Ideas, Intellectuals, and Structures of Dissent:

J. P. Nettl

The first problem is one of definition. Is the intellectual an institution, a collectivity, a role, a type of person, or what? The failure to surmount the definitional hurdle produces as many explanations as there are implied definitions. I shall argue here that any meaningful concept of intellectual must, at least initially, be free of all forms of institutional attachment. Moreover the problem of definition cannot in my view begin with roles or social structure or even, for that matter, with men at all, but can get off the ground only by looking first at ideas as such. It must be defined from inside out, from certain types of ideas toward certain categories of idea‑articulators; only then can the related variable of institutionalization be added. Thus the problem of institutional location and significance depends, it seems to me, primarily on types of ideas rather than types of people. Empirical sociology and the scientism associated with it have undermined this particular hierarchy of priorities; in a field as wide open and as recognizably crucial as this the institutional and scientistic priorities of much American sociology have led to overemphasis of the priority of social structure as the locus of ideas instead of regarding idea‑structures as seeking social "attachment." Only a few Europeans (Frenchmen, Germans) labor along with an equally one‑sided attachment to the other priority, that of idea‑systems as a means of analysis. We are always landed with the "pull" of acquired intellectual priorities; there are many areas of analysis where the identification of the relevant social structures must take precedence, but the study of intellectuals is, as I shall try to show, not one of them.

The attempt to marry intellectuals to institutionalization is a shotgun marriage of great therapeutic benefit to the priests but not to the doting couple. Of course the union exists (and not only in the minds of sociological analysts) in the form of a Hindu‑type process of perpetual death in captivity and subsequent reincarnation. Again and again ideas have been institutionalized into ideologies, men of ideas encapsulated into a clergy or an academic establishment. It is a triumph of the capacity of human nature to survive even severe doses of social institutionalization, and of sociology too, that ideas should continue to break out with determined persistence at unexpected places somewhere along the smooth skin of the ever more institutionalized society. As soon as the styptic pencil has been applied, the plaster put on, the ideas and their bearers institutionalized or "structured," the breakout process repeats itself in an unexpected place somewhere else.

For one thing I do not readily accept the alleged total difference between the Christian universe of the Middle Ages and the secular universe of post‑Renaissance modernity—at least as far as intellectuals are concerned. If anything, "bourgeois society with its new principles of order and legitimation" is proving a transitional phase, albeit long drawn out; however different in quality, technological modernity begins to resemble the Christian Middle Ages in terms of the twin demands of uniformity and universality. As one of the finest intuitive sociologists (professionally an economist, but every inch an intellectual) noted nearly thirty years ago, "unlike any other type of society, capitalism inevitably and by virtue of the very logic of its civilization creates, educates and subsidizes a vested interest in social unrest. . . . In capitalist society . . . any attack on the intellectuals must run up against the private fortresses of bourgeois business which, or some of which, will shelter the quarry. Moreover such an attack must proceed according to bourgeois principles of legislative and administrative practice which no doubt may be stretched or bent but will checkmate persecution beyond a certain point. Lawless violence the bourgeois stratum may accept or even applaud when thoroughly roused or frightened, but only temporarily . . . for the freedom it disapproves cannot be crushed without also crushing the freedom it approves. . . . From this follow both the unwillingness and the inability of the capitalist order to control its intellectual sector effectively. The unwillingness in question is unwillingness to use methods consistently uncongenial to the mentality shaped by the capitalist process, the inability is the inability to do so within the frame of institutions shaped by the capitalist process without submitting to non‑bourgeois rule." [3]

This explains the social effectiveness of intellectuals in bourgeois society (as well as their effectiveness in transforming it radically), but hardly their allegedly unique emergence simultaneously with bourgeois society, or their dependence on it for their social and ideological existence. The reasons that have led some sociologists to begin their analysis of intellectuals with the seventeenth century are compounded from convenience—and the almost exclusive focus on social structure that proves such a severely limiting ideological factor of American sociology and its professional values. [4]


3 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, 1942), pp. 145, 150. These remarkable ten pages on the sociology of intellectuals in my view still constitute the best short discussion of the socio‑structural problem in existence.

