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With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visible forums for discussion have multiplied, while greater academic specialization has yielded a growing number of narrowly trained scholars. Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene--one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals--compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse.
Leveling a balanced attack on liberal and conservative pundits alike, Posner describes the styles and genres, constraints and incentives, of the activity of public intellectuals. He identifies a market for this activity--one with recognizable patterns and conventions but an absence of quality controls. And he offers modest proposals for improving the performance of this market--and the quality of public discussion in America today.
This made [Arthur] Koestler an uncomfortable presence, who brought disruption and conflict in his train. But that is what intellectuals are for.
The correspondence between the decline of the great public intellectuals and the resurrection of the professors is thus no mere coincidence.
This book reflects a long-standing interest of mine in the phenomenon of academics' writing outside their field or, what often turns out to be the same thing, writing for a general audience. But it has more immediate stimuli as well. One is the discussion, in my book on the Clinton impeachment fiasco, of the contemporaneous public commentary on that remarkable episode by philosophers, historians, and law professors. The commentary was of surprisingly low quality on the whole, but I made no effort in my book to account systematically for this surprising fact. Second, a review I did for the New York Times of public intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb's book on the crisis (as she sees it) of contemporary American society provoked a surprising number of comments, many positive. It had struck a chord and led my longtime editor at Harvard University Press, Michael Aronson, to suggest that I attempt a fuller analysis of the deficiencies, as they seemed to me, in the treatment of political and social questions by "public intellectuals"—intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern.
The third event that stimulated this book was my appointment in November1999 to mediate the Microsoft antitrust case, which had drawn a raft of public commentary from economists and law professors. When I got into this extremely complex case I realized that most of the commentary by this segment of the public intellectual community, to the extent disinterested, reflected only a superficial engagement with the facts; it was little better than kibitzing.
But when I first began to think about the general subject of the public intellectual, I found myself at sea. The subject seemed formless—the term itself, "public intellectual," undefined; the activities of public intellectuals, whoever they were exactly, too heterogeneous to be squeezed into a common analytical framework; the nature of the media's and the public's interest in public-intellectual "work" unclear; the borders between that work and other cultural domains such as journalism, politics, and scholarship hazy; problems of measurement and evaluation insoluble. The world of public intellectuals seemed, in short, random and chaotic. But as my thinking and research progressed, the subject began to assume a manageable shape. The term "public intellectual" could, I found, be defined in a way that would demarcate a coherent albeit broad body of expressive activity. Different genres of public-intellectual work so defined, some with surprisingly rigid conventions, could be described. Secular trends and demographic patterns became discernible, along with possibilities for measurement and for objective evaluation. Public-intellectual work could be seen as constituting a market and a career and could be analyzed in economic and sociological terms and compared with other markets and other careers. Reliable judgments about it—not all negative, either—began to seem possible.
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. The consequence is a striking variance in the quality of public-intellectual work, coupled with a low average quality—low, and maybe falling, though it would be more precise to say that public-intellectual work is becoming less distinctive, less interesting, and less important.
No blanket condemnation of the modern public intellectual, academic or nonacademic, is intended or would be warranted, however. Distinguished representatives of each group will be found in Chapter 5's list of the hundred most prominent public intellectuals (along with a number of the distinguished dead) as measured by frequency of mentions in the popular media, an undiscriminating measure from the standpoint of intellectual distinction but a good indicator of which public intellectuals have the public's ear. Some of these modern public intellectuals, such as Henry Kissinger, Patrick Moynihan, Robert Solow, Milton Friedman, Gary Wills, and James Q. Wilson, are distinguished ornaments of American public life. Yet intellectual quality may not even be the most valuable attribute of public intellectuals. Public-intellectual goods, I shall argue, are entertainment goods and solidarity goods as well as information goods; and I am not such a killjoy as to disparage intellectuals for entertaining an audience (I am more dubious about solidarity building). "Information," moreover, must be understood broadly to include the work of public intellectuals in clarifying issues, exposing the errors of other public intellectuals, drawing attention to neglected issues, and vivifying public debate. Nor is it clear how many other markets in symbolic goods would display fewer signs of "market failure" than the public-intellectual market if subjected to the same close and critical scrutiny that this book attempts, or that "market failure" is even a correct characterization of this market. But as William Blake said, bless relaxes, damn braces, so my emphasis is critical rather than celebratory. And there is much to criticize.
