You are one of the world’s most famous public intellectuals. How would you define the term intellectual? Does it still have a particular meaning?
If by intellectual you mean somebody who works only with his head and not with his hands, then the bank clerk is an intellectual and Michelangelo is not. And today, with a computer, everybody is an intellectual. So I don’t think it has anything to do with someone’s profession or with someone’s social class. According to me, an intellectual is anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge. A peasant who understands that a new kind of graft can produce a new species of apples has at that moment produced an intellectual activity. Whereas the professor of philosophy who all his life repeats the same lecture on Heidegger doesn’t amount to an intellectual. Critical creativity—criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function.
Are intellectuals today still committed to the notion of political duty, as they were in the days of Sartre and Foucault?
I don’t believe that in order to be politically committed an intellectual must act as a member of a party or, worse, write exclusively about contemporary social problems. Intellectuals should be as politically engaged as any other citizen. At most, an intellectual can use his reputation to support a given cause. If there is a manifesto on the environmental question, for instance, my signature might help, so I would use my reputation for a single instance of common engagement. The problem is that the intellectual is truly useful only as far as the future is concerned, not the present. If you are in a theater and there is a fire, a poet must not climb up on a seat and recite a poem. He has to call the fireman like everyone else. The function of the intellectual is to say beforehand, Pay attention to that theater because it’s old and dangerous! So his word can have the prophetic function of an appeal. The intellectual’s function is to say, We should do that, not, We must do this now!—that’s the politician’s job. If the utopia of Thomas More were ever realized, I have little doubt it would be a Stalinist society.
*An excerpt from Eco’s interview with the Paris Review. Read the full interviewHERE.