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Birth of the Intellectuals: 1880-1900


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Birth of the Intellectuals: 1880-1900

Christophe Charle

ISBN: 978-0-745-69606-5 December 2015 Polity 280 Pages


Who exactly are the ‘intellectuals’? This term is so widely used today that we forget that it is a recent invention, dating from the late nineteenth century.

In Birth of the Intellectuals, the renowned historian and sociologist Christophe Charle shows that the term ‘intellectuals’ first appeared at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, and the neologism originally signified a cultural and political vanguard who dared to challenge the status quo. Yet the word, expected to disappear once the political crisis had dissolved, has somehow endured. At times it describes a social group, and at others a way of seeing the social world from the perspective of universal values that challenges established hierarchies.

But why did intellectuals survive when the events that gave rise to this term had faded into the past? To answer this question, it is necessary to show how the crisis of the old representations, the unprecedented expansion of the intellectual professions and the vacuum left by the decline of the traditional ruling class created favourable conditions for the collective affirmation of ‘intellectuals’. This also explains why the literary or academic avant garde traditionally reluctant to engage gradually reconciled themselves with political activists and developed new ways to intervene in the field of power outside of traditional political channels.

Through a careful rereading of the petitions surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, Charle offers a radical reinterpretation of this crucial moment of European history and develops a new model for understanding the ways in which public intellectuals in France, Germany, Britain, and the United States have addressed politics ever since.


Chapter One: The Intellectuel, a Historical and Social Genealogy

Chapter Two: Intellectuels or Elite?


Chapter Three: The Emergence of the Party of the Intellectuals

Chapter Four: Intellectuals versus Elite: A Reading of the Dreyfus Affair

Chapter Five: Intellectuals of the Left and Intellectuals of the Right

Conclusion to the English Edition

Christophe Charle's "Naissance des Intellectuels" has long been recognised as the most probing and rigorous analysis of the conditions which gave rise, in the course of the Dreyfus Affair, to the distinctively French conception of "l'intellectuel". Its exceptional combination of analytical command and sociological data provides a model for comparable studies, and so this English translation is to be warmly welcomed.
Stefan Collini, author of Absent Minds; Intellectuals in Britain

The term "intellectuals" has become so widely used since the time of the Dreyfus affair that we forget that until then, university faculty, artists and writers were nowhere typically a political and cultural avant-garde. Charle's work turns a sharp focus towards the creation of modern intellectuals, and brings out its worldwide cultural significance. This is a very welcome translation of an important book.
Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania