Book Review: John Bull’s Small Ideas

Review of Absent Minds by Stefan Collini
Oxford University Press, £25

This ambitious work is about British attitudes to intellectuals. Specifically, it is about why the British have been so reluctant to admit that they have intellectuals. Collini calls it the “denial” or “absence” or “exceptionalist” thesis. The claim to immunity from intellectual influences is part of Britain’s definition of itself. Today hardly anyone bothers to deny that we have intellectuals, because the species is almost extinct. Perhaps a trace of the denial survives in the anti-Europeanism of many commentators.

Collini has little trouble in showing that the “denial” thesis is based on an unbalanced picture of what it is to be an intellectual. It is mainly derived from France, where the intellectual was associated, at the time of the Dreyfus affair, with a radical political role. It is France, in fact, which is exceptional in regarding the intellectual as the political conscience of the nation. Britain’s self-perceived exceptionalism in not having intellectuals of this kind is quite close to the norm for western societies. In Germany, the cultural standard was provided by the “Herr Professor” defending kultur against intellectual scribblers. American intellectuals used to lament their absence of power and prestige relative to business. The postwar integration of academics into the power structure (with rewards to match) has brought a mature satisfaction with their role.

In Britain, the unfavourable understanding of the term has precluded even intellectuals from applying it to themselves. The word came with a baggage of abstract reasoning and left-wing political commitments, so that English pragmatist or conservative thinkers felt the need to distance themselves from it. TS Eliot hid behind the pallid mask of a “man of letters.” The historian Louis Namier—an exile from Poland—was happy that England had not suffered from the affliction of a revolutionary intelligentsia. Orwell, who was on the left, and was disgusted by the left-wing intelligentsia’s automatic support for Stalinism, was nevertheless comforted by the thought that they made up only a small minority of cranks and faddists. The self-congratulatory denial that England had intellectuals became an orthodoxy after the second world war.

Collini has sought to overcome these “paradoxes of denial” by redefining the meaning of “intellectual” to fit British practice rather than prejudice. He argues that three senses of the noun “intellectual” established themselves in the 20th century: the sociological, in which intellectuals are defined as a class engaged in the production of ideas, the subjective, in which the focus is on the individual’s attitude to ideas, and the cultural, which denotes the performance of a cultural role. While not denying some force to the first two, Collini concentrates on the third meaning: the intellectual is someone who possesses cultural authority and can deploy it to a wider public. Lots of thinkers can be shown to have done this. Therefore the denial thesis is wrong.

This solution is clever, but too glib. Collini has done what every analyst of intellectual has done: built a preferred position into its meaning. His own robs the concept of the intellectual of its cutting edge, eliminates the gritty, recalcitrant material which is surely constitutive of the meaning of the term. The intellectual, British-style, emerges from Collini’s account as a rather viewy member of Oxbridge or London clubland, occasionally moved to comment on public affairs. Yet such figures rejected the term “intellectual,” and it is hard to force it on them retrospectively.

Collini traces the origins of the “denial” thesis to the John Bull stereotype of the Briton as a practical, untheoretical, humorous type, suspicious of abstract ideas of social advancement. This is the Burkean image, which fed into the Whig interpretation of British history as a steady record of constitutional progress. But what might be called the ideological resistance to “intellectualism” starts with the French revolution, and is confirmed by the Bolshevik revolution. Both destructive episodes were ascribed to abstract thinking. The actual terms “intellectual” and its associate “intelligentsia,” imports from France and Russia respectively, thus enter the British vocabulary early in the 20th century with resonances alien to the British experience. The alternative term “clerisy,” which Coleridge had toyed with to express a native respect for learning rooted in the traditions of an Erastian church and landed aristocracy, never caught on. The term intellectual was unavoidable, but unacceptable, not least to intellectuals themselves.

The notion of a happy immunity to intellectual influences from the continent was confirmed by Britain’s victory in the second world war. Noel Annan’s celebration of an “intellectual aristocracy” which conformed rather than rebelled was reinforced by the sociologist Edward Shils who thought that “never has an intellectual class found its society and its culture so much to its satisfaction,” and by Anthony Hartley who found English intellectuals well integrated into upper-class life. All three sought to distance the domesticated English breed from the deracinated Sartrean model. But the cosy cohabitation between learning and class was rudely shattered in the late 1960s by a furious Kulturkampf which broke out on the intellectual left. At issue was precisely the intellectual relationship between Britain and continental Europe.

