Several weeks ago, Basic Books and The Nation cosponsored a forum on the future of the public intellectual. Among the participants were columnist Christopher Hitchens, Yale law professor Stephen Carter, and Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals.
Two salient questions emerged during the discussion. First: What’s responsible for the decline of the public intellectual? As the title of Jacoby’s book suggests, the belief that the public intellectuals of yore no longer exist is widely held among academic contrarians. The general feeling seems to be that we have no Edmund Wilsons anymore. No Lewis Mumfords or Lionel Trillings. This is largely true, or at least seems so. In previous columns, I’ve suggested a number of possible reasons for this.
(1) The culture of disciplinary subspecialization that prevails in most graduate schools has pushed the academy’s esoteric concerns further and further away from real life. (2) The rigid imposition of French deconstructionism and the neo-Marxist paradigms of the Frankfurt School have made academic queries monolithically predictable, and consequently anti-intellectual. (3) The hyper-jargonized style of academic discourse—to which all Ph.D. candidates must adhere lest they be tarred “journalists”—has created academic writing that’s unreadable and soporific. (4) The commercialization and subsequent unionization of campuses have begun destroying the “liberal arts” mission of higher education.
Indeed, the forum’s panelists addressed several of these topics, albeit briefly. But the more interesting part of the discussion focused on its second question: What is the role of this so-called public intellectual about whose decline we seem so concerned? This is arguably one of the most important questions any culture can ask itself, because though it may not seem so at first, it is fundamentally an ethical question.
Why ethical? Because people with superior minds are born; they are not made. A high IQ is inherited, like family wealth. It’s a privilege, a gift that isn’t earned, which, of course, is what makes intellectual snobbery so ridiculous and irritating. But more importantly, high IQs may be of great use to society at large, and that is what makes wasted intellectual potential a crime against humanity. It’s also what makes intellectual philanthropy a moral imperative.
But what form should such intellectual philanthropy take? In his contribution to the forum, Hitchens suggested that public intellectuals should play the role of the proverbial gadfly who questions and picks apart conventional wisdom and received opinion. Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he said, “To ‘consider the alternatives’ might be a definition of the critical mind or the alive intelligence. That’s what the alive intelligence and the critical mind exist to do.” This “scrutiny,” as Hitchens later called it, is certainly one of the most vital forms of intellectual philanthropy the intelligentsia can provide. But it is only half, one might say even the negative or destructive half, of the package. The other, constructive half is something more on the order of guidance. Thus, the public intellectual should use his ability to “scrutinize” the larger picture, not just as a means of discrediting other people’s bad ideas, but as a way of offering better ideas. This means, in essence, drawing maps for the rest of us—not necessarily to follow, for that way lies dogma, but to explore.
Communication, then, is central to a public intellectual’s task. His stance should be one in which, through clear explication, he helps the rest of us to see and understand the complexities his mind grasps instinctively. And of course, Hitchens’s remarks imply that these complexities should not be just any complexities—i.e., complexities for their own sake, or epistemological cul-de-sacs, if you will. However pious this may sound in our cynical age, they should be complexities that are essentially political in the sense that our understanding of them will allow us to alleviate suffering, spread liberal ideals such as freedom and justice, and generally improve the quality of human life.
Yes, this is hopelessly idealistic, but it’s undoubtedly more valuable than so much of the masturbatory bunkum that proliferates in scholarly circles today. Besides, intellectuals who languish self-satisfiedly twiddling their thoughts are hardly less ignoble than the tight-fisted filthy rich.
A transcript of the Nation debate is accessible at thenation.com/article/future-public-intellectual-forum/
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2001