On Being an Armchair Intellectual

A comment on this blog is worth highlighting because it is too important to be buried among the comments. It is from Gulab Singh who wrote:

What have you done to amend the situation, oh armchair intellectual ? Cribbing about the status quo is pointless, if you don’t follow it up with action. If you don’t have a way to put into practice the ideas you espouse, then your ideas are not practical. You seem to have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about “what should be done”, but what have you really done?

I cannot respond to the accusation of being an “armchair intellectual” because I am not sufficiently vain to call myself an intellectual, armchair or not. However, I would like to speak in defense of armchair intellectuals first, then admit that I am basically an armchair critic, then argue why critics are important in the overall scheme of things, and finally explain what I am doing to move beyond just being a mere critic.

The word intellectuals is often used pejoratively by some. They seem to value only activities that appear to move matter on the face of the earth, activities that result in things that you can hold in your hand, take a bite out of, bounce off the walls, see it plainly with unaided eyes. It is born out of a misunderstanding of human nature, human society, human capacity. Humans are primarily distinguished from other life forms on earth by their capacity to think, comprehend the nature of the universe they live in, analyse and solve problems in the abstract, comprehend the notion of time, plan for the uncertain future, etc. What humans produce is not just the result of physical action, but perhaps more importantly it is the result of the cogitation, the non-physical analysing, comprehending, solving and planning which goes on in the background and which superfically appear to be a pointless waste of time.

Ideas matter, both for good and for evil. It is safe to claim that pretty much everything you see around yourself is the result of ideas combined with action. The ideas come out of the intellectualizing of some people. Undoubtedly it isn’t that merely having ideas is sufficient–someone has to translate them into stuff. But ideas are primary, whether they relate to the physical world of objects, or to the abstract world of political economy and psychology. We can do worse than recall the last half of the last paragraph in John Maynard Keynes’s book General Theory of Employment Interest and Money.

” . . . the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

Keynes confined his opinion to the ideas of the worldly philosophers (academic scribblers, as he called them) but analogous statements can be made in practically all fields of human endeavor.

Consider an intellectual such as James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Did he build stuff? No, he gave a mathematical formalism to electricity and magnetism. The echoes of his intellectualizing reverbrates through time and touches every aspect of modern society.

A little reflection is all that is needed to realize that intellectuals of all varities — including the armchair ones — matter. How can you tell what is going on inside the brain of an intellectual who is passively sitting in an armchair, and how can you ever imagine what earth-shaking ideas are being formulated within?

I am not an armchair intellectual–I don’t have that brain power. But I believe that I do have the brain power to be a competent critic. Do we need critics? Yes, because we need keen observers to tell us what we may not be fully aware of. The one who tells you that you have spinach stuck between your teeth is a competent critic pointing out something that you need to take action on. Of course, you could berate the fellow and tell him that all he does is point out things but not do anything about it. But then, the critic, at least in this instance, is not empowered to do anything: you are.

We need people (critics) who recognize that things aren’t hunky-dory. Then of course we need people (thinkers) who understand why they aren’t h-d. And then we need people (intellectuals) who know what needs to be done to go from ~(h-d) to (h-d). Finally, we need people (movers) who can do the things that need to be done to effect the actual transformation. It needs all sorts to make a world. It is very rare that you find someone who is good at being a critic, a thinker, an intellectual, and a mover. Good movers build on the work of critics, thinkers, and intellectuals.

One of my fundamental beliefs is that when movers act without basing their actions on the work of competent intellectuals, thinkers, and critics, they quite frequently make things worse. These movers are like the monkey trying to save a fish from drowning by putting it up on a tree. It is very important to comprehend the nature of the problem and only then act on an appropriate set of moves. The Buddha’s directive was clear: First do no harm; then try to do good.

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Very few of the movers who do harm (and their numbers are legion) actually wake up with an evil glint in their eyes and act to make things worse. Most are well-meaning monkeys trying to save fish from drowning. Again, as they say, we should not ascribe to malice what can sufficiently explained as stupidity.

Now on to what is it that I do. I am first of all a critic. Born and brought up in India, I am first and foremost a critic of India because India matters to me. I want it to be better than what it is today. I do believe that India can be better. Next, I try to be a “thinker.” I want to understand why things are the way they are, to understand the root causes of the problems I see around. The time I spent studying economics formally has been of great help to me in this regard. My engineering background had not prepared me for it.

In a few areas that I focused on–namely, rural development and education–I have some tentative solutions. I write and talk about it whenever I get the chance. Most of all, I try to sell my ideas in the marketplace of ideas. Again, as an economist of the neoclassical school, I believe that markets grind out efficient outcomes (subject to conditions, of course) and in the marketplace for ideas, the good ones will survive (subject to some conditions, again.)

