This article first appeared in The Star’s iPad edition on 28 June 2012.

Is faux smart today’s faux pas?

My initial idea for the column this week was to write about Article 5 of the Federal Constitution — whether the right to life provided for by the Article included the right to die vis a vis suicide and euthanasia. I had conducted the research and prepared myself to write the article. I would have embarked upon the article if not for an intervening event that occurred between my original plan and the writing of this article.

That intervening event was a series of e-mail exchanges. The topic of the e-mail thread is of little importance for this article; suffice to say it was about some highbrow matter of national and global importance. You know the sort; global warming, racism, meaning of religion and the like. Matters which the everyday Joe would not normally discuss.

But you see, those who are part of that e-mail thread pride themselves to be quite above the normal everyday Joe, even if they will not admit it openly.

As usual, pseudo-intellectuals ruled the discussion. When I say ‘ruled’, what I mean is ‘sent enough e-mails to annoy everyone else and turn them away from contributing to the discussion’.

Oh, you don’t know what is a pseudo-intellectual? My apologies, I launched straight into it without attempting to define the phrase. According to, a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is ‘a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship or a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status’.

(For the rest of this article, I am going to refer to pseudo-intellectuals as ‘pseudo’ for the sake of brevity and because ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is far too long.)

Pseudos lurk in cyberspace. Armed with Wikipedia, they wait until a topic surfaces and pounce upon it, unleashing a barrage of sentences aimed at presenting themselves as intellectuals.

How to spot a pseudo? Well for one, they love to quote. For every highbrow topic out there, they have an accompanying quote for it.

So you have a topic, say on the concept of justice (yes, I know), and they will without fail quote from Indian writer Amartya Sen or American John Rawls.

If the topic is economics, you will see quotes from John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek.

Pseudos love dead German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. They adore the man. They will try to overwhelm you with der Wille zur Macht (for you commoners, that means ‘The will to power’), as if they are some sort philosophical Übermensch (‘super-human’). But most of them have never read a word of Nietzsche. Even if they did, they probably would not understand him.

No, I have not read Nietzsche either. But at least I am honest enough to tell you that I got those German words from the internet.

Pseudos tend to quote figures and results from obscure studies or research conducted by some scientists in some remote part of the world. This is to give the impression that they are well read and have deep knowledge in just about anything. Doing so also purportedly reinforces whatever they say.

Another trait of pseudos is to bring ‘intellectual’ matters in matters where intellectualism is not asked for nor required. For example, a group of people would be talking about the Avengers movie and all of a sudden, the pseudo in the group will talk about what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and how our views regarding these concepts are relative to our own experiences. As if this was something novel which the pseudo thought up on his or her own after watching the Avengers movie.

A pseudo’s best friend is the thesaurus. It allows them to say the same thing but with fancier words. They will talk of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘utopian free market’ as if they understood what these concepts mean. Pseudos tend to take the contrary view because to them taking the same view as the masses is anti-intellectual and therefore abhorrent to their image as ‘learned persons’.

Pseudos also tend to be argumentative in nature. The most frequent offenders are pseudos posing as socialists, feminists and atheists; capitalists, men and religious types can never be right because they are always the oppressors. They will challenge opinions or views as a way of making a personal attack and simply will not rest until they obtain an imagined victory in their pseudo-intellectual minds.

So they quote, pluck figures and pretend that they actually have an opinion, all the while using words like ‘ad hominem’ which is something which no normal person would use in a conversation. But hey, it is Latin, and everyone knows using dead languages is a sure way to make one appear clever. If pseudos could, they would probably quote Aramaic phrases with reckless abandon.

Make no mistake about it; pseudo-intellectualism is on the rise. Before this we could avoid them as we would only have to deal with them face to face. Then, the internet gave them blogs yet we could still avoid reading anything that they post. But with social media, we unfortunately have to read their inane tweets. Their status updates about how capitalism is the source of world’s woes will somehow appear on our Facebook timeline.

Social media has revolutionised how we communicate with each other. With it, we have uncovered some bone fide gems, those whose intellect are a degree above the rest. Unfortunately, we must be able to sieve through the many pretenders. Anyone can sound intellectual. All you need an ability to speak English, an internet connection and Google.

The rest of us may not read the works of dead Germans or be able to spell ‘existentialism’ or know what the word means, but at least our views are our own. No amount of Malcolm Gladwell references can beat honest opinions, foolish or shallow though they may be.

Down with pseudo-intellectualism. Long live honesty.

Syahredzan Johan adalah seorang peguam muda dan seorang rakan kongsi di sebuah firma guaman di Kuala Lumpur. Dia melihat dirinya sebagai seorang pengkritik politik dan pengulas sosial. Tetapi dia sebenarnya...

27 replies on “Rise of the Pseudo Intellectuals”

  1. According to the author, the way to "…spot a pseudo. Well for one, they love to quote. For every highbrow topic out there, they have an accompanying quote for it."

    Now read the tags at the bottom of the article. Irony? Or a faux pas?

  2. This guy is hilarious. Great article indeed and so very true. It's becoming a problem and by reading some of the above comments, it's apparent how big of one. lol

  3. So I'm reading on the internet, from an authority on pseudo-intellectualism, that the internet is a poor source for knowledge? Paradoxical much?

