Of intellectuals and scholars

By: J. Stapley - November 06, 2006

While reading one of Nate’s posts last week, I began to think about something that has been on my mind off and on for several years. It hit me in the first paragraph:

Ironically, the main problem with Mormon intellectual discussions is that all too frequently we have no intellectual agenda. Or at least so it seems to me. To understand what I mean, consider an intellectual discussion that does (or at any rate did) have a clear research agenda: the law and economics movement.

You see, I simply have no idea what the word intellectual (noun or adjective) means. The same thing occurred during the Dialogue 40th Anniversary Gala when they talked about the history of the Journal and how there were “Mormon intellectuals” and how these folk were involved. Perhaps this is a result of my training.

I was the last grad student of one of history’s greatest carbohydrate chemists. He had a mind that in his early seventies consistently bested all I could muster. We had a great run and will be soon publishing some work that will overturn about a century’s worth of thought on a small corner of our field of labor. In the four years with him and all the great academics I worked with, I never heard a single reference to intellectuals. There was simply good scholarship (sometimes great) and the crappy variant.

Instead of publishing everything he could, my advisor would frequently save up years worth of work in order to publish something that would stand as reference point for decades. New ways to look at the world, sometimes. And the work goes forward.

When I hear the word intellectual, I most often associate it with those fields where you can’t really quantify anything. With mathematics, chemistry, or economics you make hypotheses and the data either supports or contradicts. Right or wrong. Good scholarship or bad scholarship.

For intellectuals, I tend to think (perhaps wrongly) of fields where right and wrong or quantitative analysis are pitched out the window. I have read my fair share of Foucault and Marx; but mostly, when I read it, I long for data. And I guess that explains my approach to history. One day I may go back and get another degree in history and perhaps my heart will be changed. However, now, I am firmly in the camp of collect as much data as possible and present hypotheses which aren’t controverted by it (or vice versa).

What we need are not Mormon intellectuals (or so-called intellectuals for that matter), but great scholars of Mormonism.


  1. Well said, and I completely agree.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 11/6/2006 @ 5:32 pm

  2. Within modern LDS-ism (as with many dogmatic faiths), the word “intellectual” has become a perjorative. The “intellectuals” are those dangerous types who dare to question aspects of the faith, particularly via application of a secular discipline. Boyd K. Packer certainly used the word this way, when he claimed that the “ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals” was one of three great dangers facing the church. You can be a great LDS chemist today, but dare apply your discipline in a way that challenges church teachings, and you’ll find you’re an “intellectual.”

    Among the LDS, many persons slapped with this negative label have come to embrace it, much as early followers of Jesus embraced the label of “christian,” or early followers of Joseph Smith embraced the label of “Mormon.”

    Comment by Nick Literski — 11/6/2006 @ 6:55 pm

  3. The way I see it, almost every academic could be termed a “scholar” within their field of expertise. But simply by the nature of the academy, the scope of that expertise is pretty narrow. And outside their field of expertise, most scholars don’t really have much more credibility than the average citizen (although scholars often think their narrow expertise extends much more widely than is justified).

    Enter the intellectual, typically a scholar who has, by virtue of long experience and good judgment, earned credibility to speak about broader moral, political, and social issues. Which doesn’t mean their public statements are infallible or even presumed correct, just that they are likely to have something intelligent or insightful to add to the dialogue. It does seem, however, that only those from the arts and humanities become “intellectuals.” Scientists remain just “scientists,” even when opining broadly.

    Comment by Dave — 11/6/2006 @ 6:55 pm

  4. Hm. I guess I’ll just have to differ with your perspective, Nick. Maybe that was once the case and maybe some of that still lingers, but I don’t see it. I am very aware of Elder Packer’s history with the Mormon Studies crowd, and I also have been amazed at his ability to preach on many things that would be difficult for many members to hear. Some of the most progressive preaching I have ever heard was from Elder Packer. But let’s not drop into the historical canards.

    The bottom line is that I see the term “intellectual” as just plain goofy. If you want to go by it, I reserve the right to think you are goofy. I will judge your scholarship as either good or poor.