The chief protagonists were Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, and the Marxist historian EP Thompson. What Britain had missed, according to Anderson in his essay “Components of the National Culture,” was a “discourse of totality,” which he conceived to be the special vocation of the intellectual. This was because it had not had a “bourgeois revolution.” No general theory of society had developed because the dominant class was never challenged and thus never had to produce a general theory in its defence. This meant that no oppositional theory (Marxism) could develop. The result was a mushy merger of intellectual and social values. In his counter-attack, “The Peculiarities of the English,” Thompson accused Anderson of “Dreyfus envy.” He had ignored the “scores of intellectual enclaves” which had proliferated since the 17th century, the social criticism of Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, William Morris and JA Hobson. Collini interprets Anderson’s critique, with its “abstracted, estranging vocabulary,” as a “cry of pain” against the coercive empiricism and stultifying normality of the 1950s. This is too complacent. Anderson was making the point that the social conditions for the production of an “intellectual class” had not existed in Britain. Whether absence is a matter of pride or regret depends on one’s attitude to the British “totality.” Collini’s contention that the social order is irreducibly plural and that general ideas are not necessarily outside it sounds like a donnish evasion.

The chief point which emerged from the Anderson-Thompson battle concerned the legitimacy of trying to understand the term “intellectual” by reference to a French norm. Collini’s view is that it was Britain that was “normal” in disliking intellectuals and defining the national culture so as to exclude them, France that was exceptional. French intellectuals displayed an unmatched confidence in their authority. Their education in the grandes écoles gave them a sense of collective identity. The ideological divide between right and left was assumed to be permanent. Even here, though, there was a minority tradition which rejected the claims of “Paris and Pure Reason,” and praised British pragmatism and empiricism; a conflict personified in the contrast between Sartre and Raymond Aron. Collini’s depiction of French exceptionalism is worth quoting for its prose style alone, which helps to explain the book’s length: “Intellectuals (understood in a certain sense) have (particularly during certain periods) known a standing (of a certain kind) in French society (or at least in certain quarters) and have had a voice (often an enraged and impotent voice) in political debate (an intensely ideological form of life almost coextensive with the culture as a whole) that has not been matched in the course of the 20th century by those regarded as intellectuals in other European or North American societies.” Perhaps some kind of cultural authority is being established by prose such as this, but it is not the kind one would seek to address even the educated public.

The final evolution of Britain’s denial thesis sees the intellectual squeezed between the forces of academic specialisation and the media-fuelled celebrity culture. The top people, Collini writes “had been joined by the topless.” The intellectual has been replaced by the guru; the periodical by television; ideas by sexual revelations. But this is now a common affliction of late capitalist civilisation, and applies to France as much as Britain. Collini remains confident, though, that the need for intellectuals will continue.

This is a skeletal summary that hardly does justice to a rich, subtle and complex book, which is a constant stimulus to thought and which, despite an over-qualified style, is full of witty phrases. As well as acute vignettes of six intellectuals—Julien Benda, TS Eliot, George Orwell, RG Collingwood, AJP Taylor, and AJ Ayer—there are fine discussions of half-forgotten episodes in British cultural history like the interwar battles between “high brows” and “low brows” and the furore generated by the publication of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1956.

Yet I am left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. It is hardly fair to ask for a book of 500 closely printed pages to be still longer, but the absence of any substantial reference to Keynes—or Michael Oakeshott—is disappointing. Keynes would have been an ideal subject through which to explore the conflict between truth-telling and political commitment which dominated Julien Benda’s Trahison des Clercs. One also misses a historical dimension. British attitudes towards intellectuals are closely connected with what was happening in Britain, and to Britain in the world. The complacent anti-intellectualism of the elite was, not surprisingly, dominant in the heyday of empire and commercial supremacy; criticism of it coincided with Britain’s accelerating decline after the second world war; the current dumbing down—as I see it—of intellectual life, goes with the collapse of deference. Intellectual history needs to be set in the context of general history.

Finally, I am not wholly convinced by the main argument. Collini dismisses the cherished British belief in exceptionalism, and the various forms of parochialism which have sustained it. He says the debate in Britain has constantly fallen back on a series of “elsewheres” to deny the existence or importance of intellectuals in British life, and he redefines the meaning of intellectual to overcome it. But this strategy surely misses the point. The distinctive British claim is not that intellectuals existed elsewhere but not in Britain, or in the past but not now. It is that British culture is inhospitable to the discussion of general ideas. This “absence” has been seen by both admirers and detractors of British culture as being connected with the intellectual dominance in Britain of utilitarianism. Thought is not respected unless connected, in some way, with the machinery of power and the chain of consequences. The validity of this observation, which goes back to at least the start of the 19th century, is surely worth exploring. As the American visitor Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked in English Traits (1883): “They are not to be led by a phrase, they want a working plan, a working machine, a working constitution, and will sit out the trial and abide by the issue and reject all preconceived theories.”