Thinking, Public and Private: Intellectuals in the Time of the Public

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftJuly 15, 2016

Thinking, Public and Private: Intellectuals in the Time of the Public
THE TERM “PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL” is a fount of confusion. We admire such persons for speaking the truth about the corruptions of politics, for explaining climate change to a world that would prefer a more convenient truth, or for their unblinking acknowledgment of the structural racism of our society. At other times, we mock them for dumbing down the ideas they have the privilege to steward, and suspect them of a venal desire for influence and power, or, worse, we suspect that beneath such desires lies a lack of intellectual curiosity and seriousness. The word “public,” when conjoined with “intellectual,” sometimes seems to invite an intellectually lazy enthusiasm or an equally lazy criticism.

The real interest in the term “public intellectual” lies in what its usage can tell us about ourselves: how we imagine the links between politics and prose, thought and action, individual contemplation and social congregation. Why, for example, has the notion of publicness itself become such a high value for some, practically synonymous with benevolence, as if to attach “public” to the name of a discipline grants it a special dignity? Getting un-confused about the term “public intellectual” does not require jettisoning the notion of public engagement altogether, but rather turning these keywords — “intellectual,” “public” — over and over, depriving them of the sense of obvious meaning produced by too-frequent use.

A couple of recent impressive essays on the subject — Mark Greif’s “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals” and Corey Robin’s “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” both in the Chronicle of Higher Education — have struggled to define, or redefine, the term for the 21st century. These essays share a sense of knowing disillusionment about the figure of the “public intellectual,” and a sense of having been written after the eclipse of easy belief in the stable meaning or value of “public” and “publicness.” Greif and Robin converge in their sense that publics are not permanent entities but things of sheer convention, made and remade, or, perhaps better, imagined and reimagined. The task of the public intellectual, in their eyes, is to place demands on readers, to help them become something better than what they already are. Discussing the heyday of the Partisan Review, Greif writes that the magazine’s contents were “always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public — at a height where they must reach up to grasp it.” Public intellectualism, like the public itself, was thus aspirational: “The idea of the public intellectual in the 21st century should be […] about restoring the highest estimation of the public.” Robin says more or less the same thing of his ideal public intellectual: “Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves.” The point is not merely to write serious, idea-laden prose that somehow manages to keep up with the steady beat of journalistic time and to do it in language anyone can understand. The point is, rather, to write in such a way that readers (and, as Greif insists, writers themselves) must stretch beyond themselves and thereby grow.

There is much to like about this effort to keep the democratic impulse within the public intellectual ideal from giving way to something worse: what Greif calls “the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down ‘big ideas.’” This is the world of Austin’s SXSW or Davos, the world of the TED talk, a means-ends world characterized by folk empiricism, in which ideas can only be recognized as valuable when they are pitched as “Big Ideas” “Worth Spreading.” Greif is right to call this world out: it’s “stupid,” as he puts it. Robin makes the point about challenging one’s audience and one’s self another way: “That is the way publics are sometimes summoned: by the announcement that they cannot be so summoned, by the declaration that their language has grown so corrupt that it can no longer serve as the means of their conveyance.” Certain writers offer new language to replace an old one that has abetted our complacency, demand that their public be summoned by words they are not used to hearing, and perhaps organize their audience’s understanding and their own anew, as well.

Greif and Robin’s briefs on behalf of a modified version of the public intellectual are stirring. However, they do leave us with substantial questions about the fate of the life of the mind in the age of the public. After all, they still insist on the consequences of ideas. In our focus on the immediate interventions that public intellectuals can make in the public sphere, is there room for private contemplation, and the glacial tempo at which ideas must sometimes develop? For “useless” knowledge? For ideas that don’t spread, or whose spread may not take place until decades, or centuries, after our deaths? What may be missing in this age of public intellectualism is respect for the unpredictable half-lives of ideas themselves, and for the fact that public life could be enriched by an appreciation of ideas on their own terms.


The idea of the “public intellectual” has been so thoroughly domesticated within the Anglophone republic of letters that it requires a moment’s reflection to appreciate its strangeness. As Robin and Greif both acknowledge, the term was popularized by the intellectual historian Russell Jacoby in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture In The Age of Academe. After 28 years worth of hindsight, Jacoby observed, in a retrospective essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, that his book had stirred a controversy that suggested “a disquiet about the fate of intellectuals and cultural life” in the United States. What controversy? What disquiet?

