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On 'Public Intellectuals'

Richard Posner has published a book, Public Intellectuals (excerpted in the New York Times here), and the Times has enlisted David Brooks to write a review.

The review is confusing, and I suspect the book is, too. (But I do not aim to review either, myself.) Posner, Brooks writes, has a low opinion of public intellectuals (ranked in the book by mentions in the media): "We stink," says Brooks, describing Posner's views. "Our logic is flawed. Our use of evidence is shoddy. Our ratiocination is crude."

Why? "Posner's explanation is that public intellectuals aren't very good because nobody cares," Brooks writes. In Posner's words (from the excerpt):

The fuller study that informs this book reveals that public-intellectual work indeed has a structure, has patterns and conventions, is coherent and intelligible — yet part of that structure turns out to be an absence of the quality controls that one finds in other markets for goods and services, including the market for academic scholarship. ...

At least when conceived of as someone who is attempting to make a serious contribution to the improvement of public understanding, the public intellectual lacks accountability, an essential attribute of sellers in a well-functioning market.

I don't buy this explanation. The claim itself may be true, but it's not the answer to the question at hand: Even if the market for their non-academic theorizings actually were efficient, few intellectuals if any would actually be able to offer significantly greater insights than they do already.

Academics have advanced their various fields of study tremendously, and of course some of them have made brilliant and lasting contributions. And various avenues of science, social science and philosophy have enlightened various aspects of the universe we live in, and the way we live. But ask any one scholar (or thinker or what have you) for any cohesive, comprehensive picture of the real world in all its messy complexity, and you will ultimately be disappointed; the answer will inevitably be distorted by the thinker's personal preferences, wishes and beliefs, and the accident of his or her knowledge of the world as it is.

That is a limit case, and needn't be definitive. But, in practice, if you bring an intellectual out into the practical realities of the real world, he or she begins to approach that limit. The focusing lens of academia is gone, and in its place the wise man is confronted by the scattering prism of inescapable political, social and emotional contexts.

And it is simply the case that virtually no one is immune to those contexts, and the pressures they exert on rational thought. Even within academia, trends and grant-money pressures and the established views within a field determine much of what gets published and, in turn, taught and discussed. The quality of a work is decided very much by who is doing the deciding, and his own views, and only reluctantly is truly original work praised or recognized.

(NB: I do not wish to pass judgment on this phenomenon here. Originality should be accepted reluctantly; just because something is new does not mean it is better. Too, it cannot be measured without a context, and the only context available would be whatever theory a new thought (perhaps, even, "paradigm") would replace, then it is obviously likely to face rejection.) So it makes sense that confirmations of what people already believe are most likely to be accepted, even if they are, ultimately, only mediocre contributions to human understanding.)

Intellectuals, it seems to me, are hardly much different from most anyone else. They judge a belief primarily on how it suits them — how it fits with their past thoughts and experiences, and how it jibes with their values. Within their fields, academics are more or less successful at valuing reason and some sort of integrity to the truth (whatever that is) above other considerations (including their own personal views and history), but this is by no means absolute, no matter what one's lofty idealizations of the Ivory Tower may be. Scholars are human, too.

And when scholars engage themselves in public, they are as susceptible to the various pressures of public life as anyone else. If anything, the type of thinker that is drawn to the role of public intellectual is more likely to be susceptible than others. And even very smart people are guilty of greed, pride and ambition.

So, I ask, why should one expect public intellectuals to perform much better than they do? They confront complex, difficult and poorly defined problems, fraught with political and emotional pitfalls, and at the same time they are asked for answers, not humility. (They have a reputation to uphold.) Many of their observations and explanations are valuable and insightful. But I should be rather surprised to discover that anyone, no matter how brilliant, had successfully invented and expressed a single, pure, enlightening and comprehensive view of society and culture. In practice, any public intellectual will inevitably stumble.


Addendum: The Times has followed up with this enlightening piece on just how dignified these public intellectuals are. Apparently, Posner's list is quite the little scandal; it is earning a legitimacy it never could have otherwise via its unwarranted attention from (in the Times' words) "journalists and intellectual scorekeepers, who have been bickering over the standings for weeks." Ah, well. Nothing like a little world-class public pettiness (and self-obsessiveness) to wash down all that mediocre public thought, I guess?

Further addendum: Posner comments on just how scandalous his claims are.

Further further addendum: The Economist belatedly weighs in with this review. The Max Weber quote it opens with is memorable: "I'm not a donkey," he said, "and I don't have a field." Heh. Me neither. And of course the review concludes exactly as all the other reviews of this book do, albeit a bit better put: "Being a serious intellectual is harder than it looks. That is Mr. Posner's point. But need he have illustrated it with this book?" You tell me.

January 14, 2002 5:30 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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