intelligent or intellectual
November 9, 2011 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I 'm learning English. When you say,"She is an intellectual person." or "She is an intelligent person.", what's the difference of meaning actually? I think ..."My cat is intellectual." is odd,though.("My cat is intelligent." is okay!??)
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
'Intelligent' means you're smart. You just naturally understand things more quickly.

'Intellectual' means you are actively interested in learning. You seek out information, often of a nerdy, academic nature, because you enjoy engaging your mind with new information.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:53 AM on November 9, 2011 [16 favorites]

I'm not an English teacher or grammarian or anything, but to me, the difference is that "intelligent" would refer to someone (or something) that is smart and able to figure things out. "Intellectual", on the other hand, would refer to someone who likes to learn things, often just for the sake of knowing.

On preview: pretty much exactly what Showbiz_liz said.
posted by Janta at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2011

An intellectual is not just an intelligent person. They often use their intelligence to reason out or think of things in a different manner.

Cats aren't intellectual because they can't express their thoughts.. but they can be intelligent by figuring out how to open a door.
posted by royalsong at 7:55 AM on November 9, 2011

"intelligent" refers to the mental capacity or innate ability of a person, animal, or even machine.

"intellectual" refers to one who likes to think, learn, and discuss ideas. It is only used to refer to people rather than animals, but could also describe books, articles, works of art. It doesn't necessarily refer to intelligence although intelligence is usually implied.
posted by bearette at 7:56 AM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

What showbiz_liz said. A person can be quite intelligent while not being intellectual. The former is a capacity (a measure of what they are capable of), the latter is a pursuit (a description of how they spend their time.) Being intellectual without being intelligent is almost a contradiction in terms.

You would also never use "intellectual" for an animal, unless you're joking.
posted by griphus at 7:57 AM on November 9, 2011

Yeah, I think a connotation of 'intellectual' is that one's interests are more 'elitist' than 'populist.' The guy who comes home and watches lowbrowish sitcoms, then goes to parties and talks sports, is not considered intellectual; they guy who goes to art gallery openings is.
posted by troywestfield at 8:00 AM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also some confusion might stem from the root words of "intelligent" and "intellectual": "intelligence" and "intellect." Where intelligence is the active use of intellect. Except they're used interchangeably quite a bit.

posted by griphus at 8:03 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Intellectual" refers to someone who is interested in theory, basically - the why of things as opposed to the how. It strongly implies that someone reads a lot - it would be unusual to describe someone as an intellectual if they simply watched a lot of film and television, even if they were very intelligent. It also tends to imply that someone produces or shares theory, whether verbally or by writing or conceivably (as with Godard) via film.

"Intellectual" can be relative, though - someone who doesn't read much or have much time for theory might describe a person who read and commented on Metafilter but didn't read much else as an intellectual, where someone who read a lot of political theory probably wouldn't. (Not that mefites aren't smart.)

You might say "She is an anarchist intellectual - she wrote that essay on hierarchies within queerness that you admired so much." Or "He is a real intellectual - he's always reading Foreign Policy." Or "Communist intellectuals produced a discourse which emphasized [THING]."

"Intellectuals" as a group usually has a negative connotation - usually suggests that people are in some kind of brainy cabal to fool the "regular folks". (This is a common Anglo-Saxon idea, that there is something suspicious about being too clever and into books.) "The intellectuals want everyone to use gender-neutral pronouns because they prefer theories of gender to how regular folks actually live!"

"Cerebral" is a less-used synonym for intellectual as "a rather cerebral hobby".

You don't usually say "I am an intellectual" - it sounds conceited unless you're up before the Supreme Soviet on treason charges or something.

You might say that something is "an intellectual hobby" or "pursuit" [ie, that it is difficult or complex and requires thought] but you wouldn't say "that's a very intellectual book/film/show/composition". You also wouldn't say that a job was "intellectual".

It would be absolutely hilarious if your cat were an intellectual. I might lightly describe my cat as an intellectual in reference to her sustained study of possibilities for knocking things down off the top shelf of the bookcase.
posted by Frowner at 8:11 AM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yep. "Intelligent" usually means just "smart," and is a broad term. "Intellectual" implies an active interest in learning, or in subjects that require intelligence to understand.

If you understand a complicated subject, like calculus or medieval history, you're intelligent. If you find that subject fascinating and want to learn everything you can about it, you're intellectual.