There is nothing new about casting a jaundiced eye on the modern public intellectual. Nor about suggesting, as I shall also do, that a major cause of justifiable disappointment with him or her is the rise of the modern university and the concomitant trend to an ever greater specialization of knowledge. Not that specialization is a bad thing; quite the contrary. But not all its consequences are good. As the more illuminating term "division of labor" brings out, specialization works its magic by breaking up tasks into smaller and smaller components, enabling quicker learning, sharper focus, faster completion, and so greater productivity. The modern university is the symbol and principal locus of the division of intellectual labor. Knowledge is divided into disciplines, and disciplines into fields, and fields into subfields, so that an academic might devote the whole of his or her scholarly career to the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Chartres that depict the trades, or to the history of world's fairs, or to the theological relation between late medieval nominalism and the Reformation, or to the philosophical implications of quantum theory.
The depth of knowledge that specialization enables is purchased at the expense of breadth, while the working conditions of the modern university, in particular the principle of academic freedom backed by the tenure contract, make the intellectual's career a safe, comfortable one, which can breed aloofness and complacency. These tendencies are furthest advanced in American universities. That may be why so many of the most distinguished academic public intellectuals active in the second half of the twentieth century were foreigners—such as Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Amartya Sen—even though American universities achieved ascendancy over foreign universities during this period. But of course they did so in part by hiring refugees, such as Arendt and Strauss, and other foreigners, such as Sen.
Not all intellectuals are professors, even today, but most are. Today, then, the typical public intellectual is a safe specialist, which is not the type of person well suited to play the public intellectual's most distinctive, though not only, role, that of critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern. That is a niche role, perhaps little more than a walk-on part in the play of politics, culture, and society. And often the wrong things are criticized. But it is something, and something for which few modern academic intellectuals have the requisite perspective, temperament, character, and knowledge. Their efforts to play the role are likely to yield little more than mistaken prophecy and superficial policy advice. Nowadays, moreover, because of the information overload under which the public sweats and groans, to gain traction as a public intellectual an academic normally must have achieved, however adventitiously, a degree of public fame or notoriety. Without that it is difficult to arouse the interest of even a sliver of the nonacademic public in one's opinions on matters of concern to that public. Many public intellectuals are academics of modest distinction fortuitously thrust into the limelight, acquiring by virtue of that accident sufficient name recognition to become sought-after commentators on current events. Some of them are what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls le Fast Talker.
But those are not the public intellectuals mainly discussed in this book. The Camille Paglias of public intellectualdom are not my targets, although I cannot resist a glance at her extraordinary career (see Chapter 3). The public intellectuals I shall mainly discuss are distinguished academics. Their difficulty in contributing to social betterment is the failure of a market rather than of individuals. And it is not a complete failure; I shall give examples of worthwhile contributions that modern academic public intellectuals have made. Many of those contributions, however, are better regarded as modest extensions of academic work (for example, translating it into language that the lay public can understand) than as distinctive contributions of public intellectuals; they bespeak the academic moonlighting as journalist. And many of the distinctive contributions are negative in the sense of combating the fallacies and follies of other public intellectuals. I believe that it is fair to say that the position, the contribution, most precisely the social significance of the public intellectual is deteriorating in the United States and that the principal reasons are the growth and character of the modern university.
The book is in two parts. Part One looks at the public-intellectual enterprise as a whole. It is taxonomic, theoretical, and empirical, the emphasis and approach being social scientific, though there is a good deal of anecdotal material as well. On the theoretical side it is a study in the economics of symbolic goods, a nascent, as yet rather ill-defined branch—illustrated by Tyler Cowen's book What Price Fame? (2000)—of the economics of nonmarket behavior. By symbolic goods I mean goods the principal content or function of which is expressive or informational: art, propaganda, journalism, and scholarship are all examples.
Part One distinguishes the public intellectual from other types of "knowledge worker," distinguishes among different types of public intellectual (for example, the commentator on current events versus the critic of social trends) and among different formats of public-intellectual work (for example, the magazine article versus the full-page paid advertisement), distinguishes among the different goods that the public intellectual peddles (entertainment goods, solidarity goods, and credence goods), and identifies the various genres of public-intellectual work and the conventions that define those genres. The genres include translating one's scholarly work into a form that the general educated public can understand (self-popularizing, we might call this), making specific policy proposals based on one's academic specialty, politically inflected literary criticism, political satire, jeremiads and other prophetic commentaries on public issues, general and specific social criticism, proposing social reform outside one's field, "real time" commentary, and, the least important, expert testimony in court. The first two genres, self-popularizing and "own field" policy proposals, are the least interesting from the standpoint of analyzing what is distinctive and problematic about public-intellectual work, and so I do not discuss them at any length.