Thus I claim that I am a full-fledged “critic,” a somewhat competent “thinker” and a budding “intellectual” as I have defined those types. I am, so far at least, not a “mover.” Can I be a mover? I don’t know. But I am very cautious about making moves. I don’t want to do harm. Most of the time I want to play the role of being a critic, thinker and intellectual to others who are movers. For instance, I have spoken to the movers who are going to implement the Common Service Centers (CSC, a scheme of the eGovernance scheme of the Govt of India). In my capacity as a critic, I think it is a disastrous plan. As a thinker, I have pointed out why it is flawed. I have proposed alternatives.

One area in which I can also be a mover is that of education. But since this post is already so long, I will postpone the discussion for now.

So, coming back to answering Gulab Singh’s question, the answer is that I have not done anything because that is not what my nature — my dharma — is. But as I have argued above, it is not true that only movers add value to society. Even someone like me does have a positive role. They also serve, as the poet said, who only stand and wait.

14 thoughts on “On Being an Armchair Intellectual

  1. JP Chilumula Saturday July 15, 2006 / 5:54 pm

    Dear Gulab,

    “what have you really done?”

    A fallacious argument. What has been done/not done is no indicator of what a person can and will do.

    An easy way to refute your argument would be to put the question back to the commentor, “what have you done?” Suppose if you did something, it is easy to trivialize that. But, I’d be using the same fallacious argument.

    Having said that, I absolutely agree that there are a lot of armchair intellectuals and we need movers, a LOT of them. But, a lot of people write to make sense of things, the problems of India are of infinite magnitude, before they actually start working on things in their own way, they write to attain clarity of thought and also to find other people interested in the same line of thought. Can’t solve India’s problems individually, they are not trivial.

    Using your line of though that one should actually do something before writing, tell people that, look, I’ve spent 20 years, made this village literate and healthy, so now I have the proof that I actually work, let me write and get more people. That is very very unproductive.

    It is better to find the people first and target a larger geographic area, we’ll have economy of scale and probably finish off an entire district or a state or the entire country depending on the number of people thinking along similar lines.

    Gubal, you would not understand the tremendous impact Atanu’s blog has. Lets say there is a mover and this gives the direction for a mover. As movers are rare, it is imperative that they get the right information, instead of the insidious spin by journalist.

    The goal is to bridge the dichotomies of thought, word and deed. Writing erases the first dichotomy. The next step can be done by someone else whose strength is execution .

    A mover should not waste time gathering all the information and it should be processed and ready. The world is information fat! And this is the best thing about deeshaa. Nowhere else would anyone find better information than here about India’s development.

    Far more importantly than any other website or blog, Atanu demonstrates how to reason, how to be a clear-thinker. Using the fundamental principles of how to reason, how to analyse things, which most people in India are not taught, they get a degree, but not an education.

    If I had my way, I would make a book out of deeshaa and make it compulsory for all students. In fact, I am going to do that! Awareness is quintessential!

    I think it would be safe to assume that Sandeep Pandey of ASHA is a mover. What is his motivation? He says he decided to work in villages after he read a report by MIT, whose experts found that more than 50 per cent of India’s children never went to school.

    If I had access to the information that Atanu writes when I was in my undergrad, I would have most probably made a tremendous impact by now. There are movers, lots of them, but they don’t know exactly what to do in this intricate labryinthe of infinite problems.

    I can go on and on, but you get the drift right?

    I might not have made a compelling case, but I will at a later point.

    Deeshaa – gives you the direction. The onus is on you to follow that direction and bludgeon the task. India’s problems are very very solvable. They are not that difficult as the arm-chair intellectuals assume. They are all related, one has to examine the roots and attack it with tremendous force! The first step, for movers then, is to find all the movers, a rare species.

    Warmest Regards,


  2. dodo Saturday July 15, 2006 / 7:45 pm

    excellently argued! enlightening one!

    sorry to digress from the topic, but the farmer’s suicide in vidarbha is still rising on an alarming rate! In the last two weeks or so, even after the PM announced his special package, 44 more ( i am sure the number is more than this reported one of 44) farmers committed suicide. the extent is stupifying.

    All this awakening of india and other stuffs in world media hardly takes note of this. Would like to read your thoughts on this in future.


  3. Raghuveer Saturday July 15, 2006 / 8:40 pm

    An easy way to summarize this:

    A good coach, a good captain and a good player need not (and in most cases, cannot) be the same person.


  4. Navin Sunday July 16, 2006 / 3:43 am


    As always, a good post.