    I think I do decent chemistry. I also think I do decent history. Though to be fair, I haven’t yet published my history so we’ll have to see if the SMC comes and takes away all that I hold dear. I’m not holding my breath.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/6/2006 @ 7:03 pm

  5. Enter the intellectual, typically a scholar who has, by virtue of long experience and good judgment, earned credibility to speak about broader moral, political, and social issues.


    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/6/2006 @ 7:04 pm

  6. Nick, it’s more a remnant of our strong anglo-saxon tradition. Whereas intellectualism was always praised on the Continent it was always distrusted in England. Thus, for instance, the difference in how philosophy is done.

    The problem with “intellectuals” is that they feign they are doing scholarship when frankly most of it is little better than the average opinion column in the paper. i.e. it is pretty subjective even if wrapped up in the language of theory and argument. Contrast this to more scientific scholarship.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 11/6/2006 @ 8:17 pm

  7. I’ve always thought it was pretty arrogant to call yourself an intellectual. It’s like you’re putting yourself in a special class of smart people whose hot air has more value than the hot air of non-intellectuals. And I love Elder Packer’s “so-called.” It’s a great way to communicate disdain for the label.

    I’m also in the hard sciences (biology). I totally know what you’re talking about when you say you long for data. I often find myself yelling at the radio when people make overblown, unsupported assertions. Everybody’s so dang sure of themselves. Drives me crazy.

    Comment by Tom — 11/6/2006 @ 9:57 pm

  8. J.,
    I think that the term “intellectual” is probably not used much outside of the humanities. I can’t really see it being used in the sciences since the problems that the “normal” sciences deal with are more or less different in nature. I don’t really see the sciences as providing the epistemological framework for thinking about Mormonism anyway, so I don’t expect that it will provide the cultural vocabulary either. Basically, I think that the term still has value to describe someone who is both aware of and thinks about the “problems” of Mormonism. Is it a precise category? Probably not. Then again, isn’t the nature of language to expose its own limits?

    Comment by TrailerTrash — 11/6/2006 @ 10:24 pm

  9. I think the term intellectual carries about as much value as the words liberal and conservative.

    There labels which we can use to help us think we are better than other people.

    Outside of that, I’m no sure what they are used for.

    Comment by Matt W. — 11/7/2006 @ 12:52 am

  10. I’ll never forget how many times I heard the word, “genius” after moving to New York. Someone was a genius at makeup. Someone else was a genius at choreography. A third was a genius at clothing design.

    In the history of my field of study there are about five people that would be called a “genius.” Everyone else was just a stamp collector.

    I don’t think descriptive terms like “intellectual” are particularly helpful. Don’t tell me how smart someone is. Tell me what his ideas are. Most people can decide for themselves. We don’t need a preexisting reverence for intellectual authority to help us know what to think.

    Comment by Herodotus — 11/7/2006 @ 4:24 am

  11. I was thinking about appeals to intellectual authority and have a few more thoughts. Some spin a bit off topic. I apologize for that in advance.

    I am currently in Europe doing some studies after completing my education in the U.S. One thing I notice is that there is (in my experience) a far greater appeal to intellectual authority here as compared with the U.S. Specifically, in the U.S. education was very Socratic. Students asked questions and challenged their teachers. If we didn’t, it was felt that we weren’t paying attention or that we didn’t really care about our education. Here in Europe there is much more of a, “Come kneel at the feet of the master” environment. Questioning the professor is considered a challenge. One learns through listening and observation, not confrontation.

    My question is this: If I am studying the gospel rather than a secular field, what learning style should I adopt? I think that part of our job on earth is to develop our own moral compass and not just passively accept. Let’s face it, if rule-keeping were the same as righteousness the Pharisees would have had an express ticket on the A-train to heaven. On the other hand, I also believe that there are times and places in which my reason will fail me and I will have to blindly accept. How do you decide when?

    Pardon my musings. They are just the random thoughts of an overwrought mind.

    Comment by Herodotus — 11/7/2006 @ 5:41 am

  12. My wife has complained that studies in the humanities can only chase around in circles whereas with science, knowledge builds upon knowledge. Good work from the 17th Century is a foundation for what we are doing now. The good work of today will matter tomorrow. Studies in the humanities are of such a different character, that it is easy for us in the physical sciences to dismiss them as overwrought fluff because, hey, they’re not science. When a scientist, Freeman Dyson for example, writes and speaks his lofty thoughts about what it’s all about (which I think Dyson does well), we all know that he doesn’t regard such musings on a par with his QED work. When a humanities scholar does the same, the distinction between his scholarship and his imagination is hard to delineate.

