Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Public Intellectuals

I was looking forward to Crooked Timber’s discussion of the book What are Intellectuals Good For?, which is going on this week. I have to say I’m disappointed.

I would have thought that the joining of the words public and intellectual meant that the discussion such a person puts forth would be accessible to the, um, public. Perhaps not so much the meta-discussion of people to whom that label might be applied, though.

I have to admit that, in anti-intellectual fashion, I have not read the book under discussion. And, frankly, when I read some of the posts, I am glad to have foregone that pleasure in favor of others, which I will explicate further down in this post. (I am aiming my language to the level of the CT discussion.)

As a sometimes cranky scientist, and having read CT before, I figured that scientists would not be under consideration as public intellectuals, and I was right. The names of people being considered for that title are, in fact, rather few, far between, and not well known to the public. Or at least a public beyond the humanities departments of universities. The whole discussion tends toward abstractions rather than real people.

So what constitutes a public intellectual? My rather simple and obvious definition would be someone who qualifies generally as an intellectual but makes her/his thoughts available to the public. So we might include Glen Whitney, who leads mathematics tours around Manhattan. Or Stephen Pinker, who is always talking about something or other. Or the folks at RealClimate and P. Z. Myers, who brings snark to evolution.

Blogs, of course, are an interesting addition to public intellectualism. Their audience is likely to be fairly specialized, but perhaps the administrative assistant with an interest in science and the bureaucrat with an interest in art history get their daily lift from the appropriate blog. It’s really hard, for the most part, to figure out who’s reading which blog.

What’s that you say? I mentioned only science and math types? It must be my blinkered scientist outlook. Certainly there are many blogs out there that cater to the humanities, like Crooked Timber. And we can consider Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate who writes columns and blogs about economics and politics.

But those books I’m currently reading. One is the beautifully-produced Manahatta, by Eric W. Sanderson, an the Associate Director for Landscape Ecology and Geographic Analysis in the Living Landscape Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, with illustrations by Markely Boyer. The book reconstructs what New York City, Manhattan in particular, looked like before the Europeans arrived.

Another is Achieving Our Country an easy political read by a philosopher, Richard Rorty, who is mentioned at CT, largely as a foil to Christopher Lasch (whom Rorty mentions in the book) and Victor Davis Hansen. Victor Davis Hansen?

The third book I’m reading is Mothers and Others, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who identifies herself as a sociobiologist. She’s written a number of books on how we humans got to be the way we are. They’re fairly easy to read, at least as easy as anything by Rorty or Lasch, and they provide alternatives to a common sociobiological wisdom that’s settled in: humans are competitive, males need the sexual beauty of teenage females, males are polygamous while females are monogamous, and so on. It’s seemed to me that being of middle size or even smallish for the African savannah, not having heavy-duty teeth or claws, humans had to exploit some other qualities, like cooperation, in order to survive. Hrdy studies and writes about those other qualities.

Come to think of it, I’m not recalling any female names in the CT discussion, either discussers or discussed. Someone said something about those “outside the cave” as though that phrase referred to the CT discussers. I had to chuckle when I read that.


SocProf said...

Indeed, the gender thing is interesting in general regarding CT (there are female contributors but the bulk of the posting is done by men) and (from what I can tell), most commenters are men.

Indeed the lack of mention of women as public intellectuals is a bit obvious... I mean, come on, the whole feminist field, for instance, has a lot of them. Or that should be a topic of discussion in itself.

Steve Gimbel said...

Don't forget Barbara Ehrenreich and Martha Nussbaum from the list of prominent female public intellectuals.

But CT is not the first place I'd look for an interesting conversation about public intellectuals. It's a great joint for insightful conversations about professional and technical issues of interest to philosophers, but it has the insularity of the American academy as a whole where contributions to popular discourse is seen as extra-curricular at best, selling out and neglecting your "real work" at worst. The entire reward structure of academe, especially at, but certainly not limited to, research universities discourages intellectuals from going public. Certainly the anti-intellectualism of our culture doesn't create the demand, but what we do at the intellectual gathering places does nothing to push supply.

helmut said...

I really do think it's both a supply and demand problem.

On the supply side... Steve's right about structural effects on supply in contemporary academia. In fact, the incentives and the culture push in the opposite direction - towards increasing specialization, which entails an increasingly small circle of dialogue partners. Academics sometimes come out of those little circles to find that no one speaks their language.

On the demand side... US culture is notoriously anti-intellectual. Even one of the greatest intellectuals in US history, William James, had his anti-intellectual streak.

Philosophers may emphasize this more than others, but pre-college education in the US looks like it teaches lots of complex facts but doesn't really teach methods or how to think critically. If you are unaccustomed to thinking critically, you're unlikely to appreciate the multitude of ways in which all the bits of data and complex facts can fit together and sometimes help map out new intellectual terrain. You might not be terribly comfortable with uncertainty and its miraculous intellectual powers.

The irony is that anti-intellectualism, which poses as a heroic rejection of authority, ends up leading people to rely entirely on authority because they have few other ways of figuring things out for themselves.

That's at least part of the demand problem.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I started out writing the post intending only to drop a perfunctory gripe about no scientists being considered at CT, but as I wrote it, and thought about the books on my table, I realized that there's a lot of good science writing, some of it on heavy issues like Hrdy's books on how we humans developed our distinctive characterists.

She also has arguments going with other sociobiologists and with some of that common wisdom, which provide interesting conversation for those who choose it.

As the discussion has developed at CT, it's become ever more obscure to me. I suppose I should have read the book.

And then there's the question of blogs as public intellectualism. That would deserve a long discussion by itself.

John Quiggin said...

I'm sorry you were disappointed, but maybe you should have read the book. George Scialabba is a literary intellectual, but not an academic (he works at Harvard, but as a building manager). So it's unsurprising that his view of the public intellectual is a literary one.

Henry Farrell's contribution picks up this point and suggests that public intellectuals should pay more attention to topics like economics (not mentioned here, BTW), rather than being exclusively literary.

Finally, it's not all philosophy all the time at CT. In fact, I did a post on Steven Pinker just a couple of days which got about 100 comments.