Cross-posted from the US Intellectual History blog. Which explains the first sentence.
Few questions are brought up more frequently at this blog than the question of the public intellectual. Who is a public intellectual? What does a public intellectual do? Conversely, who isn’t a public intellectual? Often, these discussions revolve around problems of definition – if we are going to debate what we mean by a “public intellectual,” we must surely define what we mean by “public” and “intellectual” in the first place. Moreover, as L.D. Burnett has recently pointed out, we would do well to decide which portion of the term – the “public” or the “intellectual” – is the most important to our conception of the title. By way of one of the primary figures of my dissertation, sociologist and social activist Richard Cloward, I am going to hazard offering my own answers to each of these questions.
Before addressing what makes an intellectual “public,” it of course seems necessary to grapple with the whole idea of what comprises an “intellectual” in the first place. As many discussions here have attested to, this is a task fraught with epistemological and ideological problems – the collected baggage of race, class and gender are inevitably incorporated into our conceptions of the intellectual, and therefore to some it seems of little value to try and salvage the idea at all. Yet my response to this problem – however admittedly related to my inability to divorce myself from my own middle-class romanticism – is not to abandon the term, but to attempt to reinvent it by dressing it down. A democratic notion of the intellectual, in other words, would be one with remarkably minimal standards for admission – as I once argued in a review of the delightful documentary The Examined Life, all one need possess in order to qualify as an intellectual is a genuine, passionate interest in ideas and their consequences for the lived experience of being human. This does not require any set standard or amount of knowledge – although when the interest is sincere, a certain amount of education is usually acquired one way or another – nor of course a college degree or publically scrutinized body of work. For even the quest of the classic privileged white male intellectual is, ultimately, a deeply human one, and it is in this broadly shared humanity which can be found the lustful yearning with which we recognize each other as intellectuals.
Yet if this standard seems excessively broad and undiscriminating, fear not – I’m about to get much more stringent. If it does not take much to be considered an intellectual, it takes quite a lot, in my view, to be considered a public one. For in order to be endowed with the title of a public intellectual, one must produce thinking which is publically relevant – one must take a position on The Way We Live Now. And ultimately, if pursued honestly and fully, this means one has to become political – in the deepest sense of the term. A public intellectual, in other words, is an intellectual who takes a position on contemporary power arrangements.