, his RACE?

To demonstrate the point let’s consider two of the wealthiest persons alive: Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Are they intellectuals? Due to what. Their wealth? Their Innovativeness? How about Diogenes, whose only possession in this world being a dilapidated wine cask as his abode. He in whose presence philosophers and statesmen used to stoop and bow down, and of whom Alexander the Great, after having conquered nations, visited him, only to be shooed away by the sage. And after which Alexander was reported to have said, “If I were not Alexander, I would have been Diogenes”. Is he an intellectual?

Polysemous Connotation

Suddenly we suspect that perhaps the word “Intellectual” is a polysemous connotation, meaning differently to different people, ready to be used both as a weapon of destruction and demeanisation as well as an instrument of accolade and compliment.

But the title of the article itself is misleading. It asks, “What happens when Professors are lacking in Intellectual Capacity”? I am confused with the title itself, but that’s perhaps because I am not an intellectual. I don’t understand: you mean there are professors who once were intellectuals and now lost it? Or they have NEVER been an intellectual right from the start? Which body accorded to them that privileged title in the first place. Majlis Professor Negara? Or JPA? Who? How could they be lacking something that no one can pinpoint whether they had or had not in the first place?

The author suggests that Syed Hussein Al-Attas is a true intellectual. He wrote a book, started a party, drafted the initial drafts of Rukunegara etc. Yup. He is certainly an intellectual but definitely not through these alone. He is an intellectual due to his academic proficiencies.

Tajudin Rasdi, says the author, is not an Intellectual, but seemingly for the wrong reasons. Actually, using some of the criteria I laid out above, I tend to agree with that. But how the author DERIVES this is another matter. Schooled in Chinese, supports the UEC, instigates people to be anti-establishment certainly are despicable in the eyes of certain segments of society and his “self-hating Malay” countenance surely does not help in improving the image. Unlike Syed Hussein al-Attas, he says. Perhaps the author is not aware that his idol was a co-founder of the GERAKAN party which, after having won the elections on 12th of May, proceeded with the victory parade on the streets with DAP, resulting on the nation’s bloodiest racial confrontations the next day. He should also be looking at the level of intellectualism passed on by Syed Hussain al-Attas onto his dynamic daughter Sharifah Munirah, who, it seems to me, is not that much different from the liberalism displayed by Tajudin Rasdi either. All these mean that although much reading and having the correct historical acumen are not important factors but being lackadaisical in them is a sure sign that a person’s intellectuality is compromised.

So actually what am I saying?

Simple. I might hate Dawkins. Heck, I might even wish him to be in hellfire right now. But his beliefs (or non-beliefs) is certainly not a reason for me to deduce that he is not an intellectual. I have also read some of Tajudin Rasdi’s writings. And yup, his is far from being an earth-shaker or opinion changer, and certainly one whom I wouldn’t want to teach my university-going kids. But then the author’s bid to question the ENTIRE body of Professorhood and question the intellectuality of some, just in order to include Tajudin Rasdi in this contentious and dicey query, seem to point to a lack of a certain kind of integrity, especially when augmented by the fact that of Professors and Intellectuals, he belongs to neither. And for a non-intellectual to be using THIS as a criterion for intellectuality is certainly a conundrum of sorts. Especially for those who do not think Shostakovich creates good music (listen to Shostakovich below). – New Malaysia Herald

The views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the New Malaysia Herald

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