The intelligentsia


The intelligentsia is a social class of intellectuals and social groups close to them (e. g. artists, school teachers), which can be also seen as a class of mental workers in opposition to non-working aristocracy or business owners on the one hand and to manual laborers on the other.

The term first appeared in Poland in the first half of 19th century. It was later accepted into Russian, and from there it came into English. In English this word is often applied to the "intelligentsia" in Central European and Eastern European countries in the 19th - 20th centuries. The distinction was based on the economical and cultural situation of intellectuals in these countries, different from the one in Western Europe or America. These differences were caused by various historical processes, whose influence still is disputed by historians. Presence of long-lasting autocratic regimes or national suppression in this region, or less high level of literacy in these countries than in Western European ones (in the 19th century) are among them. This situation motivated local intellectuals to elaborate a system of common values and a sense of internecine sympathy.

Additionally, the intelligentsia of Central and Eastern Europe, being divided mostly by national dependence, fostered a sense of responsibility for one's nation, up to the belief, that progress of a nation mostly depends on cultural level of intelligentsia of the nation. This self-confidence often led Eastern European intelligentsia to play a role of non-existing political opposition, and position of intelligentsia always had significant consequences to revolutions or national liberation movements in Central and Eastern Europe.

Presently, some authors point to an ongoing extinguishing of intelligentsia in Central and Eastern Europe or a changing of the intelligentsia into a class of intellectuals or simply a middle class. In this case also a new tendency, to make opposition between intelligentsia and intellectuals, is seen.

An intellectual is a person who uses his or her intellect to study, reflect, and speculate on a variety of different ideas. In some contexts, especially journalistic speech, intellectual often refers to academics, generally in the humanities, especially philosophy, who speak about various issues of social or political import. These are so-called public intellectuals — in effect communicators that bridge knowledge production and society.

Coleridge speculated early in the nineteenth century on the concept of the clerisy, a class rather than a type of individual, and a secular equivalent of the (Anglican) clergy, with a duty of upholding (national) culture. The idea of the intelligentsia, in comparison, dates from roughly the same time, and is based more concretely on the status class of 'mental' or white-collar workers.

Modes of 'intellectual class'

From that time onwards, in Europe and elsewhere, some variants of the idea of an intellectual class have been important (not least to intellectuals, self-styled). The degrees of actual involvement in art, or politics, journalism and education, of nationalist or internationalist or ethnic sentiment, constituting the 'vocation' of an intellectual, have never become fixed. Some intellectuals have been vehemently anti-academic; at times universities and their professoriat have been synonymous with intellectualism, but in other periods and some places the centre of gravity of intellectual life has been elsewhere.

One can notice a sharpening of terms, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Just as the coinage scientist would come to mean a professional, the man of letters would more often be assumed to be a professional writer, perhaps having the breadth of a journalist or essayist, but not necessarily with the engagement of the intellectual.

The Dreyfus affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century is often indicated as the time of full emergence of the intellectual in public life; particularly as concerns the role of Émile Zola in speaking directly on the matter. In fact the term intellectual as we now have it became better known, from that time.


Strictly a doctrine about the possibility of deriving knowledge from reason alone, intellectualism can stand for a general approach favouring the head over all else. Criticism of this attitude, sometimes summed up as Left Bank, is probably more general than of intellectual workers; it is possible more easily to be reconciled with a writer being an intellectual, by trade, than to any overall intellectualist claim that thinking in the abstract has priority.

In ancient China literati referred to the government officials who formed the ruling class for over two thousand years. They were a status group of educated laymen, not ordained priests. After 200 B.C. the system of selection of candidates was influenced by Confucianism.

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