"Intellectual" usually refers to what's casually known as "book smarts": things you study in school. You usually wouldn't use "intellectual" to refer to someone who's an expert in fashion or basketball or car repair.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:15 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keep it simple:

Intelligent = Smart.
Intellectual = Curious.
posted by emelenjr at 8:19 AM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

The two are not even close to the same thing, despite their similar spellings.

One can be intellectual without being intelligent. There are plenty of people who like philosophy, history, art, and culture that are dumb as two bags of rocks (or, at least, really, really bad at said subjects).

One can be intelligent without being intellectual. There are tons of razor-smart people out there who have absolutely no interest in the life of the mind. A lot of doctors and lawyers are like this, surprisingly enough, i.e. they're immense factual sponges with a high degree of critical thinking ability but no real interest in applying either to anything other than the practical operation of their professions.
posted by valkyryn at 8:45 AM on November 9, 2011

Intelligent (adjective) assigns an attribute (the noun intelligence) to someone. It says nothing about the person or animal's personality or mannerisms and has no or few stereotypes associated with it.

The adjective intellectual describes what a person is at a fundamental level. It is a worldview, philosophy, and/or set of behaviors. There are a host of mannerisms and stereotypes that come to mind when it is used.

Both can be used as adjectives, but intellectual can also be used as a noun. A person can never be "an intelligent," but a person can be "an intellectual." Even when you use intellectual as an adjective, you are implicitly labeling them with the noun form (they are assumed to be an intellectual).

Depending on class and other contextual information, being called an intellectual could be a compliment or an insult. Saying someone is intelligent is nearly always a compliment.

It sounds funny to describe a cat as intellectual because of the extra connotations the word carries. You could do it on purpose, as a joke, but it will always be an odd turn of phrase. Part of the oddness is that it anthropomorphizes (makes human-like) the cat.
posted by jsturgill at 9:09 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think a connotation of 'intellectual' is that one's interests are more 'elitist' than 'populist.' The guy who comes home and watches lowbrowish sitcoms, then goes to parties and talks sports, is not considered intellectual; they guy who goes to art gallery openings is.

It depends on who is doing the considering, doesn't it? The guy talking sports at the party could be considered intellectual by others there, because he has an ability to dissect specific plays in an interesting way, and examines the philosophies behind the sports. While the guy who goes to art gallery openings could easily be considered "not intellectual" by others at the opening because he has no interesting insights.

I think emelenjr has it right and most concise: intelligent= smart; intellectual= curious
posted by annekenstein at 9:12 AM on November 9, 2011

Intellectual = Curious.

well... a cat can be curious...
posted by ghostbikes at 9:22 AM on November 9, 2011

I think y'all are leading mizukko astray here.

You wouldn't want to use "intellectual" as a simple synonym for curious, or for someone who simply enjoys learning about things.

In modern colloquial English, it's honestly hard to dispute that "intellectual" has an elitist connotation, and that to be "intellectual" means that you are interested in learning about, or curious about, only certain things.

Those things include stereotypically "academic" things like fine art, classical or other "art" music, ballet, non-genre "literary" fiction, and critical theory. They may or may not include being interested in or curious about the natural sciences. They exclude many other things, such as sports, genre fiction, and popular music and film -- unless analyzing them through some critical theory.

I really, really do not think that very many people at all would consider anybody talking sports at the party to be an intellectual because of that, no matter how sophisticated his discussion was, for the simple reason that sports are not "intellectual." If you brought up how some sporting event was similar to this-or-that battle in ancient Greece and how it reflected the quality of arete, you might be considered intellectual **in spite of** talking about sports because you also talked about ancient Greece, which is "intellectual."

On the contrary, the guy who goes to art gallery openings would likely be considered "intellectual" by people who do not go to art gallery openings because going to art gallery openings is an intellectual thing to do.

Intellectual but not intelligent: somebody who is devoted to fine art, literature, and critical theory but is not particularly smart.

Intelligent but not intellectual: somebody who is very smart but not particularly interested in stereotypically academic pursuits.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:45 AM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

intellectual = reads, writes, and discusses important things

this would be very odd for a cat
posted by miyabo at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2011

You now have several useful statements of how the two words differ in meaning. I have nothing valuable to add to what's been said in that area.

Here are some notes on usage:

Both terms are used as adjectives, and 'intellectual' can be used as a noun. But it would (currently) be very odd to use 'intelligent' as a noun:

1. OK        The author was intellectual.
2. OK        The author was intelligent.
3. OK        The author was an intellectual.
4. Not OK  The author was an intelligent.

5. OK        An intellectual essay in the newspaper.
6. OK        An intelligent essay in the newspaper.
7. OK        An intellectual's essay in the newspaper.
8. NOT OK  An intelligent's essay in the newspaper.

