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Stefan Collini. Absent Minds - Intellectuals in Britain

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Stefan COLLINI. Absent Minds. Intellectuals in Britain. Oxford University Press, 2006, 526 pp., €37.85, ISBN 978-019929-105-2.

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1Stefan Collini’s research in intellectual history in Britain makes up an imposing bibliography, and for a writer investigating reception (see his forthcoming book Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics, February 2008), it must be a pleasure to see one’s books published in paperback editions and sometimes translated. That Stefan Collini already has a reading public is tautological. Collini’s last published book makes no exception to the rule: Absent Minds, Intellectuals in Britain, is a stimulating read from the first, starting with the book contents and introduction (1-12). The detailed index (509-26) completes this thick book which develops in twenty-one chapters organised into five parts: “The Terms of the Question” (15-68), “Fonder Hearts” (69-200), “Comparative Perspectives” (201-302), “Some Versions of Denial” (303-412), “Repeat Performances” (413-506).

2The teasing title can be paraphrased in that there are intellectuals in Britain and the way to deal with this group is through their production (“minds”) while the delightful pun on “Absent” introduces the real matter of the book:

This book, as I explained in the Introduction, is about the ‘question of intellectuals’ in modern Britain, about why it has been such a ‘question’ (cf. ‘the Irish question’, ‘the Eastern question’), about what assumptions have underlain assertions about the presence (or, more often, absence) of intellectuals in this society, about how this may be understood as part of wider history […] The proposition that in Britain intellectuals have been absent or insignificant or not ‘real’ examples of the species is a claim about intellectuals in the cultural sense, though this claim is frequently tied up with further claims about the non-existence in Britain of  a separate or ‘dissident’ intelligentsia which acts as a self-consciously collective force in politics, and so on. Behind these claims, or prejudices, lie various unexamined assumptions, both about the role of intellectuals and about the nature of British society, that are the product of a particular history (51).

3What makes the reading particularly exciting is Collini’s deliberate choice to explain his method as if he were thinking aloud for the reader’s benefit. His writing is as much about his methodological investigation as what he eventually found out —the present reviewer has found this not only appealing but also enjoyable. In this way, his writing style addresses his reader on both argument and results, building up a (one-way) discussion of issues, historiography and definition of research fields (especially in part one: “The Terms of the Question”). This “high-brow” interrelation between readers and writer can at times be playful — if not ironical given Collini’s subject matter:

Readers should be warned that the following section is more abstract and analytical than any other in the book; those who are impatient to return to the historical story should skip immediately to the beginning of Ch. 3, though they should be warned that later chapters presuppose the analysis offered in the next section (52).

4And indeed readers should be well-advised to follow Collini’s ordering and conceptual progress within the book —and not skip to chapter 3!— as “what [his] analysis is intended to provide is not any kind of stipulation about what intellectuals ‘ought’ to do or ‘ought’ to be like, but, rather, an analytical breakdown of the components of the concept itself. […] Those stipulative definitions of the intellectual, in [his] view, mistake one particular historical manifestation or one preferred ideal for the logic of the concept” (59). Until the end of this chapter entitled “A Matter of Definition” (45-65), readers are offered a brilliant lesson in historical methodology and clear-thinking while Collini debunks not only catchwords about “intellectuals” but, as he shows it, the repetitive cant of various historical periods about the latter:

The essentializing adjective should alert us to the definitional sleight-of-hand;

Here considerable slippage is involved in going on to equate criticism in this generic sense with being ‘oppositional’ or ‘marginal’”;

Still less plausible is the old claim that the ‘intellectual’ stands ‘outside’ society, wherever that is or could be—a piece of pure romanticization, often implicitly involving self-romanticization (61)

What is misleading about the common tendency to begin by thinking of ‘intellectuals’ as meaning a social group…;

Again, a fantasy about what ‘real’ intellectuals have ‘always’ done colours expectations and clouds discussion here;

This then easily yields the latest instalment in the repetitive literature on ‘the death of the intellectual’. The confusing of contingent historical characteristics with necessary defining properties …;

A similar elision between social realities and political idealizations seems to me present in the claim that ‘genuine’ intellectuals must be ‘unattached’ (62).

