November 18th, 2010 | Global Times Sages and angels, or the fur on the skin?
Intellectuals have long played a crucial part in Chinese society, from the Confucian scholars of the past to modern scientists, social critics, and public figures. How has their role been interpreted in the past? What political ends has it been used for? What are the duties of intellectuals in today’s society? Beijing Daily (BD) invited Ge Jianxiong (Ge), a professor of historical geography at Fudan University and Li Deshun (Li), professor of philosophy at China University of Political Science and Law, to discuss these questions.
BD: The understanding of the concept of intellectual varies. How do you see intellectuals’ role?
Li: This concept usually sounds weird or strange to people. Some say that intellectuals are the elite of humanity and should be as sacred as sages or angels, but others say they are just the fur on the skin, not important at all. Anyway, among the classes of officials, farmers, workers and businessmen, intellectuals seem to belong to a special group.
BD: Why the special feelings toward intellectuals?
Li: It originates from an unscientific ideology. There was originally no concept of intellectuals in China, but from ancient times there were special definitions of the role and mission of scholars. For instance, in ancient China, intellectuals were demanded to cultivate a moral self, regulate the family, maintain the state in righteousness and make all peaceful.
The other way of seeing intellectuals is connected to leftist politics and policies in China in the past. Certain concepts of intellectuals were previously popular.
For instance, the 1989 version of China’s Cihai (Encyclopedia) defines intellectuals as brain workers with certain knowledge in culture and science like science and technology workers, art workers, teachers, doctors, editors, journalists, and so on. Meanwhile, it emphasized that intellectuals were not an independent class, but belonged to different classes.
This definition of intellectuals combines education and profession, which seems more objective and certain than the first one, but is also self-contradictory.
For example, if the concept of intellectuals refers to brain workers with particular knowledge in culture and science, why are officials, professional statesmen, managers, entrepreneurs and businessmen with the right education not included?
Actually, what was stressed at that time was that intellectuals are the fur but not skin and the fur needs to cling to the skin.
That is, intellectuals were not seen as an element of the main body of society but as superfluous objects with no independent position and significance in and of themselves.
As a result, whether they were roped in or attacked all depended on the target of class struggle. In this context, being an intellectual was associated with more grittiness and political discrimination.
This shows that the concept itself was unscientific and incomplete. In modern society, things have changed, rendering these former ideas outdated.
BD: It seems that such an understanding of intellectuals still exists.
Li: It’s true. In reality, some people still don’t treat intellectuals as ordinary people. Deng Xiaoping completely corrected leftist ideology and policies and declared that intellectuals are part of the working class. But the scientific basis and cultural significance of the declaration is not completely understood and mastered.
All in all, it is the social nature and significance of mental production that determines the social nature and significance of intellectuals. This should be the scientific basis to understand intellectuals.
The purpose of rediscovering them lies in the acknowledgement of the normal social function and historical position of intellectuals.
If a society lacks a correct understanding of and respect for knowledge, then whether intellectuals are treated as political people, moral people or economic people, whether they are regarded as the elite or simple tools, there is no way for people to understand intellectuals correctly and deeply.
Instead, there is the possibility that people might be so trapped in their wishful thinking that they fail to see the wood for the trees.
BD: What are the requirements to be an intellectual?
Ge: In my opinion, the standard of today’s intellectuals should not only include one’s education level and capacity in knowledge, but also his or her attitude toward society.
So the standard should be that they should have received a thorough higher education or have an equivalent body of knowledge. They should be experts or scholars in a particular field or have professional and systematic knowledge, but they should pay attention to the whole of society instead of being confined in their professional role. At least, they should pay attention to areas beyond their field. Even if their field involves social phenomena, they should not be confined to specific areas.
These are the basic requirements, but the decisive point is that they should have a critical spirit. Intellectuals should be able to tell right from wrong, true from fake, beauty from ugliness, and the important from the insignificant.
BD: Some people said, the function of intellectuals is to criticize, otherwise they would lose their value and meaning. How do you see the power and duty of intellectuals?
Ge: A good society needs two different aspects: There should be people to approve and defend it and people to doubt and criticize it.
The two parts are both indispensable. But the stability and improvement of the society is also owed to skeptical people and critics. Their doubts and criticism serve as reminders and warnings to society. Of course, this criticism is not irresponsible criticism that doesn’t consider the consequences. Rather, it is constructive, which should be the intention of real criticism.
Li: In modern society, knowledge is increasingly important. As the producer and the disseminator of human knowledge and spiritual culture, every intellectual enjoys corresponding social power and shoulders according responsibility in his or her special field of study.
They can and should pursue broad knowledge and use their own professional skills to serve society. But it doesn’t mean intellectuals are special or should have a higher place than other people.