Public intellectuals can alter the course of events, even after their timeby AC Grayling / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Intellectuals offer exactly what the public conversation needs
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If it was once said that the word “intellectual” made despisers of the term reach for their guns, the term “public intellectual” assuredly makes them reach for a bomb. To critics, the term connotes the cheap and easy option of pontification, of commentary without responsibility, rather like the luxury enjoyed by a political party in opposition—the luxury of having to move nothing but your lips.
To those who, on the other hand, see the importance of a lively public conversation about all that presses, it is Ralph Emerson’s idea that recommends itself: the idea of individuals who are acquainted with both history and the history of ideas, who can take from them insights of relevance to the present, and who can effectively communicate new ideas and insights as a result.
Without people who are alert and engaged, who are eager to debate, and who have some expertise to offer from their studies or experience, the public conversation would be a meagre thing. What such people offer is exactly what the public conversation needs: ideas, perspectives, criticism and commentary. What anyone who offers them should expect in return is robust examination of what they offer. Whether ideas come to be accepted or rejected, everyone gains by having them discussed.
There is no bar to anyone’s being a public intellectual other than having nothing to say. One thing this implies is that public intellectuals are, generally speaking, a self-selected group; they are those who step voluntarily forward, as enfranchised citizens of ancient Athens once did in the agora, to make a point.
The internet has thrown open the possibilities of such self-selection, with some commentators becoming known for the incisiveness and sense of their comments on discussion threads and blogs. Despite the fact that most of what appears on threads and blogs is anonymous ranting and vituperation, the democracy of the web has proved its worth, reviving the agora on the grand scale.
Some public intellectuals have a committed political stance. Others, siding with Edward Said’s view that the aim of the public intellectual is to “advance freedom and knowledge,” try resolutely to occupy neutral ground.
Of the two stances, the latter is hardest to maintain, and least plausible…