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On public intellectuals

From “Why don’t we love our intellectuals?” John Naughton, The Observer (8 May 2011):

So let us cast off the inferiority complex towards the cerebral continent and move on to more interesting questions. What, for example, is a public intellectual? In his study of the species, the American legal scholar Richard Posner defines them as “intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of… political or ideological concern”. It’s not just enough to be interested in ideas, therefore; to count as a public intellectual (or PI, for short) one must participate in debate to clarify issues, expose the errors of other public intellectuals, draw attention to neglected issues and generally vivify public discussion. The French polymath Pierre Bourdieu saw PIs as thinkers who are independent of those in power, critical of received ideas, demolishers of “simplistic either-ors” and respecters of “the complexity of problems”. The Palestinian literary critic Edward Said saw the public intellectual as “the scoffer whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations”.

None of these definitions is sharp enough to be very useful: any ranter with a megaphone and a mastery of rhetoric could qualify. In his book Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford, 2006), Collini goes to the other extreme, arguing that a public intellectual is someone who first achieves a level of creative or scholarly achievement and then uses available media to engage with the broader concerns of wider publics. So the novelist Ian McEwan, say, would qualify but a widely read newspaper columnist might not.

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This entry was posted on June 13, 2011 by in public intellectuals and tagged .
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