Jacoby’s book, which appeared at an early point in the culture wars, occasioned much reflection and argument about the social role of that hard-to-define modern figure, the intellectual, the historical precursor to the “public intellectual.” Jacoby claimed that, since the 1950s, a series of economic and cultural shifts had moved the United States’s serious thinkers out of public view and into the academy, where the critical edge of their work was blunted by institutionalization. Some of Jacoby’s critics have questioned the particulars of his nostalgic vision; Greif notes that, by 1950, Partisan Review’s prominent writers were more supported by academic teaching than by other non-university-related means. And yet it is easy to agree with Jacoby’s central claim that a writer’s relationship with the public is greatly affected by their terms of employment and by the larger economic reality in which they live; The Last Intellectuals was on to something important.

But the disquiet triggered by the term “public intellectual” remains, deeper and much older than the early 21st-century context of Greif and Robin, and older than Jacoby’s original position as well. As Jacoby acknowledges, the term “intellectual” is originally French rather than American. An uncertainty about the relationship between intellectualism, culture, and public political life precedes the use of the term “intellectual” itself, a relative novelty in European discourse. That word (used as a noun, to refer to an individual person in society, rather than an adjective referring to mental faculties) appeared only at the end of the 19th century, and it immediately became a topic of debate. “Intellectuals” crossed boundaries between the world of letters and the world of politics, and thus represented a new moment in the cultural history of the relationship between those worlds.

The word “intellectual” already carried a sense of public address when it came into common usage at the time of the Dreyfus Affair in France. Unlike academicians, intellectuals were defined by exchange and debate beyond the limits of their scholarly specialties. The Affair, which began when the Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was framed as a spy for Germany, became a watershed moment in French politics and culture. Prominent among the Dreyfusards (those who came to Dreyfus’s defense) were many “intellectuels,” such as Émile Zola, who placed their moral authority behind his cause; notable among the anti-Dreyfusards were conservative nationalists, the military, and Catholics. By the time Jacoby adapted the term and added “public,” several generations had associated “intellectual” with progressive or left criticism of extant political institutions, sometimes on the grounds of corruption. Often, “intellectual” was a name for those who hoped that reason and education could win out against many of the elements of traditional society that required reform. In this version of the story, the victories of “intellectuals” would be made possible by a kind of “tribunal” effect produced by a listening, reasoning, responsive public. Needless to say, representations of intellectuals carry implicit assumptions about the role of reason itself in modern social life.

Since “intellectual” already carried a sense of publicness, Jacoby’s term “public intellectual” could be seen as either semantically redundant or else as an effort to amplify one meaning contained within it, as if that meaning had gradually died down between the 1890s and the 1980s and needed a signal boost. Such amplification could also be read as a sign of anxiety, an uncertainty about the actual social role intellectuals play, or should play. (A slip from the descriptive to the normative is practically inevitable in writings on public intellectual life.) An alternative is to read the term’s semantic doubling in specifically national terms, perhaps as an American insistence that intellectual life take on democratic qualities of accessibility, or pragmatic qualities of effectiveness.

One thing seems clear: whether in late 19th-century France or the late 20th-century United States, the question of what scholars, writers, scientists, artists, and other intellectuals contribute to public political life has stayed with us. During the Dreyfus Affair the anti-Dreyfusard Catholic scholar and writer Ferdinand Brunetière asked what gave a “professor of Tibetan” the right to instruct his fellow citizens about politics. Brunetière’s charge reflects an anxiety many present-day intellectuals still feel keenly: what do academics have to do with the world beyond their studies? Why should such figures enjoy any special legitimacy in political or cultural discourse?

Answers to this question abound, and they range from the rather old-fashioned idea that scholars of the humanities acquire something called “wisdom” to the idea that something called the “public sphere” runs on reasoned argument. Short of such idealistic claims, there are more pragmatic reasons to want intelligent, educated people to write for broad and non-academic publics. To name only one, critics — of film, food, poetry — possess specialized expertise and help us to articulate our own responses to the world in ways that the exchange of opinion between friends or strangers, rarely can. In the words of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, critics show the world its “means of comportment.”

