Oftentimes, the intellectual par excellence is someone who translates well-established expertise in some specific field of endeavor to a more general currency. The archetypal example is the French novelist Emile Zola who, after completing his gigantic Rougon-Macquart (1871-93) series, published his famous article “J’Accuse” in a Parisian daily (1898). The subject was the miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus case. As this instance shows, public intellectuals are often oppositional, seeking to speak truth to power. Cynics would say that this impulse itself stems from power hunger.
An outstanding contemporary example of the Janus type, one who complements his original professional role with a new one of public exhortation, is Albert Einstein, who enjoyed universal respect for his ethical and political insights. More controversial—-indeed infuriating to some--is Noam Chomsky of MIT. After achieving eminence as a linguist, Chomsky began volubly to address political issues during the closing years of the Vietnam War. He still does so.
Still, such a migration from the home field to the new public one is not essential. Francis Fukuyama, a conservative intellectual who is now having second thoughts, has always been a professor in the realm of public policy.
Moreover, some attempts to transfer expertise are not successful. When William Shockley, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the transistor, sought an audience for his Neanderthal views on race, polite opinion rebuffed him. In a different way, Hollywood stars, such as Barbara Streisand and Sean Penn, do not generally command credit for their views about politics.
Indeed, the link between the original expertise and the new one should always be regarded as problematic. This is so because psychological studies have rejected the idea that success in one field equates with proficiency in another. Still, there is a difference between a mere pundit, a journalist (no matter how insightful), and a true public intellectual, especially when the latter can back up credible observations about public policy with demonstrated excellence in his chosen field.
What are the origins of this social type? Two opposed schools stem from France. Michel Winock, who has published widely on the subject, believes that as a type the true intellectual begins only a little over a hundred years ago with Emile Zola. Such individuals addressed contemporary social problems in an incisive manner. Why not then Victor Hugo, who devoted much of his energies for almost twenty years attacking the autocracy of Napoleon III? Or for that matter, one can go back such Enlightenment figures as Diderot and Voltaire.
Another French contribution stems from the distinguished medievalist Jacques Le Goff. A half century ago he published a little book on the Intellectuals in the Middle Ages that has proved to have enduring value. In Le Goff’s perspective it is hard, for example, to deny the label of intellectual to such figures as Abelard and St. Bernard. The tradition of political intervention began with the Libelli de lite, pamphlets created by ecclesiastics to support or counter the revolutionary reforms of Pope Gregory VII (ca. 1020-85). Apparently, Le Goff is unaquainted with this German production. Le Goff is right, however, to stress the role of universities, that characteristic invention of the High Middle Ages. Previously solely birth or wealth governed status. The universities were in principle open to all, introducing the novel idea of classification by examination. For those permitted to teach in them, these institutions provided a safe haven for innovation, some of it openly subversive, though skirting outright heresy. At the same time universities were training grounds for a literate elite who would enforce the norms of the establishment. This tension continues today.
While it is occasionally found earlier, the term “intellectual” became common in English only towards the end of the 19th century. Beginning in 1907, apparently, it was reinforced by the imported Russian term intelligentsia, the intellectuals as a group. Interestingly, this idea had been anticipated by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge a hundred years before in his idea of the “clerisy.” His contemporary P. B. Shelley spoke of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
A hat tip is due to the creator of the gayspecies blog, whose piece on this subject got me going. Gayspecies cites a book by Paul Johnson, which presents a series of generally negative portraits of such contemporary intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Lively and perceptive as it is, Johnson’s volume has two flaws. The first stems from a characteristic Anglo-Saxon distrust of the pursuit of abstract ideas, thought to hinder the better sort of social knowledge that stems from experience. To be sure many influential intellectuals, even in English-speaking countries have come from abroad. These include such figures as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and many others. Lately, there has been an influx of influential intellectuals from Third World Countries. These include Edward Said and Amartya Sen. Moreover, Johnson implies that intellectuals are mainly on the left. Many prominent figures have had this coloration. However, the list of conservative intellectuals is a long one, including Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Oakeshott. Arguably the most influential body of intellectuals in America today are the conservative Straussians. This is so, despite a convincing case that Leo Strauss was not himself conservative.
Judge Richard J. Posner made his reputation by applying economic models to social phenomena. He has written some good books, but Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2001) is not among them. Posner provides a seemingly scientific list of 100 ranked individuals. This in turn depends upon a larger gathering of 546 persons, a cohort, which is unfortunately arbitrary. Judge Posner attributes the low standards he perceives among the tribe as due to the absence of quality controls. Paradoxically, this trait derives both from the market and its absence. The media demand that one “must be entertaining” encourages grandstanding and dumbing down. By the same token, tenure in academia guarantees these individuals a livelihood, no matter how they may indulge themselves.
Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, a book I have not seen, has garnered excellent reviews. He addresses the purported absence of intellectuals in Britain, and the reasons for this stereotype. Part of the problem seems to be the conviction that England is definitely not France. Since France is the homeland of the intellectuals they must not flourish across the channel.
Finally, two non-European parallels are relevant. The Ulema is a collective name for religious experts in Islam countries. Jurists are prominent among them, but other professions are represented as well. The Ulema are required to maintain established traditions of orthodoxy.
For centuries the body of Confucian intellectuals sometimes known as the Mandarinate governed imperial China. Successful entry into this privileged class was determined by examination. Generally speaking the Confucians were pillars of the establishment; their wealth and prestige depended on it. Occasionally, as at the beginning of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, Chinese intellectuals became subversive—favoring, as many did in those days, the previous Ming dynasty. Perhaps their tradition survives today in the opponents of the present government of the People’s Republic.