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Snobbery, Intellectual and Otherwise

Robert C. Roberts

How should we identify and classify the subtle vice of snobbery in its sundry permutations? Is there a cure for intellectual snobbery?

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
August 1, 2016

What is a snob? Most of us care about being important, in one way or another. A snob cares about being important in a special way, namely, by being associated with a class of people who garner prestige, glory, or some other kind of supposedly superior wonderfulness. And he cares about his membership in or association with this class comparatively: by way of his association or membership, he is conscious of being better than other people, namely ones outside the class that gives him his sense of importance. So two kinds of “objects” are necessary for snobbery: you need something to be snobbish about, and you need somebody to be snobbish toward.

Species of Snobs

Let’s look at some examples. Some Episcopalians are church snobs. Their self-esteem gains nourishment from association with a beautiful liturgy, a sophisticated and wealthy membership, and a certain air of antiquarian aestheticism combined with scientific up-to-dateness. From this superior elevation they can look down with delicious understated contempt on the plain-Jane Baptists, the rowdy Pentecostals, and the credulous people of the Bible Churches. Similar things can be said about language snobs, food snobs, music snobs, and many other species of snobs.

My adult daughter Maria called me a couple of days before Christmas and asked what I was doing. When I told her I was writing an article on snobbery she said, “I think we Robertses are snobs.” I said, “Oh, yes? What do you mean?” She said, “Well, it’s as though there are all those people out there doing all those stupid things, like watching football; and it’s almost everybody else, but we don’t do them.” And she added, “When I think that way, I think it kind of isolates me, and keeps me from doing some things that I might enjoy; when I do them, I feel connected to the people, even though it reduces my sense of specialness.”

In large part, snobs and their outsiders don’t meet in anything like an encounter in their respective roles. Snobs can be kindhearted toward their outsiders, and seek to keep their snobbery from showing; and the despised outsider may likewise, in the interest of emotional peace and harmony, forbear the snob’s snobbery. They’re aware of one another, but at some distance. As long as this is so, their attitudes toward one another may be tolerant. The despised outsider may even take a bemused attitude toward his snob. But occasionally they do meet in what we might call a snobbery encounter.

To Snob: A Definition

Here we feel in need of a verb that doesn’t exist in the required sense in English (according to my search of the OED on line): to snob; though our contemporary ‘to snub’ (etymologically unrelated) comes pretty close. There are various kinds of snobbing. You can get intellectually snobbed, architecturally snobbed, denominationally snobbed, culinarily snobbed, musically snobbed, and so forth.

You get snobbed when, in interaction with you, the snob expresses, by action or inaction, his contempt for you because of your exclusion from his value-giving circle.

“There are various kinds of snobbing. You can get intellectually snobbed, architecturally snobbed, denominationally snobbed, culinarily snobbed, musically snobbed, and so forth.”

Here is an intellectual example. You teach philosophy at a middling state university. In a conversation with a member of the philosophy department at an Ivy League university you say some intelligent things that might affect this philosopher’s work. You would like to be in a continuing dialogue with her about issues of common interest. But you come away feeling that you weren’t “heard,” that your interlocutor hardly “saw” you and certainly won’t remember your name. It could be that you have just experienced being snobbed.

Because most of us care about being important, getting snobbed is not pleasant and very bad for the relationship between snob and outsider. The outsider resents being snobbed, and resents the snob for snobbing him.



Outsiders are inferior, and if you construe yourself as an outsider relative to a snob on a snob-basis, you may feel inferior and excluded. But you may also be motivated to try to “raise” yourself by getting into the circle that would justify your becoming a snob like your excluder. Or you may rebel and practice reverse snobbery, putting down the snob by categorizing him as snob, and yourself (snobbishly) as a non-snob. Such a meta-snob takes superiority-pleasure in being an unsnob, in contemplating snobs in all their pitifulness and thinking how noble it is to be a person of the people.

Another approach is to be happily snobbed, that is, you gladly and heartily accept the criterion by which you are regarded as inferior, truckle to the snobs, attach yourself to them, willingly endure their looks of condescension and contempt, and find your happiness in serving them and building up their egos. What William Makepeace Thackery calls a snob in his 1848 satire,
The Book of Snobs,
is often a person who adopts this last strategy.

The Error of Intellectual Snobbery, and Its Cure

What’s wrong with intellectual snobbery? Intellectual snobbery is a disposition to derive your sense of importance from your membership in some community that confers prestige by its intellectual excellence, and to discount the importance of people from communities that cannot (or appear to you unable to) claim such excellence. I think it’s a mark of snobbery to lose sight, at least partially, of the intrinsic excellence of its basis for prestige (in the intellectual case, the intellectual goods of knowledge, justified belief, skill in research and dialectic, and understanding), by preoccupation with the prestige that it confers. You start out loving intellectual goods and end up loving the superior glory being a member of their coterie imparts to your little ego.

“A cure for intellectual snobbery is real respect for intellectual goods wherever they may originate. It’s a blindness to class as a basis for intellectual honor.”

Alasdair MacIntyre notes that in Aristotle’s thinking about ethics and politics he didn’t see fit to consult the opinions of women, servants, farmers, fishermen, and other “uneducated” people.1 I know of no evidence that Aristotle enjoyed contemplating his intellectual superiority to such people, so his attitude might not count as fully formed intellectual snobbery. But his attitude is at least similar to snobbery in being an intellectual classism. MacIntyre’s point is that Aristotle thereby significantly disadvantaged himself for knowing the truth in politics and ethics. Aristotle was brilliant in ethics and political theory, but without this quasi-arrogance or quasi-snobbery, he would have been even more excellent than he was.

Superiority vs. Snobbery

Insistence on one’s superiority, or the superiority of one’s own standards of conduct or craft, is not the same as snobbery. So what is the difference? Snobbery is marked by the enjoyment of superiority itself, of being a member of an exclusive group. It is an enjoyment of exclusivity, whereas an admirable insistence on one’s own higher standards in comparison with somebody else’s may stem from a simple love of the greater excellence. This latter character is not concerned with status vis-à-vis the outsider, but with the greater excellence. A cure for intellectual snobbery is real respect for intellectual goods wherever they may originate. It’s a blindness to class as a basis for intellectual honor.