Most native English speakers would call 4. and 8. ungrammatical.

'Intelligent' works well with comparatives; 'intellectual' not as well:

 9. OK          Ruth is more intelligent than Richard.
10. NOT OK   Ruth is more intellectual than Richard.

10. is not ungrammatical, but in standard usage, 'intellectual' is on/off rather than a matter of degree; strictly speaking, someone either is or is not an intellectual, their opinions, concerns, works, etc. either are or are not intellectual. Once in that tribe, we compare them on other scales: most influential, most controversial, most active, hardest drinking, etc.

Standard usage does not stop some people from using the term as a comparative anyway, any more than does pointing out that 'unique' does not admit of degrees stops people from describing things as 'very unique'.

But standard usage is just that: a standard.

Good luck.
posted by Herodios at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2011

If you say to me "she is intelligent", I understand she has intelligence, but I make no assumptions about where that intelligence lies; she might be a brilliant mathematician, a programmer, a scientist, a businesswoman, a waitress, or whatever.

If you say to me "she is (an) intellectual", I will make cultural assumptions; I would assume she's has a familiarity with key works or ideas of philosophy, politics, art, and literature, although possibly not the sciences that she enjoys abstract thought and is continually engaged in learning and discussion.

I wouldn't ever describe a cat or other animal as an intellectual, except for humour value ("See how my cat is sitting on a book? She's a real intellectual!").
posted by rodgerd at 9:47 AM on November 9, 2011

I'd say intelligence is an innate quality, it has to do with the quality of your ability to think. A cat can be intelligent if it thinks well - for a cat.

An intellectual is someone who engages in pursuits that are expressive of the intellect. This is really beyond even the smartest cat, who we presume is not really able to have much by way of abstract, symbolic thoughts. It's still a cat.

Likewise, an intelligent person is not necessarily an intellectual: while they might have the mental capacity to read literature rather than spy thrillers, or watch difficult foreign films, or critique modern art, they might elect to disdain these sorts of things in favor of more popular fare.

You might compare intelligence to a person with an extraordinarily acute sense of taste and smell, while an intellectual is like a person who makes an effort to eat fine gourmet food. The two are obviously related but either could exist exclusive of the other.
posted by nanojath at 9:49 AM on November 9, 2011

Since lots of people have provided advice on the distinction in meaning and usage between the two words, I will add my two cents about how to approach such questions in the future. I am a native English speaker, but I speak two foreign languages and read several others.

First, if you use a bilingual dictionary between your native language and English, and a word in your native language gives several English translations, look at the English translations and see how they are rendered back in your native language. If you're a native speaker of Japanese, look up "intelligent" and "intellectual" in your English-Japanese dictionary and see how the translations differ. (If you are serious about learning a foreign language well, you need the best dictionaries.)

Second, look up the two words in a good monolingual English dictionary that provides examples of usage, such as the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The examples in such dictionaries will help you figure out how a word is used. I often end up using the Petit Robert French dictionary, and the Wahrig German dictionary, when I need examples of usage.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:16 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If somebody is "an intellectual" (noun), it usually means they're a college professor or do some kind of academic research.

If you say somebody is "intellectual" (adjective), it means they read a lot and are curious about the kinds of things academics study and write about.

A cat can be intelligent, smart and curious, but cats can't be intellectual because they can't read.

I agree with brianogilvie. You clearly understand English pretty well. You need to get an English dictionary with definitions in English. That will help a lot with questions like this.

I had to do the same thing when I was trying to learn French.
posted by nangar at 11:17 PM on November 9, 2011

An intellectual is someone who reads widely and has informed opinions on the issues of the day. Intelligence just refers to someone's capacity to think or reason.

So the difference between "she is intelligent" versus "she is an intellectual" that in the first case you are saying something about her potential for reasoning, but in the second case you are saying something about this person's habits and personality.

For instance, we would give someone an "intelligence test" to decide how capable they are at reasoning as part of a placement in a school curriculum. This test would measure logic, reading ability, problem solving skills, etc. An "intellectual test" would ask about your knowledge of current events, history, and so forth.

Intellectuals are assumed to be intelligent, but an intelligent person need not be an intellectual or identify as one.
posted by deathpanels at 9:56 AM on November 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, I can't pick the best one, all answers are meaningful to me. I'm still trying to understand them, it's very interesting to read.Let me say thank you again.
posted by mizukko at 6:03 PM on November 18, 2011

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