    Comment by John Mansfield — 11/7/2006 @ 8:06 am

  13. “It is easy for us in the physical sciences to dismss them as overwrought fluff.”

    Nice. Although, to be fair, it’s always pretty easy for us to dismiss scientists as unreflective, inarticulate and self-congratulatory, too. ;) Your wife doesn’t like MD/PhDs, she doesn’t like the humanities… I’m guessing she doesn’t like unicorns or rainbows, either! We’re an MD/PhD+PhD in literature couple; I wish we could have you over for dinner with the living specimens. We’re really not all that bad.

    Comment by Rosalynde — 11/7/2006 @ 10:48 am

  14. Now, before I say more, I know that there is good scholarship in the humanities as well as bad scholarship. Though, as I mentioned in the post and as several commenters have noted that you don’t typically find “intellectuals” outside of the field. Heck, Steve H. who blogs here is an scholar of English and a professor and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he does.

    Herodotus, you make an interesting point. I don’t know what you study, but in the sciences research laboratories are run like fiefdoms in continental Europe. It is really odd for me to consider that considering my experience where I challenged my adviser in the first weeks of my program publicly and he rolled with it.

    As far as the Gospel goes, there is such a thing as institutional authority, which isn’t particularly mirrored in academia. If we are talking about the gospel or history then I think the same standards of research are applicable. If we are talking about the living Church, then not so much. I know that Nate (from the original post) is working on a paper on authority…I don’t know if he has submitted it or not.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/7/2006 @ 11:36 am

  15. Jonathan, I’m not sure that I fully understand or concur with the criteria that you use in distinguishing between a scholar and an intellectual and I think that Mormon studies might be a particularly murky field in which to do so.

    As for using statistics and a scientific model for doing history, I will never fully agree. I think you and I have discussed over the past year, the merits of approaching history as an art or as a science. In my opinion, the best history is a marriage of “equal partners” of both :) Controversy over the use of cliometrics or historimetry will show that historians are generally wary of a completely scientific model and my experience with taking courses in Historiography or Quantifiable Methods would underscore this.

    Just recently, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, ” … history isn’t just fact. History is developing inferences and interpretation out of a cluster of evidence that is never sufficient.” There in lies the challenge. That being said, her work takes the use of quantifiable data and superior prose to another level — one that is certainly worthy of emulation.

    Comment by kris — 11/7/2006 @ 12:24 pm

  16. Well said, Kris. I see nowhere where you argue for supporting hypotheses that are controverted by the data. The most elegant narrative at the end of the day must appeal to data…and if it is to hold up well, it must appeal to all of it. This is scholarship.

    I’m not sure that I am drawing a definitive difference between the scholar and intellectual except to say that I know what a scholar is – someone who produces scholarship (good or bad) – and I have no real clue as to what an intellectual is except that I think it is goofy. :)

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/7/2006 @ 12:46 pm

  17. lol — I sometimes think intellectual might work better as an adjective ie. an intellectual approach to a problem (vs. completely faith based). And yes, a true scholar needs no quantifiers — their work stands for itself.

    Comment by kris — 11/7/2006 @ 1:12 pm

  18. I’ve always thought that a scholar was either you or a person who agrees with you and your views, and an intellectual was someone who says he’s smart but doesn’t agree with you.

    Comment by don — 11/7/2006 @ 1:20 pm

  19. J. Stapley #4,
    I didn’t say I was an “intellectual.” I can call myself an attorney. I can call myself a historian of at least some level of accomplishment. I have a piece of paper that arguably says I can call myself a sociologist, though I can’t say that I would do so.

    I’m really not sure what “canard” you say I was “dropping into.” A “canard” is generally understood to be a false and derogatory story. If you think I’m posting such, please point them out specifically.

