Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Public Intellectuals

If one assumed that American intellectuals have little or no influence in our culture, and searched for evidence of it, one need not look further than Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s February 4th essay, “Public Intellectuals, Inc.” on the InsideHigherEd website. In an obvious effort to boost the “prestige” of intellectuals in the public eye, he proposes that intellectuals – in academe and in what Di Leo terms the “public-private sector,” for many of them have feet in both realms – should do a better job of ingratiating themselves to both camps. Little known academic intellectuals – that is, in the academic establishment – commonly have scant respect for well known “public intellectuals,” because the latter are not beholden to what Di Leo claims are the strict, “qualitative” standards of academia and who focus on “quantity.” (A quantity of what, Di Leo never says.)

Di Leo, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria, does not say what ideas these relabeled “corporate” intellectuals should draw from academe and publicly propagate, but his models of successful “public” intellectuals are a dead give-away: transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, arch-pragmatists John Dewey and William James, and a founder of sociology, Max Weber – “figures,” he writes, “who still have a powerful presence in the world of ideas.” Di Leo claims that contemporary public intellectuals have not attained the respect these intellectuals enjoyed in their time, nor nearly their influence on the course of American politics and culture.

“Currently, it almost seems that the more public the intellectual, the less seriously he is taken by other intellectuals. Nevertheless, public intellectuals today have more media outlets and markets available to them than ever before. Due primarily to the rise of new technologies, the circulation and recicrulation of their ideas are reaching wider and wider audiences. Consequently, as the intellectual influence of public intellectuals over other intellectuals (viz., non-public intellectuals) wanes, the market for their ideas and their entertainment value skyrockets.”

Di Leo’s complaint reads suspiciously like long repressed but disguised envy. Does he dream of being a wined-and-dined “public intellectual” with a huge “market” for his ideas (whatever they may be) which would net him the attention, “respect,” and deference accorded “public intellectuals”? One can only guess. He does not define what he means by a “market,” and he himself disparages most “public intellectuals” by indicating that their ideas have mere “entertainment” value. Nor does he define or even identify contemporary “public intellectuals.”

Instances of “public intellectuals,” to me, at least, are, say, George Will, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Jonah Goldberg on one hand, and Maureen Dowd, Leonard Pitts and Paul Krugman on the other, most of whom have syndicated columns that appear in major and minor newspapers and even on internet publications, and who are certainly more widely known than is Di Leo. They are “public intellectuals,” and I am not aware that they are losing or lack public “respect.”

And perhaps the best known “public intellectual,” influential even twenty-six years after her death, is Ayn Rand, who was more than an intellectual. She was a philosopher.

A better and shorter term for “public intellectual,” moreover, might be the wholly respectable but nevertheless slightly derogatory pundit, whose Hindi-rooted secondary meaning in various dictionaries simply is “learned teacher,” “authority,” or “critic.” A pundit may or may not have a strong academic affiliation or any academic affiliation at all. Perhaps it is respect that Di Leo pines for, but he is averse to being a mere pundit. So he has coined the cumbersome term “corporate intellectual,” corporate subsuming all intellectuals, academic and non-academic. But even this term is redundant and pointless. An intellectual is an intellectual, whether he writes for an academic journal or is a newspaper columnist or is a teacher in one of the humanities.

Here is another odd statement:

“The reduction of the discourse of public intellectuals to mere polarized positions is the most observable sign of a lack of respect….Respect is afforded public intellectuals not by the mere ‘declaration’ or ‘assertion’ of a position….Rather, respect is granted to them through the opportunity to articulate and defend their positions in some detail or depth to a wide audience. It is further confirmed when their defense is thoughtfully received by an attentive audience. Public intellectuals are respected for the depth of their knowledge, and efforts to suppress it, such as the reduction of their knowledge to a mere position, is ultimately a sign of disrespect for them as intellectuals.” (Italics mine)

It takes some pondering to unravel this contradiction. But, here is more of Di Leo’s complaint:

“From the general public’s point of view, they are either Republican or Democrat; liberal or conservative; left-wing or right-wing; pro-choice or pro-life; and so on.” (It is significant that he omits intellectuals who are pro-reason or anti-reason.) These, presumably, are what Di Leo means by mere polarized positions. That is, they identify specific political or moral positions with which one may or may not disagree. It seems that he resents identity as such.

