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Intellectuals in a World Made of Knowledge

March 2, 2015

by Dr. Tu Weiming
This paper was presented at the UNESO 21st Century Dialogues: Building Knowledge
Societies, Seoul, Korea, 27-28 July 2004.
The idea of a “public intellectual” recently has attracted a great deal of attention. The term “intellectual” first appears during nineteenth-century Russia. On the surface, it does not seem to have any antecedent in the Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Greek, Christian, or Islamic traditions. The Hindu quest for union of the real self with the cosmic reality, the Buddhist salvation as delivery from worldly attachments, the Jewish covenant with God as the source of all values, the Greek search for truth through the contemplative life of the mind, the Christian faith in the Lord in Heaven, as well as the Muslim devotion to Allah all presuppose the existence of a spiritual sanctuary essentially different from, if not diametrically opposed to, the world here and now. The engagement in and management of worldly affairs is either by choice or by default relegated to the background.
Not surprisingly, the intellectual, as we understand it today, is not the functional equivalent of the guru, monk, rabbi, philosopher, priest, or mullah. The minimum requirement for an intellectual—politically concerned, socially engaged, and culturally sensitive—is fundamentally at odds with a person passionately devoted to the service of a higher reality beyond the mundane concerns of the secular world. Surely, all spiritual traditions are inevitably intertwined with the ordinary lives of their devotees. But in all of the aforementioned religions the rupture of the chain of being by privileging the “Pure Land” or the “Kingdom of God” outside of the daily routine of human existence is undeniable.
By making the existential decision to be an integral part of the world in order to transform it from within, Confucius opted for a form of life unique among the axial-age civilizations. Confucian followers were primarily action intellectuals, deeply immersed in “managing the world” (jingshi) of economics, politics, and society. Their strategy was to transform the world, defined in terms of both wealth and power, through culture, specifically through moral education. Historically, the Confucian project was instrumental in developing a distinctive East Asian personality who did not necessarily accrue a great deal of power and wealth, but was extraordinarily influential in society, politics, and the economy as opinion leader, critic, adviser, bureaucrat, or official. Confucian influence extended beyond governmental affairs. It certainly had major 16effects on national policies. But it was also manifested in cultural values, social ethics, and artistic expressions. Confucian scholar-officials were perceived of as the conscience of the people, for they served the long-term well-being of the entire country. This is precisely how a modern intellectual is expected to behave.
Normally, we assume that intellectuals are intimately affiliated with institutes of higher learning, particularly those intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences. This is understandable because professors and students dedicated to the study of the world’s cultural heritage, the structure and function of society, the ritual and process of exercising power, or the nature of the economy ought to be particularly sensitive to the state of the world. In reality, the situation is quite different; the overwhelming majority of scholars in the humanities and social sciences are specialists. Dictated by the stringent demands of their professions, they become so much involved in their research that they rarely have time or energy to rise above the confines of their well-defined expertise to do things that do not have a direct bearing on the advancement of their careers. Analytic philosophers and mathematical economists are outstanding examples, but literary scholars, archaeologists, historians, linguists, theoreticians in sociology and political science, and physical anthropologists are no exception. On the other hand, natural scientists and engineers can be intellectuals if they choose to bring their expertise to bear on important social issues, although in general they are preoccupied with their own research. It is worth noting that as preservers and creators of basic knowledge, academicians perform major social and cultural services vitally important for human flourishing. Their contributions to society are evident. Their decision not to play the role of the intellectual, and to criticize those who do, should be respected.
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Published with the author’s permission.