The term public intellectual has no meaning outside of an American context. Nowhere in the European tradition, for example, does one find references to this term because, strictly speaking, it is redundant. Intellectuals are distinguished from scholars or scientists because their role is necessarily public. They may indeed be scholars and scientists, academics and specialists in a particular discipline, and they may also be writers or artists, but they become intellectuals when the knowledge and learning they represent goes beyond the strict domain that gives them authority. Intellectuals achieve this status when their learned experience, their capacity for inquiry, interpretation, and speculation, is trained upon problems that concern the society to which they belong and, in the global epoch, problems that concern humanity and the planet as a whole.
That “public intellectuals” emerge into the English language as a specifically American idiom is indicative of a historical framework and tradition where anti-intellectualism carries a deeply imbedded and formidable legacy. Still, the term has a short history; it belongs to the latter half of the twentieth century. No one would think of identifying Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), or Thomas Paine (1737–1809) as public intellectuals, though they were obviously intellectuals of great stature and public figures of enormous renown and influence. Though eighteenth-century scholars agree that Enlightenment ideas flourished politically because they coincided with (perhaps even had a hand in bringing about) the first vestiges of a veritable mass culture and the public sphere it demands, it is nonetheless a mark of the considerable alienation of intellectual life from politics in America that public intellectuals have become necessary as a specifically designated category since the Vietnam War. The term’s redundancy raises questions in both directions: (1) What is the public (or even, is there a public?) that renders the role of intellectuals meaningful, and (2) of what must the role of the intellectual consist in order to merit (and achieve) a public?
The term intellectual itself is entirely modern, emerging during the great public debates in France over the Dreyfus affair (1894–1899). The elements of that specific historical conjuncture—the fact that citizens of learning engaged over a political issue (which, moreover, touched on fundamentals of national character)—cannot be maneuvered. It is not enough for intellectuals to apply themselves to the work of the intellect, or even to engage the world intellectually. It seems inevitable that intellectuals carry a political significance, that intellectual work is acknowledged as a domain of acts and practices that pertains to the political demands and conditions of the world they inhabit. It comes as no surprise then that the question of the role of the intellectual is one of the most debated issues in the Marxist tradition, with Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) famous theorization of intellectual positions having served as a departure point for subsequent theorizations even outside the Marxist canon. It is precisely because the role of the intellectual has assumed a political significance since the term was invented—in other words, that intellectuals achieve meaning only within the parameters of the polis —that the newer term, public intellectuals, inheres a redundancy.
Nonetheless, the current usage defines a particular object and deserves specific focus, as if the explicit insistence on the word public bears a need at the core for bringing attention to a lack. Only a society that develops a public sphere in which intellectuals are marginalized develops a need for the category of public intellectual. The marginalization of intellectuals in America is not ideologically driven, despite the grand tradition of anti-intellectualism. The causes are complex, but two factors must be specifically accentuated. First, there are real social-historical changes affecting the base of American politics since the 1950s, most important of which is the shift in the demography of political constituencies from the cosmopolitan urban centers to vast expanses of newly constructed suburban social landscapes. In the matter that concerns us here, this shift coincides with an increase in the ranks of college professionals across the country, simultaneous with a gravely rapid expansion in academic specialization. Second, the unprecedented development in mass media and communication technology in the so-called information age inevitably decenters both the authority and the dissemination of knowledge, producing instead multiple points of active and direct access (Internet technology) as well as passive reception of information (television and the entertainment industry—which, in recent years, have, in economic terms at least, merged into one). This disables the effect of old intellectual centers (New York being the most celebrated), where people of learning and the world of publishing and print media were at one time organically intertwined, driving one side to retreat behind academic walls and the other to alliance with the media forces of mass entertainment culture. These new realities have given rise to a widely evoked lament for the decline of American intellectual culture.
Though such laments have historical merit, they cannot, by definition, escape the shackles of nostalgia. Under contemporary conditions, intellectuals were forced to figure new ways to participate in the proliferation of authoritative knowledge, indeed to find the proper language to engage with the contentious field of public exchange without submitting to the streamlining of ideas and the sloganeering that satisfied the commercial demands of the mass media. This necessarily produces a broader profile of knowledge than the one accounting for top reputation in a discipline, as is the case, for example, with Noam Chomsky, who as a linguist developed an entirely new field of linguistics, yet as a public intellectual distinguished himself as a political commentator. Incidentally, it is worth noting that a 2005 Internet poll—keeping in mind all caveats over the accuracy of Internet polling—showed Chomsky to be the world’s most recognized intellectual, even though his reputation in the United States, by virtue of his politics, is much maligned. His is a case where a public intellectual achieves both stature and reputation outside his society; Chomsky’s public sphere is not so much American society but the world at large.
Yet, the Chomsky phenomenon confirms that a public intellectual must create a public, not merely conform to the parameters of the established public sphere around him. In fact, in this era of great conformism to public opinion produced, disseminated, and controlled by mass media through the voice of alleged experts, a public intellectual becomes precisely the figure who interrogates the self-confirmation and unexamined repetition of expertise, a figure whose life consists of raising critical questions “in the quest for new uncertainties” (1963, p. 16), as Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970) so memorably put it. No one, however, has made a bolder and more farseeing description of the public intellectual’s task than Edward Said (1935–2003): “This role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all these people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug” (1994, p. 11). Said is exemplary, in this respect, because his global activist profile never compromised his intransigence or his rigor as a writer and a thinker, who was, moreover, unique in making the intellectual as such a subject of critical reflection.
Said adds a crucial dimension to the complex portrait of the public intellectual in America, which is usually overlooked or not quite articulated. In conversation with the classic 1927 book by Julien Benda (1867–1956), a French rationalist conservative who decried the political irresponsibility of intellectuals whom he dubbed “clerics,” Said emphasized the quintessentially secular humanist task of the public intellectual. Even in the most committed activist practices, an intellectual’s relation to the public must necessarily resist any sort of metaphysical or aestheticist investment. A public intellectual conceives this task neither as a prophet crying in the wilderness, in some sort of radical vanguard bearing a torch, nor as an ascetically restrained ethicist, advocating the integrity of a desiring public from the humble position of service to wisdom. The task is rather to foster a public, and indeed a public that reveres questioning authorities and identities, that shares the pleasure of disclosure, and in the end finds self-affirmation in dissent, in exercising its autonomy in the real social and political sphere.
There is, in other words, an intimate relation between whatever produces the need for public intellectuals and whatever cultivates the need, even in the darkest of times, for a real democratic politics—which must always be a politics of citizens unswayed by the pronouncements of experts, a politics of critique, self-authorization, and self-enfranchisement. Regardless of how they may articulate their personal politics, public intellectuals, by definition, must be engaged in democratic criticism, which must be uncompromising in its suspicion of pronounced authority and yet never nihilist. A public with democratic consciousness must be first and foremost a skeptical public, but nonetheless, a public committed to a vision of a future, an emancipated future. In the early twenty-first century world, where political stakes are graver than ever and political consciousness is in a state of questionable vitality, an intellectual public—however it is to be constituted—would best embody Gramsci’s inimitable call for “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”
SEE ALSO Intellectualism, Anti-
Benda, Julien. 1928. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Trans. Richard Aldington. New York: Morrow.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. The Intellectuals. In Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, 2–23. New York: International Publishers.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1963. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.
Jacoby, Russell. 1987. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York: Basic Books.
Michael, John. 2000. Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Posner, Richard A. 2001. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Robbins, Bruce. 1993. Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture. London: Verso.
Rorty, Richard. 1998. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Said, Edward W. 1994. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon.
Said, Edward W. 2004. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.