Part One also provides an economic framework for the study of the public intellectual conceived of as following a career in a market shaped by demand and supply, and it tests the implications of the theoretical analysis with empirical data. The data are both qualitative and quantitative; the statistical study of public intellectuals in Chapter 5 is the first comprehensive such study.
Among the points emphasized in Part One are the decline of the independent intellectual; the debilitating impact, to which I have already alluded, on the public intellectual of academization and specialization of knowledge; the tendency of a public intellectual's media celebrity to be inverse to his scholarly renown; the problem of quality control that afflicts this market as a result, among other things, of a failure to keep track of public intellectuals' frequently mistaken diagnoses and prognoses; and the fatuity of supposing that the "marketplace of ideas" can be relied upon to optimize the performance of the public intellectual, given the serious knowledge deficits of his audience in an age of specialized knowledge and the incentives and constraints that play upon him. 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. He lacks it in comparison not only to the academic doing academic work but also to the journalist, the politician, and the policy analyst.
Part One culminates in the statistical analysis in Chapter 5; Part Two begins with a chapter on literary criticism as a public-intellectual genre. The shift in topic and, more, in method may startle some readers. In contrast to the social scientific emphasis and approach of Part One, the dominant perspectives in Part Two are those of philosophy, literary criticism, law, and intellectual history. The book thus bridges the "two cultures" of the famous debate between public intellectuals C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis (see Chapter 6). Like Snow, I regard the social sciences and the humanities as complementary rather than antagonistic systems of inquiry. Both are necessary for a rounded view of the public intellectual. The relation of the two systems, indeed, is ultimately one of mutual dependence. Part Two substantiates claims in Part One, goes beyond definition to an explanation of the varied genres of public-intellectual expression, and deals in depth with some of the most interesting and ambitious, and not merely the typical, public intellectuals active in the United States today. In Part Two we'll see a number of different ways in which public intellectuals can go wrong in addressing public issues. We'll see public intellectuals who try to force fields new to them into the Procrustean bed of their own discipline, or who plunge into new fields without attempting to master them, or who bend facts and law to fit their political preconceptions. Looking back we'll discover that Part One has provided the tools for explaining the fundamental deficiencies in public-intellectual work that Part Two explores.
The first genre discussed at length in Part Two, politically inflected literary criticism, is the domain of literary critics and scholars who seek a general public by hitching their political commentary to works with which the public has at least a nodding familiarity. I have in mind not those literary scholars, like Stanley Fish and Michael Warner, who leave literature behind when they talk about political or other public issues, nor those literary scholars who have turned from the literary canon to nonliterary texts that have a political character (Fish again), but rather those who use accepted works of literature as commentaries on public issues. I claim that usually when they do this they are impoverishing literature, even when they are dealing with so overtly "political" a work as Nineteen Eighty-Four (see Chapter 7). Orwell's novel, like Dickens's Hard Times and Huxley's Brave New World, is a political satire. That is a genuine, and historically very important, public-intellectual genre as well as one distinct from politically or ideologically inflected literary criticism. Orwell was one of the twentieth century's preeminent public intellectuals, as Dickens was of the nineteenth. Orwell was not an academic public intellectual. He was not even a university graduate. But these deficits (which he shared with Dickens) may well have been assets in his career as a public intellectual. Yet I shall argue that the public-intellectual aspect of Orwell's greatest novel, political satire though it is, is not necessarily the most interesting. This is another clue to the limitations of literary criticism as a genre of public-intellectual work.
Next up is the ever-popular jeremiad—the identification and denunciation of decadent trends (a "dolorous tirade," as one dictionary defines "jeremiad"). This is a more popular genre of public-intellectual work than those genres that are tied to literature, because it appeals to a wider audience. Few Americans have much interest in literature, but everyone is interested in where the United States is headed. Along with the rest of the world it seems to be headed toward ever greater freedom, both personal and economic. The first trend disturbs social conservatives, the second egalitarians. But because the collapse of Marxism and growing prosperity have demoralized and disoriented the economic Left, contemporary Jeremiahs are to be found largely on the Right. Examples are Robert Bork and Gertrude Himmelfarb. There are counterexamples, however, such as Robert Putnam and the late Christopher Lasch.