4 Cf. Coser's explanation in Men of Ideas, p. x f. A very similar but more strongly articulated self‑limitation is evident with regard to the sociology of science. Here too the discussion of ideas, their attempted taxonomy and categorization, structural problem of change through time, and above all their relationship with social structure, is mainly noticeable through absence and careful abstention. One has only to read the work of Merton, Barber, Storer, and Hagstrom to be struck by the almost exclusive focus on social structure. In particular there is notable confusion in Merton and Barber between their emphasis on the norms of scientific endeavor and its content. Much of this tradition is formalized and legitimated by Parsons' discussion of science in The Social System (London, 1952). The field of systematizing the production of ideas, and their mutual collisions and interpenetrations, has been left to the historians and philosophers of science like N. R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery (Cambridge, 1958) and Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962). I have discussed the problem of abstention from, and demarcation of, legitimate "fields" of inquiry in the social sciences in J. P. Nettl, "Center and Periphery in Social Science," American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. IX, No. 10 (1966), pp. 39-46.

[pp. 59-62]

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The present analysis departs from this tradition in two ways: first, by attempting a much closer and tighter definition of intellectuals, which differentiates them from men of ideas as a whole, and from scientists in particular; second, the initial approach is not through any types of men who have ideas, but with types of ideas as such. The usual order of priorities is thus reversed; instead of starting with certain types of men and differentiating them according to social role and context, I start with the assumption that types of ideas can be differentially classified and that it is this differentiation that ultimately governs roles and social contexts.

I propose to divide the relevant types of ideas produced into dimensions that focus on the relationship of new ideas to the existing stock of knowledge they seek to effect, and go on from there to the manner as well as structural channels through which they become diffused. These dimensions can be labeled respectively that of quality and that of scope. Quality in this context will be defined as acceptance or rejection of the axio‑normative (or value and norm) structures of given systems of thought, a rearrangement of the significance and interrelationship of known components. [12] Scope, on the other hand, deals with the broadening of the area of discussion through the addition of genuinely new or at least newly relevant knowledge. If and when we are suddenly asked to accept a totally new order of facts as salient and relevant to our concerns, or when we are faced by a new corpus of knowledge altogether, the problem created is obviously different from one in which an argument, however bitter and hectic, takes place along agreed or at least recognized and known dimensions.

As I shall try to show, the difference between these two analytical categories of ideas and systems of thought is not absolute. When new areas are imposed on an existing state of knowledge the process of incorporation and acceptance is not exclusively one of substitution but must also and in addition be one of rearranging existing components. Conversely there are often new elements as well as emphasis in the propagation of qualitative change. It is in the main a question of saliency; either the new dominates and controls the qualitative rearrangements that follow from it, or the new is incidental to the reshuffling of known and accepted components. These respective emphases may not in fact bear much resemblance to any "objective" relationship between the new and the rearranged such as might be discovered or postulated by a much later and almost completely uninvolved analyst‑in the sort of analysis provided by recent work in the history and the philosophy of science. As a recent work has emphasized, the difference between looking back at a scientific revolution and evaluating it from the view of the participants is almost unbridgeable. [13] What matters here is the manner in which different ideas (new as well as rearranged) are put forward and accepted or rejected at the time—in other words the relationship between ideas and their environment. I shall treat as qualitative or scope ideas those that "objectively" fit into each respective category as qualified by the extent to which the recipients themselves treat them as such.

This limitation naturally also has its problematic and fuzzy boundaries. The discovery of the genuinely new and its scientific validation must necessarily be limited in range and confined to particular rather than universal means of application—even though the implications that can be drawn from it may be much greater in terms of reordering the secondary and tertiary effects. Initially scientific discovery, indeed any discovery of the genuinely new or newly relevant, is always particular, "though the scientist's concern with nature may be global in its extent, the problems on which he works must be problems of detail." [14] Ideas and systems of ideas concerned primarily with the rearrangement of an accepted hierarchy of components are already by definition much broader and more universal. Any systematic formulation of social ideas, for instance, must of necessity cover a broad area of interrelationships. A convergent, though I think less accurate and clear, way of stating this difference is in terms of social or humanistic concerns (Geistes—or Kulturwissenschaften) versus the exact sciences (Naturwissenschaften); the former disciplines encompassing larger areas of interrelationships and covering more components than the latter. This formulation, however, impinges on the arid debates about the status of science versus Wissenschaft, which I would like to avoid here.

There is thus a double classification here. On the first dimension are types of ideas: the new, which has been conceptualized here as concerned with scope, versus the rearranged, conceptualized as concerned with quality. The second dimension is concerned with intellectual context and relevance: the particularistic sciences versus the universalistic humanities. [15]

To these dichotomies must be added yet a third: the type of social structure best suited to the diffusion of new ideas of scope as opposed to those qualitative ones concerned with the restructuring of components. Obviously the nature and efficiency of these channels affect not only the influence of ideas but their very existence in historical terms: even if there were means of discovering them all, history has little or no interest in ideas in vacuo. The fact that Aristarchus of Samos anticipated Copernicus' overthrow of Ptolemaic astronomy by eighteen hundred years can, of course, be explained, but adds little to the importance of the Copernican heliocentric revolution when it did come. [16] Moreover the greater the extent of universalistic restructuring of the accepted, the more definitely ideas fall within the category of quality, and in turn the greater their dependence on clearly articulated socio‑political structures for recognition and diffusion.

