I’ve read another book. Judging from the very neat pencil underlinings it looks as though I’ve read it before sometime. Since I often wonder why it has been my habit for sixty-odd years, I was interested to find that the underlinings were very helpful generally but especially during the course of more or less skim-reading the second half of the book which deals for the most part with practical issues specific to the writer rather than more philosophical ones,

The House of Intellect – Jacques Barzun (1959) – is an eloquent disquisition on the need to re-establish in education, and more generally, the primacy of Intellect which, in these end of civilisation days, is suffering wholesale eclipse by the mental attention lavished on (to put no finer point on it) Fun & Drivel: people complain when they are faced with having to read something written on more than an A4 sheet of paper; there have been complaints about the length of my Globs – in business development circles, it is seriously suggested that if you want to communicate something successfully you should do it on no more than one side of A4; developed serious thinking about an issue does not survive a series of disconnected mantras; politicians work on the Goebbels Principle that when you say something pithy & short often enough the general populace will believe that it’s the absolute Truth; radio announcers adopt a gung-ho tone, either happiness-based to divert attention from something their masters deem too consequential to be let loose unlightened on the public or else sneering, depending on whether they, who are supposed to be neutral, agree with whatever they are saying or not. It is generally assumed that a listening audience are a bunch of idiots to be easily mesmerised by high-sounding twaddle.

Unfortunately, it is the case that the listening audience is, for the most part, incapable of exercising itself in real listening – key, as Barzun points out, to an intellectual mode of being which requires self-awareness, concentration & continuity, the need for personal rules & systems, the ability to keep a record of what is being said in order to link it meaningfully to what one has thought already; it requires the expression of articulate precision. All such things are skipped over in school-life in favour of encouraging the pretence of attempting to come to terms with ‘the menacing heap of [so-called] knowledge of which nobody can appropriate but a little…’ Since Barzun’s time the Internet has provided even more of a ‘menacing heap’.

Intellectuals, who keep saying, “Hold your horses!” are regarded as boring outriders who should be sent back to the Dark Ages, whenever they were. This is a view promulgated by the Power Possessors in whose interest it is not to have an educated elite who can spill the beans on their outrageous carryings-on.

We are steadily driving into darker & darker ages without a backward mirror to observe where we’ve come from. It’s the post-modernist Death of History: we are supposed to forget the past.

What is ‘Intellect’? The risk is that, as is the case with all abstractions (for that’s what it is!), because there’s a word we assume it must represent something in ‘real life’.

Barzun defines it rather nicely as ‘intelligence stored up’ and ‘made into a disciplined habit’ relying on a body of knowledge ‘the right particle of which can be brought quickly to bear on the matter in hand’ using ‘symbols of meaning’, ‘chains of reasoning’ & ‘spurs to emotion’ that enable the mind to make and act on connections – what they call ‘joined up thinking’ which it is the Power Possessors’ calculated intention not to have us engage in. Intellect is ‘intelligence’, whatever that may be, ‘stored up’ rather than being frittered away on computer games and stock exchange gambling and other time-wasting, mind-perverting pursuits, such as reading the Daily Malice.

Intellect is an institution, an establishment, a well-organised house you can walk around to exercise your mind. This is Barzun’s nice metaphor.

Intellect is a real threat to the Power Possessors and so they foster the idea that it is the enemy of life; they make sure that mystery & awe disappear from mass education in favour of packaged Knowledge, tested every syllable, for what they think of as ‘practical’ action. In terms of the KUB model, they are in business to get our Beings to ignore U ( = Understanding) – ‘just get on with it!’ for instance, is what we hear as the current dismissal of any more proper discussion of the current prolonged agonising exit from the EU. They are happy to have people ‘trust to the exceeding fineness & particularity of information stored in print, made foolproof by formulae…’ as in the House of Internet Babel. They know very well that abundance of information leads neatly to chaos – it’s a barrier to understanding.

There’s a set of random inarticulate beliefs that makes up the conventional wisdom that the apparently sedentary habits of Intellect slow you down, are a check on spontaneity, dampen the animal spirit and the free exercise of thought.

The truth is that the Power Possessors in their assumed superiority & privilege are scared witless by anybody who lives in the House of Intellect – the Bertrand Russells and the Noam Chomskys of the world; they make mock of them for fear that they could stir up support for getting rid of them.

