Are lawyers intellectuals? They’re smart, certainly, as a class, and they work primarily with their minds. But, then, engineers are also smart, and engineers aren’t intellectuals¯at least, according to the old two-cultures distinction that C.P. Snow bemoaned back in the 1950s .
For that matter, journalists are smart, sometimes, and according to just about anyone, journalism marks the negation of intellectual life: You may not be able to say quite what an intellectual is, but whatever it is, you know that journalists are the opposite.
Or, at least, you know this if you’ve ever worked in journalism. Remember the old adage about never wanting to eat in a restaurant when you’ve worked in its kitchen? Well, those of us who write for newspapers and magazines know our work is much the same: You don’t actually want to taste the sausage once you’ve seen it made. "Journalism is a character defect," as Andy Ferguson once began a review of a journalist’s biography . "I think most non-journalists would agree with this. It is life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days. Serious-minded people do things; a journalist chatters about the things serious-minded people do, and so, not coincidentally, avoids having to do them himself. A significant body of research indicates that non-journalists find us insufferable, perhaps for this reason."
But back to lawyers. Certainly a lawyer can be an intellectual, as can an engineer, and even, maybe, a journalist¯just as they can be opera lovers, scuba divers, numismatists, and tiddlywinks champions. For engineers and journalists, however, the additional part seems incidental: a hobby, a pastime, an aside. Is it the same for lawyers?
I think I would have said maybe not. Of course, the practice of law precisely as a practice is not directly an intellectual’s activity, however intelligent one has to be to do it well. And plenty of lawyers do no work of the mind outside their practice. Still, I’ve always imagined that the law so closely parallels intellectuals’ activity¯the work of philosophers, theologians, and literary critics¯that there is an intellectual tendency that exists in the legal mind by its very nature.
The Volokh Conspiracy , one of the legal blogs I read regularly, provides a good example. The legal and economic analysis is generally libertarian, but the contributors also show a curiosity about history, jazz, etymology¯a smart, fun, interested discussion of whatever comes to hand. An intellectuals’ sort of blog, yes?
But then there’s the discussion prompted by this recent post : "A well-crafted sci-fi book can be a fun read, but are there many modern science fiction works that would qualify as ‘literature’? Any science fiction books that would qualify as literary masterpieces?"
There exists an intellectual defense of science fiction, but what’s interesting is that the query produced a hundred comments and, as near as I can tell, not one of them attempts the intellectual defense. What they pursue, instead, is a systematic assault on the notion of literature.
You can’t discount the American horror of appearing to be snob: Ordinary readers like science fiction, and we’re all just regular folk, after all. But what’s curious is the deployment of postmodern tropes: Some years ago, literature professors (of the MLA persuasion, anyway) turned against the whole idea of literature, the Volokh Conspiracy commenters note. So if even trained literary critics are unable to say what qualifies as literature, why can’t science fiction be literature?
There’s something a little odd in the use of this line by a group of lawyers and law professors who are known for their rejection of the postmodern turn in their own profession of law. Still, as an anti-intellectual argumentative strategy, it’s pretty smart: You get to deny that there is any specialized knowledge necessary for determining literature ("even the trained people don’t know what it is"), and at the same time you get to appeal to the authority of those specialists to promote your favorite reading.
But smart ain’t the same as intellectual. As I say, there is an intellectual defense of some genre writing. But¯believing, as I did, that lawyers tend toward being natural intellectuals¯I would have preferred to see the discussion begin with the acknowledgement that Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe produced literature. Now, does any science fiction stand near them?