Where Have the Intellectuals Gone, and Do We Need Them?

Almost every generation suffers from a certain sense of pride and vanity—or “exceptionalism,” to borrow a popular neologism of the moment—whereby its particular civilization is seen as having arrived at a summit of human achievement. Ours is no exception: our athletes routinely obliterate previous records, modern science and medicine have leapt forward by unfathomable bounds, and living standards in the developed world are beyond compare. Sometimes these beliefs are tempered by a sense of nostalgia for golden eras past, but there is nevertheless an overwhelming agreement that we have built on previous progress to take every field of human activity further than ever before.

However arrogant it may be, the sentiment is of course justified on a number of levels. It is therefore all the more curious to come across an area where society appears to have stagnated or, indeed, even engaged on a reverse course. In the U.S., anti-intellectualism has been bemoaned by many for decades (and could be seen as a fundamental constituent of the narrow definition of “exceptionalism” as an American brand of progress that relies on a pioneering spirit and the relentless pursuit of prosperity—doing, not thinking), but even in the land of the free there once existed a particular cast of thinker that has been waning of late: the public intellectual.

Are public intellectuals about to perish? Do they even still exist? I am not interested in proclaiming their imminent (or already actualized) death, nor even their decline, so much as in considering why it has become increasingly difficult to identify thinkers of this nature on a global scale. Even in France, which has been the home to a particular type of public intellectual steeped in Greco-Roman qualities but rounded out by French principles, resulting in a form of discourse that held near-universal appeal during the 17th-18th centuries and again from 1960-1980, it is increasingly difficult to point to present day equivalents. The public debates engaged in, and structured, by figures like Foucault, Sartre and Derrida—and Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau before them—seem to have few contemporary counterparts. Where are those thinkers who attack wide-ranging topics in all the depth and complexity they deserve, displaying intimate familiarity with the work of their predecessors and a fearless willingness to be cerebral, engaging in intricate argumentation intended for their most learned peers while putting forth bold claims that even non-experts can appreciate?

One could wonder whether we are simply less well read than generations past, whether the shifts brought about by modern technologies and the ways in which we consume information have changed the very meaning of what it means to be a public intellectual. These and other forces may indeed be at play, but the public intellectual’s fragile fate is also reflective of broader societal shifts. One of these has to do with the oft-debated role of the humanities amid factors such as the pressing demands of a struggling economy and a difficult job market, which have played a role in the prioritization of quantifiable skills over their less tangible counterparts. In higher education, this is reflected in the ascendance of business, law, and other disciplines with perceived immediate practical applications—and a drop in graduate degrees in fields such as English over the past few years. More generally, and throughout primary, secondary and post-secondary education in the U.S. and some parts of Europe, fervent proponents of corporate-style reforms and skills-based curricula (both of which have merits that are beyond the scope of this article) ask why their children need to learn about subjects or acquire abilities they will rarely use in their daily lives. Though they have a much wider impact and longer history than our present topic covers, these trends help explain the struggle facing the humanities, and its effect on the public intellectual: a large segment of society has been encouraged to pursue immediate gains, while the ecosystem that nurtured the deep and varied intellectual explorations that may eventually produce public intellectuals has been gradually eroded. Asking big questions for their own sake, being more interested in the different thought processes used in reaching results rather than in the results themselves, and eagerly debating issues that may have little concrete effect other than pushing the limits of intellectual exploration as far as possible—thinking, not so much doing: these are the defining characteristics of the public intellectual.

So, if society at large has gradually shifted away from a mindset that appreciates the qualities that make up the public intellectual, what of the institutions intended specifically to breed and safeguard them? Regardless of the pressure to ensure their graduates are employable (and reap the rewards that tend to come from producing rich alumni), great institutions of higher learning have thus far continued to present their main role as forming good citizens and serving as centers of scholarly exploration. While the first could be impacted by the needs of society (a good citizen is in part a productive one), the latter are intended to be safely tucked away, somewhat impervious to the demands of the world. Regardless of its faults, this critical distance is necessary to good scholarship. Why, then, do not more scholars ascend to the position of public intellectual? One answer is to be found in direction of scholarship itself: as in medicine, where every molecule and atom that makes up the human body seems to warrant its own sub-specialist, each area of scholarly investigation is home to highly-specialized researchers. This mandate of narrow specialization has only increased in recent decades, even among scholars who attempt cross-disciplinary work, in part due to the expectation that a scholar must attempt to read every word written on his or her chosen area. In the humanities, the phenomenon is in fact part of a broader change in the conception of scholarship, which has resulted in two main schools: those that make big, bold claims based in theory and often viewed as insufficiently rigorous by their critics, and those who seek to ground their research in historical approaches that properly value primary sources but result in (sometimes laughably) narrow explorations. In either case, the resulting writings are neither imbued with the almost limitless accumulation of knowledge displayed by great thinkers past, nor appealing—in their heavy use of jargon and inability (or unwillingness) to speak to larger issues—to anyone but a public of fellow specialists.

