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October 10, 2006

Why are English intellectuals so obsessed with the absence of English intellectuals? Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain - Stefan Collini

Posted by David Womersley

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain
by Stefan Collini
Pp. x + 526. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, £25

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Stefan Collini's Absent Minds and ponders the position of the English intellectual.

The assertion that the national life of England has been marked, in particular contrast to that of France, by an absence of and indeed hostility towards intellectuals, has long been a staple element of English national identity, and, as Stefan Collini shows in this witty, shrewd and erudite book, it has over the years become richly barnacled with cliché and (the habitual companion of cliché) slack argument and idées reçues masquerading as fresh thought. When and where did this notion begin?

A prime suspect must surely be Burke's writings on the French Revolution, in which the established French national character of frivolity and caprice was redrawn so as to include what Burke saw as a pernicious element of abstract, philosophic rationality, which, when joined to the existing French levity, imbued the revolutionaries with a vicious secular fanaticism. In this polemical setting, it was easy for English empiricism to be characterised as a kind of anti-intellectualism. Easy, and yet also strange - for empiricism is as intellectual a position as any other, and in the earlier eighteenth century England (the home of Locke and Newton) was arguably the intellectual centre of Europe, as no less a witness than Voltaire testified in his Lettres Philosophiques (1733).

It was an awareness of just this curious amnesia on the part of the English concerning their own intellectual history, and the role which it has played in Europe, which led J. R. Seeley to protest at what Collini felicitously calls the "absence thesis" (p. 70):

That barrenness in ideas, that contempt for principles, that Philistinism which we hardly deny to be an English characteristic now, was not always so. . . . . It is not then the English character which is averse to thought; we are not naturally the plain practical people that we sometimes boast, and sometimes blush, to be.
Absent Minds does not attempt to verify or disprove the hoary old contention that the English are a singularly and blessedly (or cursedly) un-intellectual people. Collini has taken the much wiser and more interesting line of investigating how this contention about the indelibly un-intellectual nature of the English has functioned in twentieth-century English public debate (p. 4):
why has the "absence thesis" mattered - and what is at stake in discussions of it now?
Fundamental to his approach is the premise that the "absence thesis" is a fragment of ideology. That is to say, it is a misdescription of reality, in which the nature of the misdescription serves a common interest or purpose. As Collini sees it, English debates about the nature and role of intellectuals (p. 175):
have often functioned as a kind of metonymic place-holder for larger preoccupations about British "exceptionalism".
For this reason, to attempt to prove or disprove the contention that the English are un-intellectual would be an idle task, because it would be to mistake the nature of the contention in the first place. The assertion that the English are unintellectual is a functional misdescription, and it has been so ever since it was first given memorable shape by Burke. Collini's fascinating project has been to trace and describe the functions it has performed in the twentieth century. As he rightly points out (p. 64):
twentieth-century British culture has scarcely been marked by an absence of discussion of the issue.
Furthermore, the absence thesis has largely been a question of attacks on intellectuals by writers who were themselves surely intellectuals if they were anything: as such, it displays the (p. 372):
anti-intellectualism of the [English] intellectual.
As a nation, we have been mesmerised in contemplation of our own lack of intellectualism, and Collini's book is a stylish anatomising of that state of affairs.

Absent Minds is divided into five sections. An initial discussion of semantics leads into a narrative section which plots the outline of the twentieth-century debate on England and intellectuals. The third section broadens the book's field of vision to include some comparative perspectives, in which the uniqueness of the "absence thesis" to England is shown also to be a myth -

one distinctive variant of a larger international pattern
[p. 501]
- and the interesting detail of the contrasting French experience is underlined. Section Four consists of five case studies - T. S. Eliot, R. G. Collingwood, George Orwell, A. J. P. Taylor and A. J. Ayer - all of whose careers were to some extent, as Collini shows, twined about the question of English intellectualism. The final section includes some astringent reviews of the current state of the question and of how it is aired in today's papers.

As that description of the structure of Absent Minds perhaps suggests, this is not a book which pursues a single line of cumulative argument across its whole length. It is instead a book of a kind not necessarily less rigorous, but much more enjoyable to read. It is really a series of medium-length essays arranged around the central topic of the English debate about intellectuals, and grouped sympathetically into clusters. As such, it plays to Collini's great strength as a writer, since he is at present beyond question our finest exponent of a difficult form, namely the long review article.

The prose of Absent Minds displays the impressive qualities that Collini has honed over many years of writing for the TLS and the LRB: a power of elegant summary; a gift for vivid, often amusing but not trivialising, metaphor; a constant awareness that solemnity is no guarantee of profundity; a refusal to accept that acuity precludes vivacity; an ability to take the measure of relevant complication and yet still win through to the higher ground of synthetic judgement; above all, perhaps, a patient evenness of temper which implies engagement, and which therefore reassures the reader that judgement has not been skewed by a gust of intemperate passion (only once, I think, was Collini betrayed into egregious sharpness, when he was discussing Matthew d'Ancona - and in his defence it must be said that he was sorely tried).

The obverse of these advantages, however, is that the reader closes Absent Minds without the sense of having been vouchsafed a single powerful insight corroborated by tenacious argument. At moments, larger and more general propositions loom up. It surely is the case that, particularly in recent decades, the debate about English intellectuals has become an aspect of the general question of the exercise of leadership and the location of authority in a modern mass society. It is also surely the case that our present, modest, European destiny - according to Collini, Britain is (p. 501)

one medium-sized European country among others, with many similar interests and problems
- adds a particular flavour to the debates that Absent Minds so scrupulously describes and assays. If English exceptionalism was only ever a fiction, then the question of why England has been so hostile to intellectuals is an episode in our gradual and painful emancipation from the imprisoning myth of our own distinctive superiority. The final words of Absent Minds are dictated by a sober justice (p. 505):
For the present, the least we can do, though it is no small thing, is to understand and possess our own history. We need to work within 2our customs and establishments", which include the traditions of denial examined in this book. But by doing so in full historical self-consciousness, we cease to be the prisoners of those traditions, and that is the essential first step towards liberating us from the weary, unenquiring prejudice which insists that, where the question of intellectuals in Britain is concerned, there is simply very little to say.
This passage has a very late-twentieth-century Cambridge ring - does it inadvertently echo Quentin Skinner's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor, or is the reader intended to register and ponder that chime of sentiment and language?

The methodological and theoretical point seems sound: only when we understand our past (by which we mean the route which has deposited us in the present) can we act without being unconsciously constrained by its pressures. A dissident thought, however, might run as follows: would it be possible for a work written within the framework of Skinnerian theory to issue in a conclusion which upheld exceptionalism, of the English or any other kind? Has it ever happened? Are the tentative and deliberately modest conclusions of Absent Minds anything more than elegant re-statements of its premises? And does it matter very much? When the journey has been so rich and interesting, it would be churlish to complain about the familiarity of the terminus.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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