    “They also serve who stand and wait” brought my school day memories where I had by heart this poem etc 🙂

    On this post, I pity you had to draw such flak but I am sure you are gusty enough to march on. Seriously, the stupidity is increasing with the rate of increase of population in our country. 😦


  5. Pranav Sunday July 16, 2006 / 10:09 am

    In an entirely different setting, and of course in a different context, Professor Hardy in his A Mathematician’s Apology says:
    “Exposition, criticism, and appreciation are works for second-rate minds.”

    I’ve always felt that that was an excellent observation, even when it is taken out of context. Your classification of critics, thinkers, intellectuals and movers seems to justify the same.


  6. Amit Kulkarni Sunday July 16, 2006 / 1:55 pm

    Humans are primarily distinguished from other life forms on earth by their capacity to think, comprehend the nature of the universe they live in, analyze and solve problems in the abstract, comprehend the notion of time, plan for the uncertain future, etc.

    I disagree (vehemently!) with this fallacious argument; I see this one almost all the time. A fairly large percentage of the human population does not have the capacity to think, comprehend, analyze, and solve abstract/complex issues. We are capable of solving our own little problems, but that is no different from any animal: we are worried about food, water, shelter, and spending away our time. Humans have been guided by a few pioneers, whose ideas and inventions are picked up and disseminated such that they come to dominate and brainwash a significant percentage of human population. Different animals have been proven to have every single characteristic we have, but somewhere back in time in (perhaps) multiple places, somebody started organizing us into somewhat cohesive societies. And that is what is making us arrogant (as a species) in thinking we are not animals.

    We have subjugated Earth for hardly 5,000 years and already we think of ourselves as Gods?

    I think a lot of ills of our society can be traced to our current societal organization. Our whole idea of organization is now flawed because nation states are really big animal packs. Since the last millennium (why in the last century!) we have added lots of animal packs clamoring for a finite amount of resources, and modern transportation has exacerbated this dilemma. I really think that huge population growth has screwed it up, somebody somewhere needs to think of new ideas for organizing people. Religions also can’t cut it; it’s outlived its usefulness as an organization tool. Why the half billion or so bacteria who can organize themselves in a single teaspoon of fertile soil are better than us.. Surely we can learn something from them.



  7. Ameet Deshpande Monday July 17, 2006 / 9:45 am

    Hi Amit
    I agree with the observation that most people can not think/comprehend abstract issues like how the world is interconnected, and what is common good. But some do, and they communicate their thoughts, and written word goes places to widespread the best practise. This has been driver of all progress. One problem with common good & cooperation (like in vase of bacteria) is that, till now science has not been able to solve a 2 person nonzero sum game rationally without mutual destruction (like a nuclear war), and therein lies the key problem in our thinking. Till some thinker/ sage can find a solution to this, everything we call evil will stay in the world, possibly destroying the civilization as we know it. In that case we will know the inevitability of darwins law. Bacterias dont cooperate for no reason. They have survived probably because they have ‘evolved’ to cooperate, much before humans emerged. They probably understand trust genetically 🙂


  8. Sriharsha Vardhan Monday July 17, 2006 / 10:13 am

    Critics role is indisputable. As mentioned critics, thinkers, intellectuals and movers complement their roles to meet their (common) objectives. Those who are yet to set their objectives but have emotions tend
    to question the roles. A person with movers instict attempts at every possible opportunity. Later realises the need to identify the kind of role that suits him.

    First thing they tend to do while identifying their role is to question the existance of roles itself.
    Thus they understand the need of a critic. As time passes they tend to understand need of thinkers. A particular instance makes them realise the need of intellectuals.
    By then one gets an understanding about these conventions. Thus person makes up his objective and evolves to play a role.

    So there is nothing wrong in questioning the roles amidst their way to identify one.


  9. anshuman singh Thursday July 20, 2006 / 6:43 pm



  10. sharad Wednesday July 26, 2006 / 9:53 am

    Dear Atanu,

    A few days ago I had posted a long comment to your education piece titled “Manufactured Shortages and Corruption”. I had asked a question similar to Gulab Singh and wanted to know if you had acted on RISC or education. I also wanted to know if you would consider the new SEZers like Mukesh Ambani to be the ones on whom we can rely for delivering India out of the misery for the majority.

    Your current post is a brilliant exposition on the complementary role intellectuals, thinkers, critics and movers play in shaping the future of the world or of a society. It also states where you stand in the pantheon. With this clarification, I think I have a different and more appreciative perspective on what you write. I think you do a swell job as a critic and enligthen us with host of information and analysis.

    Almost all your posts have a long trail of comments. I found the current post to be one of the best among such threads. First JP eloborates on your ideas and defends you, then Amit and Ameet launch into a separate discussion to say that human society has not evolved into cooperative one and finally Sriharsha tells us how a person adapts to his/her role among the quartet of intellectuals, thinkers, critics and movers.

