On Public Intellectuals

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A host of British public intellectuals have sounded off on the question of public intellectuals… again. For some reason this topic has become something of a refrain for the British (the Americans as well). We are meant to think there is some tremendous mystery to be solved: the French, we are told, love their intellectuals – fête them even – but the British hate their intellectuals; they look at them cock-eyed, or askance, or sometimes even askew. The journalists ask: why this difference? John Naughton, for example, has reviewed some books that return to this depressing cliché, dragged out every so often and wheeled around like the sad, emaciated final elephant of a bankrupt travelling circus. The fact that the whole theory is a giant pile of garbage does not prevent it from being meticulously picked through, over and over, usually concluding with the staggering revelation that it is, in fact, garbage.

The truth is that there are French public intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy (who came up often in the survey mentioned above), and there are British public intellectuals (like the respondents to the survey). So far no difference. Next, in both countries, some people follow these intellectuals, some dislike them, and most ignore them. Still looking pretty samey. Next, French intellectuals speak French, while British intellectuals speak English – a dialect of French. Conclusion: France and Britain are the same country. The Channel is a seam joining the two symmetrical sides of a single cultural unit. They are like Max Black’s identical spheres, eternally eyeing each other off and marvelling at their imaginary differences, ad nauseum. Call this the Inanity of Indiscernibles.

Of course, as many have noted, the true comparison is not between France and Britain; it is between the present and the past. The compelling sense is that public intellectuals aren’t what they used to be. But it isn’t that they aren’t influential anymore, nor is it that they aren’t being read. It isn’t, in fact, about the response to the intellectuals at all. It’s about the intellectuals themselves.

I think there are two important differences to explain this. In the past, public intellectuals would answer big questions, and primarily philosophical ones. They would write essays on whether humanity has a future, or on ‘our present need for a philosophy’ (to quote the title of one newspaper competition). They would ask, earnestly and unashamedly, about humanity’s place in the cosmos. They would diagnose the moral sicknesses of their age. They would ask whether civilization was in decline, and why or why not. Public intellectuals today, by contrast, are most interesting on matters of detail – the future of Chinese monetary policy, the prospects for the next climate change summit, some newfangled trend in ethical theory. Their banality increases exponentially in proportion to the generality of their topic. If you want to defrost your windows in a hurry, ask a public intellectual a genuinely philosophical question. ‘What does the future hold?’ ‘Well, more pressure on resources for one thing…’ ‘What is art?’ ‘Art is the expression of our innermost…’ ‘What is philosophy?’ ‘Philosophy is the mind’s striving for clarity and…’ All you really learn is what it would feel like to be embalmed in a bromide. In the past, it was almost the reverse; intellectuals became the most interesting when they became the most general and philosophical – when the historian turned theorist of human civilization, when the scientist turned metaphysician, when the literary critic turned theologian. Then you got the challenging and startling thoughts.

Of course the old intellectuals would not always answer their big questions seriously. For example A.J.P. Taylor wrote that the decline of modern civilization meant that university dons used to have house servants and now they do their own washing-up. That brings me to the second difference. In the past, public intellectuals would sometimes say provocative or entertaining things. They said things that made people feel or think. ‘Men always learn from their mistakes how to make new ones.’ ‘Progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ ‘That motors are more important than men is doubtless an admitted principle of a truly modern philosophy; nevertheless, it might be well to keep some sort of reasonable ratio between them, and decide exactly how many human beings should be killed by each car in the course of each year.’ ‘Statistics are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.’ These are the kinds of things public intellectuals used to say as a matter of course. They studiously avoided saying ‘Above all, do no harm,’ or ‘The beginning of wisdom is to think for oneself,’ or ‘Scientists are every day unravelling more of the mysteries of the natural world – and even ourselves,’ or ‘Plato still matters today.’ They were committed to the sanctity of the mind and wary of tranquilising it. They began by imagining that their audiences had already had the odd thought or two, and desired to provoke them to think even more.

The modern crowd, on the contrary, are committed to the operating principle, on matters of philosophy, that either nobody besides themselves has ever thought anything at all or that the base banalities that rattle around in everyone’s heads take on a vatic and miraculous quality in their own mouths. G.K. Chesterton called Browning’s Sordello ‘the most glorious compliment that has ever been paid to the average man,’ because its author clearly imagined his audience having no struggle with its complexities. Today’s public intellectuals, on the other hand, are a great, living, withering insult to the average person. Irwin Edman claimed that education consists of throwing false pearls before real swine, but today’s public intellectuals throw ordinary pig-feed and wait to be awarded Michelin stars. They pick our passing thoughts up off the pavement and sell them back to us as rare jewels. They see that our minds are swaddled in fustian and offer to cut us free with knives made out of more fustian.

Perhaps this is for the best. John Maynard Keynes famously remarked that ‘Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’ If so, we are safe; I can’t imagine anybody waxing tyrannical over the ideology that scientists are learning more every day, or that one should pursue pleasure except when it harms others, or that the importance of literature lies in its ability to connect us to powerful collective emotions that we did not know we shared. But then again, nobody could be spurred to do anything at all by the redundant popular theories of our time. Hell or oblivion is not a happy dilemma, and our intellectuals can hardly be thanked for having chosen on our behalf. ‘Why do we not love our intellectuals?’, Naughton asks. But why would we love them? I believe that what we the public are most hungry for is philosophy – or what used to be called philosophy. Many popular philosophies of the past have proven poisonous; perhaps that is why all those on offer today are bland.

2 thoughts on “On Public Intellectuals”

  1. “British intellectuals speak English – a dialect of French.” Someone is a little confused here

    French is a descendant of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire – what we call a romance language. English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects.

  2. I do not agree with the proposition that we do not respect our public intellectuals and also take issue with the popularisation of academia. I wonder whether the awarding of PhDs on topics that seem to relate to little other than mild cultural or social interest (I’m thinking of dissertations about Radiohead albums or basketball free-throw shooting – the pigfeed you have mentioned) has led the public to question what a public intellectual actually is? I think you are right that we are hungry for philosophy and would add that we are hungry for relevance.

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