    Aside from the perjorative use of “intellectual,” it seems the term implies that one has already arrived at some lofty height of knowledge. Thus, to call oneself an “intellectual” is rather arrogant. The self-described “intellectual” believes he/she already has all the answers.

    A “scholar” is also one who has attained a high level of knowledge or expertise. A “scholar” is also, however, a student. Regardless of what degrees or honors he/she possesses, the true “scholar” continues to learn. Rather than concluding he/she already has the answers, a real “scholar” finds even more questions, and seeks to discover things beyond his/her ken.

    Comment by Nick Literski — 11/7/2006 @ 2:27 pm

  20. Nick, I apologize, for miscommunicating. I didn’t mean to be derogatory at all. I meant “you” as the general sense of people in general. I should be more careful. And you are correct, you didn’t engage the historical canards, but I was hoping for a measure of profilaxis. Obviously, un-needed. Apologies, again.

    I tend to agree with your classifications.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/7/2006 @ 2:35 pm

  21. No problem. I apologize if I was over-sensitive.

    Comment by Nick Literski — 11/7/2006 @ 3:03 pm

  22. J-

    Part of the problem is that some things are not conducive to data gathering. I like to think of myself as a scholar, and like you, I yearn for data to bolster my theories.

    I study terrorism, and while I have compiled databases containing the details of attacks, it is difficult to interview terrorists and have them fill out surveys so I can compile the data I need.

    Much of what we do in the social sciences requires the use of proxies when gathering data. This creates its own difficulties because your are not really measuring the phenomenon but rather approximate measures that we hope represent the phenomenon.

    Even within the various disciplines, there are differences (sometimes heated) between those who try to boster theory with data and those who argue that such an endeavor is too difficult that that there is no universal theory which lends itself to generalization.

    I guess my point is…heck if it was easy, everyone would do it. I once again point to my favorite hard sciences/social sciences quote:

    Albert Einstein was presenting at a conference and was asked the following question: “Professor Einstein, man has learned to harness the atom, why can’t he devise a way to control the use of that power?” His answer: “Well you see, Physics is easy.”

    Comment by Craig S. — 11/7/2006 @ 5:14 pm

  23. From what I’ve heard others say, the term “intellectual” in parts of 19th century Europe (Russia in particular) pointed at one who was critical of the dominant paradigmn; particularly in the political sense. In other words an intellectual was someone who pointed out the shortcomings of ruling power structures in hopes that reforms would be made to correct those wrongs.

    In this regard, the affront on “intellectuals” by church officials such as Packer is an attack against those who are critical of the church.

    “Critical” could of course mean a wide variety of things. “Antis” are on one end of the spectrum, and it’s a little more clear as to why they should be given the cold shoulder; but the larger issue is, how do we deal with criticism? Is it only the few that in higher positions of authority that are able to voice their concerns about the church without being looked at as someone who “lacks faith in the brethren”? Is that why some of us turn to bloging, so that we can say what we think without fear of who’s looking?

    A person I consider a great teacher used to speak of the “public intellectual” (I think he was part of the larger discourse about what a public intellectual is), as anyone who was politically aware, socially engaged, and culturaly sensitive. I think there’s some amount of wisdom in this, but then again, maybe the term “intellectual” is worth abandoning altogether.

