Public Intellectuals



I can think of about a dozen reasons why you wouldn’t want to be a public intellectual. Here are just a few. Do you remember Socrates? He was a public intellectual. He went into the Athenian marketplace and discussed philosophy with whomever he found there. They killed him. Some years later, Aristotle fled the same city when it appeared he was about to meet a similar fate. Do you remember Jesus? I’m not sure you could describe him as an intellectual exactly, but he did have a message for any member of the public who cared to hear it. They killed him too.

We’re not living in the ancient world, of course, but anyone who wants to play the role of a public intellectual today might worry all the same. There’s a bit of a pattern here. Plato’s philosopher returns to the cave, out of civic duty, and is rejected as an ignoramus. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra leaves his mountaintop to teach his wisdom in the town below and is once again rejected, laughed at. You can think of other examples, of serious thinkers leaving the ivory tower, sometimes anyway, and entering the fray of public debate, and often regretting it. There are plenty of reasons not to do this today more than ever perhaps, in a time when civil discourse is drowned out by sophistry and manipulation, bombast and false anger. There’s a lot of heat in that kitchen, and I can think of only a couple of reasons why you’d want to enter it. One is a passion for ideas for their own sake and the second is because it needs to be done. There’s not much to be said about the first, so I’m going to talk about the second.

What needs to be done and why? There’s a need today, as in any time, for a form of discourse that’s roughly half-way between conventional academic research—what is produced largely in the better universities and published in peer-reviewed books and journals, presented at conferences of learned societies, and so on—and, on the other hand, the kind of thing we hear from politicians, activists, journalists, clerics, pop culture figures, and so on. A sizeable gap separates these two forms of discourse, and for a few reasons. The language of science, philosophy, or any academic discipline is specialized and often loaded with jargon, some of it necessary and some of it probably not. Scholarly research is usually quite narrowly focused and written for an audience of specialists, all of whom employ a similar vocabulary. The vocabulary itself is often inscrutable to outsiders and sometimes even insiders to a discipline but outsiders to one of its sub-disciplines. Philosophy is especially known for this. No contemporary philosopher is a household name, and not many scientists are either. Another reason is that writing for a public audience isn’t incentivized by the universities; publications such as this one that aren’t peer-reviewed don’t count as research and so are not rewarded in the way that peer-reviewed research is. Another reason is perhaps an element of condescension that’s not uncommon among university professors toward writing for the general public. Universities are often thought of as retreats from the world of the practical and the mundane, and while I think there’s some value in this idea, it’s often taken too far. On the other side of this gap is any number of opinion leaders, speaking about the issues of the day and in a language accessible to all. The problem is the size of this gap.

Consider the state of our politics. There’s a need today, as always, for political ideas, for intelligent, reasonable people to put some proposals out there, and something that’s on a higher level than what we hear from politicians themselves, most of whom are not serious thinkers so much as advocates and campaigners, less thoughtful spokespeople than crusaders of a kind. Political scientists and philosophers are typically very reluctant to enter the fray, and again for good reason. The trouble is that others aren’t reluctant, and the vacuum is filled by journalists, celebrities, and charlatans. There’s never any shortage of them, and they will happily fill any void left by the more knowledgeable. Let me mention just a couple of examples of the kind of political intellectuals we used to see. A century ago, John Dewey was America’s foremost public intellectual, writing for popular magazines, newspapers, and so on, at the same time that he was one of the world’s preeminent philosophers. He was able to go back and forth, seemingly with ease, between writing treatises of political philosophy and writing short pieces for a general audience. A few decades later William F. Buckley Jr. was appearing on TV with his weekly program Firing Line, which enjoyed a long and successful run on PBS. Buckley wasn’t a political theorist, but he didn’t need to be. He was what’s called a “commentator,” and there’s a difference. I used to watch his show when I was a teenager. He was a conservative and I wasn’t, but I loved Firing Line. You didn’t need to be a conservative to watch it. It wasn’t Fox News, nor was it CNN. There was no party line, no orthodoxy. No one was angry, feigning indignation and accusing anyone who disagreed with them of being a hateful human being. People could respectfully disagree, and more than that, they were often expected to, and to present intelligent arguments for their views, not just dig in and do battle, as virtually all political programs now do.

Where are the Deweys and the Buckleys today? They’ve largely retreated, out of the public domain and into the universities and the think tanks, leaving actors and talk show hosts to pick up the slack. We’ll need to do better, if our politics is going to get out of the morass it’s in, and not just our politics. One notable example of a public intellectual today is Sam Harris. Harris is continuing this tradition and should be commended for it. I don’t always agree with him either, but the point of this kind of public discourse isn’t to give you something you will agree with but to raise the bar, provide an example, and propose some ideas that get people thinking and talking, something that’s above the usual fare of manipulation and sophistry. We need more Deweys, Buckleys, and Harrises, intelligent voices who aren’t afraid to stick their necks out, knowing the risks involved. You’re not going to be executed for entering the fray today, but there’s a fair probability you’ll be accused of something or other, your academic reputation may take a hit, and so on. You may need thick skin, but so be it.

Plato thought it was the civic duty of any who have real knowledge not to keep it to themselves but to engage in dialogue with whomever they encounter, to inject some intelligence into the cacophony, and he was right. It’s not only our politics that’s at stake but our culture generally. What is a culture but a conversation in which ideas are proposed, debated, and handed down from one generation to the next, hopefully in a critical way? What’s needed is a discourse that’s intermediate between the scholarly and the popular, the continuation of a tradition that’s as old as Socrates and as contemporary as Harris. There has long been what’s called an “educated reading audience” out there, people who are intelligent and hungry for ideas without being professional academics. If philosophers for the most part no longer address this audience, it’s my opinion that they should, at least sometimes. Some of what philosophers write needs to be written in a technical language and for an audience of specialists, but surely not all of it. The same can be said of other disciplines. The ivory tower is a very nice place to be, but you also need to get out of there sometimes and “communicate your findings,” as they say, not just to your colleagues but to anyone who cares to hear it and who’s willing to meet you half way.

There’s a lot of fear out there today. Fear of being slapped with one of the many hateful labels that we hear every day, fear of having your words twisted, and so on. When fear rules and prevents intellectuals from entering the arena of public discourse, charlatans take their place and they already have. The charlatans are always going to be there. They will always be the loudest voices in the conversation and the most numerous. We’re not about to change that, but what we can do is inject some rationality into a conversation that’s often lacking it. If you don’t think much of our politics today, one thing we could do is lower the temperature in that kitchen.

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