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Sartre: What is an Intellectual?

An introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of an intellectual and the implications this has for the life and actions of such an individual.

According to French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual is a person who recognizes the contradictions that govern her or his life. An intellectual cannot be a member of the proletariat because such a person would find it impossible to gain access to the kind of education required by an intellectual. Within the bourgeois capitalist society, there is a need for individuals to conduct such research that will continue the search for industrial development and, hence, the pursuit of profit. On the one hand, such research appears to be free in nature in that the researcher is free to investigate any promising looking avenue of exploration. However, the purpose of the research is strictly regulated by the state, which not only controls the sphere of operations in which the scientist works but which has already structured the way that its education system works to provide knowledge to those permitted to use it.

Sartre argues that the person in this situation who recognizes the contradiction between freedom and control is an intellectual. In this sense, therefore, the intellectual links or embodies the twin spheres of existentialism (the being in the universe predicated on an individual level) and Marxism (the individual is part of the class struggle that defines consciousness on the societal level). Having penetrated the obfuscation of bourgeois ideology, therefore, the intellectual has not just an individual identity but a duty to perform an agenda of action. The one who comes to recognize the contradiction but responds ‘yes but’ or takes the ‘realist’ view that omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs (it is the struggles for freedom in Algeria and Vietnam that Sartre tests political commitment)is the ‘anti-intellectual,’ who may be construed to be a class enemy and a reactionary.

The intellectual should proceed with a programme of relentless self-criticism (which seems Maoist in nature) and which is aimed at identifying the roots of structured knowledge and hence its biases and distortions and constant reinforcement of the desire to exhibit solidarity with the victims of structural violence and abuse. The intellectual also has the duty continuously and consistently to point out the prevalence of bourgeois ideology infesting the world of popular culture and the pernicious effects of such cultural production. For example, an intellectual should certainly criticize the raft of reality TV shows which purport to offer one single person the opportunity to attain stardom if she or he follows the prescribed route of non-controversial opinions and behaviour, bland good looks and the willingness to obey orders without question.

For more details, see Sartre, Jean-Paul, “A Plea to Intellectuals,” in J-P Sartre, Between Existentialism and Marxism (London and New York: Verso Books, 2008), pp.228-85, translated by John Matthews [originally published in 1974].

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