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intellectual and intelligent

The word intellectual seems to be exclusively used to describe an intelligent person.

However, my understanding of the word "intellectual" is that it describes someone who likes to think - a "thinker". This in itself does not imply intelligence.

So, is there such a thing as an unintelligent intellectual, or is this contradictory?

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  • @Em1, this article seems rushed and doesn't cast light on its own topic. Also, it doesn't really address the distinction in this question. It's not analytical, just full of examples and arguments for "which approach works best" on its own, different, topic. – Henrik Erlandsson Jul 27 '12 at 12:12
  • If you have checked any dictionaries, please quote. Also, try to google the words intellectual and intelligent. – Kris Jul 27 '12 at 12:16
  • @Urbycoz,can you define what you mean by intelligent, someone who appears to possess superlative analytical skills and convey lucid accounts of same, someone who is generally "smart" or good at problem-solving, or someone who has a high IQ? – Henrik Erlandsson Jul 27 '12 at 12:20
  • @Henrik Erlandsson I don't really want to narrow it down by defining what I mean by "intelligent". I'd like to leave the question as broad as possible. – Urbycoz Jul 27 '12 at 12:50

No, it's not a contradiction. In the same way that someone can be interested in and enjoy playing a sport without being any good at it. There would be a degree of expectation that someone described as, say, a football player would be fit but it's not necessarily so. I've seen some people engaged in intellectual debates but without the intelligence to understand either the material they'd read and were quoting nor the counter-arguments presented.

eta: Henrik gives a better and fuller answer.

  • No matter how bad the footballer, he or she still uses a football; likewise, an intellectual, no matter how devoid of intellect or intelligence, still relies on what meager resources he or she possesses to reason and exercise their intellect. – mfg Jul 27 '12 at 20:50

The answer is yes, there is such a thing. They are not contradictory.

I'm assuming you refer to the person; the role; the calling.

Of course there have been intellectuals who do not appear to possess superlative analytical skills and convey lucid accounts of same, OR good at problem-solving, OR even possessing an above average IQ. (Covering some of the uses of the word.)

The reason that they are still considered insightful is that several of the intellectuals' primary and important activities simply do not relate directly to intelligence at all, such as politics, art or spiritual discussion. For example, many saw Andy Warhol as an intellectual. If he was, his instincts and perceptions played a much greater role than thinking in this role.

That doesn't mean that a typical intellectual of any of these types doesn't spend a great deal of their time thinking, reflecting, meditating (on matters of life and the times). Reasoning is a primary activity of intelligent thought, but thinking isn't restricted to reasoning.


Intelligence is a very contentious word/concept. There are various arguments against pretty much all the ways it has been defined - some are racially or culturally biased, some favour linguistic intelligence over the logical/mathematical kind and so on.

The Wikipedia article on 'Intellect' suggests the word is interchangeable with 'intelligence'. Personally I can see areas where one does not necessarily follow from the other. For example I have a friend who is a mathematical genius (PhD+) but who struggles with many other aspects of human-human interaction and has trouble following the plot of childrens' movies. Similarly I have another friend who displays a high degree of 'emotional intelligence'but who has to pull out the calculator to do simple arithmetic in supermarkets.

  • +1 for acknowledging controversy around the term "intelligence." – JAM Jul 27 '12 at 16:16

I would say that while these two concepts often exist together, one doesn't necessarily imply the other.

Obligatory dictionary quote:


  1. capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.

  2. manifestation of a high mental capacity: He writes with intelligence and wit.

  3. the faculty of understanding.

  4. knowledge of an event, circumstance, etc., received or imparted; news; information.

  5. the gathering or distribution of information, especially secret information.

in·tel·lec·tu·al noun

  1. a person of superior intellect.

  2. a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, especially on an abstract and general level.

  3. an extremely rational person; a person who relies on intellect rather than on emotions or feelings.

  4. a person professionally engaged in mental labor, as a writer or teacher.

While one of the definitions of 'intellectual' is 'a person of high intellect', I would argue that this isn't the best way of describing an intellectual. To me, intellect is something you are possessed of; your skill in thinking logically and critically. Being an 'intellectual' is a lifestyle choice, a word that describes your personality and set of values. They often go together, but merely being intelligent doesn't make you an intellectual in the same sense that being naturally fast doesn't make you a runner, and that being naturally expressive doesn't make you a performer.

As such, I would say that there are such things as unintelligent intellectuals, and people with high intellect that are not intellectuals. Perhaps not so common, and an unintelligent person probably wouldn't make a very good intellectual-- in the same sense that being slow makes you a sub-par runner-- but they can exist.

  • Exactly, a dictionary definition of an intellectual describes the ideal, while many respected intellectuals do important work without these properties. – Henrik Erlandsson Jul 27 '12 at 12:43

One word you might use to describe an "unintelligent intellectual" could be pedantic, though it doesn't convey the nuances expressed in the other answers.


A catch to dictionary definitions is that they often fail to make clear the connotations of a word. In this case, the word "intellectual" often has the connotation of an elite (positive) or elitism (negative).

In the positive sense, people talk of intellectuals as those who develop ideas to restructure the economy or advance science or otherwise benefit society. One could be very intelligent but not necessarily apply his intelligence to these kind of social goals. Like, a genius who used his intelligence to run a business wouldn't normally be called an intellectual (assuming he did not do other things to earn the title). Or to take the extreme, a genius who uses his intelligence to plot ways to smuggle cocaine into the country would surely not be called an intellectual.

In the negative sense, people often sneer at "intellectuals" as people who think their intelligence makes them better than everyone else and not subject to the rules of normal society. Or alternatively, as people who have lots of intelligence but little wisdom, and so propose utopian solutions that don't work in the real world. As in, "Yeah, that sounds great in theory but it doesn't work in practice."


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