The ice storm has suspended normal business in Kentucky, so I am improving the time by thinking about Steve Fuller's The Intellectual.
Fuller's book carries this interesting second title on its cover: "The positive power of negative thinking." He argues that intellectuals seek truth by the path of criticism of all established ideas, including a ruthless self-criticism. Intellectuals make their special contribution to society by taking seriously the charge usually attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Intellectuals see the evil consequences that can, willy-nilly, come from the normal working of the status quo. The more we know, and the more we think through how social systems work, the more responsibility we have for the outcome. This is why intellectuals are not just scholars, but engaged in shaping public life.
To be an intellectual, Fuller argues, is to vigilant. And what we are to be most vigilant about are the effects of ideas on social life. Intellectuals have to believe in the power of people working together to enact ideas. This is why they also have a tendency to be a bit paranoid, and even to accept conspiracy theories. People working together to make the world better is a kind of good conspiracy. People working together to make their lives better at the expense of the world is a bad conspiracy. And people working together with unintended consequences for the world is what intellectuals train themselves to see.
Intellectuals are vigilant about the power of ideas to shape the world, and in eternal argument with other intellectuals about what those consequences might be.