Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Thursday, December 23, 2004
 
I've been thinking for the last few days about John Derbyshire's piece about public intellectuals, and how we don't really have many anymore.

He obviously has a point. Derb compares the current crop of American public intellectuals to Britain's 1930s crop; my own point of reference would probably have been the American public intellectuals of the 1950s, folks like Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, F. A. Hayek, Bruno Bettelheim. It is indeed hard to think of many people with those kinds of profiles today - people whom anyone educated had to be familiar with, who were treating serious subjects and making a real contribution to human understanding, but who also spoke to a large audience and shaped the larger culture of their day.

But I note some other facts about this list (which I came up with fairly quickly, without consulting sources): all but one (Trilling) were refugees from Nazi Germany who came to America as adults, and all but one (Hayek) were Jewish. Two other notable facts: the towering presence of Freud as the key intellectual precursor in the work of all the Jews on the list, and the fact that the work of most of these individuals no longer seems as important as it did at the time. I do not think these facts are unrelated; of all the intellectual revolutionaries of the 19th century, only Marx has fallen farther in general esteem than Freud.

It seems likely, then, that our apparent relative lack of public intellectuals speaks more to the differences between our intellectual culture today and that of 1950 than it does to the quality of our thinking. That is to say: the place of the intellectual in today's culture, at least in America, is not what it was in 1950.

Of course, to some extent intellectuals never had the kind of place in American culture that they have had in some foreign cultures. Take Russia. Has there ever been the equivalent in America to a Leo Tolstoy or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? I don't think so. We've had great novelists - Melville and Twain preeminently - who can sit comfortably on the same shelf with the great Russians (and frankly, Solzhenitsyn is not a great man because of a preeminence as a novelist), but even when their greatest works (as Melville's and Twain's do) fulfill the promise of the "Great American Novel" of singing the soul of the country, their authors do not occupy a similarly central place in the life of the nation. Neither Melville nor Twain was ever treated as the conscience of the nation, as its living prophet, in the way that Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn have been in Russia. And Russia is not unique; there is no contemporary American equivalent to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, or to the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, or to the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, or to the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. You can point to 20th century American authors who approximate or try to approximate this kind of position of speaking to and/or for the nation - Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Walker Percy, heck let's throw in Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey and Philip Roth and Tom Pynchon and Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal and David Foster Wallace if it makes you happy - but it's somehow not the same. Things work different here, at least of the time, at least when we're not importing a notion of the intellectual's role in society from abroad.

But still, he has a point. And it's not hard to point to things that have changed about America that make it even harder to be a public intellectual than it was in the past. We live in an increasingly fragmented culture, which makes it hard to speak to the culture as a whole. So Antonin Scalia (mentioned by several of his readers as a name he missed) is certainly a public intellectual, but he's not even engaged with by most of those on the other side of the aisle. And even novelists who write as if they are speaking to the nation about things that it should know about itself - writers like Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe - wind up speaking to the stylistically-sympathetic more than anything else.

Relatedly, the demise of the liberal establishment means that there is no one standing for the cultural center in American life. Back when William F. Buckley was founding National Review, there was a confident liberal establishment in charge of the country and controlling the commanding heights of culture. And that liberal establishment, the heir to the Progressives of the early 20th century, embraced their position as leaders and teachers to the American people. And the great public intellectuals of mid-century interacted with that establishment, either in support of it or (as with, for example, Hayek, or Buckley, or the people Buckley gathered around him) against it. Today, there is no establishment. Conservatives are themselves intellectually fragmented, and do not control the cultural centers. The left-liberals who control those centers do not confidently embrace a mission of promulgating and advancing civilization, and politically those cultural centers are not engaged in any serious way with the centers of power. And so, logically, they are less intellectually powerful.

There's also been a change in academia, particularly the humanities, which have become hyper-professionalized and specialized. I think this is a trend which has crested and is in the process of being reversed, however; I note that we're seeing a spate of books coming out that are very old-fashioned - biographies of the Founding Fathers, criticism of Shakespeare - addressed to the common reader but written by individuals of considerable learning. There's something of an impetus to reengage, but such reengagement will take a long time, and runs against structural and ideological impediments.

