Daniel W. Drezner

Am I defining public intellectuals down?

Am I defining public intellectuals down?

Barry Gewen has a post up at the New York Times book blog on my recent paper on the state of public intellectuals in America.  Gewen is a little skeptical: 

Drezner’s impulse is to be inclusive: if you’ve written a serious book that has attracted a modicum of general attention, you seem to qualify as a public intellectual. I would be more restrictive, and I’d go back to the original New York Intellectuals for guidance. Broadly, they viewed the public intellectual as someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large. Irving Howe refers to the pursuit of “the idea of centrality” among the writers he knew, and the yearning “to embrace . . . the spirit of the age.” That is, public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way (though most important for the New York Intellectuals was the intersection of literature and politics). They might be journalists or academics, but only because they had to eat. At the most fundamental level, ideas for them were not building blocks to a career. Rather, careers were the material foundation that allowed them to define and express their ideas. It hardly needs to be said that this stance produced an inevitable tension between academic life, with its occupational demands for specialization, and opinionated public intellectuals refusing to be pigeon-holed…. The problem I have with Drezner’s list is that it fails to capture any of this tension, and therefore misses, I believe, something essential in the meaning of “public intellectual.” Drezner includes, for instance, Fareed Zakaria and Samantha Power. I yield to few in my admiration for these two writers, but for them to be considered public intellectuals in the old New York Intellectual sense — with its commitment to cultural “centrality” — I think they would have to demonstrate greater breadth than they have so far displayed. Zakaria would have to write, say, a thoughtful essay on the novels of Philip Roth and Power a book on the history of the blues.

One could contest whether Gewen is being fair to either Zakaria or Power (the former had a wine column in Slate for a few years; the latter contributed to a book about baseball) but let’s get to the larger point.  Are this generation’s public intellectuals “speaking out on every topic that [comes] their way”?  I partially responded to this in an earlier post.  To sum up: 

[A]s a general rule public intellectuals are less likely to have penetrating insights when they’re talking about subject in which they have no extant knowledge. This doesn’t vitiate the role of the public intellectual: as the specialization of knowledge has progressed, it becomes more difficult for the same person to flourish in their specialized field and make that knowledge accessible to the public. This does create a market niche, however, for “second order intellectuals” to emerge, bridging the gap between first order intellectuals and the informed public…. To conclude then — if we’re living in a world where there are more public intellectuals, but they’re more responsive to criticism and less willing to venture way beyond their areas of competence — well, then let me dance on the grave of “mega-public intellectuals.”

There’s two other points to be made , however.  First, how public does an intellectual need to be to merit discussion of someone as a “public intellectual”?  It’s not like Irving Howe or Dwight MacDonald merited large readerships with their Partisan Review contributions.  Furthermore, a quick perusal of Howe’s “Age of Conformity” reveals a distinct snobbery towards intellectuals that embraced a wider audience.  In the here and now, people like Russell Jacoby and David Brooks would count Jane Jacobs or William Whyte as being public intellectuals, even though they were not in the Partisan Review crowd.  I fear Gewen is now being too restrictive in his definition, in that I’m not sure how “public” the New York Intellectual crowd really was.  The second point is that Gewen’s example raises a bias in the way some think about the public intellectual species.  As I noted in my essay: 

In the current era, a lot more public intellectuals possess social science rather than humanities backgrounds.  In Richard Posner’s list of top public intellectuals, there are twice as many social scientists as humanities professors.[1]  In the Foreign Policy list, economists and political scientists outnumber artists and novelists by a ratio of four to one.  Economics has supplanted literary criticism as the “universal methodology” of public intellectuals. 

[1] Posner, Public Intellectuals, p. 207 and 215. 



Here’s the bias:  in the past, when literary critics traversed into the fields of social science, they were seen as public intellectuals.  Why, when social scientists return the favor — like Tyler Cowen, Richard Posner or Gary Becker —  are they viewed as arrivistes and/or methodological imperialists?