Distinctions Between Intellectuals And Pseudo-Intellectuals

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Author: Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, (20 November 1981)


The intellectual is looking for the right questions to ask; the pseudo is giving what he claims to be the right answers.

The intellectual is evidently motivated by a disinterested love of truth; the pseudo is interested in being right, or being thought to be right, whether he is or not.

The intellectual is willing to admit that what he does not know is far greater than what he knows; the pseudo claims to know as much as can be known about the subject under consideration.

The intellectual states as good a case for his adversary as can be made out; the pseudo sets up a straw man and beats it to death for the sake of seeming superior.

The intellectual is deeply and constantly aware of the limitations of human reason; the pseudo makes a deity of reason and tries to force it into realms it cannot penetrate.

The intellectual seeks light from whatever source, realizing that ideas are no respecters of persons and turn up in the most unexpected places from the most improbable people; the pseudo accepts ideas, when he does, only from experts and specialists and certified authorities.

The intellectual advances an hypothesis that he hopes may be true; the pseudo propounds a dogma that he insists is true.

The intellectual recognizes that opposites are not always contradictory, and may indeed reinforce each other; the pseudo paints a picture in black and white, right or wrong, leaving no room for a contrary viewpoint.

The intellectual knows there are no final answers to human questions; the pseudo makes each tentative and provisional answer sound like a finality.

The intellectual is courageous in opposing majority opinion, even when it jeopardizes his position; the pseudo slavishly follows "the most reliable authorities" in his field sneering at heresies.

The intellectual never talks down to his audience, but tries to be as clear as possible; the pseudo talks above his audience to mystify and impress them.