Barzun does not say what he means by ‘intelligence’. It is, of course, a rather absurd abstraction with the usual power of all abstractions to besmirch the process of thinking – you can fill the concept with anything you choose: it’s well-muddied by having been subjected to mechanical ‘IQ’ testing; the false metaphor of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ renders it meaningless. ‘Intelligence’ is an artificial construct; it could well mean just ‘being clever at doing something’, well-practised, used to operating in a certain way. However, in the 1980’s it became popular to go along with Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences, seven ways of being clever at doing various bundles of things – general descriptions of ways in which human beings grasp hold of aspects of reality:-

Spatial-Visual Intelligence is defined as the capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly – having got into the habit of doing so…
Linguistic Intelligence results in well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words – being clever at making sense of words…
Interpersonal Intelligence is connected with the capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others – being open to, calibrating with, the minute indications of another’s ‘body language’…
Musical Intelligence aids the ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timbre – being well-practised at doing so…
Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence – the ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skilfully – engaging in long time attention to the way one’s body functions…
Intrapersonal Intelligence operates inside the human body – it’s the capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes – habitual awareness of inner functions…
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence gets you thinking conceptually and abstractly, so you’ll be able to discern logical or numerical patterns – familiarity with summations of sensible order…

Gardner admitted his own bias towards a logical kind of intelligence and added Emotional Intelligence when it was popularised by Daniel Goleman.

My mate Ed & I provided our business students from 1996 to 2008 with the acronym SLIMBILE (‘slimbilly’) to enable them to remember eight intelligences. It clearly stuck with me!

In the flood-of-the-moment-quick-fix it’s obvious that Multiple Intelligences combine into one spur to activity but it is useful to identify all potential personal interest traits that are possible for a human being to exercise: the wider your repertoire of ways of grasping the world the more likely you are to be able to ‘store’ them to be effective.

Given that ‘intelligence’ is a humanly invented abstraction, once the construct ‘Multiple Intelligences’ is grasped it can be endlessly exploded:-

• Musical Intelligence, for example, could be sub-divided

▸ Listening Intelligence
▸ Interpreting a score Intelligence
▸ Playing music Intelligence
▸ Compositional Intelligence

Gardner himself added ‘new’ Intelligences

▸ Naturalist Intelligence is the ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature – after years of attention & practice…
▸ Existential Intelligence is sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why we die and how we got here

But why focus on an Intelligence that’s just ‘Existential’? What about:-

▸ Philosophical Intelligence which has to be something about the ability to stand back from ‘reality’ as it affects us in order to make sense of it.

Endless possibilities…

▸ Teaching Intelligence – combining empathy, wide application of knowledge, ways of putting things over and so on
▸ Being empathic Intelligence
▸ Applying knowledge Intelligence
▸ Pedagogical Intelligence
▸ Cooking Intelligence
▸ Political Intelligence
▸ Reading Intelligence

Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall added ‘Spiritual Intelligence’ – a way of transcending all the others. Perhaps one could argue that Meta-I Intelligence fits here.

Every Intelligence relates to Multiple-I’s. The ability to DO things.

And so on into every bit of human experience that requires a well-considered approach. Intellectual Intelligence would be the ability to combine and store all these approaches to the way things are, bringing them within the grasp of ordinary human beings.

Though it’s like herding cats, it seems to me to be absurdly useful to categorise ‘intelligences’ like this. The question of how the combining of their artificiality could possibly happen is pretty much the same question as – How does electro-chemical activity in the brain result in what we call ‘thinking’? Maybe, in the end, it’s just a question of choosing to be open to all experience, never shutting self off from anything so that one adopts a holistic view. Then it’s a matter of persisting, knowing that once the trail is set it winds on and on through all the years.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

A few lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses which I first read when I was about 20. I must have said to myself, “I shall remember this for the rest of my life,” because it’s been a constant emblem for me. Accumulating-emblems Intelligence…

As things are, says Barzun, ‘…millions have literacy and hundreds of thousands have [what’s called] education plus the rudiments of a profession [BUT] it becomes harder & harder to find the few tens of thousands who are willing, let alone eager, to attend to things intellectually…’ He says ‘picture and sound crowd out text… [there’s a] revulsion from words… creativity comes before intellect…’ In other words, according to the Gardner model, there’s a general drift towards individual intelligence being focussed on just one or two of possible ways of grasping the world to the exclusion of other ways. Education is lop-sided.

the abandonment of Intellect

in favour of communion
through quartet-playing
and amateur ceramics
has bred a race
of idolators broken up
into many sects
who are at one in the worship
of the torturing indefinite

– a found poem that leapt at me off a page of Barzun. Found-poem-extracting Intelligence! An intelligence that started for me when I was about ten realising that words are infinitely malleable; though I fiddled at finding poems in other people’s writing from time to time from then on, I didn’t capitalise on the concept until I was around fifty!