Overall, it is difficult to determine what exactly Di Leo wishes academics and “public intellectuals” to do, other than what they have been doing, which is either acting as transmitters of a culture’s values (as Rand would put it) especially in higher education, or propounding, explicating, defending, or attacking them before a large public audience.

Di Leo’s perfect model of a “public intellectual” and academic intellectual is Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he says came nearest to what he represents as the best kind of “corporate intellectual.”

“In his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, ‘The American Scholar,’ Emerson envisioned the American scholar as a person who would do whatever possible to communicate ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. Emerson regarded the American scholar to be a whole person while thinking. As a whole person, the American scholar would speak and think from the position of the ‘One Man,’ which ‘is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.’”

Later Di Leo endorses Emerson’s purpose as a “public intellectual.”

“’The office of the scholar,’ writes Emerson, ‘is to cheer, to raise, and the guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation…He is one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart.’”

Thus, concludes Di Leo, “Emerson provides us with a very clear response to the relationship of intellectuals to the public-private and academic spheres.”

An antidote to Emerson’s freewheeling, inebriate concept of an intellectual’s purpose and role is Ayn Rand’s description:

“The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor….The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields.” (“For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual, excerpted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

As evidence that Di Leo does not grasp that the academic “life of the mind” sooner or later is transmitted by “public intellectuals” into the culture, later in his essay he writes:

“The public-private sector…is associated with a different set of activities and values….[I]f academe is dedicated to the life of the mind, then the public-private sector is not; if academe disseminates, discovers, and debates knowledge and ideas, then the public-private sector does not; if academe is not motivated by market values, then the public-private sector is. In sum, the public-private sector is a site where ends are pursued relative to their potential either to appease public and private sentiment or produce ‘cash value,’ whereas the academy is not.”

In short, Di Leo claims that academe pursues knowledge for the sake of knowledge, without regard to its practical application to reality and to man’s life – that is, without regard to its “cash” or “market” value. This is somehow a “nobler” or “purer” pursuit of knowledge than what motivates “public intellectuals,” who are too preoccupied with applying their knowledge to real or imagined problems in politics, the arts, and science.

Furthermore, Di Leo is wrong that academe’s dedication to the dissemination of knowledge is conducted in an insular, scholarly ambience alien and hostile to the “outside world.” All the disastrous ideas that have plagued man since the 18th century have emanated from the universities, in philosophy, in politics, in the arts, and in the sciences. It may have taken a generation or longer, but they have as a rule originated in academe and were eventually absorbed by intellectuals who in turn transmitted them to the public and to the various “humanities” and sciences, where they were applied, for better or for worse.

More recently, the philosophy and pedagogical ideas of John Dewey are prime examples. Another example of a “whole person” is Woodrow Wilson, a cloistered intellectual who moved from the “groves of academe” to the White House, where he translated his anti-liberty ideas to political policy.

But perhaps the best example of an Emersonian “One Man” – that perfect symbiosis of academic and “public intellectual” admired by Di Leo – who influenced the course of philosophy and consequently the character and content of our civilization, is Immanuel Kant. Most the ideas that have set the course of politics in America for statism and totalitarianism (if the trend isn’t arrested and reversed); most the ideas that sabotaged and eventually destroyed the arts; and most the ideas that are converting science into the craps shoot of consensus, originated in academe, courtesy of that Prussian thinker. (Hegel, Comte, Schopenhauer and their philosophical ilk and successors were all heirs to Kant’s deliberate attack on reason; they were the branches of the tree that was Kant, without whom it is doubtful they would have concocted their own malignant systems.)

It took less than a generation for academe and its “public intellectual” spokesmen to convert the anti-science, anti-technology, non-intellectual, and anti-man fringe cult of ecology or environmentalism into a political force, culminating, first, in warnings of global cooling, and then of global warming, then turned into national and international legislation, sentencing those who place a “cash” or “market” value on the truth to fight a rear-guard action, to be ignored or marginalized by a news media whose spokesmen were taught – in colleges and universities – that truth is relative, or subjective, or irrelevant, and that man is guilty of everything by virtue of his mere existence. (And three of most prominent exponents of that position today are those “public intellectuals” Al Gore and the Clintons.)

Di Leo’s envy of successful “public intellectuals” shows when he cites the findings of Richard Posner in his 2002 book Public Intellectuals (which I am not recommending, because I have not read it), which apparently tabulated 546 major “public intellectuals” known in the news media.

“Work like Posner’s continues to promote the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals are identifiable and worthy of merit based solely on the size of the market for their ideas, with no methodological allowances made for the quality of their contribution to public discourse….Posner treats public intellectualism in America as though it were merely part of the entertainment industry….”