I haven't even mentioned multi-culturalism, which obviously makes it more difficult to talk about a national intellectual culture.

Finally, we no longer live in an age of systems, and this is probably a good thing. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, the West went through a mania for systems that could explain life and reality in all their complexity, and reduce them to comprehensible rules. In the sciences we still, frequently, are system-builders, but in the humanities we are much less so. It is hard to imagine that a Marx, or a Freud, even if he lived among us today would get the same traction; we just don't think human history or the human mind *can* be reduced like that. That means we are relying less on intellectuals to explain the world to us. And again, that's probably good, on balance. And I don't think that trend is unrelated to something Derbyshire does point to: the fact that his own list of public intellectuals tilts rightward, while that of 1930s Britain tilts left. The left is, by nature, more inclined towards a systematic understanding of reality, and that kind of thinking empowers intellectuals. So it makes sense that if thinking in terms of systems is out of vogue, and leftism waning, that intellectuals will also be less prominent in public life. Doesn't Paul Johnson himself say that intellectuals should, for the good of the commonwealth, be kept as far from power as possible? Well, that's what's happened in America, and as a consequence quite interesting thinkers have only a tiny fraction of the cultural influence they might have had in an earlier age.

All that said, and having acknowledged that Derbyshire has a point, I'm going to quibble with the details.

It seems to me that, to be a public intellectual, you need to be doing the following:
  • Making a genuine intellectual contribution - i.e., there has to be something original and important about what you are doing;
  • Communicating with a large, nonsectarian audience - i.e., your work can’t be of interest or known only to academics nor, on the other hand, only to, say, Mormons, or lesbians (or Mormon lesbians);
  • Generating a response and moving the debate - i.e., your arguments can't just sit there in splendid isolation, even if they are admired there by many, but have to generate a substantive intellectual response, become part of what the intellectual conversation is about.
So: do the folks on Derbyshire's list pass the test? Some do, and some don't.

I certainly agree that scientists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker belong on the list. I don't know if Jared Diamond is quite at their level; I also don't know whether it makes sense to put someone like Daniel Dennett on a list that already includes Steven Pinker, but I'd be inclined to do so since he's a philosopher by training rather than a scientist. You could probably add a handful of other scientists in the same cluster of disciplines - evolutionary biology, psychology, psychometry, neuroscience, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy of mind - that Derbyshire rightly thinks are the most fertile intellectual fields these days.

I also certainly agree that Milton Friedman belongs on the list. He's the heir to F. A. Hayek and fully the equal in terms of influence in the last 35 years to Keynes's influence in the prior 35.

The rest of the list is tougher to puzzle out.

William F. Buckley was the crucial figure in the revival of American conservatism. But was he an important thinker in his own right? And was he communicating with a large, non-sectarian audience? I'm not sure. He brought together a hugely important collection of conservative intellectuals as well as political practitioners. But I'm not sure he's an important intellectual in his own right.

I'm also concerned that letting him in means opening the door to too many others. Irving Kristol? Norman Podhoretz? Some of Derbyshire's readers mailed in suggestions like Victor Davis Hanson and George Will. This is setting the bar too low. And just think of the folks on the other side you'd have to let in. The liberal lions like Arthur Schlessinger are almost entirely absent from the list. Is it fair to exclude them but include Buckley? It's not clear to me why.

Noam Chomsky presents a similar problem. His work on linguistics is too specialized (and also too suspect - Chomsky looks likely to be the Bettelheim of this day, about to be thoroughly debunked) to be crucial to his making the cut. Rather, he is the king of the anarchists, nominated for his political writing. But his political writing is, not to put too fine a point on it, drivel. He is certainly not communicating with a large, non-sectarian audience. And I strongly question whether he's making a genuine intellectual contribution. Moreover, if we let him in, why not Susan Sontag, who has better claim to being an intellectual? Why not Alice Walker, who's been at least as influential? Why not Cornel West, who is more widely respected?

