Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini

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This is a book about a question, or rather a series of interrelated questions concerning the position occupied by intellectuals in Britain during the 20th century. Have such figures ever truly existed in this country and - if one accepts that they have - why have they so long been considered as absent, or their influence as marginal? Are intellectuals, in fact, an exotic species whose natural habitat is always elsewhere, most stereotypically in Parisian cafes on the Left Bank, of the kind once populated by Jean-Paul Sartre and his disciples? And, do intellectuals have a future in the 21st century, or are they on the verge of becoming extinct?

It's a brave man who bases a study around consideration of a negative or, in this case, an absence. Absent Minds is a complex, sophisticated exploration of the traditional Anglo-Saxon distrust of ideas and the people who originate them. Stefan Collini, currently Professor of Intellectual History at Cambridge, is unrelenting in the way he works away at exposing "time-worn clichés", replacing them with "something a little knobblier and harder to stack". So much so, that one sometimes feels that there is a leaner book contained within this one, screaming to get out. Nevertheless, calling upon an enterprising mix of cultural history, biography, sociology, etymology, and polemic, Collini has produced a frequently brilliant survey demonstrating the extent to which discussion of the role of intellectuals has been present in national debate over the past 100 years.

For the existence of a bona fide intelligentsia, commentators have tended to look towards 19th-century Russia, where intellectuals might be said to have formed a social class and actively to have deployed their standing in public life, and, more generally, to France, where intellectuals collectively have long been regarded as the supreme oracles on public affairs. As Collini shows, the modern use of the term "intellectual" is of French derivation, imported into Britain in the early 1900s, not long after Zola had famously asserted the role of French intellectuals and their intervention in the political field with his open letter, "J'Accuse" at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. This effectively broadened definition of the concept of an intellectual from someone interested in ideas to a shaper of opinion with influence who was prepared to make his or her voice heard in relation to the problems of the general community.

In Britain, however, the term was frequently employed in a derisive or ironic sense. Resistance or indifference to ideas, a reluctance to engage in theoretical speculation, had long been recognised as part of the national identity, though the reasons for this can only be guessed at. Isaiah Berlin once suggested that a genuine intelligentsia could only be created by "truly oppressive regimes", while the Whig interpretation of history celebrated the lack in Britain of "political men of letters" who had helped to foment Revolution in France.

This can't quite account for the marked hostility to the idea of the intellectual in Britain, though Collini explains the widespread British assumption about French intellectuals' greater legitimacy, prominence and effectiveness as merely the perspective provided from the outside looking in. The view from inside - whether from a European standpoint or an American one - tends always to be more pessimistic about the contribution of intellectuals at any given time or place.

More tellingly, Collini makes a convincing case against those British intellectuals who actively disowned or distanced themselves from the label. Repudiating the role of the intellectual, as he says, seems to have been part of being one, as is evident from the pronouncements on the subject of a diverse and influential group of figures, including T S Eliot, G M Trevelyan (whose distaste for intellectuals appears to have stemmed from his identification of the type with cliquey, untrustworthy members of the Bloomsbury Group), and even Bertrand Russell, probably the best-known British intellectual of his time. Collini illustrates these "paradoxes of denial" in a series of portraits of five thinkers: Eliot, R G Collingwood, George Orwell, A J P Taylor, and A J Ayer. Orwell is singled out as having hardened attitudes against intellectuals more than any other writer in the mid-20th century - he once wrote that they took their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow - despite remaining, in Victor Gollancz's words, at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual. Taylor is exposed in a devastating piece of deconstruction, which may prove fatal to his reputation, as someone whose appearance constantly in the public eye ultimately led to a level of overproduction which damaged his initial cultural standing. In essence, that he had a great gift of expression, but nothing to say.

The death of the intellectual is always being predicted (Collini might have had some fun with Prospect magazine which, towards the end of last century, was lamenting the dearth of serious thinkers in Britain, but which nonetheless managed to rustle up a fair number in its "public intellectuals poll" a few years later). Collini understands the threat posed by our obsession with celebrity culture, its presentation of opinion instead of thought and of personality profiles in place of polemic. But, at the end of this ambitious book, he remains optimistic that, in the 21st century, society does want "issues of common interest considered in ways that are... more reflective or more analytical, better informed or better expressed". In other words, that there remains a place in modern Britain for the intellectual.