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What is intellectualism?


Intellectualism is a term that, depending on the context, either refers to a certain philosophy of truth or to a pronounced emphasis on rational thinking. Philosophically, intellectualism is the idea that all truth and all morals are questions of pure knowledge, that a person’s will is invariably led by the intellect. In more common usage, intellectualism implies a personality trait of people who greatly prefer rationality and logic to emotions or who routinely engage in high-level thinking.

In philosophy, intellectualism is the opinion that factual knowledge is the only actual driver of human behavior. Intellectualism is almost always held in parallel with rationalism, the belief that logic and reason are the primary ways by which we ascertain truth. Intellectualism holds that people always act according to their knowledge of right and wrong. In this way, intellectualism sees moral failure as the result of ignorance, not of deliberately “evil” intentions.

When described in simplistic terms, intellectualism seems obviously false. Common experience indicates that human beings do things that they themselves would characterize as “immoral,” even as they do them. It strains credulity to suggest that people never act in way they would define as evil. This, in fact, is the entire point of what we call the conscience. In modern use, philosophical intellectualism recognizes this flaw in its approach and so takes a more nuanced view of what it means for a person to “know” that he is acting in an immoral way.

Biblically, philosophical intellectualism is totally false, at least in its simplest forms. This is summed up best in the book of Romans, where Paul notes that his intellect and his actions do not always agree (Romans 7:15–20). The Bible describes humanity as stubborn, rebellious, and wicked (Deuteronomy 9:13; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:18–20)—not uninformed, confused, or ignorant. A more nuanced view of philosophical intellectualism, suggesting that the intellect supersedes the will without entirely overriding it, helps alleviate some of the problems with the philosophy. Ultimately, however, the claim that human moral behavior is primarily driven by facts and rationality is simply not in keeping with experience or with Scripture.

Socially, intellectualism refers to a strong preference for reason, facts, and logic over and above emotion. The term can also apply to those who enjoy deep thinking and high-level ideas. People who are notable for their rationality and clear thinking are often called “intellectuals.” Biblically, there is nothing wrong with being an intellectual—Scripture extolls the virtue of clear thinking (Colossians 2:8), evidence (Luke 1:1–4; 2 Peter 1:16), and knowledge (Acts 17:11; Proverbs 14:6). On the other hand, an extreme approach to intellectualism, sometimes called hyper-rationalism, assumes one’s own reason is the ultimate judge of truth. This is not supported by the Bible, either (Proverbs 3:5).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022