The world's fifth best public intellectual on the uses and abuses of the termby Christopher Hitchens / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Has anyone ever described themselves as an “intellectual,” or given it as the answer to the question, “And what do you do?” The very term “public intellectual” sometimes affects me like the expression “organic food.” After all, there can’t be any “inorganic” nourishment, and it’s difficult to conceive of an intellectual whose specialisation was privacy, at least since Immanuel Kant. However, we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of “opinion maker” or “pundit,” especially as the last two are intimately bound up with the world of television. (I recently rewatched the historic 40-year-old ABC News confrontation between Gore Vidal and the late William F Buckley at the Chicago Democratic convention. The astonishing thing was that the network gave these two intellects a full 22 minutes to discuss matters after the news. How far we have fallen from that standard of commentary.)
I did once hear the political scientist Alan Wolfe introduce himself as “a New York intellectual,” staking a claim to a tradition that extends all the way back to the founding of Partisan Review. Taking this characterisation to be America’s most lasting contribution to the resonance of the term “public intellectual,” one could note that it largely described people who worked outside the academy and indeed outside of large-scale publishing, tending to be self-starting independents or editors of “minority of one”-type magazines. The sociologist Daniel Bell finally got a position in academe, but only after being awarded the necessary PhD for the number of important books he had written without hope of tenure. The late Susan Sontag, whom I knew and admired, likewise made her way through life without a steady job, a reliable source of income or, for quite a number of years, shelter. Gore Vidal never went to a university—even as an undergraduate (being, if only in this respect, like George Orwell, Partisan Review’s London correspondent). The number of counterexamples that one might adduce from within the academy, from Noam Chomsky to Nathan Glazer, doesn’t much alter the force of my point. To be a public intellectual is in some sense something that you are, and not so much something that you do. Many scholars are intelligent and highly regarded professors, but they are somehow not public intellectuals.
Of all the people I have mentioned, I cannot think of any—except Wolfe—who would have said on his…