U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Conference on Public Intellectuals

Today’s post is by guest blogger Jonathan Wilson, a PhD candidate in history at Syracuse University, who tweets at @jnthnwwlsn

Last weekend, I had the privilege of participating in a sort of USIH cousin, the Conference on Public Intellectuals, which met for the fourth year at Harvard University. It provided a glimpse into a different approach to American intellectual history — a set of procedures and questions that complement the ones foregrounded at the New York meetings, but which imply different anxieties about the discipline. I left the conference pleased that this alternative model exists, pondering how it might inform the practices of S-USIH.

The first conference, four years ago, was a one-time event held in honor of Lawrence J. Friedman. Since then, the Conference on Public Intellectuals has become an annual affair. (Damon Freeman and Larry Friedman did the organizing this year.) Despite its name, the conference is really more of a two-day workshop. The twenty-one presenters were encouraged to speak informally, even speculatively, and all the presentations took place in the same conference room in the Harvard Science Center. In his opening remarks, Friedman urged the attendees to be “nice” to each other and take part in every discussion. Fifteen to twenty minutes of Q&A followed each paper rather than each panel. And most importantly, the conference had a question instead of a theme: What is a “public intellectual,” and is that term useful to scholars in the first place? At various points during the conference, discussions of particular presentations evolved into general discussions of that question.

For example, the first session, on Friday, covered “Cold War Liberalism and Public Intellectuals” in the United States. USIH’s own Lisa Szefel led off with a presentation on Peter Viereck, arguing that conservative thought shared crucial cultural concerns with liberal thought and deserves a place in the history of the mid-20th-century “vital center.” Alan Petigny followed with a critique of Reinhold Niebuhr and the “decline of the absolute” in Fifties liberal thought, arguing that the public rhetoric of American liberal intellectuals lost the moral firmness it required to take on militarism and racial oppression in the postwar age. Ellen Rafshoon then outlined the biography of Hans Morgenthau, suggesting that the same moral concerns that led him, as a Jewish German exile, to embrace realism in international relations also eventually led him (pace his defenders) to implicitly reject it when he became a critic of American policy in Vietnam. Finally, Ronald Doel displayed a series of images taken by documentary photographers working for the federal government under Roy Stryker during the New Deal and World War II. After the war, as Doel showed, Stryker went to work making similar images for Standard Oil, depicting positively the impressive machinery and (we might say) devastating environmental effects of oil extraction. Doel argued that these photographers may deserve to be considered as public intellectuals, articulating ideas about nature and society in a public medium allowing for subtle expression. If all four of these presentations shared an argument, it may have been that the mid-20th-century American public intellectual inhabited a vexed media environment that makes it difficult to characterize the intellectual simply as an outsider or critic of the modern state.

The discussion of the intellectual’s relationship with mass culture continued in the following session on “European Legacies and Public Intellectuals.” Nicolaas Barr Clingan, discussing the late Dutch philosopher Lolle Nauta, Benjamin Wurgaft, discussing Levinas and Sartre, Pilar Damião de Medeiros, discussing contemporary social movements, and Odile Heynders, proposing that contemporary European public intellectuals be seen as “bidimensional beings” who navigate the border between literary truth and political action, all addressed the problem of political engagement or withdrawal for modern European intellectuals.

The next session on Friday, which took up “Public Intellectuals and the Problem of Race and Nationalism,” narrowed the question of political engagement, turning it into a question of publicity. James Clark discussed psychiatrist Robert Coles’s work with children as a way of interpreting racism, and Shane Gunderson discussed the work of outside intellectuals (most notably Noam Chomsky) in publicizing the East Timor independence movement in the 1990s, proposing this as a case study in the work of the public intellectual as a protestor. Helen Fordham also highlighted the work of the intellectual as publicist by discussing the case of Australian prisoner David Hicks, in which various kinds of Australian “knowledge workers” interpreted Hicks’s cause for the public as a matter of human rights. Finally, my paper on David Walker’s Appeal and the Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, also depicted various writers adopting new media to turn the ordinary lives of oppressed people into national issues.

