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August 24, 2016

The Supposed Decline of the Public Intellectual

Giving expression to a certain kind of anxiety of influence has become a clichéd preoccupation of public intellectuals in the last few decades. Not Harold Bloom’s creativity triggering anxiety, but a more pedestrian sort of whining about their apparent inability to exert any influence in the public square. Intellectuals routinely lament that the American public simply doesn't respect, follow--or even hear--what the best and the brightest of our society is telling them.

John Donatich voiced it well enough when he introduced a panel discussion on the issue that The Nation sponsored in 2001:

As we try to puzzle out the future of the public intellectual, it's hard not to poke a little fun at ourselves, because the issue is that serious. The very words "future of the public intellectual" seem to have a kind of nostalgia built into them, in that we only worry over the future of something that seems endangered, something we have been privileged to live with and are terrified to bury. In preparing for this event, I might as well admit that I've been worried about making the slip, "the future of the public ineffectual." But I think that malapropism would be central to what we'll be talking about. It seems to me that there is a central conflict regarding American intellectual work. How does it reconcile itself with the venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism? What does a country built on headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance do with its people convinced that they know best? At Basic Books' fiftieth anniversary, it's a good time to look at a publishing company born in midcentury New York City, a time and place that thrived on the idea of the public intellectual. In our first decades, we published Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Michael Walzer, Christopher Lasch, Herb Gans, Paul Starr, Robert Jay Lifton--and these names came fresh on the heels of Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Erik Erikson and Clifford Geertz.

Donatich’s smugly theatrical notion of a “conflict,” a popular view within the intelligentsia, is both wrong and wrong-headed. It is wrong in the sense that it traffics in the self-serving fiction of American anti-intellectualism. And it is wrong-headed in the sense that it undermines the value of citizen responsibility by subordinating it unnecessarily to the most elitist argument for the public intellectual, the one grounded in the myth of an aristocracy of experts.

The fiction of America’s anti-intellectualism has been debated adnauseam since Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase a half-century ago. Without replaying the whole debate, two points will suffice: One, the fact that academic institutions wield enormous financial, technological, and cultural power—and the fact that, more generally, education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths (i.e., “the “American Dream”)—are both powerful reasons to doubt that Americans suffer from some instinctive hostility to intellectuals. Two, what is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum. Hence, for example, when John Dewey built his career as a philosopher on a thoughtful, systematic, elegant, and sustained repudiation of the Cartesian notion of mind and, instead, argued for “experience” as the foundation of human endeavor—he was hardly exposing himself as an anti-intellectual bigot. ‘Nuff said.

As to what Donatich derisively calls a “headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance,” it’s worth noting that he’s not giving us full-fledged descriptions of real political ideas but caricatures of an imagined psycho-cultural disposition. An “immature” disposition, at that. One can almost hear the sit-com dad railing against his willful, stubborn, impetuous kid who has once again gotten himself in trouble because he refused to heed Pop’s unwaveringly wise advice. And in this myth, common-folk (like kids) always get into trouble because they lack what all paternal intellectuals have by birthright—impulse control. The infantile common-folk who comprise the “mob” has been the star of elitist melodrama for centuries; they’re also “exhibit A” in nearly every hand-wringing, anti-democratic treatise in the western tradition. Now, are some people ill-equipped for self-government? Of course. But the strongest alternative argument, the best argument for democracy, is not that the people are “naturally” equipped for self-government—but that they need to become so, and, moreover, experience is the only teacher. So here’s the point: Any argument for the public intellectual that, like Donatich’s, rests the assumption that common citizens are forever childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous.

So, is there any way of conceptualizing something called the public intellectual that is consistent with democratic values? Of course there is, but it needs to begin with a shift from “categories and class” to “function.” That is, our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is—and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concerned with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it.

It’s a distinction that matters. Those concerned with public intellectuals as a class will inevitably fret about the health of that class. They’ll either worry, like Donatich, about whether the rest of society is doing enough to nurture and sustain it (i.e., publishing, reading, and heeding its work). Or, they’ll hyperventilate about class purity, or the “appalling decline” in quality of most other public intellectuals. The quintessential example here is Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Posner—a federal judge, law professor, and one of the most important legal theorists of our time, a man who is highly regarded even by his many critics and who publishes a new book nearly every year—would NOT seem to be somebody you’d say has too much time on his hands. Yet, he clearly does. As William Dean points out in his review of the book,

Posner's narrow definition of the public intellectual is his book's greatest weakness and its greatest strength. Using economic analysis, hard data and checks on prediction, Posner subjects dozens of public intellectuals to pointed criticism, if not a sound thrashing. He concentrates on "academic public intellectuals," arguing that independent public intellectuals are a dying breed, and he demonstrates how their public pronunciamentos have been sloppy and prejudiced in ways they would never allow in their scholarship.

Posner fact-checks a host of public intellectuals and compiles a list of errors worthy of a soviet bureaucrat. And why? As Dean explains it, “Posner's main claim is that the arts and humanities should be kicked out of public intellectualdom.” Hence:

Posner launches into an ill-fated and lengthy exercise in ranking the 571 public intellectuals who in the years 1995-2000 received the most media attention and Web-site hits. None of the great public intellectuals I cite above (from Addams to Lasch) makes Posner's top 100, and three fail to show up among his top 571. Not only is this ranking a ridiculous way to assess real public influence, it undermines Posner's own project; he himself would predict that the ranking would stimulate public intellectuals' vanity, causing them either to preen or be wounded and then to ignore the book's larger argument.

Dean is quite right in labeling Posner’s project “ridiculous.” But I think Dean’s more significant point is the vision of public intellectual work he pits against Posner’s attempt to excommunicate the defects. Posner’s methodology, he argues, forces him to disregard

public intellectuals who discuss public philosophies and attitudes. These public intellectuals sometimes uncover implicit orientations and worldviews that, in turn, affect public decisions and actions. For example, he ignores the fact that there is an American spiritual culture, that religious thinkers can criticize and affect that spiritual culture, and that they can thereby make a difference in American public practice. Religious critics such as Cornel West, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Richard John Neuhaus are doing as much today.

Put more prosaically, public intellectuals perform an important social function. There are other ways to describe this function. In fact, in the panel discussion led by John Donatich and linked above, Jean Bethke Elshtain offered a more secular version than the one William Dean invokes in her name:

A public intellectual is not a paid publicist, not a spinner, not in the pocket of a narrowly defined purpose. It is, of course the temptation, another one, of the public intellectual to cozy up to that which he or she should be evaluating critically. I think perhaps, too many White House dinners can blunt the edge of criticism. . . .

So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers.

Elshtain’s point is that the public intellectual function is criticism. And if intellectuals are in a better position to perform that function it’s not because they are uniquely blessed with wisdom—and it’s certainly not because they are uniquely equipped to wield social or political power. It is only because learning the processes of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment. It’s what we do at our day jobs.

It is also, however, the obligation of every citizen in a democracy. Trained to it or not, all participants in self-government are duty-bound to prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions that would shape their lives. And so if public intellectuals have any role to play in a democracy—and they do—it’s simply to keep the pot boiling. The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.

Posted by stevemack at August 24, 2016 07:40 AM


"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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