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.