This reads much like a person who would also like to be interviewed by Tim Russert, or Matt Lauer, or Charley Rose, but never will be. Falling back on Emerson’s “whole person” argument, Di Leo remarks:

“In the act of thinking, the intellectual becomes this whole person. Emerson writes: ‘In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.’ Isn’t this true today? Doesn’t public intellectualism suffer from the exact form of degeneracy noted by Emerson? Are there not too many public intellectuals who are parrots in the public arena, speaking merely from the parameters laid out for them by others….?”

There is an element of truth in these observations. But, barring a compulsive vanity to be pawed by the news media, academic intellectuals need not become “super star” intellectuals to effect “change” in politics or any other realm of human endeavor. When I listen to the rhetoric of the current presidential candidates (or even of the current occupant of the White House), I am not “entertained”; what I feel is dread, anger or revulsion. Every one of them is proposing to expand government power over Americans’ lives, increase the national debt in expenditures here and abroad to “fight” poverty, AIDS, global warming, and so on, in the “nobler” pursuit of selflessness and sacrifice. And every one of their proposals is rooted in what was taught the candidates in universities, and all of it is the thoughtless, unimaginative parroting of ideas uncritically absorbed in academe.

What Di Leo’s essay demonstrates is the gulf that exists not only between academe and the American public, but also between academe’s general grasp of its actual influence in the culture and its alleged sidelining and neglect in “public discourse.” Di Leo is likely not the only academic intellectual who pines for prominence in the “public discourse,” although had he a better understanding of academe’s role in today’s politics and culture, he might be reluctant to take credit for it.

Ideas, after all, have consequences, and the respect they earn is in direct proportion to how they promote, abridge, poison or destroy one’s life.


Anonymous said...

Most pundits are simply not intellectuals. They're hacks. Case in point: Maureen Dowd. You've got to have an intellect to be an intellectual. The same probably goes for dozens of right-wing pundits who dutifully trot out talking points. You give short shrift to John Dewey, but however much we may disagree with him, he was a public intellectual par excellence, writing voluminously on every subject, relating everything to his pragmatist philosophy. We should have more public intellectuals like Dewey, in that regard. They just shouldn't be pragmatists.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Judging Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, et al. by contemporary standards of brilliance, originality of thought, and articulation, they are modern "public intellectuals." I was typing off the top of my head.

As for giving Dewey short shrift, what you say is true, but then, Kant was equally prodigious in the volume of his writing, commenting on a variety of subjects. So, I would treat Kant with the same short-shriftness as I would Dewey. They've both done us a lot of damage because they were so "intellectual." And I didn't want to embark on a sideline essay on Dewey. Ed Cline

Dr. T said...

Many of the "public intellectuals" can now be found online, I would think.

Anonymous said...

No, Ed, you're wrong about Kant. He was definitely not a public intellectual. He was a cloistered intellectual. He wrote lots of technical treatises. Dewey wrote about contemporary politics, literature, art, educational theory, and he even helped found The Nation.

Of course you're right that both were destructive. That's not my point. My point is that there is a difference between these three things: pundit, public intellectual, cloistered intellectual, and you're not recognizing it. Pundits are paid hacks who make little cultural difference. Cloistered intellectuals have social impact only in the long term. Public intellectual have significant cultural impact in the short term.

So we need more *good* public intellectuals, not just pundits. Who are the public intellectuals today? Not the facile pundits you mention. Take a look here:


Anonymous said...

This time a working link.

Edward Cline said...

HI, Anonymous:

While I was researching Sparrowhawk and the 18th century, I came upon numerous anecdotes of the period's leading thinkers and intellectuals discussing (condemning, appraising, praising, wondering) Immanuel Kant's papers, which were widely distributed in the various schools of thought and salons. So, he wasn't an unknown; quite the contrary, he was very well known, and David Hume, for example, not only read his papers but treasured the compliment Kant paid him. So, Kant was more "public" than most people realize, and not as cloistured as "legend" has it.

Also, don't be so harsh on pundits. Many of them make more astute observations of the scene in politics and so on than do "official" intellectuals. From my perspective, there are different grades of "public" intellectuals, from "pundit" all the way up to say the caliber of Rand.

Jeff Perren said...


Sneering, "Their books sell like soap!"

"Like you wish yours did."

Here's to Rand's books selling like soap 50 years later!