I’m ambivalent, as I’ve said before, about the category “public intellectual.” It’s precious and pretentious, and unfairly denigrates the virtues and vocation of talented scholars who devote themselves to obscure questions no one else is asking, questions that may not interest broader audiences at the time but that may, one day, be of vital importance to more than a narrow few. Or that may, regardless of people’s interest, simply advance our understanding of some small part of the universe.
But if we are going to hold onto and repeatedly invoke the category, I wonder if there may not be a fundamental problem at the heart of it. Public intellectuals are thought of as not only generalist writers speaking to non-academic audiences about issues that matters, but also as moral voices and political actors, men and women who say the unsayable, speak truth to power, confront injustice and oppression, and any one of a number of cliches that fall under the broader rubric of political prophecy.
That sort of vocation requires three things:
- Knowledge: A deep understanding of an injustice or oppression and why it needs to be confronted.
- Judgment: A political sense of how to confront it, how to marshal whatever combination of rhetoric and force that will ensure that even if it is just a voice speaking out in the wilderness, it is a voice out of the whirlwind rather than lost to the wind.
- Courage: An ability and willingness to act on that knowledge and that judgment, whether in speech or deed.
If these are the requirements, I’m not sure intellectuals are necessarily the best candidates for the job.
Intellectuals, particularly on the left, sometimes think the question of political involvement can be reduced to having “good politics,” that elusive combination of metaphysics and morals, truth and values, that used to go by the name of “the right line.” But when it comes to a political struggle of the sort where we might look to intellectuals, public or otherwise, for guidance, I’ve often not found that those with the right line are the best guides: they haven’t a clue where that line goes or how we might get there. Most important of all, they underestimate just how hard it will be to get there, how many forces are arrayed against them, and how easily and quickly they will succumb to those forces.
Looking back on her early years as an academic-in-training, and the collaboration with the Nazis so many of her colleagues would ultimately engage in, Hannah Arendt had this to say:
My early intellectual formation occurred in an atmosphere where nobody paid much attention to moral questions; we were brought up under the assumption: Das Moralische versteht sich von selbst, moral conduct is a matter of course. I still remember quite well my own youthful opinion of the moral rectitude we usually call character; all insistence on such virtue would have appeared to me as Philistine, because this, too, we thought was a matter of course and hence of no great importance—not a decisive quality, for instance, in the evaluation of a given person. To be sure, every once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure, especially of public opinion, which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead.
Courage is not always a virtue; it depends on cause and context. But neither is it a common virtue. Not simply because most of us aren’t brave but also because courage requires judgment and knowledge. Possessing all three at the same time is a rarity. Why we would think to look for it among intellectuals is not clear.