As with the dense fog of pragmatism that weighs heavily over the landscape of educational reform, so young scholars have come to view their vocation through the practical lens of career advancement. Not only does this further buoy narrow specializations that have more of a chance of yielding unique discoveries (or, in the worst cases, masking flaws in research), but it also dampens the thought processes that could lead to great debates, in favor of viewing scholarship as a job. Perhaps this evolution represents a necessary loss of naive idealism, but it is difficult to imagine Plato or Wittgenstein punching a time clock or declining to write an article because it wouldn’t help their chances of tenure. Sadly, if perhaps inevitably, this seems to be the direction taken by many academics—and who can blame them for adapting to the ways of the world? Today, few are those who truly have the voracious appetite necessary to sustaining a broad, in-depth knowledge that extends well beyond their field over the course of many years. Coupled with microscopically-focused fields of research, the lack of this kind of curiosity has progressively had an effect on the professoriate at top institutions and, consequently, on the way bright young minds are formed.

If the evolution of our universities and the overarching values of our societies have thus rarefied the type of intelligence and temperament that are proper to the public intellectual, let us turn once more for succor to the country whose public intellectuals were once so revered the world over. In so doing, we find that France does offer some hope in singular figures like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq—and even Alain Finkielkraut—who bring the knowledge and thought processes necessary to engage in the type of debates that are under the public intellectual’s aegis. However, such thinkers have become an anomaly, and the larger societal tendency—even in the land where endless, complex, multi-referential run-on sentences are seen as a virtue, and a cigar is usually representative of far more than just a cigar—in seeking intellectual direction is to turn to the likes of a Thomas Picketty: thinkers who adhere to the straightforward, digestible and, some might cruelly say, reductionist approach so pervasive in this digital age of bits and bites. In actuality, Picketty’s work is serious and manages to construct almost absurdly simple theories from data sets fraught with complexities. But his lens, as valid and well researched as it may be, is nevertheless at odds with that of the public intellectual precisely in its ability to neatly transform a complicated mess into little packets with bows on top. At least in part, this is a talent (or, depending on your view, an occupational hazard) that results from Picketty’s training as an economist, rather than a humanist. A true public intellectual, in contrast, craves and pursues complexities, not so much seeking to translate them into simple ideas ready for mass consumption, as to dig into them as deeply as possible, following each twist and curve, and arriving at conclusions that s/he realizes are in perpetual flux.

No doubt the world needs economists, yet it also benefits from that strange animal whose life is devoted to intensely studying, investigating, thinking critically about, and actively debating the multitude of issues that ultimately make up the very definition of what it means to be human. Perhaps it isn’t unreasonable to inquire into the demise of the public intellectual after all, but we might also return to one of our earlier questions: has the notion of the public intellectual itself metamorphosed into something different? If so, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely into what. Public intellectuals often attack preconceived notions and offer critical perspectives, but are not to be confused with critics, of which there is an ample supply, and whose wit, if they have any, is applied towards very specific aims that have little to do with the betterment of society or intellectual growth. They have certainly not evolved into the endless parade of commentators championed by American multimedia conglomerates as authoritative experts, but who overwhelmingly lack any sophistication, and in the rare exceptions of a Fareed Zakaria or a Thomas Friedman find themselves constrained by their delivery formats. They aren’t even to be found in the cleverest, most engaged academics, who tend to remain shackled by disciplinary (or methodological) boundaries and the phenomenon of extreme specialization. While academic institutions may by their very definition not be the best home for the panoramic, provocative and original—one could almost say unacademic—thinking that is part of the public intellectual’s essence, they are nevertheless the place that provides the training and knowledge that can turn intelligence into great minds. Could top research universities, post-digital transformation, find themselves sufficiently transformed to take full advantage of new modes of communication and collaboration, in order to form new sorts of “think tanks” that, unlike Washington D.C.’s current incarnations, aren’t something of a misnomer? And would this create an environment in which public intellectuals could thrive in the digital age, or would it simply further accelerate current trends? Whatever the solution, the problem of the fading public intellectual is closely linked to the shifts taking place in higher education, whether evident or subtle, directly correlated or diffusely linked—and institutions of higher learning are best poised to help us recognize we still need public intellectuals to ponder, nurture and debate questions that are more consequential than we appreciate. (Though many are artificial constructs intended to provide an illusion of change, a few of the interdisciplinary centers at leading European and American universities have the resources necessary to engage in real research initiatives and meaningful programming. They represent a step towards removing some of the barriers that currently limit universities’ ability to be the full-fledged home of public intellectuals, should they wish to assume the role.) For this realization to take place in society at large, as in academe, it may be time to rethink presentist reforms based on practical but nearsighted concerns, and consider the sweeping repercussions of a world without true big picture thinkers who, in the final analysis, look after the continued overarching progress of humankind. The question is: within the narrow tunnels that limit our own vision, are we still equipped to do so?