Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Most Public Intellectuals Today Aren't Literati: Is That a Problem?

I finally got around to reading the very long, very thin screed, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals?” by Mark Greif, printed in last Friday's Chronicle of Higher Education.  Greif longs for the golden age when elegant writing and clever thinking emanated from the pages of the Partisan Review.  He tried to put the magic back in the can with n+1, but couldn’t find the authors he was seeking among the engagé professoriat.

Well, I’m sorry that I have to be the one to say this, but times have changed.  Back in the 1940s, if you were an intellectual drawn to political and social critique, you were a novelist, a poet or a critic.  The social sciences were still getting on their feet, and the few people who could bridge the worlds of economics/sociology/political science/etc. and politics were also writers and critics—J. K. Galbraith (novelist), David Riesman and the like.  A literary epoch.

Today there are scads of public intellectuals using their social science chops to tackle the big themes of politics and culture.  By and large, they are not literary stylists.  They are active researchers, typically using abstruse methods to shed light on large or murky data sets.  Their professional writing is incomprehensible to those without grounding in the relevant academic literatures.  To reach a more general audience they are forced to commit the very sin that Greif excoriates, dumbing down.

My problem is that my world has too many public intellectuals.  I can spend all day reading fascinating blog posts by economists and other social scientists and postpone forever doing my own work.  This writing does not have the literary flair (usually) that the finest writers are able to display, but the ideas are far more precise and engaged with empiricism than anything you will find in the archives of Partisan Review.  You can learn more from a good day in the social science blogosphere than a year of reading Dwight Macdonald, and I actually like Dwight Macdonald.

Being a superior writer is no longer a sufficient basis for expertise in culture and politics.


kevin quinn said...

"far more precise and engaged with empiricism" - hmm. Well, imprecise and unengaged with empiricism as she may have been, I'll take Hannah Arendt over 1000 contemporary précise and engaged social scientists. I think you are mischaracterizing what PR had that we don't have. It's not literary style, but thinking!

Peter Dorman said...

Hannah Arendt's speculations about political psychology and similar topics are intriguing; they get you thinking and expand your perspectives. But at some point speculation has to give way to disciplined observation. The number of theories that are interesting and might be valid is much larger than the number that's actually valid.

I think there is still an important role for the Hannah Arendt's of this world, but it's smaller than it used to be.

kevin quinn said...

Peter: I don't think what I get from Arendt as possible hypotheses for testing! You sound like a positivist here: Hume's Fork: Knowledge is either the tautological knowledge embodied in the conventions about meaning we follow or it is knowledge of "facts" established by empirical science. Philosophy and Literature are just occasions for the display of literary style, since they contain no legitimate knowledge claims. I know you don't believe this, Peter!

Peter Dorman said...

No, it's not sequential, but it is a matter for balance. Maybe I haven't expressed myself well, since I think my main point should be easy to subscribe to. Back in the golden age of literary politics in the US (eg PR), social science had a lot less to offer. If you wondered what the populace was thinking and why, what the impact of the mass media was, etc., you were mostly in the realm of "culture", and the best people to consult were belle lettrists. Now I certainly think that profound writers have as much to say as always, but today there are far more specialists in these things, and their work is far more advanced than before. So the balance has shifted, and I think it's OK.

john c. halasz said...

Arendt was making a basic criticism of technocratic politics. And trying to revive a conception of politics in terms of classical practical reason within a community, "praxis" rather than a theoretical and technical politics of experts to the exclusion of public citizens, (or the manipulation of private moralisms). People wonder what she could have meant by criticizing the rise of "the social" in politics and doesn't she have an absurdly puristic conception of politics then, since what else could it concern but social issues, and why does she idealize the Greek polis, other than because of mandarin irrelevancy? But her point about the rise of "social" parallels Adorno's hyperbole of a "totally administered society", and her intent in raising the pre-theoretical politics of the Greeks is to riddle and question modern politics and political conceptions at cross-grain. So just what would "social scientific" specialists have to contribute to such a perspective that would replace and improve on it? Isn't there just a tendency of such "empirical expertise" to reproduce the status quo, reducing it to technical analysis without any basis in public power and conflict, and to repress any potentials that might transcend it?