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More on public intellectuals

There's been a bit of further reaction to Posner's Public Intellectuals.

Rick Perlstein's opinion piece in the New York Times is worth a look. There is less and less money for intellectuals outside of academia, Perlstein writes, and yet they keep thinking and writing. "What today's public intellectuals need are publishers, and maybe a few publicists, too," Perlstein concludes. To which one might add, the web — not only is it democratic, it holds writers accountable to their audience (thereby addressing one of Posner's key criticisms).

Eric Alterman's "Judging the Wise Guys" distinguishes itself by using the word "jeremiad" earliest — it's in his second sentence — and generally agrees with the overall sentiment that the book is rather poor. He suspects Posner had political motivations for attacking some of his peers, particularly historian Sean Wilentz and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin.

Robert Boynton, the only reviewer (I think) not to use "jeremiad," does however offer an insightful quote from the book:

Most people, including most academics, are confusing mixtures. They are moral and immoral, kind and cruel, smart and stupid. ... [A] successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot. It doesn't help that successful people tend to exaggerate their versatility; abnormal self-confidence is a frequent cause and almost invariable effect of great success.

(I buy that; it also more or less agrees with my previous remarks.) Boynton observes that this seems to also describe Posner himself; every review I've seen seems to delight in the seeming paradox of Posner criticizing the sort of endeavor he engages in in making the criticism. One almost suspects that Posner, accordingly, must be rather amused by how poor the reviews are, and unoriginal their observations....

(I, by the way, consider myself blessed not to have had any great successes (as of yet), so I know that my self-confidence and presumptive versatility are completely illusory.)

[Note: I previously updated the earlier entry with links to a follow up in the Times and to a comment on Slate.com by Posner himself.]

January 24, 2002 6:20 PM

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