Newspaper article International New York Times

In an Age of Specialization, Is It Still Possible to Be a Public Intellectual?

Newspaper article International New York Times

In an Age of Specialization, Is It Still Possible to Be a Public Intellectual?

Article excerpt

There were doubts about the public intellectual even during the Enlightenment.

There were doubts about the public intellectual even during the Enlightenment.

In 1969, after a demoralizing evening with some proto-neocons, Alfred Kazin wrote in his journal, "They are all such specialists, such knowers on a limited scale." Kazin, loyal to an older ideal of the public intellectual as outsider, was appalled when writers and critics turned into a service class for politicians and businessmen. Intellectual life has degraded further under the auspices of specialization since the 1960s.

The public intellectual, incarnated as access journalist, policy wonk and, after 9/11, laptop warrior for liberalism and democracy, has finally, absurdly, become an "expert" on terrorism. The alienated critic of society -- exemplified once by such proud upholders of the individual conscience as Leo Tolstoy, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Andrei Sakharov -- has ended up whispering advice and encouragement to power.

A lot of blame must be placed on the quasi-religious belief in continuous progress, and the craving, which secular intellectuals possess as much as pious folk, to be subsumed into a larger force and movement -- in this case, the onward march of history. Kazin's ambitious peers wanted to be seen with their polemical op-eds as contributing to revolutionary changes across the world. Kazin, however, knew their lust for power (and fame, sex and money); he could see how intellectuals as accomplices of political elites were prone to confuse their private interest with public interest.

There were doubts about the public intellectual even during the Enlightenment, when this figure emerged as the designer of rational society and the nemesis of religious prejudice and superstition. Many well-placed and influential men in the 18th century were convinced that reason and truth could triumph universally through the transformation of public opinion (itself a new idea). Such secular priests could eagerly ally themselves with the power du jour in order to expedite the re-engineering of hearts and minds. …

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