Barzun would perhaps have found it useful to have been able to classify his thinking via Howard Gardner’s model. He bemoans the fact that scientists (those who look at things logically) ‘…have planted citadels throughout the realm of mind but have taken no thought of the means of intellectual exchange among them. The House of Intellect is lost somewhere in this no man’s land…’ In other words, mostly, scientists tend to be stuck in one kind of intelligence – the Logico-mathematical one and are not practised in the use of Interpersonal Intelligence.

Barzun identifies three ‘foes of Intellect’: ‘…science reserves its right to apply its method where it chooses and hopes for world empire…’; art as a profession ‘claims of its devotees exclusive allegiance’ to ‘creativity’; ‘philanthropy leaves no one alone and its educational & psychological allies take universal welcome for granted…’ They keep on wanting to help, to make things easy, which can easily dish a learner’s flow.

Barzun concludes that there’s a ‘modern riot of art & science & loving kindness’ whereas Intellect is ‘unity, concentration, communicativeness and knowledge of itself’. We have ‘encouragement of the arts & sciences’; what about philanthropic encouragement for Intellect? he asks.

What about education for Multiple Intelligences instead of early specialisation? There are a few schools around the world that have set up separate rooms where each intelligence is practised; children go regularly round the rooms engaging in activities which require specific ways of grasping the world. Practice does make more or less perfect.

The problem is, of course, that ‘Intellect’ too is an abstraction which can’t find a place in any wheelbarrow. ‘Intellect’ evades measurement; in these benighted days anything that can’t be measured in a ‘League Table’ does not exist. Intellect remains a mystery.

Those who have every appearance of fulfilling the criteria for being card-carrying intellectuals find that in ordinary company they ‘…have learned to muffle their soul for fear they shall be deemed people who think well of themselves, seekers after power…’ Their sense of self-discipline seems to challenge those who imagine themselves to be the possessors of power, their logic is impossible for philanthropical approaches to education. Barzun advocates speaking up for oneself: “don’t shuffle – say it how it is; forget yourself, omit apologies…”

We who consider ourselves to be Intellectuals should put off ‘diffident gestures of the spirit’.

We should be proud to call ourselves ‘Crowned with Intellect’. This in a context of piffle-talk & fun-gabble in the name of philanthropic ‘livening up’ of all channels of ‘communication’ with idle chat between idiot presenters in a way that people are supposed to like, phone-ins, computer skills. ‘News’ is presented with sneering and laughter.

Even what are called ‘good’ schools have to ‘…work with spoiled materials, teachers marred by the ugly world and children already stamped with the defects their parents condone by habit or foster on principle… One great truth emerges: there is, there can be, no such thing as a ‘good school’…’

Schools are diverted from anything to do with our definition of Intellect by focussing on helping kids to ‘fit in’ or ‘get on’; skills training. vocational training, ‘group cohesion’ but nothing to do with mind, intellect or knowing & understanding.

The result is young people with energy, zest, computer skills & fine intelligence (ability to do things) who remain unable to store Intelligence having ‘…no knowledge precise & firm, no ability to stick at intellectual work with thoroughness…’

One of the main aims of education now is ‘to manipulate the young into a semblance of the working of a harmonious committee’; the ‘right attitude’, ‘adjustment’ to the way things are, get prized above all; ‘whereas true teaching would give students the ability to manage a committee successfully, to sift out true opinion and help make connections…’ It would take dedicated genuine intellectuals, ‘not playing with souls but with ideas’ to do their stuff ‘while concealing their hand’ – to engage in ‘the liquidation of ignorance…’

Intellect is also a means of adjustment [to the way things are]…: at any point in life to understand what another is saying, to recognise clearly a complex demand, to gather one’s wits so as to respond to it exactly and promptly…

But many could not face ‘the raging of scholastic curiosity’, have been schooled into being unable to face the apparent ‘drudgery of fundamental discipline…’

I remember the moment when my dead school-friend Peter Charles said that he did not know how I could face focussing for many hours on reading Virgil in translation. I envied another school-friend, Mike Rustin, who seemed to have an advanced ability to focus on political issues. Thus I learned what ‘focus’ meant in two different ways – one defining for me what it was that I seemed to be doing, the other offering me a definition of how I wanted to be.