These discussions on Friday led into a general debate over the term “public intellectual” itself, loosely moderated by Larry Friedman in the spare time available. Daniel Geary argued that Russell Jacoby’s term may be essentially redundant, since the intellectual is necessarily a figure engaged in public rather than esoteric concerns. Alan Petigny disagreed, arguing that the adjective public serves a useful purpose in distinguishing the politically or socially active thinker from other kinds of scholars. Ben Wurgaft, on the other hand, suggested that it might be helpful not to think of the public intellectual as a figure so much as an event — a certain kind of emergent public transformation.

The final event on Friday, held at night, was for me the highlight of the conference. Three members of the early-60s Committee of Correspondence — Norman Birnbaum, Michael Maccoby, and Everett Mendelsohn — met to recall their work as nuclear disarmament activists. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on familiar questions about the New Left and Neoconservatism, with Maccoby in particular holding up David Riesman as a leader with particularly nuanced political views. In the frightening era of the early Cold War, Maccoby said, Riesman’s firmest conviction was that human civilization is a “thin veneer,” a fragile restraint on violent impulses. Thus it was that Riesman worried about mass political movements of all kinds and was at times highly unsympathetic to the student movement and even the civil rights movement. Maccoby defended (or at least empathized with) Riesman’s as a consistent and principled intellectual position.

Saturday’s panels continued to discuss these themes. In the morning, Bertram Wyatt-Brown argued that George Orwell’s own experiences of humiliation animated his writing about surveillance and torture in 1984, Claudia Franziska Brühwiler discussed Ayn Rand’s self-creation as an intellectual “icon” (drawing on Dominik Bartmanski’s “How to Become an Iconic Social Thinker”), and Mark West explained that Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor was intimately involved in shaping public perceptions of the postwar tribunals through his involvement with the scripts for Judgment at Nuremberg. In the next session, classicist John Lenz began by discussing Socrates’ suspicion of politics as a way of understanding Bertrand Russell’s anarchist tendencies (or vice versa). Then Anna Dubenko argued in a fascinating paper that the idea of a public intellectual helps explain some of the tensions in James Baldwin’s work as a writer addressing distinct publics, and John Morra detailed the public rivalry of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose conflicting scientific views and personal pride shaped American public health policy.

In the last session, on Saturday afternoon, three presenters tackled questions of pressing importance in the 21st century. Elisabeth Chaves considered the question of whether print journals represent a retreat from public significance or are the intellectual’s natural habitat. Alhelí Alvarado-Díaz discussed Herbert Marcuse as a “prophet of economic apocalypse,” focusing on the critique in One-Dimensional Man. Jason Roberts, finally, traced the course of the “Decent Left” debates during the early-to-mid-2000s, focusing on Todd Gitlin’s attempt to reclaim patriotism for the Left in The Intellectuals and the Flag. These presentations led into a second informal discussion of the public intellectual as a contemporary figure.

The conference did not, of course, come to any particular conclusion about the term “public intellectual.” But by posing a question — even a seemingly simple and familiar one — toward which everyone present could contribute, the Conference on Public Intellectuals stirred up all sorts of unusually interesting side questions. I, for one, was unsettled by the fact that only two presenters discussed topics earlier than the 20th century. This seems revealing, though I can’t say for sure what it reveals. On the other hand, I was also impressed by the ease with which conversation flowed between Europeanists and Americanists, and between historians and scholars from other disciplines. By setting up a complex conversation but keeping it all within one room, the Conference on Public Intellectuals created a fertile environment for reflection on both the practice and the subject matter of intellectual history.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tiago, please, no apologies! I am even more grateful for the link to your profile — judging from your “selected publications,” it’s just possible that there’s a place for you in my dissertation bibliography. Interesting work.

  2. [My comment is in two parts owing to its length.]