    Related to SEZ development and India shining is the notion of trickle down theory. I am not sure if you have posted anything in support or against this notion and if it comes from economics.

    As a critic you can certainly cover and introduce to us the movers (JP talks of Sandeep). Many of us readers of your blog would be interested in knowing the ‘movers’ side of the evolving scene. Unfortunately, India continues to move further into mess (including nasty version of democracy/politics). Many of us are beyond 40 and do not have the patience or optimism to wait for another 20-30 years. Given the inevitable time gap between ideas and their ground level impact (as Keyne noted), we would like to know that there is some movement on the ground as well.

    (Sorry for mis-spelling your name on my previous comment.)



  11. IndraSen Friday July 28, 2006 / 4:53 pm


    1)babus (IAS and its various derivatives) with too much ego but lack a vision for country. Nothing has hurt India in last 58 years more than IAS babus.

    2)banal/uneducated politicians appeasing minorities (Mulayam, Sonia, Left).

    3)corrupt, underpaid, untrained police unable to provide respectable life to ordinary occupants of India.

    4)slow and timid judiciary (bloated and constipated elites).

    5)environmental factors, unpredictable mansoons, droughts, floods, lack of technical advancements in agriculture methods.

    6)hostile undemocratic anti-hindu neighbours.

    7)40% poor, uneducated, unconcerned population (bihar, UP, north-east, orrisa) susceptible to exploitation, conversions, brain-washing by foreign agents with loads of money.

    8)self-defeating mindset, demise of self-preservation attitude and ability to strike back due to past 1000 years of slavery, invasions and attacks on Indian peninsula.

    9) false sense of pride and security planted due to pseudo-secular education system.

    10) extremely heterogeneous population with too many sub-religious-subsects, castes, languages and related in-fighting.

    I am sorry to say, Hindus, Bharatdesh won’t last longer than another 200-400 years. Take my word. Take long hard look at the human history, civilisations evolved over last 10000 years. We hindus in India don’t stand a chance of a survival. There is no hope.

    The pseudo-seculars think, if we survived last 1000 years we will survive in future and attribute it to hindu-tolerance!! (instead of giving credit to Pruthviraj, Shivaji, Zhashi, Bhakti-movement, Subhaschandra etc). This is in realistic sense most twisted interpretation of our history ever.


  12. nilanjan Thursday August 10, 2006 / 9:11 pm

    This is a very interesting discussion and I can’t help making a comment. I am an engineer and have no background in humanities or social development. However, I have my opinions for whatever they are worth.

    Amit Kulkarni and Ameet Deshpande have asserted that human beings have not evolved or ‘improved’ much from other creatures like bacteria etc. I disagree with this assertion. I believe one of the most fundamental indicators of the state of civilization in a society is the ability of every member of that society to implement the age old saying “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” in his/her daily life. Do I treat an unknown person living in say Papua New Gunea as my family? In a metaphorical sense, yes!! The bacteria is probably not even aware of such a concept. What stage of civilization am I in? Can I rise above my own parochial/petty concerns and think of the betterment of my tribe – village – state – country – world?

    When you look at the ‘underdeveloped’ societies of the world you will find some common lines of thought existing there. All the people living in those societies (be it north Africa, parts of North-East India etc…) cannot rise above their tribal concerns. They are too paranoid of outside influences to accept new ideas and ways of living. Same is the case of the bacteria. It has successfully adapted itself to its living conditions, but is unable to empathize with issues beyond its immediate concerns.

    Incidentally, Islam tried to implement such a concept called “Ummah”. They called it the universal brotherhood of believers of the faith. Unfortunately, the religion has not adapted itself to the modern age by reinterpreting ALL human beings as being part of its “Ummah”.

    Closely related to this is the concept of charity. You will not find charity in a bacteria, would you? What is charity but a manifestation of the concept of universal brotherhood. Of course, universal brotherhood can come about only after basic problems of food, clothing and shelter have been solved. You can’t have people fighting with each other over basic essentials and yet consider each other as brothers and sisters. Therefore, economic prosperity is closely linked to universal brotherhood. Dont forget, it was economic prosperity in the form of agriculture that led to the great ancient civilizations.


  13. Amit Sunday August 19, 2007 / 10:59 pm

    Do we need critics? Yes, because we need keen observers to tell us what we may not be fully aware of. The one who tells you that you have spinach stuck between your teeth is a competent critic pointing out something that you need to take action on.

    Yes, we need critics, but maybe that needs to be in collaboration with movers. You don’t go around telling random people on the street that they have spinach stuck in their teeth – only those who are your friends or co-workers.


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