It seems that ‘Intellect’ makes its own irresistible claim on certain individuals, a claim as important as those of sociability and private happiness…’ I was not very sociable but I had plenty of what I would call private joy. I knew the joy that out of all reading there ought to emerge a new idea or principle that one could resolve into a personal possession on the principle that

And something else! I always come back to ANWhitehead’s key idea that the true aim of education is to take inert ideas and forge them into something you can call your own.

Barzun asks, quite rightly:-

…of what use are all the visual aids, paperback books, field trips, documentary movies, special lectures and ‘opportunities for independent work’, textbooks with the allure of colour and presentation (but intellectually bankrupt), if the student lacks the categories of thought and habits of study which would enable impressions to cohere?

What’s needed, then? For starters

• good old-fashioned subject disciplines
• encouragement to make connections between disciplines
• practice in paying attention
• accurate copying
• following an argument successfully
• detecting ambiguity and false inference
• testing guesswork
• summing up contrary instances
• forming a hypothesis and testing it
• organising time & thoughts for study

At some moment one has to recognise one’s incapacity in a particular context, grit one’s teeth and seek to remedy what seems to be missing, says Barzun. I wonder when I went through this process – I did go through it!

At school I did the minimum necessary to toe the academic line, to survive expectations. Crippo praised my essays modelled on Carlyle, Belloc, Bourne which did give me what I suppose could be called ‘intellectual responsibility’ for keeping up the modelling habit. Writing mattered. The knowledge of ‘how to write a sentence’, a complex one that held itself together, I got not from teachers but from reading Carlyle & Belloc & Robert Lynd,. I taught myself how language creates the world in which you imagine you live; perhaps Crippo must have wondered how I did it… Did he ever wonder about anything?

Barzun quotes William Faulkner: ‘Nobody can really teach anybody else anything…’

Then I started reading in earnest: first, surround yourself with books! I read that advice in one of Arnold Bennett’s sage pop-philosophical works I happened to buy in Charing Cross Road which seemed the place to be in my teens. I have surrounded myself thus ever since. I was always afraid that when I closed a book at the end all the ‘learning’ would just dribble away and so I had to ‘grit my teeth’ and figure out how to acquire learning for good & all. That’s when I started underling things neatly in pencil, noting things, arguments, key ideas, using them in my own notebooks. Leaving the drudgery of office work in 1964 for Teacher Training College I suddenly developed a facility for writing essays again; I grasped the process having gritted my teeth; I understood how to ‘give order to thought’ at last.

Passion for learning ‘gives it a dramatic quality’ that makes the outcome your own possession. It is an ecstasy – it takes you out of yourself literally to stand apart from all other things.

During the whole of my school life there was, thankfully, never any focus on the curse of ‘vocational subjects’, preparation for Wage Slavery; ‘school’, for me, I now realise, signified its original meaning – the opportunity to be at leisure to acquire knowledge and understanding. ‘Work’, Wage Slavery, was simply to follow on after so-called ‘National Service’; it was just the nature of things, no Big Deal. It was all hit & miss. I largely schooled myself but the environment was one that supported the necessary leisure – eccentric teachers, old walls, dark rooms, carved & pitted ancient desk-tops, crude jam pastry slice for afters every day, an afternoon a week for cross country runs in winter and cricket in summer, the bus ride there & back up over Coombe Hill, Forsyte & Bennett (JG) country, though I didn’t know that at the time – something must have rubbed off. Oh. joy! I didn’t go after Joy – it simply manifested itself: I was ‘surprised by joy’! (Wordsworth & CSLewis)

Nowadays, the key word is ‘FUN’ and ‘ the familiar sound of oft-repeated certain words is calculated to produce the illusion of meaning’ as a result of the ‘fun’ involved in pretty presentation. But I still have a great affection for the mysterious sense of keen order represented by Abbott &Mansfield’s Primer of Greek Grammar and Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, old copies of which I prize in my library, though I have long since stopped practising their arcane arts. The endless tables of verbal conjugations & noun declension still seem to me to be the way to fix things together. Intellect is the result of being bathed in system & order.

There is, of course, a danger in espousing Intellect: the most dangerous outcome is that one becomes an ‘intellectual snob’, suffering from high & mighty Intellectualism. Intellect can become pedantry, affectation, pretence; it can suffer from excess of alienating ‘jargon’. It can become over-abstract and fail to turn its findings into practice.