    Regarding the discussion on the redundancy of the term “public intellectuals,” I think it’s clear that the adjective “public” is indeed important, for intellectuals as such might be viewed simply as technicians of practical knowledge or a class of individuals in the social division of labor without any special sense of public obligation or commitment (the person engaged in ‘mental work, an expert’). In France, however, the “post-Dreyfus affair” invocation of the term “intellectual” simpliciter was often meant in a pejorative sense, accusing someone in effect of interfering in affairs believed to be outside their special area of technical or professional competence or expertise (and that is, often, and strictly speaking, true). As Jacoby pointed out, there’s a necessary distinction, for example, between an “academic intellectual” and a “public intellectual,” although the former can be, and often are, public intellectuals as well, “public” here meaning something like what Sartre intended in his 1965 series of lectures in Japan, “A Plea for Intellectuals,” in other words, the latter are “true” intellectuals (hence the normative rather than descriptive component becomes paramount). Part of the self-awakening of public intellectuals, according to Sartre, follows an “awareness on the part of the intellectual of the social contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the fact that the ruling or privileged classes view him as a traitor for using the knowledge they ‘allowed him to acquire against them,’ whilst the under-privileged classes find him suspect ‘because of the very culture he puts at their disposal.’ Incidentally, the tasks Sartre sets for these “true” or would-be public intellectuals remains, I think, in the main relevant if not urgent:

    1. He must struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes. [….]
    2. He must make use of the capital of knowledge he has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture.
    3. Whenever necessary and particularly in the present conjuncture, he should help to form technicians of practical knowledge within the under-privileged classes, since these classes cannot themselves produce them, in the hope that they will become organic intellectuals of the working class…. [Here I think what Sartre intended to say can be massively misunderstood.]
    4. He must recover his own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) be rediscovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle—that is, as the future of man.
    5. He should try to radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims—in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class.
    6. He must act as a guardian of the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power—including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself. [….]

  3. Rest of comment:

    In Russia, as Boris Kagarlitsky has explained, the term “intelligentsia” has all the connotations intrinsic to the notion of a public intellectual, for the Russian concept of intelligentsia has an explicit normative or moral content, in fact, originally, it “was almost the direct opposite of the concept of ‘intellectuals.’ [….] [Nikolai] Berdyaev [1874-1948] quite rightly protested against treatment of the two concepts as identical: ‘Our intelligentsia were a group formed out of various social classes and held together by ideas, not by sharing a common profession or economic status,’ he declared. What was the important distinctive mark of the intelligentsia? Not only with formal occupation with mental work, but also exceptional concern with European culture. But even this definition may prove inexact. Originally the word intelligent was clearly marked with moral evaluation. Polonsky wrote in the 1920s that from Boborykin’s time what was meant by the intelligentsia was ‘a historical group of people who promoted the self-awareness of Russian society.’ He considered that as a Marxist he was obliged to treat such a definition ironically, but he recognized that in nineteenth-century Russia, the ‘intelligent’ [individual] ‘was a spiritual leader, a worker on behalf of social ideals.’”

    Thus both Gramsci and Sartre came to understand the (‘organic’ or ‘true’) “intellectual” along the lines of the Russian “intelligenty” or intellegentsia, which is closer to, if not identical with, what we (or Jacoby) mean(s) by the term “public intellectual” and is not far from the Gandhian ideal of the “karma yogi” (those engaged in the selfless social service of others, being preoccupied with their welfare and well-being if not their capacities for human flourishing).

    Thus the term “intellectual” is largely descriptive in meaning, while “public intellectual” is meant in an explicitly “normative” sense, even if it has some descriptive virtues as well.

  4. Patrick:
    With respect I would suggest you’re public intellectual sounds like a firebrand who just stepped out of his first international. Are public intellectuals leaders or teachers? There are a preponderance of imperatives in Satre’s list, is the function of a public intellectual so confined?

    “He must make use of the capital of knowledge he has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture.”
    What is meant by a “universal culture”?

    “He should try to radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims—in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class.”

    Is this universalization a set of defined values that the public intellectual has determined is good for the working class?
    Who today embodies your concept of a public intellectual?