Still the ideal of the freelance or ‘independent’ intellectual retains a glamour which can obstruct further analysis;

It also figures as part of the familiar mix of nostalgia and inauthenticity that I have already identified. (63)

5That Collini takes 65 pages of dense writing to “clarify the terms of the ‘question’ and to bring to the surface the main determining assumptions that have shaped the way it has been addressed” (64) even makes the reader wish for more, so brilliant is his demonstration and practice of history writing. However, the reader’s appetite is further teased into reading the following chapters, “deliberately diverse in form and focus [, taking] a series of soundings using, as it were, different pieces of equipment” (64). So far, the reader has being made aware of what Collini stresses in the final sentence of part one, namely that “twentieth-century British culture has scarcely been marked by an absence of discussion of the issue” (64). The next step is then to wonder why not and which forms it took.

6Part two is built on micro studies all woven into the main focus of the book, the “different pieces of equipment” (64) mentioned earlier. Looking up for vocabulary in writers’ production, Collini first exemplifies what he calls “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” (ch. 3)—Anglo-Saxonism being more systematic (cf. -ism) and proving self-awareness. In “attitudes”, the reader is conveyed the pervasiveness of ideas commonly shared which rule perception and thinking, that is the assumptions and prejudices of a period:

But the ground for what I am calling a ‘tradition of denial’ was prepared, sometimes in indirect ways, in the nineteenth century. We need, therefore, to recognize how the earliest versions of these claims were grafted on to a pre-existing set of ideas about national identity and the peculiarities of English history and politics (69).

7Grounding his analysis in the literature on “national character”, “a favoured category of academic writing as well as more popular social analysis well into the twentieth century” (71), the author spans different kinds of writing , examines extracts and shows how “national self-descriptions played a part in determining the reception of the concept of ‘intellectuals’ in the early twentieth century [..] so much so [..] that it may be seen as part of the modern cultural equivalent of the Whig interpretation of English political history” (72). A number of equivalent terms, “men of letters”, “publicist”, “cultivated elite”, “brain workers”, are contextualized briefly and brilliantly in the writing of J. S. Mill, John Morley, Walter Bagehot. This fascinating chapter also follows the fate of the word— and its imaginary— “clerisy” from Coleridge up to Richard Hoggart (The Way we Live Now, 1995), before addressing English perception of and reactions to the Dreyfus Affair. Collini shows how national self-complacency took to “Anglo-Saxon/ist attitudes” and used the Affair to vent anti-French feelings instrumental to national self-perception of superiority. That the French epitomised “the big Other” up to the 1950s (and we may say beyond but that is not the point here) is brilliantly depicted by Collini. In his introduction to A State of England (1963), Anthony Hartley wrote that on the “continent of Europe”, “intellectuals live more publicly and dangerously than we do here”, Collini pungently comments upon this sentence:

A slight frisson of arousal makes its presence felt in the prose at this point, a hint of the excitement of forbidden pleasures. But the corrective lash of the matron’s tongue is soon felt.

And he goes on with showing that “continental” has usually meant “French”, although Germans have also played a (minor) part in this cultural imaginary (83-84). He concludes this section with the following:

One soon realizes that in the literature on intellectuals these features operate as familiar symbols in much the same way as, in the literature of the travel brochures, do the beret, the baguette, and the string of garlic (83).

8The idea that even if Britain has intellectuals, they do not engage into public/political activity and so do not deserve the inverted commas of “intellectuals”, the “absence thesis” as Collini calls it, develops along the lines of national superiority to “the big Other”. “The real heyday of the ‘absence thesis’ as a fully elaborated position came after 1945, and especially in the 1950s” (87). Thus one follows the stages of this elaboration, acknowledged and denied at the same time in each period, in chapters which could have a life of their own (part two: Fonder Hearts). In “Of light and Leading” (ch. 4), the term “intellectuals” is looked up in two Edwardian periodicals both published between 1907 and 1922: the New Age under the editorship of A. R. Orage and the Nation under the one of H. W. Massingham. For Collini, both editors “still retained an essentially Victorian confidence that ‘men of light and leading’ were personages of some consequence in the national culture, figures whose standing would be enhanced rather than diminished  if they embraced the task  of instructing the recently enlarged public that had been created by the advance of democracy and education” (107).