The jeremiad illustrates but does not exhaust the prophetic strain in public-intellectual discourse. The jeremiad is governed by particularly strict conventions (it must be nostalgic, pessimistic, predictive, and judgmental) and assumptions, for example that of the unity of culture; without that assumption, trends in popular culture or sexual behavior would not have political significance. Other public-intellectual prophets, such as the eco-catastrophists (see Chapter 4), while no less gloomy than the Jeremiahs, do not insist on the unity of culture and in fact display little interest in cultural trends.
Next I take up the efforts of philosophers to reclaim the fallen mantle of Socrates, for it is that martyred gadfly philosopher, rather than the religious prophet Jeremiah, who is the patron saint of public intellectuals. But his emphasis was on criticism, and to a lesser extent reform, of existing institutions rather than on predicting the worst, though this is not to deny that Jeremiah's purpose was also to criticize, gloomy prophesying being merely the vehicle. Among Socrates' present-day successors I have picked out two well-known liberal philosophers, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, to focus on, the former more critic than reformer, the latter more reformer than critic. Both are social democratic in politics; their politics, indeed, are indistinguishable. Yet Rorty believes that the central philosophical tradition of the West is a stumbling block to achieving social-democratic goals, while Nussbaum believes it indispensable to their achievement—and Allan Bloom, her political opposite, believes the tradition indispensable to preventing their achievement. I shall argue that the tradition, and philosophy more broadly, have little to offer social critics and social reformers—except distraction from the practical considerations that determine the success or failure of efforts at social reform.
Rorty and Nussbaum are "general" social critics in the sense of ranging over a broad menu of public topics; they differ from "own field" policy proposers in roaming well outside the conventional boundaries of their fields. By the term "special" critics I refer to those public intellectuals who confine themselves to issues of particular importance to their group—blacks writing about the problems of blacks, lesbians about the problems of lesbians, and so forth—and seek their audience primarily among the members of that group rather than among a larger public. The general and the special critics overlap. A number of "general" Jewish intellectuals have written about Jewish issues without, however, making those issues the focus of their work. And some of the work of the special-interest public intellectuals is directed as much to the general public as to the members of their group. One thinks especially of black writers such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and, today, such black scholars as Orlando Patterson, William Julius Wilson, Shelby Steele, Patricia Williams, and Randall Kennedy. These public-intellectual scholars write primarily about the problems of blacks but are read by whites interested in the nation's racial problems, as well as by blacks; indeed there is some resentment in the black community about the degree to which the work of public intellectuals is oriented toward a white audience. Nevertheless, any worthwhile analysis of the special critics would have to delve deeply into the issues concerning their special groups. Such an inquiry would carry me too far afield, and so I largely forgo it in this book. I have discussed a little of this work elsewhere.
By "real time" commentary I refer to the interventions of public intellectuals in ongoing public controversies—the activity epitomized by the participation of Zola and other intellectuals in the debate over the guilt of Captain Dreyfus. That was a legal case; and because law so pervades American life, transmuting disputes of every character into legal disputes on which academic commentary is sought, real-time commentary on legal cases is a major activity of our public intellectuals. I examine this activity, but I also examine the public intellectual in the courtroom, a related but distinct role from that of commentator on a case. Expert witnesses are increasingly a fixture of litigation, and not only in cases involving scientific or other technical kinds of issue. The witness box has provided an occasional though infrequent platform for public intellectuals. I question whether it is an appropriate forum for the expression of public-intellectual views.
The Conclusion examines possible measures for improving the performance of the market for public intellectuals by encouraging fuller disclosure of academics' public-intellectual activities and earnings in order to make them accountable for their forays into the public arena. I do not wish to silence the public-intellectual voice but to help it sound a steadier note.
Excerpted from Public Intellectuals by Richard A. Posner. Copyright © 2001 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Pt. 1||General Theoretical and Empirical Analysis|
|1||Setting the Stage||17|
|2||The Market for Public Intellectuals||41|
|3||Care and Insight||83|
|4||Prediction and Influence||128|
|5||More Public, Less Intellectual||167|
|Pt. 2||Genre Studies|
|6||The Literary Critic as Public Intellectual||223|
|8||The Jeremiah School||281|
|9||The Public Philosopher||320|
|10||The Public Intellectual and the Law||359|
|Conclusion: Improving the Market||387|
Posted April 29, 2009
No text was provided for this review.