    Comment by SmallAxe — 11/7/2006 @ 6:01 pm

  24. Yes, the term intellectual, when you decide you are one, can be a bit arrogant. It can be a useful term in the abstract to describe the segment of a population that thins through issues in a philosophical sense–e.g. Frantz Fanon and others talk about the native intellectual as designating a class of people in decolonizing nations that does a certain sort of job in the making of national consicousness. I’ve never met anyone, however, that would call themselves an intellectual that didn’t have a bit of arrogance about them.
    I do, however, have a problem with the wholesale conflation of the work of the humanities and some significant sector of the social sciences with this sort of arrogance. Many of the sort of people that would be on a list of the people that oppose the primacy (not the existance, just the idea that it trumps everything) of empricism wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable, I think with the label, if only because it is too facile and fatuous. I’m thinking of Derida, Stuart Hall, Clifford Geertz, and others who are social theorists and philosophers that are doing great work, but that recognise the contingency of their views. There are some, like Said that might find the label hard not to adopt, but he is one of those who is interested in the image of the intellectual and what sort of work it does for certain groups and how it relates to power, and I think even he would have an uneasy relationship to the term.
    Part of my difficulty is that I don’t see many social, linguistic, literary, or other theorists or philosophers that don’t like data. I really am interested in whether trans-fats correlate with life-expectancy. I am also, however, interested in why trans-fats are socially interesting at the present moment. What is it about them that makes them the object of study at the present moment? And I don’t think it’s because they are the thing that affects longevity most on the planet as a whole. I think AIDS, hunger, clean water, and a host of other problems rank higher. And yet we spend a lot of time on trans-fats these days. Longevity itself hasn’t always been the obsession it is now in terms of empirical study, and it isn’t the obvious end of all knowledge–how many of us are willing to live longevity granting ultra-low calorie diets? What experiment could I design to tell me these thigns?
    The point is, there are things to talk about in the world that no aggregate, quantifiable data can give us answers to. That doesn’t mean that we don’t seek facts, that we don’t try to find a ground for our research in those areas. It does mean that we in the humanities trust the data we are given less than those in the sciences, perhaps, and we are a little more ready to accept data that doesn’t fit neatly into tables. We never accept that any data, as per the old addage, “speaks for itself.”

    Comment by Steve H — 11/8/2006 @ 3:07 am

  25. Gee, here I thought BKP was using “so-called” in front of “scholars and intellectuals” to imply that while there are legitimate “scholars and intellectuals”, there are also some who call themselves “scholars and intellectuals” but really aren’t. And that those who really aren’t, are the ones we need to watch out for, because they’re wrapping themselves in the cloak of scholarly learning and intellect but are only using that (unearned) legitimacy to advance their own causes. I have never taken it as a blanket condemnation of true “scholars and intellectuals”. IAW Dave (3), I think you have to earn your place as an intellectual, based on your scholarship and your proven ability to accurately apply said scholarship in defining problems and prescribing solutions. But hey, I’m a just a rocket scientist…

    Comment by Space Chick — 11/8/2006 @ 1:04 pm

  26. I agree, Steve. As Craig mentioned, there are limits to what data can do for you. But, any coherent narrative will reference as much data, even qualitatively, as possible.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/8/2006 @ 4:04 pm

  27. J,
    Certainly. And this is one of the most difficult things to teach students that are learning to work with texts. A piece of scholarship may have all the earmarks of a great piece of work–attention to detail, a sense of where the work fits in scholarly conversation–but if it selects certain aspects of a text to the diliberate exclusion of others that might contradict the argument, it is still bad scholarship. Things must always be excluded, but deliberate exclusion is distortion. As much as possible gets a bit problematic only in those cases where it’s tempting to read just a bit more forever. With all of the publishing going on, one can never read everything before writing or one will never write.
    Space Chick
    I agree that BKP isn’t saying there is no real scholarship of value or any intellectual work of consequence. I think that those who see the church as discouraging rigorous intellectual pursuit have fundamentally misunderstood the church on this point.

    Comment by Steve H — 11/8/2006 @ 7:05 pm

  28. Rigorous intellectual pursuit of what? It seems to me that praising intellectualism or putting it down is meaningless unless we understand just what is being done with the intellect that brings the praise or criticism.

    I personally think that all the best ideas are going to come out of some aspect of the gospel. For instance, the best cure for materialism comes from learning and understanding principles of stewardship, consecration, and avoiding idolatry (mixed-up priorities). If you like, you can see what I’ve written on these issues here..

    One of my favorite exercises is to select an innocent and simple-sounding principle, (like prayer) and then gather all the different scriptures that mention it or have anything to do with it and then organize them by emphasis and then try to coalesce that data into principles. (I use the internet scriptures, so it goes fast.) I try to see if there is anything suggested (but not specifically stated) that could revolutionize my understanding and religious practice. Frequently I am blown away by what I discover. Yeeeeessss, I write research papers on gospel principles just for fun… I am a weirdo. But hey, why not apply all those research skills I’ve learned in school to studying the gospel? And if I decide to experiment upon the word… I become a gospel scientist! Fun!

    Comment by Michaela Stephens — 7/31/2008 @ 8:03 pm

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