9The next period under scrutiny is the 1920s in “High Brows and Other Aliens” (ch. 5). “The language of ‘brows’” (111), high, low and middle “brows”, is closely inspected in the OED and contemporaries’ uses. “How far the difficulty and inaccessibility of Modernist art and literature contributed to this situation as well as responded to it, and how far it was any kind of deliberate strategy , intended to exclude a “mass” public are questions which cultural historians of the period are still disputing” (111). In the 1920s and early 1930s, Bloomsbury and especially “Virginia Woolf” were names which “sharply polarized attitudes and were calculated to induce an allergic reaction in the aggressively middlebrow reviewer” (117). But although “highbrows” were accepted as English and in English, “intellectuals” always seemed to be “Other People. Foreigners, principally; or people who lived in Bloomsbury or Hampstead (to those who lived elsewhere); or self-consciously superior aesthetes and irresponsibly radical political theorist (to those who prided themselves on being neither)” (119). Collini’s mid-twentieth century typology of four types of intellectuals cleverly shows that although European intellectuals matched his types, English ones such as T. S Eliot, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and G. M. Trevelyan did as well (122-126). The “foreignness” of “intellectuals” is further explored “by means of two rather different devices: first, the views of an outsider, applying ‘alien’ terminology, and secondly, the views of a representative sample of English people, considering the view of another kind of ‘alien’” (126). This is done with brio in the study of the reception of The Intelligentsia of Great Britain (1934, translated in English in 1935) by D. S. Mirsky, a resident “alien”, and the 1946 trial of Harold Laski, Professor of political science at the LSE and an “accepted member of British society” who sued papers for libelling him as pro-Russian and untrustworthy of voters’ confidence; he lost his case and was in effect tried as an “intellectual” (130). Three chapters are devoted to “The Long 1950s”, including one on “New Left, New Right, Old Story”. The ambivalent role then assigned to “intellectuals” is that they must step out of their libraries and studies but, being English and of course unlike “Others”, must not “strut and posture before an audience”. Collini aptly concludes chapter 7 with a humorous imperative to an intellectual voicing his (always men in these days, Collini remarks) political responsibility: “And for God’s sake, man, keep your voice down.” (169).

10Part three: Comparative Perspectives’ reviews “intellectuals” (the word and its imaginary) in various European countries (ch. 9), devoting one chapter to the United States and one to France (ch. 10 and 11, Greener Grass: Letters from America and the Peculiarities of the French) and closes on “The Translation of the Clerks”, a reference to Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs (1927, translated in English in 1928) where, Collini stresses, linguistics is unable to bridge the traditional cultural divide, and so misunderstanding, between England and France (280).

11Part four entitled “Some Versions of Denial” is built into five chapters devoted to one individual each, T. S. Eliot; R. G. Collingwood; George Orwell; A. J. P. Taylor; A. J. Ayer, illustrating Collini’s general approach and wide cultural scope.

12Section five, “Repeat Performances” is focused upon the relation between “intellectual achievement and media attention” (719, ch. 18) and “a Discourse of General Ideas” that is found first in periodicals and since 1946 on TV (ch. 19). The final chapters address “Specialization and its Discontents” (ch. 20) and the shift “From Authority to Celebrity?” with a qualifying question mark (ch. 21). Although Collini’s study centres on Britain, what he finally highlights is that what “presents itself as a distinctive national idiosyncrasy clearly needs to be understood as one manifestation of a more general logic” (500), which is inherent to the concept of “the intellectuals” and not to a specific country.

13In the epilogue he assesses what he has written, his shortcomings and achievements. But he also states his belief in the collective writing of history:

my principal aim in writing this book has been to open up a subject for proper historical investigation by removing  what always functions as one of the most effective obstacles to serious inquiry, namely, the deeply entrenched cultural prejudice that we already know the answer and know that it is not very interesting (502).

14All chapters have more than merits, they make a book which is a compelling read: Collini’s historical and writing mastery makes the history reader neither  tired  nor bored, even when reading what is outside his/her main interest. Impeccable periodization takes the reader’s breath away as Collini follows various themes, strands and kinds of approaches in order to weave them again, often in the same chapter, impressing the reader’s mind with a (perceived) simplicity of facts and analyses and knowledge, whereas, of course, only his writing makes it so.

15It has been impossible to do justice to all the chapters of this tremendous book, a masterpiece of intelligence, knowledge and history writing: for historians and British studies academics and postgraduates Absent Minds is a must, and an enjoyable one.

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Myriam BOUSSAHBA-BRAVARD, « Stefan Collini. Absent Minds - Intellectuals in Britain »E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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