22/01/2017

is Yitang Zhang an intellectual?


Yitang Zhang in conversation


An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking... about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of society, and thus gains authority as a public intellectual. Coming from the world of culture... the intellectual participates in politics, either to defend a concrete proposition or to denounce an injustice, usually by producing or by extending an ideology...
- wiki

Yitang Zhang achieved great progress on one of the outstanding problems in number theory, the twin primes conjecture. But he doesn't hype his work, hasn't set himself up as a celebrity, and I imagine it is impossible to get a political statement out of him.

Remarkably, our primary usage of the noun "intellectual" wouldn't include Zhang. It is something like:

  1. intellectual: A brainy outspoken celeb. A famous person who broadcasts their opinions on serious social matters. (Particularly if they're involved in the public speaking circuit, particularly if they speculate about politics.)

Scholars (especially scientists or mathematicians) who don't debate in public and don't mouth off about, say, elections or creationists on Twitter are excluded from this sense. (As if said mouthing off was a more creditable act of intellect than proving the deep connectedness of the Monster group and modular functions.)

This is pure Two Cultures bullshit: a mental land grab by arts people. (They pulled off a similar annexation of the idea of creativity, around the late C19th.) All scientists are knowledge workers, and that's the sense of "intellectual" I'd set as primary, if language was in my power.

It is no deficiency of Zhang that 1) the discourse can't follow number theory and 2) that he is a comically and beautifully diffident man.

Let's see when "intellectual" came in as a proper noun:

(hover over the blue line to see the year)


Doesn't tell us much. We can get some evidence for the arts colonisation of the term as follows:


Which is a pleasingly strong signal: it is born in the 30s, takes hold in the 40s and increases through the mid-C20th, the long years of 'Theory' in the nonsciences.


Some wider senses for the term:
  1. intellectual: Any scholar. Anyone whose labour is primarily knowledge-based.
  2. intellectual: Anyone whose interests include researching and forming reasoned positions on classically academic things.
  3. intellectual: Anyone whose interests include researching and forming reasoned positions.

So usage (1) covers a really tiny fraction of intellectually active people, and a fraction even of people who spend all their time forming and sharing opinions about the world. This is maybe because "intellectual" (1) is a contraction of "public intellectual" - which is maybe derived from the Leninist concept of a vanguard intelligentsia: basically just propagandists, whose role was to steer the educated public. (So the hypothesis is: social commentary was the raison d'etre of the Marxist intelligentsia, and so their descendents and the descendents of their opponents have inherited this distorted and limited idea of intellectuality.)

I'm not insisting that usage (4) is best just because it's biggest. Consider the little essays at the start of mainline TVTropes pages (e.g. these brief histories of animation): they definitely are research, definitely the work of critical minds. Are they intellectuals? Wiki editors often display enormous erudition. "Hobbyist" or "fan" can cover some of this group, if we must leave "intellectual" with its present high status. But expansion is necessary too.

(Dissemination does seems important: a full-blown intellectual should publish, and engage with incompatible views. So it's only the hostile takeover by social theorists and celebrity culture I'm actually opposing.)


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