I want to be clear: I'm not objecting to Chomsky because he's a leftist. I object to him because I think his thought is empty. He is not in the same category as a Marx or Lenin; he is to them as the Baader-Meinhof Gang is to a serious terrorist group like the PLO or al-Qaeda.

Ronald Dworkin presents a different problem: the question of whether his work is generating a response and moving the debate. Who debates "Dworkinism"? Who even knows what it is? How has he shaped the way we understand the law? Dworkin has always seemed to me a puzzling contradiction. On the one hand, he has constructed elaborate metaphors that seem, to me, to do a real service in terms of a poetic understanding of what the law actually is. His idea of the law as a "chain novel" where every decision writes another page or chapter, and the objective is thereby to construct a coherent narrative, is very pregnant and appealing. But it's not obvious to me that it leads to any substantive conclusions about how to judge. All he's done is, correctly, identify one aspect of good judging as aesthetic in nature, just as it is in mathematics, another field where you wouldn't think, at first, that the aesthetic matters.

On the other hand, Dworkin spends much of his energy in highly unpersuasive attempts to deduce Justice Brennan's juriprudential record from Dworkin's own, highly abstract and not very concrete notions of how the law works. I know why he's doing this. But that doesn't mean it's intellectually interesting or persuasive.

I can easily name four thinkers operating in the area of legal and moral philosophy who, I think, deserve the palm above Dworkin; one of them is recently deceased, but I mention him because his stature is so enormous and because he continued to make a contribution to intellectual life right up until the end.

The four thinkers are James Q. Wilson, Richard Posner, Peter Singer and (the recently deceased) John Rawls.

James Q. Wilson has been the principal figure in shaping a revolution in how we think about criminal law and public order generally. He's been at it for so long that much of what he taught has now become a commonplace. That's the sign of a successful public intellectual. That his ideas were largely a matter of common sense writ large does not detract from their stature.

Richard Posner is one of the most interesting and prolific legal and moral thinkers today, in addition to being a working Federal judge. I don't generally much like his thinking, either in style or content, but that doesn't change the fact that he's enormously interesting and influential. He's not only the leader of an entire school of law - Law and Economics - that has profoundly affected how judges do their jobs and how they decide cases, but he's applied the insights of that school to a host of philosophical and political questions that extend well beyond the province of the law. He's a major intellectual, as numerous of Derbyshire's correspondents pointed out.

Peter Singer, while quite thoroughly odious, is one of the most important and influential thinkers today. He's certainly a lot more important than Noam Chomsky. Singer is working in an area of decisive importance - bioethics and medical ethics - and has written several challenging, not to say terrifying books on the subject. He both represents a dominant trend in the field and has been instrumental in shaping that trend. I find his thinking vulgarly utilitarian and unpersuasive, but we should not underestimate the degree to which it dominates our world today.

John Rawls, meanwhile, although ineligible because of his recent death, was a giant of 20th century moral philosophy. He is, in fact, the man who almost single-handedly rescued moral philosophy from oblivion, and who has done more than any other thinker to try to set our liberal political order on firm philosophical foundations. I think the foundations of his thought are rather shaky - Peter Berkowitz has made quite telling arguments to undermine them - but I cannot deny that no one has very good ideas about how to shore them up. Questions central to our current dilemmas as a civilization - such as the relation between a liberal political order and revealed religion - are also the central dilemmas posed by his thinking.

I'd consider adding Allan Bloom if he were still alive (I only mentioned Rawls because he towers over just about everyone in the field, and died so recently) and I would consider mentioning Robert Bork or Antonin Scalia, except that both Bork and Scalia are talking mainly to the converted. If I mention them, I should put Larry Tribe on the list, and a host of other legal thinkers and practitioners who are interesting and influential, but are not similarly shaping how we think about the law in a fundamental way.

