The term "Public Intellectual," by its nature far-reaching, is often used to refer to a small group also known as the New York intellectuals. This may be because of the priority of naming -- those who coin a term have some proprietary rights -- and to the construction of meaning. More generally, the term refers to those who disseminate specialist ideas to a wider public, and the New York intellectuals, and those who followed in their wake, certainly did this. In a broader sense, since what distinguishes human beings from other animals is primarily intellect, it might be said that all of us are intellectuals, and since our species is a social one, that all of us are public. Indeed, the United States is replete with eddies and hidden currents of amateur intellectualism, of people constructing their belief systems from bits of flotsam here and there, most commonly tied to various versions of individualism, liberty, and American nationalism. Yet the United States has also been called an anti-intellectual nation, and those whose primary life activity is sustained and systematic reading of books -- and especially of books in the "great tradition" of philosophy and literature derived from Europe -- are considered best confined and tamed in our university system. There they might teach youth, but they have little to do with the actual workings of society; they may be public, but only in a rarified setting where their ideas have little immediate impact.
It was not always so. Perhaps the greatest forefigure of the Public Intellectual is Socrates, who acted as a gadfly, a social critic eventually executed for corrupting youth. He was, simultaneously, an upholder of the individual's duty to the society which raised him or her, not as a blind follower of tradition but as an improver, an idealist seeking social perfection. Socrates embodies what have often been considered opposite poles: the public intellectual as simultaneously organic and oppositional. And the United States has its own great tradition of those who might be called public intellectuals, who have spoken truth to power in an attempt to improve society, to push America toward its stated ideals, from emancipationists and suffragettes, to civil rights era leaders, to today's proponents of cultural diversity.
The New York school, an almost entirely Jewish group who achieved great influence in American society, certainly drew upon these traditions, although Europe was their primal source. Starting from various schools of communism and socialism, from the 1930s to the 1980s the New York intellectuals embarked on a generally rightward course toward liberalism and neo-conservatism. Although Jewish intellectuals today remain spread out along the spectrum, the center remains liberal, with a strong current of support for Israel. Simultaneous with their political shift, American Jews have moved from a position of quietude regarding their Jewish status toward a stronger acknowledgment of their historic and religious background.
Early in their history the New York intellectuals, alongside their left-oriented politics, immersed themselves in the seemingly antithetical project of championing modernist literary forms that thrive upon ambiguity, irony, and experimentation. The political and aesthetic realms existed uneasily side-by-side in the same intellectual sphere. Why did these schools of thought, socialism and modernism, appeal so strongly to a group of second-generation Jewish immigrants? In his 1969 essay "The New York Intellectuals," Irving Howe characterizes the New York intellectuals as "the first group of Jewish writers to come out of the immigrant milieu who did not define themselves through a relationship, nostalgic or hostile, to memories of Jewishness." The appeal of socialism is obvious for a people rejecting narrow versions of its heritage and attempting to assimilate into a new land. Socialism offered a form of universal society, and an ideology replacing religion. …