Stanley Baldwin once said that “the difference between a man of intellect and an intellectual, was the same as the difference between a gentleman and a gent.” His remarks were quoted approvingly by Margaret Thatcher soon after she became leader of the Conservative Party. Baldwin and Thatcher’s words seem to sum up an important aspect of British history. Intellectuals are vulgar, fake, left-wing and, most important, un-English.
Those convinced that there are no English intellectuals point to philosophy. All French people study this discipline at school, and some of France’s most prominent thinkers (including those, such as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who later attain fame for their work in other areas) study it up to the postgraduate level. Philosophy in France is taken to mean a concern with the big questions and with the ways in which previous writers have addressed them. Academic philosophers in England, by contrast, spend much of their time explaining the large number of broad questions to which philosophy cannot furnish answers. They are often concerned with narrow questions of language–it has been said that the whole of existentialism rested on a failure to define the verb “to be.” French 18-year-olds write essays that are full of words such as “immanence”; English philosophy dons write books with titles such as How to Do Things With Words.
At second glance, things are, as ever, more complicated. The fact that many English people dislike the word “intellectual” does not mean that they dislike the thing–Margaret Thatcher did not like the words “bourgeois” or “privatization” either. Besides, there have obviously been English intellectuals, and some of them are drawn from the very circles–Conservative and upper-class–that are normally assumed to be most immune to the sins of “intellectualism.” The Third Marquis of Salisbury (who was prime minister for thirteen years) was an intellectual by any definition: He wrote articles for the Quarterly Review, and the leading journal of the British intellectual right during the 1980s was named the Salisbury Review in his honor. Salisbury’s nephew Balfour wrote “A Defence of Philosophic Doubt” in his spare time while being a Conservative minister. Baldwin himself played the bluff English squire but spent much of his time in Aix-les-Bains; he claimed to be uninterested in general ideas but published his essays in a book with the sweeping title of On England and Other Addresses. He was much influenced by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, who was described by Julien Benda as the archetypal English nationalist clerc. The novels of Anthony Powell and the cartoons of Osbert Lancaster often revolve around the curiously blurred frontiers between Belgravia and Bohemia–a frontier inhabited by men with clipped accents and regimental ties who turn out to be interested in the novels of Virginia Woolf or the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.
Stefan Collini encapsulates some of the paradoxes that dominate discussion of English intellectuals. In spite of his exotic name (it is interesting to speculate on how his work would be received if he were called “Steve Collins”), Collini is an English professor of English literature at an English university. He is also well versed in Continental academic life, particularly that of France. By his own definition (of which more below), he is an intellectual, but he also has a skepticism and a distrust of grand theory that some might see as quintessentially English. Perhaps for this reason, he has mainly communicated his ideas, so far, in essays and extended book reviews. This book seeks to bring his arguments together.