Continuing down Derbyshire's list . . .

Freeman Dyson is clearly an important figure in the history of physics and a man who captured the popular imagination. Is he a public intellectual, though? On what grounds? He certainly doesn't seem as important as any of the "human scientists" Derbyshire mentions. We don't need affirmative action for physicists.

Francis Fukuyama raises yet another question: is he a lightweight? I know he came up with this notion of the "end of history" but does he have anything else to recommend him? I'm not sure he's making a genuine intellectual contribution, as opposed to making topical arguments that people then toss about. Here's a good way of putting my question: if Francis Fukuyama makes the cut, shouldn't Peter Drucker make the cut even more clearly?

Samuel Huntington, on the other hand, seems to me to be operating at another level of seriousness. Twice in recent years he's put out unexpected arguments that challenged the reigning "paradigm" in important ways and presaged largely unexpected developments in the real world. And this comes at the end of a long and important career thinking about political and international order. He definitely makes the cut.

Charles Murray I would similarly say clearly makes the cut . . . except that he has been declared all-but anathema by almost everyone. His most recent book strikes me as a highly quixotic enterprise, and was almost universally dismissed. (People paid a lot more respectful attention to Paul Johnson's book about art, I note.) We'll need to see whether his work on The Bell Curve is treated as foundational by a rising generation of scholars and scientists, or whether it vanishes beneath the waves. It's hard to be a public intellectual when virtually everyone refuses to read your stuff.

Thomas Sowell is a clearly public intellectual, but I'm not sure he's first rank because I'm not sure anyone but other conservatives pays attention to what he says. I'm not familiar with his original contributions in his area of expertise - economics. I'm just not sure, in the end, whether he's an important original thinker or whether he's one of a number of conservative thinkers making similar arguments. Remember: we're trying to put together a top-ten list. I'm not sure that he makes the cut.

Finally, Gary Wills. I note that he has no Wikipedia entry. He's the only person on Derbyshire's list without one. Enough said.

Now, looking at the list of rejects, I have no strong objections to any, but I want to make a comment about the humanities - as opposed to the human sciences or philosophy - and the fact that they are entirely unrepresented in Derbyshire's list of ten major-league intellectuals.

People like Stanley Fish, Stephen Greenblatt and Carlo Ginzburg have profoundly shaped the way that we approach literature and history, and as such have shaped American intellectual life. But there's a degree of separation involved; these people are not writing, by and large, for an audience of educated citizens but for other scholars. So it's hard to know how to score them, but I don't think they should be entirely ignored. Nor do I think their work should be deplored; Harold Bloom likes to rant about the "school of resentment" and similary cranky historians like to complain that no one is studying great men, or military and diplomatic history, anymore; rather, everyone's interested in exhuming the lost "stories" and "perspectives" of the common, marginal or despised classes of people. But, as Gordon Wood points out in a recent review in TNR of John Ellis's Washington bio, the "pointillist" work that so many historians are doing these days will bear fruit in the future as it forms the background to a new generation interested in more sweeping narrative and analytical histories. In his words, "the advancement of professional historical scholarship usually transcends the motives of its participants." Similarly with literature, where a lot of time has been wasted reading trash and reading trashily, but some of the leaders of the gang that killed the author and exalted the critic - including Stanley Fish, Stephen Greenblatt and Marjorie Garber - are now engaged in re-engaging with the canon, and what they have to say about the works of Milton and Shakespeare is actually quite interesting. A new generation that is actually interested in reading books will be enriched by their critical perspectives on them. I hope so, anyway.

I don't, ultimately, regret that I live in a country where intellectuals are more marginal than they are in, say, much of Eastern Europe. I think that has something to do with the health of our politics and society relative to theirs. But I value intellectuals inasmuch as they can, in fact, use their intellects, and I value the intellect. And if it is harder to be a public intellectual today in America, that is all the more reason for those who value intellect to seek out those who can think, and interact with their thought. A public intellectual needs a public, after all, and that's us.