    Don't worry, I too have been around people that were smarter than me in particular fields. A lot. People that could reinforce their comments with quotes from sources that are respected and vetted. And while I could have questioned how they acquired that knowledge or why they were offering so much information on the subject, I instead just listened to what was being said, by everyone, rather than worrying about my insecurities. I'm not saying some people aren't bullish in intellectual conversations. But even if there is a power struggle occurring, if what an individual is saying is sound, factual and relevant, then I wouldn't criticize their intellect as the problem.

  4. So, these pseudo intellectuals have their own thoughts and arguments, but need to relate that to something or someone else's thoughts for them to be taken seriously.. so what's d problem here?
    Looking down at people is not a sexy thing at all syah..

  5. Pseudo intellectualism over stark ignorance any day. That's all I will say here considering that a bunch of people have articulated some of my thoughts on this issue.

  6. I can rip apart your compilation starting from the word pseudo-intellectual, but I decided to spare you and to save my time.
    When you look down on people, be it through any prejudice viz. racism, regionalism, elitism etc. you are no intellectual not even wise, you are blinding yourself with a prejudice and sealing your door against series of opportunities which otherwise could have come your way.

    I agree, you could have seen some quotes coming from shallow people, but bitching about them is no solution of an intellectual or wise or noble person.

    People can be naive, but can develop and grow chasing their endeavors, and an encouraging society is a requirement for such mutual growth of individuals, you tell me are you an element of an encouraging society ? If you are an intellectual , why should not you use your talent to motivate people, or to let them know their best qualities.

    You reflect to me as a very superficial person with shallow understandings of people around you, I may be another "pseudo-intellectual" person according to your understandings but i would like to tell you one thing, you may find some people's quotes naive and pseudo, but they can be very valuable for someone who craves for a company and is fighting loneliness. Value of a thing my friend, is decided upon factors derived from various combinations of space, time, action and the same thing, the view of the world from where you are is just an illusion, reality is sensed by people who have the ability to see the world from maximum angles possible.

  7. I cannot believe you are a fellow member of the Bar. What a disgrace. Your article is nothing but superior and pretentious, something you would deny of course. Don't pretend that you acquired your knowledge (i assume you have) of the world and its workings overnight. Like everyone else you label "pseudos", you once possessed little knowledge but wanted to share it anyway, just like what "pseudos" do.

    Just because you are a lawyer does not make you the owner of words and king of knowledge and arguments. Everyone has the right to learn and to share whatever knowledge they have, despite of the way they chose to convey it. Perhaps they are arrogant and argumentative as you say, and they use wikipedia, statistics and quotes, but that does not make them pretentious. That makes them inquisitive and informed, albeit on a different level which suits you.

    Anyway, do you really think what you are doing here is anything different? What are your claims based on? Observation, i suppose? Psychology, the epitome of pseudo-science? Surely not any research from a remote place, because no one would research/publish something this frivolous and petty. Nothing but pointless judgment on your part, in my opinion.

  8. I think pseudo-intellectualism is relatively harmless. It depends on ourselves however that we need to analyse the information we receive and make comparison with what we know and other resources. I suppose that is the basic principle of learning.

    I don't see what's wrong with being philosophical about a simple subject. IMO, it represents a different way of thinking, a different perspective. Isn't it true that brilliant people look at things differently than others? (Regarding this point, I would like to urge people to read more poetry.) I realise that not everyone is a genius, but at least we all have an opinion. You can either listen to it, or ignore it. We don't have to act superior than others.

    I think the real issue is the lack of culture of learning in our society. Not many of us are exposed to the works of Nietzsche, Orwell or the likes of them. The lack of reading, which contributes to the lack of learning, results in poor understanding of a particular subject.

  9. How do you tell someone who actually has read Nietzsche, is a feminist, and knows what post-modernism is, from those who only pretend to? Your article assumes that everyone who talks "intellectual" in everyday conversations must be only pretending to be intellectual. And, can intellectualism ever be uncalled for? What is so bad about relating a movie's plot to a little bit of light philosophy?

    You might find this surprising (though most people won't), but you don't need a philosophy or political science or whatever degree to read intellectual works. A lot of regular people, who don't try to be intellectual for the sake of status, do.

    By the way, this reminds me of Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil". You might find it interesting. (Don't worry, I actually have read the book.)

    1. This article is too 'pseudo-intellectual' for a troll piece.

      Intellectuals, stupid or honest people – ALL have the capacity to be equally annoying.

  10. I recommend series like How to Bluff Your way Through …; …. for Dummies; …. Made Simple

  11. What is honesty to you? Believing in Capitalism and staying as ignorant as possible? Unfortunately much respect has been lost for you my friend.

    1. Unfortunately, pseudo Intellectuals (perhaps there should be a better name for this) does not mean dishonesty.

      1. Was referring to his last line : Down with pseudo-intellectualism. Long live honesty.

  12. Your entire article is an ad-hominem against people who are just tired of the status quo and want to generate a more cerebral discussion.

    1. I suspect that the OP is trying to one-up the endless status game that they themselves are unwilling to admit to, by changing the measurement of status from which obscure Austrian/British/American/African-American economist/philosopher/politician/social science maverick one can quote, to instead how “honest” and “sincere” they are.

      In subculture terms, this is the moment where all the goths and emos stop talking about how goth/emo they are, and start accusing each other of posers.

    2. This is fantastic.
      All of it.
      Article and participation in commentary.
      Tremendously amused.
      Sincerely, thank you.

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