At one point in his exposition, Barzun appears to be saying that since Intellect thrives on abstractions it should not take part in political debate which inevitably results in a fight between abstractions. He asserts that ‘ideas in the mind do not matter politically’ which is nonsense; I think he is prejudiced against the Marxist intellectual system which he thinks of as being ‘lost in its own categories’, in intellectual excess. There’s a deep contradiction in Barzun’s case: it’s surely the case that, as he says, ‘…intellectual habits – being articulate, quick recognition & comparison of ideas, a repertoire of formulas for all the vicissitudes of discussion…’ are essential in what passes for politics these days. Ideas prefigure action; they represent a way of weighing action before it happens. It’s obvious that the 1945 revolution was the result of a humanitarian idea whereas the demolition of, for example, let’s call it, The Welfare State is the result of a current inhumanly fascist idea. What’s lacking is proper intellectual analysis pursued without being lumbered with a political agenda. What’s need is ‘a roving heretical Intellect’, fully capable of seeing through vague abstractions, demolishing them in the way I suggested in my book The Campaign against Abstractionism (2006).

‘Intellect is the broom with which to clear the mind of cant…’

Barzun’s summary asserts that Intellect

• never has a hidden agenda – always makes itself clear
• binds the mind with itself and other minds with one another
• raises a work of art from mere competence to depth & greatness
• promotes reciprocity in society
• is its own reward
• is the pursuit of ideas which becomes as much of an obsession as the pursuit of money which is an affront to it

All things considered, while I recognise the fore-going as representing what seems pretty congruent with my own thought process, I persist in going my own way without labels of any kind. Even a label like ‘Intellect’ – the possession of it – restricts, puts a prison wall round other possibilities. To hide behind a label is to commit what Sartre labels ‘Bad Faith’.

The wrestle with Jacques Barzun’s book The House of Intellect has proved intellectually pleasurable to me. I close it at the last page to return to whatever ongoing ‘swing of thought’ makes my brain tick without invented labels. I am pleased to have re-read it. It goes back on my shelves.

Three final quotations

The business of learning must above all others be represented in its true guise as difficult, as demanding effort. If television is to be used for teaching, there must be no more coaxing and wheedling – not: “Come with me as we explore the land of numbers…” but, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is arithmetic which, like many another branch of learning, is full of difficulty, danger, and, above all, pleasure.”

…ratiocination is, says Ernest Newman, ‘the great principle of order in thinking; it reduces a chaos into harmony; it catalogues the accumulations of knowledge; it maps out for us the relations of its separate departments; it puts us in the way to correct its own mistakes. It enables the independent intellects of many, acting and re-acting on each other, to bring their collective force to bear upon one and the same subject matter, or the same question. If language is an inestimable gift to man, the logical faculty prepares it for our use. Though it does not go so far as to ascertain truth, still it teaches us the direction in which truth lies, and how propositions lie toward each other. Nor is it a slight benefit to know what is probable and what is not so, what is needed for the proof of a point, what is wanting in a theory, how a theory hangs together, and what will follow if it be admitted. Though it does not itself discover the unknown, it is one principal way by which discoveries are made.’

…the power to estimate life depends on Intellect. Without language, books, and a long tradition of thought, we would not be concerned with the question of Intellect…


  1. Your opening paragraphs are so painfully relevant to those of us over here in the U.S., Colin – where we suffer under the presidency of a man who will not read anything at all (not even his daily briefing book), but who thinks he knows everything he needs to know from watching a few hours of able news every day. We are indeed entering “darker and darker ages”. Our only hope is November 2020, and I’m barely optimistic.


  2. Dear Tom

    Before your ‘correction’ I did get to wondering seriously what ‘able news’ might consist of ! Able News might be something very complete that enabled us to be plugged in to everything that’s going on; something more than the edited bits that the Power Possessors want us to get a handle on; something a lot longer than a twit’s tweet.

    Here, in what my friend James Kirkup used to call yUK, we are suffering from our own special brand of Trumpeting. The arch fiends, Mogg, Gove & Johnson are just as barmy as Trump but they are cryto-fiends who are not as openly twitterish as Trump – more insidious. I think it must be a global phenomenon. Perhaps the planet is going through a large area of Gormless Gas of the sort HGWells envisaged in one of his early SF novels – the name escapes me (‘War of the Worlds’ or ‘Sleeper Awakes’ – I wonder…)


    Did ROOM 12 arrive?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Loved your creative effort to define “able news”, Colin! Both of our countries could use some of it, if only it were available, don’t you think??

      And yes, ROOM 12, and Chelmsford, arrived in today’s mail. Thank you, as always. You have your very own shelf in my bookcase 🙂


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