Do public intellectuals matter?

Public intellectuals can alter the course of events, even after their time
April 24, 2013

Intellectuals offer exactly what the public conversation needs

Who is the winner of our world thinker of 2013 poll? Find out here

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 to outside view. Can anyone really be detached enough, emotionally uncommitted enough, unmoved enough by the injustices, follies, mistakes and depredations committed in the world, to rise above them to the true dispassion? Arguably, engaged intellectuals have grist to their mills, whereas those who claim to be disinterested (not, of course, uninterested) lay themselves open to charges either of fundamental indifference to the things that matter to the rest of us, often urgently so, or concealment of a purpose they hope to gain through its unobviousness.

There is a danger in the fact that people who are publicly salient as a result of major contributions in some special field—in science or literature, say—come to be regarded as oracles on every other subject under the sun. There are fields of endeavour which lend themselves to generalism—politics and journalism, especially—where the essence of the task is to take a broader view, factoring in considerations from a range of subject matters.

But anyone whose self-election as a public intellectual is accepted by the public, and whose initial claim is based on achievement in a specialism, needs to be alert to the risk of seeing things only through its lens. For the essence of the public intellectual is having a view about many things, in a way that integrates and makes sense: it is about breadth of interest and the application of a considered perspective.

Can one give a catch-all definition of what it is to be a “public intellectual”? Consider this list: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Stephen Jay Gould, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, indeed anyone on Prospect’s list of people who merit or are thought to merit the label. They have very little in common other than intelligence and engagement, and the fact that they speak out. Those three things, accordingly, might be taken to capture the essence.

Whether the utterances of members of this heterogenous group make a difference, large or small, is a matter of history rather than judgement, but it would be very surprising if in at least some cases they did not. Ideas are the cogs of history, and drive its changes forward. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the philosopher sitting in his study might alter the course of events 50 years after his time—he had Locke and Marx in mind, two paradigms of public intellectuals—and there is much truth in that, if the word “philosopher” is given (as it should be) its widest application—perhaps as the appropriate substitute for the term “public intellectual” itself.

Read the results of the world thinkers poll here

The XX factor: Jessica Abrahams looks at the women on the list

What is a public intellectual?asks Christopher Hitchens

Follow Prospect on Facebook and Twitter