The acceptance of a discovery of something genuinely new, of an exploration of particularistic scope, initially requires a limited number of highly skilled "peers" who eventually diffuse the new by application or teaching. Though the discoveries of a Newton or a Mendel may affect the lives of every one of us, the vast majority accept the validity of their discoveries only as a given, backed by the say‑so of reputable scientists, and by a corpus of authoritative teaching texts, which act as bibles for new recruits to the profession. It will accordingly be suggested that an academic environment (not necessarily, except under certain conditions to be further explored, a university environment) is, broadly speaking, the most suitable structure for diffusing scientific ideas of scope—for formulating, testing, validating, and spreading them. The choice of problems to be tackled is dictated by internal, professional considerations. Qualitative ideas, on the other hand, seem to predicate socio‑political movements and environments for their manner of formulation, acceptance, and diffusion. Without such movements they become academic curiosities in the history of ideas or may be lost altogether. The choice of problems to be tackled is almost invariably influenced, if not governed, by criteria of social relevance and importance. This type of strenuously argued, qualitative rearrangement of known components, strongly oriented toward the sociopolitical environment, is well captured by the notion of dissent, which I shall use here.

This implies that the clash of ideas takes a somewhat different form according to whether the ideas themselves are concerned with scope or quality. By focussing on the notion of dissent I hope to add to the argument another, fourth factor of differentiation between the two analytical categories of ideas‑a factor concerned with the different type of structure of their conflict. The articulation of new ideas almost invariably takes the form of conflict—if not always directly in the vision of those who originally formulate them, then at least indirectly as applied and extended by others. This simply means that, whether the "new" is particularistic and adds to scope or universalistic and changes quality, it is structured primarily in contrast to the old that preceded it. But from then on our two types of new ideas go their different ways.


12 The term "axio‑normative" as used first by Florian Znaniecki designates the interrelated component area of values and norms. For a recent critique of the tendency especially of action theory to overseparate values and norms and also correlate them wrongly, see Nettl and Martins, "Values and Norms in Sociology" (forthcoming); Charles Bidwell, "Values, Norms and the Integration of Complex Social System," Sociological Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Spring 1966), pp. 119‑36.

13 Thomas S. Kuhn, op. cit.

14 Ibid., p. 167.

15 This classification does not of course exhaust the range of ideas or their formation; ideas related to art and artistic creativity would almost certainly provide another distinct category, but one with which we are not here concerned. There is a considerable literature on the formation and articulation of artistic ideas or "vision." For a recent analysis that suggests a process of creation or artistic thinking made up of elements of our two present polarities, and thus outlines a category halfway between those analyzed here, see Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London, 1967). Ehrenzweig's previous The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (London, 1953) suggested the need for a paradigm-based unconscious that alone enables us to order, and hence to confront, the chaotic and incoherent conscious perception of works of art. It thus lays the groundwork for the later book, which outlines a theory of creative thought.

16 See T. L. Heath, Aristarchus of Samos: The Ancient Copernicus (Oxford, 1913); Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (London, 1959), p. 50 f.

[pp. 67-71]

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We thus have a set of our classifications that can be schematically arranged as follows:

Idea type




Intellectual context

Particular / Scientific

Universal / Humanistic


Social structure

Peer group.
Academic institutionalization

Stratum, group or class.
Socio‑political institutionalization

Structure of articulation

Replacement contingent on

Replacement contingent on


Type of conflict

Acceptance of new paradigm
as basis of work by
limited community

Extended conflict between
unlimited structures professing
alternative ideologies

[p. 76]

SOURCE: Nettl, J. P. "Ideas, Intellectuals, and Structures of Dissent," in On Intellectuals: Theoretical and Case Studies, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Doubleday, 1969), pp. 53-122.

Note: The only substantive discussion of this oft-cited essay (as of 3 December 2010) that I could find on the web is in:

Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. Divided Passions: Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. (The Culture of Jewish Modernity)

Alvin Gouldner on Intellectuals & the Social Totality

Alvin Gouldner: Notes & Commentary by R. Dumain

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

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