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The Life of the Mind: the philosophic pioneer, Socrates (ca.469–399 B.C.)

Intellectualism refers to a family of related views, all of which emphasize the significance of the intellect. Most broadly, "intellectualism" is an endorsement of the use, development, and exercise of the intellect, along with pursuing the "Life of the Mind" associated with intellectuals.[1] In the field of philosophy, “intellectualism” is occasionally synonymous with “rationalism”, that is, knowledge mostly derived from reason and ratiocination.[2][3] The term "intellectualism" can also be used with a negative connotation, such as: single-mindedness of purpose (“too much attention to thinking”) and emotional coldness (“the absence of affection and feeling”).[2][3]

General term

In everyday language, "intellectualism" most often refers to the view that humans should develop and exercise their intellectual abilities to the greatest extent possible.[1] One of the most famous expressions of this general sort of intellectualism is Socrates' declaration that "the unexamined life is not worth living".

Ancient moral intellectualism

Main page: Philosophy:Moral intellectualism

In the view of Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC), intellectualism allows that “one will do what is right or best just as soon as one truly understands what is right or best”; that virtue is a purely intellectual matter, since virtue and knowledge are familial relatives, which a person accrues and improves with dedication to reason.[4] So defined, Socratic intellectualism became a key philosophic doctrine of Stoicism. The apparent, problematic consequences of this view are “Socratic paradoxes”, such as the view that there is no weakness of will — that no one knowingly does, or seeks to do, evil (moral wrong); that anyone who does, or seeks to do, moral wrong does so involuntarily; and that virtue is knowledge, that there are not many virtues, but that all virtues are one.

Contemporary philosophers dispute that Socrates’s conceptions of knowing truth, and of ethical conduct, can be equated with modern, post–Cartesian conceptions of knowledge and of rational intellectualism.[5] As such, Michel Foucault demonstrated, with detailed historical study, that in Classical Antiquity (800 BC – AD 1000), “knowing the truth” is akin to “spiritual knowledge”, in the contemporarily understanding of the concept. Hence, without exclusively concerning the rational intellect, spiritual knowledge is integral to the broader principle of “caring for the self”.

Typically, such care of the self-involved specific ascetic exercises meant to ensure that not only was knowledge of truth memorized, but learned, and then integrated to the self, in the course of transforming oneself into a good person. Therefore, to understand truth meant “intellectual knowledge” requiring one’s integration to the (universal) truth, and authentically living it in one’s speech, heart, and conduct. Achieving that difficult task required continual care of the self, but also meant being someone who embodies truth, and so can readily practice the Classical-era rhetorical device of parrhesia: “to speak candidly, and to ask forgiveness for so speaking”; and, by extension, practice the moral obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.[6] This ancient, Socratic moral philosophic perspective contradicts the contemporary understanding of truth and knowledge as rational undertakings.

Medieval theological intellectualism

Medieval theological intellectualism is a doctrine of divine action, wherein the faculty of intellect precedes, and is superior to, the faculty of the will (voluntas intellectum sequitur). As such, Intellectualism is contrasted with voluntarism, which proposes the Will as superior to the intellect, and to the emotions; hence, the stance that “according to intellectualism, choices of the Will result from that which the intellect recognizes as good; the will, itself, is determined. For voluntarism, by contrast, it is the Will which identifies which objects are good, and the Will, itself, is indetermined”.[7] From that philosophical perspective and historical context, the Spanish Muslim polymath Averroës (1126–1198) in the 12th century, the Italian Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and the German Christian theologian Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) in the 13th century, are recognised intellectualists.[7][8]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Merriam-Webster".  (Definition)
  2. 2.0 2.1 "intellectualism". Retrieved 4 February 2013.  (Oxford definition)
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-11-01.  (Definition)
  4. "FOLDOC". Archived from the original on 2007-07-15.  (Definition and note on Socrates)
  5. Heda Segvic. "No one errs willingly: the meaning of socratic intellectualism". Archived from the original on 2011-09-30. 
  6. Gros, Frederic (ed.)(2005) Michel Foucault: The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981–1982. Picador: New York
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Voluntarism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  8. Jeremiah Hackett, A Companion to Meister Eckhart, BRILL, 2012, p. 410.

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