But a vibrant culture of criticism does not dispel the problem of the “public intellectual.” Brunetière’s question could be turned on its side to yield a different meaning. An attachment to “intellectuals” or “public intellectuals” can turn into a tendency to treat politics as the metric by which intellectual lives are to be judged. And it has become very popular to approach the work of intellectuals from the standpoint of their social role. So popular, in fact, that this approach has obscured another way of seeing things: to ask not how intellectuals affect their publics but how the presumption of publicness has affected the life of the mind. How has the problem of audience touched how we understand our tasks as scholars and writers? How has it affected the value we place on private, individual contemplation? We need not look at the current baleful tendency to judge scholarship by metrics of influence, such as the citation-counting of the British Research Excellence Framework (REF), or the TED-ish notion that impact is all, to see that a certain instrumentalism was always present in the idea of the intellectual, a certain dependency on an idea of audience as tribunal.


Few people better embody the virtues commonly associated with the “public intellectual” than the German Jewish political theorist (and frequent Partisan Review contributor) Hannah Arendt, best known for her responses to the rise of totalitarianism, the forced desegregation of American schools, and the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. And yet Arendt often used the term “intellectual” with scorn. She never accepted the idea that specialized education provided political wisdom, nor was she invested in the fantasy that the public would be won over by superior arguments or share some professional thinkers’ disinterested love of truth. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Arendt rejected the idea that politics would be improved by the presence of expert opinions. Furthermore, she described intellectuals, as a class, in strikingly critical terms, as creatures of the marketplace for whom that market mattered much more than the life of the mind; they used their skills primarily to earn their bread — “only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” — and felt none of the anguish that true artists might feel while in the throes of creation. This was not really their fault; the conditions of modernity themselves force us to emphasize our “usefulness,” and to glorify intellectual life as a form of labor, if indeed this can be called glory. Five years later, in her 1963 study On Revolution, Arendt once again characterized “intellectuals” as individuals who instrumentalized education; they found nothing in their mental lives, in other words, to transport them beyond the means-ends world whose pointlessness Wordsworth once described with the line “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Of course, one might object that Arendt’s use of the term “intellectual,” in these instances, did not mean that she disdained people of letters who wrote on current events for a wide readership, as she did herself. And yet despite Arendt’s various interventions in public life, most famously Eichmann in Jerusalem, it seems clear that she never attempted to sync the life of the mind with the relentless temporality of journalism. Her dual attention to politics and to philosophy never led her to dissolve one into the other, or to miss the contradictions between them. Her works offer a prototype for such contemporary writers as Greif, who seek a pedagogical model of the public writer, someone who demands that their readers improve themselves rather than imagining that her public requires a paint-by-numbers version of philosophy and social thought.

By attending to the careers of Arendt and other thinkers who grew up and worked in the decades-long wake of the Dreyfus Affair, we might recover questions about the relationship between philosophy and politics, questions often covered up by the reception history of “the intellectual.” Those questions include whether or not ideas (one candidate for the constituent unit of the life of the mind) have an intrinsically political character, a question many have grown used to reflexively answering in the affirmative, at least in recent decades. As an intellectual historian, I view the problem of the “public intellectual” as foregrounding a tension from which my field draws its power. It is fundamental to intellectual history to recognize that ideas are always shot through with culture, indeed, with all the features of their social context; and yet they display a tendency to move beyond, to transcend both their contexts and their immediate consequences.

As professional thinkers come to understand “publicness” more and more as the permanent condition of our work, then, we might also come to better appreciate the specific ways in which politics and scholarship intersect, and the ways they remain fundamentally separate. This would mean recovering the disquiet within the term “public intellectual,” and treating that disquiet as an invitation to rethink the relationship between thought and action. And it would also mean recovering another question, namely the nature of ideas themselves, those entities inevitably pulled between certain impulses of mind we might call transcendental and the worldly swirl of human curiosity and purpose out of which ideas come.


Thanks to Evan Kindley, Ben Oppenheim, and Siobhan Phillips for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay. And thanks to Lewis Wurgaft for continued reminders about Wordsworth.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. His book Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt will be out from Penn in January 2016.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, currently completing a book about laboratory-grown meat and the history of the future of food. His books include Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt and Jews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College


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