What is a Pseudointellectual?

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 “Superior people are only those who let it be discovered by others; the need to make it evident forfeits the very virtue they aspire to.”   ~ Sydney Harris, Excerpt from “Pieces of Eight” 1982.


The Dictionary Says:.

A pseudo-intellectual is (a.) “someone who affects having proficiency in scholarly or artistic pursuits while lacking real knowledge or understanding of such topics,” or (b.) “a person pretending to be of greater intelligence than they are, for reasons of status.”  In other words they put on a public “face” of pretension, using a dishonest, insincere affectation. They employ the language, style and topics of an intellectual, but they lack the genuine morals, depth of knowledge or ability. They also tend to be verbal bullies. In the long run, the facade becomes transparent to others, and they find themselves alone and can’t figure out why.

Perhaps You Know Someone Who Fits The Definition?

I’ve come in contact with a few people who fit this description. They’re pompous, stuffy in their attitude toward others they deem of lesser intellect, and lower education. If you ever get on the bad side of one of these people be prepared to receive the most condescending, “cut-you-down-to-size” verbal barrage of your life. The way they feel superior is by making you feel inferior and most of the time it works. You come away from reading what they wrote or from a conversation with them, wondering what the heck just happened?

Their Technique : Disparagement and Patronization

First, your beliefs are attacked and you begin to feel foolish for having them. Then the next step is to question your knowledge and your source about the subject.  The spoken or written tone is one of patronization; “obviously I’m just being kind to you in your ignorance.” Then your opinions are ridiculed as having no validity.  This is designed to show you how smart they are and how dumb you are. By now, most of us begin to believe it. Either that or we find someone else to talk to. When someone ridicules your beliefs and opinions they are not your friend.

Does This Description Remind You Of Political Bashing?

Well yes it does. But it’s not limited to political opinion.  Countless friendships have been destroyed because of the pompous attitude of one toward the other on a matter of personal opinion.  If opinions differ on any subject, each person has a right to their own. You say, maybe they weren’t REAL friendships? But if they were thought to be real by one of the parties, the hurt and the disappointment are there just the same. Not only that, but with today’s social internet world, friendships are won and lost on the turn of a word. How many people have you unfriended on a social group because they were overbearing and insisted you think as they do? For that matter, how many people have unfriended you for the same reason?

What Is An Intellectual?

An intellectual is a person of superior intellect, who seeks things of interest in aesthetic or philosophical matters, particularly on an abstract or general level. Now that we’ve got that in place, we realize that a pseudo (meaning not genuine, sham) intellectual is obviously someone who pretends to that superior intellect. How can you tell the difference? It isn’t easy, but let’s explore.

“The intellectual is evidently motivated by a disinterested love of truth; the pseudo is interested in being right, or being thought to be right, whether he is or not.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

A True Intellectual Doesn’t Have To Prove It

A true intellectual doesn’t feel the need to continually prove it, by “talking down” to others. Even the great Albert Einstein could carry on a conversation without making his genius blatantly apparent. You may have met geniuses in your life without even knowing it, because they find no reason to make you feel that you are inferior to them. An true intellectual keeps an open mind in unexpected conversations with others, because they’re aware there is always something new to be learned. In other words, you don’t need to continually refer to a dictionary to decipher what they’re saying.

“The intellectual never talks down to his audience, but tries to be as clear as possible; the pseudo talks above his audience to mystify and impress them.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

Anyone Can Learn Big Words

By now you’ve realized that this pretension irks me. Learning to speak big words does not make you intellectually superior. A two-year-old can be taught to say fairly large words, but they have no concept of the meaning. When someone uses phrases and words that are “above my understanding,” I feel it’s for the distinct purpose of undermining and underlining my lack of intelligence. But there are times it backfires for someone who intends to show their intellectual superiority. Every now and then they misuse a big word without realizing it, showing their own ignorance. A simple comment from an average person with common sense can blow the pseudo-intellectual right out of the water.

“The intellectual recognizes that opposites are not always contradictory, and may indeed reinforce each other; the pseudo paints a picture in black and white, right or wrong, leaving no room for a contrary viewpoint.” — Sydney Harris, Detroit Free Press, 1981

About Sydney Harris

Sydney Harris was an American journalist for Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times. He had a weekly column, “Strictly Personal” which was syndicated in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. He was also a drama critic, teacher, and lecturer. He passed away in 1986. His columns have been collected into a series of books, one of which is “Pieces of Eight.” It’s available from Amazon on this page.

PIECES OF EIGHT Hardcover – September 28, 1982

What To Do

In short, be aware that you may come in contact with people who are pseudo-intellectuals. Don’t allow them to make you feel any less than what you know yourself to be. You have a right to your thoughts, your opinions, whether or not they coincide with someone who feels superior to you. If you are acquainted with someone of this character, and you consider them a friend, tell them how they make you feel. If they’re truly a friend, they will take a look at their actions from your viewpoint. If not, they really weren’t your friend in the first place.



Nancy Hardin is a highly experienced writer and author. A retired journalist, she is also a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother with a wealth of experience in many fields. In addition, she is a retiree veteran, having spent many years in the Women’s Army Corps. She is also an experienced ghostwriter and you can see more about her skills at the The Writers’Door. YOu can visit Nancy’s website here and discover more of her work at this site.

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  1. Well said article Nancy. And you are right that it seems to come out in politics especially. So much so that I start to feel I can’t believe anything. I never would have attributed it to pseudo intellectuals. It’s good to know!

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  2. “Superior people are only those who let it be discovered by others; the need to make it evident forfeits the very virtue they aspire to.” I love that quote!

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