    The appellation public intellectual conjures, in my mind, a popularizer of ideas.
    The name suggests a certain trust, an identifiable quantity without expectation of some quid pro quo. Someone who, with service to the public their main motivation, objectively and passionately discusses ideas without necessarily arguing a polarizing position. Mortimer Adler seems to fit that image, Carl Sagan at one point, but it seems that once a notable figure takes a position particularly on a controversial topic they lose that cache as a public intellectual and they become defined by their positions; for Richard Dawkins it’s “militant atheist”, for William F. Buckley it’s “polemical conservative”, maybe E.O. Wilson. My notion is probably too confining others will have better examples and definitions.
    Nevertheless, I see public intellectuals humbly enlarging our intellectual understanding of the world not leading us to the promise land.

  5. I won’t now attempt to address all the issues raised by Paul but don’t see anything above as intrinsically or necessarily implicating something on the order of leading us to “the promised land” (or messianic) in a literal or figurative sense (although it does imply something like if not identical to James MacGregor Burns’ idea of ‘transformational leadership’). By “universal culture” I understand something like a commitment to basic moral principles and humane values, irrespective of various forms of personal and collective identity and something that began with Renaissance humanism in the West with roots going back to Stoic cosmpolitanism, indeed, some contemporary forms of ethical and even legal cosmpopolitanism well capture what I think would fall under the rubric of a “universal culture,” a concept that assumes we can make sense of the notion of human nature (in the manner, say, of P.M.S. Hacker’s recent book on same). It might also refer to what Martha Nussbaum explains by basic human capabilities. The Sartrian intellectual might be understood as someone who identifies with “intellectual virtues,” for example, love of knowledge, courage of conviction, moral autonomy, generosity, and practical wisdom. She is an individual who believes in the personal and social significance, indeed, urgency, of cultivating our capacity for reasoning (in the broadest sense), of addressing the facts of human suffering, of furthering the quest for welfare, well-being, and flourishing. A sense of “critical distance” or even non-attachment of some sort is critical to understanding, but we need to be clear as to the “whys” and “whats” of understanding, given the enormous amounts of time and resources (material and otherwise) devoted to this enterprise. It has, or should have, a telos in the Aristotelian sense, including an ethical and deeply normative justification or warrant.

    As regards the relation between the “working class” and intellectuals, I invoke this language reluctantly without believing there’s hard and fast boundaries here, but I agree with the late Marxist and Green theorist/activist Rudolf Bahro:

    “New and higher cultures are never created without the masses, without an essential change in their condition of life, nor without their initiative, at a definite stage of maturity in the ongoing crisis. But in no known historical case did the first creative impulse in ideas and organization proceed from the masses; the trade unions do not anticipate a new civilization. The political workers’ movement was itself founded by declassed bourgeois intellectuals, which in no way means that the most active proletarian elements did not soon come to play a role of their own in the socialist parties and tend themselves to become intellectuals [the Gramscian ‘organic intellectual’]. It can also not be denied (and in fact has not been sufficiently stressed) that the modern working class is in many important respects different from former exploited classes.”

    Academics of all sorts, be they in the humanities, social and natural sciences, or the law, should be intellectuals first, and academics second. As to what this might mean, at least for social scientists, see Andrew Sayer’s Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and the Ethical Life (2011).

  6. Thanks, Jonathan, for a great summary of the conference. When I said I was skeptical of the term “public intellectual,” at least as used by Jacoby, it was partly because it draws too sharp a boundary between academic scholarship and public discourse. Much to my surprise, the offhand remark I made at that academic conference has now sparked discussion on this blog. I think my point has been made!

    Dan Geary

  7. I want to echo Dan Geary’s hearty thanks for the conference summary and recap. Much appreciated! And thanks also to Patrick and Paul for the long comments and on-topic discussion.

    Even while he never shied from controversy, Mortimer Adler aspired to a “dialectical” ideal during the early and middle parts of his career, and later to pushing a neo-Aristotelian viewpoint he conceived as neutral. At the end of his career he cared less and less about making concessions to the “other side,” however conceived. But yes, he aspired to speak to the American commonweal for most of his career. In this way he was a public intellectual by design. – TL

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