What Makes Someone An Intellectual?

I had a stimulating phone conversation with a friend today.  She recounted that an acquaintance of hers, hearing a talk I gave some time back, described it as “not very intellectual.”  As is often the case, the conversation has sent me down the pathway of pondering.  What makes someone an intellectual?

Let’s start with the usual starting place – the dictionary.

(If I use the Merriam-Webster online rather than the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, does that prove I’m not an intellectual?  Or does it show that I’m too cheap to pay the subscription?)

Intellectual –  The Merriam-Webster definition has three parts:

(1) “Of or relating to the ability to think in a logical way.”  OK, this is good in so far as it goes, but I think it is somewhat misleading on its own.  I have family members who would not refer to themselves as intellectuals at all, but who think very logically, especially about mechanical problems they need to solve.  I imagine very few people would think of them as intellectuals and they themselves might even be somewhat disgusted by the term, but they clearly know how to think very logically.

(2) “Involving serious study and thought.”  Ah, this is progress.  I imagine the word “serious” also implies “sustained.”  In other words, intellectuals study and think about topics over a period of time.  They stay engaged with a subject until they have the sense that they know the subject adequately.

(3) “Smart and enjoying serious study and thought.” I think the property of enjoyment is very important.  Some people are smart, but not intellectually curious.  They are happy with what they think, maybe even to the point of complacency or laziness.  More than once I have heard someone say – knowingly, I might add – that they “took a course” back in college and now feel as if they know all they need to know about the topic.  This attitude is especially a problem when it comes to Christian theology.

What I don’t see in this definition of “intellectual” are “PhD,” or “academic.”  Certainly, those who work in the academy as researchers or professors and who have this terminal degree likely would be called intellectuals.  But simply working in the academy or having a terminal degree does not automatically qualify one as an intellectual.

Let’s move to the other side of the ledger.  What does it mean to be “anti-intellectual?”  Out of the denominational history that I know, certain parts of the Methodist movement and its various denominations have been labeled as anti-intellectual.  There is a grain of truth to this characterization, but it also is the case that class interest can so color a person’s perspective that s/he mistakes “not formally educated” with “anti-intellectual.”  As one who came from prairie pioneer people, I’ve always been a tad sensitive to this snobbery.  But on to the definition.

Anti-intellectual – “Opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.”

Let’s see if we can fill in a couple of blanks.  Going back to the first set of definitions, an anti-intellectual might be considered to be lacking in the facility of thinking logically, or lacking the desire to engage in serious study and thought or, finally, one who does not enjoy serious study and thought.

What I don’t see in the definitions of intellectual or anti-intellectual is “conservative” or “liberal” or “Centrist” or “Moderate” or “progressive” or “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Independent” or “Libertarian” or “Anarchist” or “Postcolonial” or “Socialist” or “Marxist” or (insert the label)…

If you truly care about the Common Good; if you truly desire justice to come upon the earth; if you want to live at peace with your neighbor and make your contribution to society, then I pray that you will ignore the silly pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals, who confuse using polysyllabic abstractions with intellectual power or who think that a string of academic degrees satisfies the definition.  Practice, at least on some regular basis, ignoring the unhelpful labels we give to each other’s opinions.  Read widely, not only the stuff you’re fed because Facebook or some other social media algorithm has placed you in a certain demographic.  Read widely and thoughtfully and gain wisdom.  And hope.  If you read widely, you will find yourself a more hopeful person.

And you will qualify as an intellectual.



About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. Steve Schuller says:

    Enjoyed this post! Maybe another analysis is whether the individual who critiqued your talk was merely applying the label “intellectual” with the negative to attempt to [1] reduce the value of your talk and [2] thus elevate himself in your acquaintance’s view as someone more knowledgeable. People do that a lot — criticize someone as failing to offer an “intellectual” discussion in order to imply that the critic could provide a better one. The word is thrown out as nothing more than a label that serves as a euphemism for “liberal” (to the conservative) or “conservative” (to the liberal), or for “religious” (to the atheist), for example. I wonder whether your acquaintance was able to get the critic to offer a valid and thoughtful basis for his “not intellectual” comment. My guess would be not.

    • Thank you, Steve. I would guess you’re right. It would be interesting to have the chance to talk to the person who made the “not very intellectual” to hear him explain how he drew his conclusion.

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